Football, at long last, is back.
The time for endless speculation is over. No more training camp dispatches or preseason guesswork. It's time for the real thing. On Thursday night, the top two teams in the Power Rankings will square off at SoFi Stadium, and it will be glorious. Bills versus Rams. Gorgeous. Fourteen more games on Sunday and a corker of a Monday night matchup between the Broncos and Seahawks -- Russ Bowl I. Let's ride.
The good news continues 'round these parts: On Tuesday, Colleen Wolfe and I will roll out the premiere episode of the Power Rankings Podcast, which will be available to you each week through the Super Bowl. Read the Power Rankings on NFL.com, then listen to me explain in further detail why I made the decision that branded me -- in your mind anyway -- an idiot.
Let's get to it. This week, I'm mixing it up and starting each team blurb with One Big Question. Happy Football Season.
NOTE: Up/down arrows below reflect team movement from the training camp edition of the Power Rankings.
When will the Bills see their best defensive player on the field? Star cornerback Tre’Davious White (ACL surgery) will miss the beginning of the regular season after being placed on the reserve/physically unable to perform list last week. The earliest he can return to the lineup is Week 5 against the Steelers. Buffalo made the right decision not to rush the bona fide CB1 back into the lineup, but White’s absence will be felt. The Bills will cross their fingers that a pair of rookies -- Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford -- will hold up on Thursday night against the defending champs. You think Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford are cooking up ways to confuse and exploit the youngsters on the massive prime-time stage?
Previous rank: No. 2
How’s the quarterback feeling? Yeah, yeah, we know. Everyone connected to the Rams has downplayed concerns about Matthew Stafford’s health. But here are the facts: Stafford, 34, played through an elbow injury last season, underwent a procedure on the elbow during the offseason, then had his workload managed carefully through the summer. It will be interesting to see where Stafford stands physically if he finds himself in a shootout with Josh Allen that requires him to throw 40 BBs on Thursday night. Again, the Rams have dismissed this as a serious concern. It’s probably fine! But real football brings out realities that teams can usually hide during the summer. We’re still tracking.
Previous rank: No. 4
What’s Trey Lance thinking right now? For most of the offseason, Lance was likely working off the same understanding as the rest of us: Jimmy Garoppolo had appeared in his final game as a Niner. Then came last week’s surprise news that Jimmy G restructured his contract to remain in San Francisco. The plot twist is a positive development for Kyle Shanahan and 49ers fans -- Garoppolo is an excellent safety net at quarterback. But what about Lance? Jimmy G is hugely respected in the locker room; he’s been through the wars; he’s a “winner.” None of this feels like a comfortable setup for a young QB who’s already under considerable pressure to get the team over the hump in the NFC.
Previous rank: No. 3
Are we really still doubting Tom Brady? Yes, I’ll admit his offseason was ... weird. The 40-day retirement, the mysterious 11-day training camp absence, the cryptic press conference after his return -- it wasn’t exactly on-brand for the G.O.A.T. But let’s also remember that the last time we saw Brady on the field, he was still performing at an elite level -- absolutely worthy of the league MVP award that went to Aaron Rodgers. Brady has challenges: The offensive line has been weakened considerably, and he won’t have Rob Gronkowski (pretend retirement), at least to start the year. Throw in a foreboding early schedule, and a slow start for the Bucs is absolutely possible. But Tom Brady will figure it out. He always does.
Previous rank: No. 5
Is the offensive line finally fixed? Aaron Donald ripped through Cincinnati’s blocking front and stole franchise glory from the Bengals in the final seconds of Super Bowl LVI. When Joe Burrow limped off the field at SoFi Stadium, it was already clear what needed to be done. Enter a revamped front five in Cincy: Jonah Williams, Cordell Volson, Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’el Collins. If the line turns a team weakness into a strength, you can make a strong case for the Bengals having the best offensive attack in football. Keep Burrow upright, and Cincinnati might just find itself back in the big game come February.
