NFL Power 12 Rankings, Week 1: Projecting the Playoffs

Seth Dunlap projects the teams that will make the NFL playoffs this season

Seth Dunlap
September 03, 2019 - 7:34 pm
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A couple of clicks into any sports website this time of year and you’ll find what that platform describes as the definitive ‘power rankings’ of every NFL team.  They’re inescapable, and everybody from ESPN to a place appropriately called Football Absurdity will have them.   That process of ranking all 32 NFL teams is, frankly, a bit arbitrary and repetitive.  So, for the second consecutive year I'm refusing to do it like everybody else.

Instead, I’ll again be updating my NFL Power 12 each week of the season.  The idea is to rank the dozen teams I expect to make the playoffs, six from each conference. Make no mistake, accurately predicting even just the eventual playoff participants is still near-impossible.  However, the narrow focus can help keep these weekly rankings relevant and as accurate as possible.

One year ago, we entered the 2018 season believing that the NFC was the far-superior conference.   Many people were even touting it as dominant as the mid-1990s NFC.   While the conference was good at the top, it turned out to be less balanced than predicted.  In fact, you could make an argument that the AFC boasted four of the six best teams in football by season’s end.

Twelve months later and the NFC feels even deeper than most predicted last season.  There are, probably, only three or four teams without much of a realistic chance of playing into mid-January.    The AFC, meanwhile, is defined by their standard-bearers at the top.  The vast majority of football pundits believe the Patriots or Chiefs will represent their conference in the Super Bowl, and most other predictions are made by people trying to play the contrarian.

However, as the NFL teaches us every year, this sport is as unpredictable as any on the planet.  The league thrives on its parity, and nearly two-thirds of teams made at least one appearance on this list last season. 

With the prefaces out of the way, here’s a look at my very early NFL Power 12, the dozen teams I expect to make the playoffs this season.

NFL Power 12 - Week 1

1.  New England Patriots:  Pardon me, but I refuse to unseat the Patriots from this position based purely on speculation and offseason innuendo.  Every year an army of analysts tries to explain why this year will finally be when the Patriots enter their inevitable decline.  Every year those analysts have been wrong.  They’ll miss tight end Rob Gronkowski, and relying on perpetually-suspended Josh Gordon to help carry the receiving corps seems a bit wishful.   The thing is, being the less-talented team has rarely mattered to Brady, Belichick, & Co.  They’ll just win when it matters, in January and early February.

2.  New Orleans Saints:  If not for the horrendous gaffe made, in part, by a quartet of Southern California game officials, the Saints would be coming off a Super Bowl appearance and, possibly, a championship.  Coach Sean Payton will tell you that doesn’t matter.  The Saints’ players have said they’re not thinking about itColin Cowherd thinks it’s time the city gets over it.   We’ll find out soon if the NOLA No-Call hangover will affect the team’s performance in 2019, but they enter the season as the most talented bunch in the conference, on paper.  Drew Brees and the first-team offense marched down the field for a touchdown during their only drive of the preseason.  The defense has a chance to be better at all three levels than they were last season.  They finally have a young, exciting punt and kick returner on the roster.  This may be the Saints last, best chance to win their second world championship with Brees under center.

3.  Kansas City Chiefs:   Patrick Mahomes is the NFL’s reigning MVP, coming off a season where he threw for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns.  Mahomes has the biggest arm in the league, a QB-whispering head coach in Andy Reid, and an incredible arsenal of offensive weapons to get the ball to.  Oh, and he’ll turn the ripe-old age of 24 on September 17.  If there’s one franchise set up to be the next Patriots it could be the Chiefs.  Of course, people were saying the same thing about Aaron Rodgers and the Packers after they won a Super Bowl after the 2010 season.  Green Bay has yet to even appear in another Super Bowl.   Furthermore, the Chiefs (and Andy Reid) will need to prove they can actually win against the big boys in the postseason.  Sure, they’ve won double-digit games in five of the six seasons Reid has been head coach, but last season was the first time they’ve reached the conference title game during that span.  Until they get by the Patriots in January, the promising future remains just speculation. 

