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.
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
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 it. Colin 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.
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.
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.