Can Aaron Rodgers make it all work? When the Packers traded Davante Adams to the Raiders, then opted not to use either of their two first-round picks on a wide receiver, it served as a reminder of the team’s unwavering trust in its MVP quarterback. We buy into this logic to a certain extent -- Rodgers has mastered the game’s most vital position, after all -- but it still feels like a massive gamble for a Super Bowl-or-bust team like Green Bay to enter a season with Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins and Randall Cobb ticketed for prominent roles. Keep an eye on the kids: Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs should get ample opportunity to make a Year 1 impact. Who knows? Maybe the next Davante Adams is already inside the building.
Previous rank: No. 7
Is a monster Patrick Mahomes season incoming? The prevailing narrative all offseason centered around the trade of receiver Tyreek Hill and how that would limit Kansas City’s offense going forward. Which, you know, makes sense: Hill is one of the greatest playmakers we’ve ever seen. But you could argue that Kansas City’s offense was due to move in a new direction -- many Chiefs fans agreed after the second half of the AFC Championship Game. Do I think Mahomes wishes he still had Hill on his team? Sure. But do I also think Mahomes and Andy Reid revel in the opportunity to reinvent the attack and unleash a fresh assault on the enemy this season? Hell yes, I do.
Previous rank: No. 8
Will the Broncos let Russ cook? Russell Wilson now stands as the centerpiece of the Denver Broncos. Consider the $245 million contract extension signed last week as the final hint you (hopefully) did not need. My question is whether Wilson -- flush with both cash and organizational juice -- will air it out with more frequency than we saw for most of his Seattle run. Pete Carroll’s stubborn reliance on running the football didn’t always sit well with Wilson, and there’s logic to the idea of Wilson’s offensive philosophies having more traction with new Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett. That said, a Denver running game led by Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon has serious potential. This is an offense where balance makes sense.
Previous rank: No. 9
Will Justin Herbert win MVP? In two seasons, Herbert has quickly established himself as one of the most exciting and productive quarterbacks in pro football. Now, with a strong supporting cast on both sides of the ball, this feels like the time where Herbert rampages through a season and enters the conversation as the best player in the sport. This is the Chargers we’re talking about, of course -- nothing ever seems to work out as it was planned in the summer. But Herbert is flat-out special, and he has the potential to be the difference-maker in a loaded AFC West.
Previous rank: No. 10
Will the Football Gods show mercy? The 2021 season won’t be remembered fondly by the Ravens and their fan base. Injuries ravaged the roster from training camp until the end of the season, with the franchise posting its first losing record since 2015. Lamar Jackson was one of the many players who missed extensive time, and a monster rebound season could lead to the NFL’s biggest payday ever for the QB. It will be interesting to see how much Jackson runs the ball in this offense: Baltimore desperately wants to keep its franchise star on the field, but the best version of the Ravens’ attack has Jackson lighting up defenses with his legs -- especially with No. 1 wide receiver Hollywood Brown now catching passes from Kyler Murray in Arizona.
Previous rank: No. 11
Is Darren Waller about to go off? The talented tight end was productive when he was on the field in 2021 (missed six games), but he failed to match the playmaking virtuosity that defined his previous two seasons. Waller could be ready to return to beast mode. The arrival of Davante Adams completely changes how defenses must prepare for the Raiders, and all that attention on an elite wide receiver should lead to plenty of single coverage, chunk gains and end-zone visits for Waller, who managed only one touchdown reception after Week 1 a season ago. Waller might not see quite as many targets with Adams in the building, but the quality of those looks figures to go way up.
Previous rank: No. 12
When will we see Shaquille Leonard on the field? The Colts need their All-Pro linebacker in top form to get to where they want to go in 2022, and it was a very positive sign when the team took Leonard off the PUP list. Back surgery had shut Leonard down until last week, and it remains to be seen how Indy plans to work its top defensive playmaker back into the mix. General manager Chris Ballard was purposefully (some might say annoyingly) vague about the linebacker’s status: "Might be Week 1. Might be Week 6." Thanks, man.
