NFL Power Rankings: Top of the NFC is absolutely loaded

Shutdown Corner
Could we see Carson Palmer and Cam Newton meet in the NFC championship game again this season? (Getty Images)
Could we see Carson Palmer and Cam Newton meet in the NFC championship game again this season? (Getty Images)

One of these teams will be, at best, the fourth-best team in the NFC: Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers.

In other words, the NFC playoffs are going to be a lot of fun.

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In the pre-preseason power rankings, the NFC rules. Teams from the NFC are in the top three spots, and four of the top six. The NFC West is fascinating: The second-best team in the division might also end up as the second-best team in football. It’s going to be a serious challenge for Carolina to repeat as conference champs.

The AFC’s strength is its middle class. When you look at some of the depth of the conference, the battle for the two wild-card spots will be fierce, especially with teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders expected to improve significantly, and the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens getting some key injured players back. The AFC will have a few good teams miss the playoffs.

We’ve counted down the teams over the past month, bringing you in-depth previews on each of them. If you click the link on a team’s name below, that will bring you to its full preview. We have four preseason games to evaluate these teams (five for the Colts and Packers) so there will be some movement in these rankings before we revisit them in about a month. But as we head into preseason, here’s where the teams stand:

32. Cleveland Browns

It’s clear by now there’s no quarterback competition. Not yet anyway. It’s Robert Griffin III’s job to lose. How he looks in preseason action will give us an idea what to expect from him as he tries to revive his career.

31. San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert are battling for the starting job, and it seems to be about even. Why the 49ers would even think about starting Gabbert, instead of seeing if Kaepernick can recapture his 2012-13 form, is insane to me.

30. Tennessee Titans

When something positive is said by the team in 2016 about Dorial Green-Beckham’s development, please alert me. Haven’t seen anything so far.

29. San Diego Chargers

The Joey Bosa holdout is dumb. For both sides. This isn’t supposed to happen anymore. Both sides are being stubborn over the offset language part of the contract. Bosa is setting himself back in a major way by missing time in training camp and the Chargers are weakening their defense. Brilliant.

28. New Orleans Saints

Rookie receiver Michael Thomas is getting rave reviews in training camp. The offense might be much better this season — and it was really good last year. Can the defense be a little better?

27. Philadelphia Eagles

On the notion of Carson Wentz redshirting the whole season: 22 of the last 24 quarterbacks picked in the first round started at least one game their rookie season, he has reportedly looked pretty good in camp and the only thing keeping him from starting is Sam Bradford. We’ll see him at some point this season. Wentz will be one of the most intriguing players to watch in the preseason.

26. Atlanta Falcons

I like the Dwight Freeney signing. Keep in mind, this isn’t just about Freeney. If Freeney can help bring 2015 first-round pick Vic Beasley along, it’s well worth it.

25. Miami Dolphins

Arian Foster is impressing in Dolphins camp. That makes sense. The question isn’t Foster’s talent, it’s how much of a workload he can handle coming off an Achilles injury. He turns 30 on Aug. 24.

24. Los Angeles Rams

Are you buying this notion that Case Keenum is the Rams’ starting quarterback? Yeah, I’m not either.

23. Chicago Bears

Alshon Jeffery has already missed some time with a minor hamstring injury. If you know Jeffery’s history, it seems like his hamstring issues are never minor.

22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sometimes, drafting a player with some character risks works out. Sometimes, it’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

21. Detroit Lions

Anquan Boldin was an interesting late signing for the Lions. If he has much left, the trio of Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Boldin isn’t bad at all.

20. Indianapolis Colts

The No. 2 tailback battle is worth watching, because Frank Gore can’t be a workhorse forever (right?). It seems like undrafted Josh Ferguson is turning heads in camp, and he’ll be a player to watch through the preseason.

19. Jacksonville Jaguars

Pass rusher Dante Fowler, by all accounts, is having a great camp after missing last season with a torn ACL. If he’s this good when the regular season starts, the 2015 first-round pick will lift the entire Jaguars defense.

18. Washington Redskins

The reports about Josh Norman getting beat by Redskins receivers in practice proves one thing: We have too much time to kill before the regular season.

17. Buffalo Bills

First-round pick Shaq Lawson is out for a while after shoulder surgery. Second-round pick Reggie Ragland went down with a knee injury suffered in practice. That’s not good news for a Bills defense that was depending on those two rookies to play big roles.