4.  Philadelphia Eagles:   The Eagles enter the season with the best offensive and defensive line combination in football.  Both units should be among the best in the NFL.  Their defensive front could actually be better after the departures of Michael Bennett (Patriots) and Chris Long (retirement) this offseason, assuming Derek Barnett is fully healthy.  Jason Peters remains one of the best left tackles in football, and he’ll anchor a group with no obvious holes.  That will help in keeping quarterback Caron Wentz healthy.  Wentz was unable to finish he previous two seasons due to injuries, and the team will need him to play all 16 games with his security blanket now playing in Jacksonville.  The Eagles will also benefit from a second place schedule and a division that has two teams seemingly entering, or still in, rebuilding mode.  Regardless of Ezekiel Elliot’s status in Dallas, the Eagles should enter the season as the favorites to win the NFC East.

5.  Los Angeles Rams:  Did the Patriots give the NFL a blueprint on how to slow down Sean McVay’s offense in Los Angeles?  The Rams scored just three points in their Super Bowl flub, and defenses will no doubt try to emulate the Belichickian tactics used last February.  The Rams also remain a test-case in salary cap management, allotting over $41 million this season to the receiver-running back-left tackle trio of Brandin Cooks, Todd Gurley, and Andrew Whitworth.  None of those players played up to their salary during their playoff run, but injuries took a toll on Gurley while Whitworth battled the demons of age.   Then there’s quarterback Jared Goff, who will be playing the final season on his rookie contract before receiving a hefty raise.  The Rams also suffered heavy attrition in free agency, with players like defensive tackle Ndomukong Suh, guard Roger Saffold, and linebacker Mark Barron leaving this offseason.  They signed aging veterans Eric Weddle and Clay Matthews, but it’s hard to see how the Rams are better entering the 2019 season than they were leaving 2018.  They remain favorites in the NFC West, but Seattle and San Francisco are closing the gap.

6.  Los Angeles Chargers, LW-#10:  Before training camp, the Chargers would have appeared much higher on this list.  Since then, exceptional safety Derwin James was lost for at least half of the season with a foot injury and running back Melvin Gordon decided to hold out for a new contract and has yet to report to team headquarters.  There’s enough talent around this roster to compensate for those absences, but the Chargers will need to limit their attrition if they expect to compete with the conference’s big boys in January.  The straw that continues to stir this Los Angeles drink is quarterback Philip Rivers, who was outstanding last season in route to unexpected MVP candidacy.  Rivers will need to be as good as he was last year if the Chargers want to keep up with the Chiefs in the AFC West.

7.  Seattle Seahawks:  Few NFL teams can essentially go through a complete overhaul of their roster without a considerable drop off in wins.  The Carroll-Wilson Seahawks seemed to have solved that riddle, barely missing the 2017 playoffs before becoming one of the surprises of the league last year with a 10-win campaign and trip to Dallas on Wild Card Weekend.  The current Seahawks roster doesn’t look anything like the Legion of Boom group that made back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in the middle part of the decade.  They’ve rebuilt around quarterback Russell Wilson and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who are now the highest paid players at their positions in the league.  General manager John Schneider traded defensive end Frank Clark, who had been franchised by the team but was reportedly not going to show up to work without a new contract, to the Chiefs, effectively getting six players back in the deal after wheeling and dealing the return picks they received from the Chiefs during the NFL Draft.  (Paying attention, Bill O’Brien?).   Speaking of capitalizing on misfortune, the Seahawks did just that by scooping up Jadeveon Clowney from the Texans for relative peanuts.   He’ll bookend the defensive line across from Ezekiel Ansah.  Once defensive tackle Jarran Reed returns from his suspension, Seattle's defensive front could be among the most scary in football.  Seattle hasn’t won less than nine games during Russell Wilson’s career, and they seem closer to Super Bowl sleeper than bust-in-waiting as the 2019 season kicks off. 

8.  Houston Texans:  Bill O’Brien is treacherously close to entering Andy Reid territory with his lack of playoff success.  O’Brien has guided the Texans to the playoffs in three of his five seasons as their head coach, but he’s just 1-4 in postseason games.  That includes a 21-7 drubbing last January at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts this past January.  While the rest of the football world mourned the early-retirement of Andrew Luck, Texans’ fans probably breathed a few sighs of relief.  The Colts were the consensus favorite in the AFC South before Luck’s retirement, but they’ll now have to rely on Jacoby Brissett at quarterback.  That’s great news for Houston, who now has the clear-best young quarterback in the division with DeShaun Watson. 