Previous rank: No. 13
Can the offense be trusted? The Saints will enter Week 1 against the Falcons with a deep and talented defense that should give opponents fits all season if it can stay healthy. The offense comes with legit upside, as well, but that remains much more of a projection. The blocking front took a hit with the loss of stalwart left tackle Terron Armstead in free agency, and the attack is no longer led by its visionary, Sean Payton. Then there’s the uncertainty around Jameis Winston, a famously unpredictable quarterback who also happens to be returning from ACL surgery. If Winston gets protected and can avoid the backbreaking turnovers, he should be able to put points on the board with playmakers like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and promising rookie Chris Olave in tow.
Previous rank: No. 15
Can anyone put a dent in the offensive line? Eagles GM Howie Roseman has built a deep and promising roster that should put quarterback Jalen Hurts in the best possible position to thrive in Year 3. But Roseman outdid himself up front, where the starting five of LT Jordan Mailata, LG Landon Dickerson, C Jason Kelce, RG Isaac Seumalo and RT Lane Johnson stand above any blocking group in football. Mailata has been the greatest revelation of all, a product of the International Pathway Program who went from spot starter to one of the most dominant blockers in the game seemingly overnight.
Previous rank: No. 14
Can the offense carry its weight? It’s a strange question, as we've become accustomed to seeing Dallas put up numbers since the heyday of Tony Romo. But attrition has taken the attack out of the conversation of the league’s elite at a time when the defense -- led by the otherworldly Micah Parsons and breakout cornerback Trevon Diggs -- has the potential to be a top-10 unit. A lot will come down to whether the offensive line -- which will be without Tyron Smith until at least December -- can open holes for Ezekiel Elliott and give enough time to Dak Prescott, who is short on dynamic options aside from CeeDee Lamb. The Cowboys have been falsely painted as a doomed squad by naysayers this summer -- still, they’ll need to figure some things out with question marks at key spots.
Previous rank: No. 17
Has the quarterback been set up for success? Kyler Murray and the Cardinals went through a tumultuous offseason together. It ended well enough: Murray received a fat contract extension, even if the bizarre (and subsequently excised) “Hey bud, work harder!” stipulation ensured the good vibes were only temporary. Now look at Murray’s principal supporting cast on offense with DeAndre Hopkins serving a six-game suspension to start the season: Hollywood Brown, Rondale Moore, James Conner, A.J. Green, Zach Ertz. It’s not a bad group, per se, but does it scare you? The Cardinals’ commitment to Murray showed their faith that he’s a superstar-level QB -- he’ll need to be, to keep Arizona above water in a loaded NFC West.
Previous rank: No. 16
Can the loss of Harold Landry be overcome? The Titans received crushing news last week when it was confirmed the team's star pass rusher tore his ACL in practice. Landry's season is over before it begins, and Tennessee must adapt on the fly without one of its most important players. The last time we saw Landry, he collected 1.5 of the Titans' nine sacks of Joe Burrow in the Divisional Round loss to the Bengals. Landry was especially beastly on third down last year, recording seven of his 12 regular-season sacks on the money down. The 26-year-old's brutal departure from the equation means opportunity for Rashad Weaver, the 2021 third-round pick who had an impressive camp in his return from his own season-ending injury last season.
Previous rank: No. 18
Is this offense really in as much trouble as they say? We knew this would be a transitional summer for a Patriots offense that -- for the first time in a decade -- wouldn't have Josh McDaniels leading the way. Longtime Pats beat man Tom Curran said the summertime version of the Pats' overhauled offense "has run as smoothly as a car with square wheels." So why do I still feel the Pats will figure it out? Because I never underestimate Bill Belichick. And I like the quarterback: Mac Jones was the best rookie passer last season, and it's well within the range of outcomes that he takes a significant leap in Year 2. Patience is required. The road could -- and likely, will -- be rocky early on. But don't be stunned when New England is in the playoff mix come December.
Previous rank: No. 19
Can Tua be The Guy? You can argue no quarterback faces more pressure at the outset of the 2022 season. The Dolphins went all out to put Tua Tagovailoa in position to succeed in his third season, importing a three-time Pro Bowl left tackle in Terron Armstead and pairing 2021 breakout star Jaylen Waddle with the historically productive burner in Tyreek Hill. Add in Mike McDaniel, the team's new offensive-minded head coach, and anything less than instant results will begin the drumbeat for Teddy Bridgewater to get a crack at the controls. Sunday's matchup against the Pats could set the tone for the entire season.
