Finally, the 10 best teams in the league are here. If you disagree, you are wrong. This is truth, pure and undiluted. Trying to deny it is trying to deny matter and energy. You shall see.
10. New York GiantsA lot of people are down on the Giants this year, with Steve Smith gone to Philly, Kevin Boss gone to Oakland, uncertainty and turnover on the offensive line for the first time in years, and with a rash of injuries hitting an a seemingly non-stop rate. Prince Amukamara, Justin Tuck, Jonathan Goff, and Osi Umenyiora are all out for week one, but I still feel confident the Giants can get back to the playoffs. Eli Manning has thrown for over 4000 yards in back-to-back seasons, and his ridiculous interception rate (25 total, 4.6% of his pass attempts) should come back down to around league average, and Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham will do just fine without Smith and Boss. The offensive line is in transition, but it is still talented across the board. Losing both Tuck and Umenyiora would be a death knell for most clubs, but the Giants have Mathias Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul in reserve, who would both start for most teams. The secondary will yet again be a problem, but Pierre-Paul and Kiwanuka should both exert enough pressure to keep things from reaching 2010 Houston Texans-level in pass defense. Tom Coughlin's tenure in New York has been marked by its most successful seasons occurring when the rest of the league has written them off, and I like that trend to continue this season.
9. Baltimore Ravens
Other than the Giants, who I'm kind of out on a limb on, the Ravens are the most tenuously perched of these top 10 teams. The heart and soul of this team--Ed Reed and Ray Lewis (and you can decide which is heart and which is soul)--are on their last legs, with Reed's career seemingly on the cusp of ending every time he takes the field. The feared pass rush the Ravens used to bring is simply not there (27 sacks last season, 27th in the NFL), and other than Haloti Ngata, nearly every member of the front seven under-performed. The secondary is a mess, and will be counting on 1st round pick Jimmy Smith to step up and become a shutdown corner from day one. The magical touch Ozzie Newsome used to have when it came to drafting defense seems to have abandoned him, as recent picks Terrance Cody, Paul Kruger, and Sergio Kindle have either not seen the field or under-performed on it. Maybe Phil Savage was as big a part of the Ravens' success as was originally thought before his time in Cleveland, and if Newsome and company can't develop replacements for Lewis and Reed soon, the burgeoning Browns may pass Baltimore as soon as next season.
On offense, Joe Flacco loses his two best friends, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, while replacing them with speedster Lee Evans and the second-year tight end tandem of Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. Evans gives the Ravens a deep threat they haven't had since Qadry Ismail, but is Anquan Bolden going to be the rock Mason was when things broke down and Flacco had to complete a pass? On the offensive line, Michael Oher looks like a very solid right tackle, but the problem is that Baltimore is playing him at left tackle. Ray Rice should be his usual bad self, and Ricky Williams is an upgrade over Willis McGahee as the bruising counterpart to Rice's hot, hot swagger. The offense was a disappointing 22nd in total offense last year, and things will probably get worse this year. Still, until the bottom actually falls out from under the defense, it's hard to pick against the Ravens making their 4th straight postseason of the Flacco-John Harbaugh era.
8. San Diego Chargers
No other team in the league will be helped as much by the new kickoff rules as the Chargers. As I'm sure you've seen mentioned elsewhere, the Chargers were number one in the NFL in both offense and defense last year, but still found a way to finish 9-7 and miss out on the playoffs. So, obviously, special teams played a large role in the Chargers' disappointing 2010. According to Phil Steele's numbers, the Chargers were last in net punt average, 26th in opponents' average starting position after kick returns, last in net TD returns/blocked punts or field goals (-9!), and last in his own special teams ratings. A -6 turnover margin didn't help, but the effects of those turnovers pale in comparison to those of the horrific special teams play. Besides the special teams, the rest of the roster is loaded, with a full season of Vincent Jackson making Philip Rivers all the more dangerous, Mike Tolbert emerging as an effective backfield partner with disappointing rookie Ryan Matthews, and rookie DE Corey Liuget, LB Takeo Spikes, and S Bob Sanders joining an already-beastly defense led by LB Shaun Phillips (11 sacks). If this team fails to make the playoffs again, Norv Turner should be banned from being added to any NFL coaching staff in any capacity on principle.