9.  Pittsburgh Steelers:  Steelers’ offseasons are typically noisy, with past stars like Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown driving tabloid-style headlines.  With those two players on other rosters, we barely heard a peep out of Pittsburgh.  Perhaps watching the playoffs at home last season for the first time since 2013 was a sobering wake-up call for an organization that had been stubbornly reliant on oversized stars on offense while neglecting a true rebuild of their once-proud defense.  Now, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is without his receiving security blankets in Brown and tight end Jesse James, who left for Detroit in free agency.  Any regression on that side of the ball could be make up by a defense that has gotten a facelift the past two seasons.  The Steelers spend their first round pick on linebacker Devin Bush in April one year after selecting safety Terrell Edmunds with their top pick.  Two years ago they took T.J. Watt in the first round.  This defense might not be The Steel Curtain, but Pittsburgh probably won’t need to score 35 points to win like they have in most games this decade.

10. Packers:  The NFC North is the hardest division to predict in the NFL.  All four teams can make cases why they’re better than last season, and most fans would have the Chicago Bears ahead of the Packers on this list.  Frankly, I’m not sold that Mitch Trubisky is the next Jared Goff or Russell Wilson of this conference; a quarterback who elevates his game as the team around him does the same.  Trubisky struggled with his accuracy at times in his second season, and doesn’t seem capable of carrying the Bears on his back late in games or when the defense has their rare struggles.  Enter Green Bay, who’ve missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2005-06.  New head coach Matt LaFleur has been given multiple endorsements by Aaron Rodgers, and the latter’s play seemed to stagnate towards the end of the Mike McCarthy era.  This is the first offseason since Rodgers took over for Brett Favre as the Packers’ starter than he isn’t usually mentioned among the league’s best quarterbacks.  That conversation has been dominated by the Mahomes-Brees-Brady trio the past few months.  Rodgers was still his fantastic self in 2018, tossing 25 touchdowns to just two interceptions while playing in all 16 games.  The Packers stranglehold on the NFC North may be over, but Rodgers’ reign as the best quarterback in the division isn’t.  With that, I’ll take the best quarterback to come out of this NFC North tractor pull.  Oh, and Green Bay’s third-place schedule doesn’t hurt.

11.  Cleveland Browns:  If these rankings were a measure of offseason hype, the Browns would slot in as a clear No. 1.  Hype, however, rarely matches reality.  Many people thought the Rams would run away with the NFC last season, and the only thing they ran away with was the biggest heist in playoff history.  The Steelers were a trendy Super Bowl favorite in 2018 only to disintegrate and miss the playoffs.   There’s no doubt the Browns have an extraordinary amount of talent on both sides of the football.  Baker Mayfield looks like a star, regardless of his off-field antics.  Odell Beckham Jr. leaving New York will only be a good thing for his career.  Their defense has a handful of former first-round picks that seems set for a breakthrough much like the 49ers were in 2011.   The biggest question remains their head coach.  Is Freddy Kitchens capable of managing all the massive egos on this team?  If he is, they have a chance to compete with the conference’s best teams. 

12.  Minnesota Vikings:  Picking preseason favorites for the NFC’s wild-card spots is a bit like bobbing for apples.  You dive in expecting to get a taste of one, only to lose it while having another smack you upside the head as you come up for air.  I’ll take the Vikings as the sixth-best team in the conference as we enter Week.  A couple reasons why.  First, they have the division’s second-best quarterback (see above) and Kirk Cousins should be better in his second season in offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s system.  Minnesota also hired Gary Kubiak as an offensive assistant, which should help in Cousins’ development.  Using their first-round draft pick on offensive lineman Garrett Bradbury should make that group much better than the mess-at-times they were last season.  The Vikings fend off the Bears, Falcons, Panthers, and 49ers for the final spot on our initial 2019 Power 12 rankings. 

Got a comment on the rankings?  Tweet your comments to @SethDunlap on Twitter!

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