Previous rank: No. 20
Will this defense get enough stops? We don't worry about the offense. Kirk Cousins will do his Kirk Cousins thing (streaky production that lands with around 35 touchdowns, 4,000 yards and a 100 passer rating), and the power trio of Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook stacks up against any Big Three in the sport. We like the defensive front led by Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith, too, but the cornerback group is worrisome. Two rookies -- Andrew Booth Jr. and Akayleb Evans -- are in line for significant roles in Minnesota's new scheme, while Chandon Sullivan joined as a free-agent acquisition. A Week 1 assignment against two-time reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers will serve as an immediate gut check.
Previous rank: No. 21
Will the offensive line be any better? The Steelers struggled to protect the quarterback and open up running lanes in 2021, and a look at the 2022 blocking front doesn't spark enormous confidence that things are about to change. Pro Football Focus ranked the Steelers' line 30th out of 32 teams back in June, all the more reason to start the season with a mobile veteran at QB in Mitch Trubisky rather than green rookie Kenny Pickett. In an ideal world, the line settles in as the season progresses, which opens the door for Pickett to enter a less-volatile situation when his opportunity comes.
Previous rank: No. 22
Can this roster hold down the fort until the QB arrives? Deshaun Watson is eligible to return from his suspension in Week 13 against the Texans. Cleveland's playoff chances will hinge on the rest of the team's ability to tread water until the controversial quarterback takes the field. Publicly, the Browns have been optimistic about Jacoby Brissett's ability to handle the QB1 job, but a 14-23 record as a starter helps to explain why he's become one of the league's preeminent journeymen. Add in an underwhelming wide receiver group, and you can safely expect the Browns to run the ball -- a lot. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are both gonna eat in this offense.
Previous rank: No. 23
Can CMC stay on the field? Three seasons ago, Christian McCaffrey became the third player in NFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same year. He was a sensation, and it appeared the Panthers had their superstar successor to Cam Newton. Two lost seasons later, and it's now fair to ask if McCaffrey can still be counted on to be the offensive focal point. The good news: McCaffrey still hasn't suffered any catastrophic lower-body injuries, and he looked like the same dominant player when he did manage to hit the field in 2020 and 2021. With some better injury luck, McCaffrey still has the potential to be a first-team All-Pro type of producer. It's a reality that could change everything for Baker Mayfield and this offense.
Previous rank: No. 24
They're really doing this, huh? It always felt like the Seahawks would eventually add another option at quarterback ... but it just never happened. And so it is that Seattle will begin the post-Russ era with Geno Smith starting in front of Drew Lock. "It didn't look good this preseason," one NFL exec told The Athletic. "When you have two quarterbacks, you have none. I think it could be bad." Expect Pete Carroll to use this fresh start at QB to lean on the running game in a profound way. Rashaad Penny and Kenneth Walker III will both see extensive work if healthy, but Carroll would be wise to remember he has two very good receivers in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Let's hope they're not wasted.
Previous rank: No. 27
How could you not root for "Rodrigo"? It's not uncommon in the history of Hard Knocks to see a camp underdog find his way onto the final 53-man roster as a deep reserve. It is uncommon to watch that kind of NFL Films underdog win a starting job outright. That appears to be a real possibility for Malcolm Rodriguez, the Oklahoma State linebacker who has gone from sixth-round afterthought to regular practice reps with Detroit's first-team defense. If Dan Campbell were to invent a Grit Machine, it would be Rodriguez -- nicknamed "Rodrigo" by defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn -- who would emerge from the fog of the laboratory; he's a high-motor, all-effort tackling machine who lives for the fight. The Lions will need big contributions in unexpected places to contend for a playoff spot -- Rodrigo could be one of those guys.