7. New York Jets
Say what you want about Rex Ryan's bluster or his Tarantino-esque obsession with feet, but he has an effective plan of attack. On defense, he's going to employ all manner of blitz packages to get to your quarterback, while allowing his ultra-talented corners to shut down the outside. On offense, he's going to run his backs into the line over and over again, only letting his quarterback make throws of consequence when he absolutely has to. Of course, it helps that the Jets front office and ownership have gone out and paid top dollar for some of the best players available to fill the roles Rex needs filled, drafting and then re-signing Darrelle Revis, re-signing Antonio Cromartie (at the expense, seemingly, of Braylon Edwards, who was a luxury the team didn't need after locking up Santonio Holmes), and locking up left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold to make sure Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson have enough room to pile up yards. Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard, and Calvin Pace were all brought in as free agents to assure Ryan's attacking 3-4 worked, and MLB David Harris was re-signed to a lucrative extension prior to training camp to ensure that things keep running smoothly. Mark Sanchez is an average QB who has shown a knack for making the big throw, and with how this team is designed, that is all he needs to be. Ryan's constant gabbing may grate on the nerves of every fan not wearing Jets green, but it's hard to argue with the results, which should include a second straight double-digit win season and a third straight playoff appearance.
6. Atlanta Falcons
For the sake of my Brownies, I hope Atlanta finishes the season 20 spots below this, with Matt Ryan's arm in a sling and Michael Turner on crutches (the Browns have the Falcons first round pick due to the Julio Jones trade). Barring catastrophic injuries, though, the Falcons should again be very good, with the offense improving with the draft day acquisition of Jones and the defense getting better with the signing of end Ray Edwards from Minnesota. Turner should have one more workhorse season in him, and even if he does falter, backup Jason Snelling may be a better fit for what the Falcons offense is building towards being anyway. The pass defense will probably again be iffy, as no new blood was brought in to fortify last year's 20th-ranked unit. The hope must be that the offense will build big enough leads that the defense can afford to bend a little, and if Matt Ryan begins to get more aggressive down the field and Jones is the phenom everyone says he looks like in training camp, it very well may do just that.
5. Philadelphia Eagles
The amount of turnover the Eagles have experienced this offseason is a little concerning considering the shortened preseason and the lack of time to jell that comes with it, but the sheer wave of talent that migrated to Philly is staggering. Anthony Hargrove, who started 6 games and had 5.0 sacks for the Super Bowl-winning Saints two years ago, is currently 3rd on the Eagles defensive tackle depth chart. I can tell you right now that Hargrove would be the opening day starter at defensive end for the Browns, and probably for a bunch of other teams, as well. A team comprised only of Eagles free agent signings would probably do pretty decent. Vince Young, Ronnie Brown, Johnnie Lee Higgins, Evan Mathis, Donald Lee, Hargrove, Derek Landri, Jarrad Page, and Steve Smith (Giants version) all signed with Philly to be backups, while Ryan Harris (likely out for the year following back surgery), Cullen Jenkins, and Nnamdi Asomugha all were brought in to start. Add in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who was part of the Kevin Kolb trade, and that is quite a haul, perhaps the best NFL history. Presumably, all of these guys were drawn to Philly by the presence of Michael Vick, which is kind of crazy to me. While Vick is of course an electrifying player, I've never gotten the impression from interviews or things that I've read that he is this over-sized personality or amazing leader that draws people to him, ala Brett Favre. Besides, I am nearly certain that Vick will come back down to earth this season and perform closer to his Atlanta level of play, and will probably also get hurt. I don't think that will necessarily be a disaster for the Eagles, since Young has proven he can win NFL games and the skill positions are loaded, with LeSean McCoy in front of Brown at running back and Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson, and Jason Avant forming a formidable receiving crew. Brent Celek is even a good tight end, but the the conversion of Andy Reid's offense to Michael Vick's offense seems to have forgotten that the tight end exists. The big problem facing the Eagles is the uncertainty of the offensive line, especially the interior, where first round draft choice Danny Watkins struggled at guard in the preseason (his former Baylor teammate Phil Taylor absolutely decimated him). The Eagles will win at least 11 games on talent alone, and if I'm wrong and Vick is all of a sudden the best player in the league, they could lead the league in wins. A Super Bowl title, though, is probably out of reach this season.
