More Charles Robinson: NFC preseason rankings
In the NFL, hindsight is a bullwhip. And no fanny is safe from the sting of an absurd prediction.
Consider that only one year ago, some people looked at the AFC and thought the Broncos were headed for No. 1 – and they weren't talking about the middle finger quarterback Jake Plummer used to salute fans during his season of frustration. Some thought Peyton Manning and the Colts we ready to solve the Patriots. And still others thought Roethlisberger was an entre served only at Vegan restaurants.
As usual, the season produced plenty of fools. And almost all of them were guilty of doubting New England at some point. With that in mind, this year's preseason AFC rankings don't feature a trendy pick at the top. Instead, the AFC hierarchy begins with the one team that has ended the last two seasons on the same championship stage. For those who would put another team at the top, the whip will be waiting for you in February.
AFC PRESEASON RANKINGS
1. New England Patriots – New defensive coordinator Eric Mangini will be a fine replacement for Romeo Crennel. As for the offense, Bill Belichick can rely on a great core of veterans to get by without a coordinator. But someone is going to have to step in and replace the leadership of linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
2. Indianapolis Colts – They've been too cap-strapped to go shopping for a stud linebacker or lockdown corner, but I think that defense has got enough developing talent to be respectable this season. The only thing threatening that offense is the contract status of running back Edgerrin James.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers – Pittsburgh is a Super Bowl contender again, but those offseason losses in free agency are going to hurt when depth becomes an issue. Having a healthy Duce Staley would be a huge boost, but Antwaan Randle El must pick up the slack left by the departure of wideout Plaxico Burress.
4. San Diego Chargers – If their pass rush is going to improve, they need to get linebacker Shawne Merriman into camp on time. Meanwhile, mark my words: The Drew Brees/Philip Rivers quandary will be a topic again before the November bye week.
5. Cincinnati Bengals – If Carson Palmer picks up where he left off last season, and the Bengals get production out of their third receiver, Cincinnati's offense could be scary good. And I predict linebacker Odell Thurman will make a strong push for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
6. New York Jets – Chad Pennington's shoulder had better be 100-percent healthy by Sept. 25, when the Jets begin a pivotal five-game stretch that includes road games at Baltimore, Buffalo and Atlanta. Now that Donnie Abraham is officially retired, the Jets should take a closer look at Ty Law's foot and contract demands.
7. Baltimore Ravens – The offense may have gotten its act together just in time to see the defense slide backward another notch. Mike Nolan's departure is going to be a bigger deal than expected, and beyond the superb secondary, the rest of the Baltimore D is going to be merely above average.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars – Either Reggie Williams or Matt Jones is going to have to make significant contributions for their offense to lift off. The uncertainty over Fred Taylor's knee and the failed trade for Travis Henry kept the Jags from being ranked higher.
9. Buffalo Bills – The defense is awesome and I'm hearing that Willis McGahee has looked amazing in his offseason workouts, but J.P. Losman's development is going to hinder the Bills. The Bills will look a lot like the Ravens did during Kyle Boller's first season as a starter.
10. Denver Broncos – The Broncos will have figured out by midseason what Cleveland already knows: that defensive linemen Gerard Warren, Courtney Brown and Ebenezer Ekuban are average at best. There is no way Jerry Rice will rise higher than No. 4 on the receiving depth chart.
11. Oakland Raiders – The impact of Randy Moss will be automatic, but a far bigger issue is whether LaMont Jordan is featured-tailback material. Quarterback Kerry Collins is at his best when he has a strong running game. Can anyone outside of the East Bay name one of the Raiders' starting linebackers?
12. Kansas City Chiefs – The defensive additions are nice, but they've come too late. The offense will begin a rapid decline this season, starting with running back Priest Holmes and quarterback Trent Green. Rookie linebacker Derrick Johnson is going to surprise all of the people who knocked him leading up to the draft.
13. Houston Texans – It's time for David Carr to step forward and become one of the league's upper-echelon quarterbacks. A lot of that will depend on all of the wide receivers on the roster not named Andre Johnson. If Phillip Buchanon can rebound with Houston, he and Dunta Robinson could become the league's best young cornerback tandem.
14. Miami Dolphins – Believe it or not, Ricky Williams and his physical running style could actually make him the starter again by midseason, especially if Ronnie Brown can't get the tough inside yardage that coach Nick Saban will demand. A.J. Feeley or Gus Frerotte? Is there really a correct answer to that question?
15. Tennessee Titans – After hearing all the fuss about Norm Chow over the last few years, I'm waiting on pins and needles to see if he can salvage a thin Tennessee offense. I already have the feeling that rookie Adam "Pac Man" Jones is going to break Sean Taylor's 12-month record for Most Idiotic Off Field Incidents.
16. Cleveland Browns – Trent Dilfer will be among the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL, and that's going to be one reason why this will be a very bad team. But don't blame new general manager Phil Savage and new head coach Romeo Crennel. They are going to need two years to stock the roster with players that fit their systems.