Previous rank: No. 25
Does Zach Wilson have infinite rope in Year 2? Joe Flacco is likely to get the call on Sunday against the Ravens (and for perhaps a week or two beyond that) as Wilson works his way back from last month's knee procedure. Coming off a rocky rookie year from Wilson, it's fair to wonder if the Jets -- now 11 years deep into the longest playoff drought in the NFL -- will stick with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft if he doesn't show signs of improvement early on. The Jets finally have legitimate pieces on both sides of the ball -- they might be one solid quarterback away from contention in the AFC playoff race. It's absolutely possible that Wilson makes a big developmental leap in Year 2, but Gang Green must be prepared if the opposite scenario presents itself.
Previous rank: No. 29
When will Brandin Cooks get the respect he deserves? Cooks has produced since the day he entered the league, but it took time for him to find a true home. That place is Houston, where he might be primed for his best season yet. The 28-year-old just set career highs in catches (90) and targets (134) in another under-the-radar 1,000-yard campaign -- his sixth in eight seasons across four teams. As QB Davis Mills said to ESPN, "When you have Brandin lined up out there, especially if he gets one-on-one, there's not really anybody in the league who is going to be able to match up with him." Give this man his due!
Previous rank: No. 26
Could the G-Men field one of the league's most improved offenses? Context is important here: New York had perhaps football's most pitiful attack by the dying breaths of the Joe Judge era. The bar to clear is low, and the Big Blue attack possesses some intrigue. Saquon Barkley looked great all summer, Daniel Jones has a proper play-caller in new head coach Brian Daboll, and the wide receiver group of Kadarius Toney, Wan'Dale Robinson, Sterling Shepard and Kenny Golladay has potential. (I hesitate to even include Golladay in here because of the wretched details of his training camp, but it would be equally weird to leave him out entirely.) The Giants are knee-deep in a rebuild, but they could be frisky with the ball.
Previous rank: No. 30
Could this be this year's Cinderella story? We're not saying Jacksonville is about to go full Bengals and march to the Super Bowl, but when you consider a) everything that happened last year under Urban Meyer, b) all the resources poured into the roster this offseason, c) the very real possibility of a significant Year 2 leap for Trevor Lawrence and d) the relative meh-ness of the AFC South -- isn't it plausible that this team could be hanging around in the AFC South race come December? It's one of those things you have to actually see before getting too amped up about the idea, but my mind is absolutely open to the notion that the Jags could become a thing in 2022.
Previous rank: No. 28
Is it time to officially take command in Washington? OK, OK, fans of the Around The NFL Podcast know I just love to hear Carson Wentz rumble his way through a meticulously workshopped corporate branding slogan, but I don't hate Wentz's surrounding cast with the Commanders. Terry McLaurin is a certified No. 1 receiver. Curtis Samuel -- after a season washed out by injuries -- remains a versatile playmaker. Jahan Dotson, the team's first-round pick, is a polished route runner who should make an instant impact. The offensive line is solid. The erratic Wentz's ability to get the ball out accurately and on time will be vital to success, but the cupboard is far from bare on offense.
Previous rank: No. 31
Is Marcus Mariota ready to surprise some people? Mariota's been humbled. Who wouldn't be? He went from No. 2 overall pick to a backup who hasn't made a start in close to three years. But here we are in 2022, and Mariota has a second chance at career relevance as the QB1 for a rebuilding Falcons squad beginning the post-Matt Ryan era. Atlanta has plenty of holes on its roster, but Mariota has two gifted young playmakers in second-year tight end Kyle Pitts and first-round pick Drake London, plus the mobility to escape the jams a leaky offensive line is sure to put him in. He's unlikely to hoist a Lombardi Trophy this year, but Mariota -- still just 28 -- can put himself in Atlanta's long-term plans with a productive season.
Previous rank: No. 32
Has Justin Fields been set up to succeed? We didn't learn much about Fields in his rookie season, as a poor offensive game plan and injuries kept the talented first-round pick from making the big splash the organization had hoped for. Things remain murky ahead of his second season: The offense has some nice pieces in Darnell Mooney, David Montgomery and Cole Kmet, but the O-line projects to be among football's worst, while the defense is a shell of its mighty former self. Perhaps Fields is truly special, allowing him to take a big leap and put the Bears on his back for four months. God knows Chicago could use some pro football excitement. But there's the unfortunately more-plausible scenario that, at this time next year, we're still asking when Fields will get a fair shot at this thing.
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