4. New England Patriots
Bill Belichick has finally decided to take a baseball approach to his roster, filling it with the equivalents of lefty-specialists and rightie/lefty platoons. The running backs stable contains a proverbial hat for every occasion, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis serving as the plodding grinder, Danny Woodhead filling the Kevin Faulk role, rookie Shane Vereen serving as the prototypical 3rd-down back (think a poor man's Ray Rice), and fellow rookie Stevan Ridley serving as the goal-line back. The Patriots could have all five getting over 50 touches, but not a single one break the 150-carry mark. The receiving corps is similar, although it lacks a deep threat following the release of Brandon Tate. Tight end Aaron Hernandez may end up leading the team in yards per catch, as off-season gamble number one Chad Ochocinco isn't much of a game-breaker anymore and the rest of the receivers are possession guys. Off-season gamble number 2, Albert Haynesworth, will try to become even a sliver of the force he was in Tennessee, while the youth that Belichick has been accumulating on defense should finally be ready to take the next step towards becoming an elite defense (they won't be there this year, though). The offensive line will be as steady as ever, and of course Tom Brady will be pretty good. Once again, the Patriots have as good a shot as anyone at winning the Super Bowl.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Yes, the Steelers will be good, again. Their offensive line sucks, but it's sucked for at least the last three years, and Big Ben never seems that bothered by it. All four starting linebackers return, and while James Harrison is slipping, LaMarr Woodley is ready to ascend to the NFL's elite. Troy Polamalu can't be counted on for a full season anymore, but the Steelers can afford to pick their spots with him with Cleveland and Cincinnati still over-matched even sans Polamalu. The starting defensive line is aging, with Aaron Smith 35, Casey Hampton 34, and Brett Keisel 33, but two of the three's replacements are in place, with ends Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward drafted in each of the past two first rounds. Rashard Mendehall is a potential injury risk after
2. New Orleans Saints
While the Eagles (deservedly) grabbed the headlines with their offseason moves, the Saints quietly put together some very good moves of their own. Reggie Bush was traded to Miami, and then replaced by a better version of him in Darren Sproles. Mark Ingram was drafted to provide an improved version of what Chris Ivory did last year, while Olin Kreutz and Alex Barron were brought in to bolster the offensive line. The defensive line, meanwhile, beefed up considerably, signing Shaun Rogers before the lockout began and then adding Aubrayo Franklin after it ended. Rookie Cameron Jordan will provide depth behind Alex Brown and Will Smith, and should eventually unseat Brown. The linebacking corps added another solid rookie in Martez Wilson, while Malcolm Jenkins should be close to a Pro Bowler now that he has one season at safety under his belt. Drew Brees will have the same familiar faces to throw to that he has had the past few seasons, with tight end looking to build on his promising finish to 2010 and become the Bayou's version of JerMichael Finley. The Saints offense has perhaps the most ways to attack a defense since Sean Payton and Brees arrived, while the defense will be extremely solid up front. This is a very dangerous team.
1. Green Bay Packers
While Philadelphia and New Orleans and even Atlanta were making splashy move after splashy move during the accelerated free agency period, the defending champs stood pat, perfectly content to rest on their laurels. And they were absolutely right to do so. Following a season that saw most of the roster decimated by injury, the depth on the Packers' roster is unparalleled. For example, you would have to get about 5-deep on the receiver depth chart before you came to a player who wouldn't be the Browns' number one receiver, and Randall Cobb would probably be number two. The defense reads like a Pro Bowl roster, and the offensive line is solid enough. Aaron Rodgers, of course, is the straw that makes this drink so tasty, putting together a playoff-run last year that is matched by only the very best the NFL has ever had to offer. The Packers somehow only went 10-6 last year, and they should exceed that number of wins by at least three this year. The rest of the NFL should watch out, because we may have a new dynasty on our hands in Title Town.