December 5, 2021

NFL power rankings: Which teams look like Super Bowl contenders entering Week 1? – USA TODAY

NFL power rankings, pre-kickoff edition as 2021 regular season approaches (previous rank in parentheses):

1. Buccaneers (1): They’ve got their entire starting lineup back. They could get a full season out of WR Antonio Brown, TE O.J. Howard and additions like RB Gio Bernard and first-round OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. The Bucs are even 100% vaccinated. Has a stage ever been better set for a repeat bid?

2. Chiefs (2): Their revamped offensive line projects to have three players (rookie C Creed Humphrey, RG Trey Smith and RT Lucas Niang) who have combined for zero NFL starts. Could be a rough beginning for a team that will see Myles Garrett, Calais Campbell and Joey Bosa in September.

3. Browns (3): From free agency to the draft to the return of WR Odell Beckham Jr., did any team have a better offseason? Unlike 2019, time to take the Cleveland’s Super Bowl hype quite seriously …

4. Packers (8): “The Last Dance” vibe around this team would be cute … if there wasn’t such a junior high overtone about it. Unlike the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, the Pack haven’t been prom kings in a decade.

5. Bills (4): A defensive line reinforced by rookies Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham and return of Star Lotulelei might be enough to vault last year’s AFC finalists past Kansas City.

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6. Rams (6): They have concerning holes on last year’s top-ranked defense and won’t have No. 1 RB Cam Akers (Achilles). But the arrival of QB Matthew Stafford, who remained under wraps in preseason, continues to fuel Super Bowl aspirations … even though he’s never won a playoff game.

7. Titans (9): Good luck finding a better quartet of offensive skill players than QB Ryan Tannehill, RB Derrick Henry and WRs Julio Jones and A.J. Brown. But with questions about the defense lingering, Tennessee may need to continue scoring 30+ points a game to succeed.

8. Ravens (5): A team that’s looking to balance its offense may not have much choice given the way Baltimore’s running back room has been gutted lately.

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9. 49ers (7): If you’re a West Coast team opening with a pair of 1 p.m. kickoffs in the Eastern time zone, you want them – this year, anyway – in Detroit and Philadelphia.

10. Seahawks (12): Add new coordinator Shane Waldron’s offense – and it wasn’t unveiled with starters in preseason – to a defense that’s skewing younger, and it’s worth wondering if the defending NFC West champs might stumble at a time when the relationship with QB Russell Wilson seems tenuous.

11. Dolphins (10): Brian Flores’ team has won 15 of its past 25 games, yet Miami’s coach continues fielding questions linking his club to Houston QB Deshaun Watson. The group Flores will take into Week 1, including sophomore QB Tua Tagovailoa, certainly appears playoff-caliber.

12. Chargers (19): They didn’t show much in preseason, yet new coach Brandon Staley’s cautious approach also prevented the Bolts from suffering the catastrophic injury that typically befalls them. Still, a new staff and schemes could mean slow start with Washington, Dallas and K.C. on September lineup.

13. Patriots (15): Questions on both sides of ball with rookie QB Mac Jones in and 2019 defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore out (for now). But reloaded Pats appear ready to contend anew.

14. Cowboys (14): The spotlight has understandably been on rehabbing/enriched/newly injured QB Dak Prescott for months. But an offensive line that crumbled in 2020 is stumbling into Week 1 with All-Pro G Zack Martin having tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, and RT La’el Collins laboring to get back into the lineup.

15. Vikings (16): Given the reinforcements to a defense that embarrassed coach Mike Zimmer last year, Minnesota should rebound to postseason form … assuming Kirk Cousins, who was unvaccinated as of the start of training camp, doesn’t became the latest QB shelved by close COVID-19 contacts.

16. Saints (11): Who wasn’t a little jazzed about watching new QB1 Jameis Winston slinging it deep downfield in preseason, something we didn’t see retired predecessor Drew Brees do effectively in recent years? But also hard not to be concerned for a team again relegated to itinerant status as it waits for New Orleans to become habitable following the wrath of Hurricane Ida.

17. Steelers (21): OLB T.J. Watt’s contract impasse is perhaps one of preseason’s more underappreciated stories, his availability for the opener increasingly in doubt.

18. Broncos (23): Despite an arsenal of talented pass catchers, QB Teddy Bridgewater’s ascension as Denver’s starter could signal a heavy reliance on RBs Melvin Gordon and rookie Javonte Williams.

19. Washington (18): Hard not to be excited about the reigning NFC East champs. Equally hard to divine how they avoid a one step forward, two steps back fate given the short-term approach applied to the quarterback position.

20. Colts (13): Pretty disastrous preseason for a team trying to break in a new quarterback, whose susceptibility to injury and reluctance to be vaccinated left offense spinning its wheels in August and staring down the barrel of what could be a brutal start giving Indianapolis’ early schedule.

21. Cardinals (17): The abrupt, mysterious retirement of CB Malcolm Butler weakens what was already a shaky pass defense – one now even more reliant on J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones to turf opposing quarterbacks.

22. Giants (22): RB Saquon Barkley and WR Kenny Golladay appear ready to ride to the rescue of QB Daniel Jones … assuming this still suspect line doesn’t get him buried.

23. Panthers (20): New QB Sam Darnold might put a once-promising career derailed in New York on track. He might also have trouble breaking bad habits with ball security, which first surfaced at USC before worsening with the Jets … and still appeared to be evident in preseason.

24. Raiders (25): They continue signing past-their-prime defenders to fill or compete for very significant roles. Not a great sign.

25. Bears (26): They’ll face pass rushers Aaron Donald, Trey Hendrickson and Garrett in September … a trio that could serve weekly reminders of Chicago’s self-inflicted O-line issues.

26. Falcons (24): New coach Arthur Smith’s offense works very well … when Henry is carrying the load. But how effective will it be with journeyman RB Mike Davis – and without Julio Jones, who joined Smith’s old crew in Nashville?

27. Jets (29): They’re hoping recently acquired pass rusher Shaq Lawson can help lay down the Lawson after the demoralizing training camp loss of underrated Carl Lawson to an Achilles tear.

28. Bengals (27): QB Joe Burrow’s only pass of preseason was dropped by former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase, so you’d assume things will only improve moving forward … though we are talking about Cincinnati.

29. Jaguars (28): Who navigates the rookie learning curve better, Urban Meyer or Trevor Lawrence? The No. 1-drafted quarterback seems to be setting the early pace.

30. Eagles (30): Teams with so many studs in the trenches usually project to have serious postseason potential. Probably not the case here.

31. Lions (31): New coach Dan Campbell continues winning his press conferences, but victories on the field will surely be much harder to come by.

32. Texans (32): If newly announced starting QB Tyrod Taylor’s recent luck is any indication, then rookie Davis Mills will be playing by Week 3, when Houston is scheduled to make its only prime-time appearance of the season on a Thursday.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.