16. Baltimore Ravens

A lot has been made of the report that Terrance West could start at tailback for the Ravens this season. It would be a surprise, after watching West struggle with the Browns, but the Ravens aren’t afraid to make bold moves. Keep an eye on that situation this month.

15. Oakland Raiders

Defensive end Mario Edwards isn’t a household name, but he’s a potential difference-maker for the Raiders and was coming off a neck injury. The reports about him in camp have been positive, and that’s great news for an improving Raiders defense.

14. New York Jets

Ryan Fitzpatrick signed, so this ranking (which was set when he was still holding out) seems about right. But the whole situation still doesn’t sit well. Is Fitzpatrick happy after months of contentious negotiations? Is his mind right? We’ve seen long holdouts affect players well after the contract is signed.

13. New York Giants

ESPN said Victor Cruz’s “true explosion and speed from before his calf injury aren’t there yet,” which is concerning but not too surprising. After missing all of last season, about to turn 30 years old on Nov. 11, it would have to be considered a bonus for the Giants if Cruz returns anywhere near his old form.

12. Houston Texans

I don’t know why the Texans won’t pay DeAndre Hopkins now. Everyone knows he will get the big contract he wants. Do the Texans look at how salaries rose in a major way this season and think they’ll end up paying less if they wait? All they’re doing by not negotiating with Hopkins now is costing themselves money.

11. Dallas Cowboys

Look, Josh Freeman isn’t the answer, Dak Prescott won’t be the answer and Kellen Moore wasn’t going to be the answer. If Tony Romo goes down, the Cowboys are in trouble. If a quarterback is available one week into August, he won’t be the guy to save the day if your starter goes down. The Cowboys boxed themselves into this corner and now they’re stuck with the consequences if Romo gets hurt again.

10. Minnesota Vikings

News of Cordarrelle Patterson’s shoulder injury early in camp brought up an important follow-up question: Patterson is still on the Vikings roster?

9. Kansas City Chiefs

The Eric Berry holdout is concerning. Like I said about Ryan Fitzpatrick, how often do long holdouts end in a happy manner? I get it; the Chiefs for some reason couldn’t get a long-term deal done with Berry, so it’s not in his best interest to risk injury in training camp and preseason. But it’s hard to view it as a positive for the player or the team.

8. Denver Broncos

I still don’t believe the Broncos would start someone with zero NFL passes, either Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch, against the Carolina Panthers in Week 1. Unless Mark Sanchez melts down, my guess is he’ll be the opening-day starter.

7. Cincinnati Bengals

Cornerback William Jackson, Cincinnati’s first-round pick, tore his pectoral muscle and could miss the entire season. Injuries in August are always rough, but losing your first-round pick before the first preseason game seems especially cruel.

6. Green Bay Packers

Jordy Nelson being held out early in camp due to tendinitis in his left knee isn’t a problem in a vacuum, but we all know he’s trying to come back from a torn right ACL. The Packers wanted to see Nelson back and looking like his old self, and that hasn’t happened yet. That’s a concern, given how the offense struggled without him last season.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers

If all the Sammie Coates hype translates to regular-season production, that’s huge for the Steelers. Can they really replace Martavis Bryant without losing anything on offense? That would be amazing for them.

4. New England Patriots

Dion Lewis started camp on the physically unable to perform list, and while there have been conflicting reports about whether he’ll be available Week 1, it seems like he should be ready to go. His health might be the most underrated story line going into the NFL season. If Lewis can stay healthy — and his injury history is long and scary — then the Patriots’ offense will be close to unstoppable (at least when Tom Brady’s suspension is done). There’s not much behind Lewis at tailback, either. He’s a very valuable piece for them.

3. Seattle Seahawks

Thomas Rawls’ status, after his bad ankle injury last year, remains a mystery. The team has maintained vague optimism about him being ready to go by Week 1, but the fact that they drafted three running backs (the first one, C.J. Prosise, has been hurt in camp too) is a warning sign. Maybe Rawls will be 100 percent by the regular season and all of this worry is over nothing, but it would be nice to see him on the field before then.

2. Arizona Cardinals

According to the Cardinals, Tyrann Mathieu should be back practicing in a little less than two weeks. That would be just fine, putting Arizona’s most valuable defensive player on track for Week 1.

1. Carolina Panthers

Rookie cornerbacks Daryl Worley and James Bradberry will be given the first shot to start this season with Bene Benwikere as the nickel corner, according to the Charlotte Observer. We’ll see how the rookies do in the preseason and if they remain the starters heading into the regular-season opener, but it’s an interesting experiment and gamble for a team with championship aspirations.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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