NFL Power Rankings 2021: Where every team stands entering Week 1

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NFL Power Rankings 2021: Where each team stands entering Week 1 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Football is nearly back!

The 2021 NFL season begins in less than a week when Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday, Sept. 9 to kick off Week 1. 

There are so many reasons to be excited for the upcoming campaign. A long list of contenders in both conferences and an uber-talented rookie class headlined by five first-round quarterbacks are two of those reasons.

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With the start of another season approaching, it's time to assess where each team stands with training camps and the preseason in the rearview mirror.

32. Houston Texans

Previous ranking: N/A

With or without star quarterback Deshaun Watson, this roster just isn't very good. Trade rumors involving Watson persist, but the Texans have not pulled the trigger on any offers at this time. The best-case scenario for the Texans is finishing with the worst record in the league, getting the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and selecting the next franchise QB.

31. Detroit Lions

Previous ranking: N/A

The Matthew Stafford era ended this offseason after the veteran quarterback was traded to the Rams in a deal that sent Jared Goff from L.A. to Detroit. It's going to be another long and likely difficult season in Detroit. The Lions' first three games are against quality opponents -- the 49ers, Packers and Ravens. Detroit's postseason appearance drought likely will be extended to five seasons when the 2021 campaign wraps up.

30. Jacksonville Jaguars

Previous ranking: N/A

All eyes will be on new Jaguars franchise quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who Jacksonville selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft. Lawrence doesn't need to take the Jaguars to the playoffs as a rookie, he just needs to be competent and make the players around him better. He certainly has the talent to make that happen, and being coached by Urban Meyer should help.

29. New York Jets

Previous ranking: N/A

There's a decent amount of optimism surrounding the Jets thanks to the arrival of quarterback Zach Wilson, who was selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Wilson is facing enormous expectations to be good right away and help the Jets show meaningful improvement after failing to make the playoffs in each of the last 10 seasons. Even if Wilson shines, the Jets' defense, which allowed 28.6 points per game last season, won't be good enough to carry the team to a postseason berth, especially after veteran pass rusher Carl Lawson was ruled out of the 2021 season with an Achilles tear in August.

28. Cincinnati Bengals

Previous ranking: N/A

Joe Burrow was having a great rookie season in 2020 before it was cut short by an ACL tear. He's back healthy and the Bengals offense was bolstered in the draft when Cincinnati selected his former LSU teammate, wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, with the No. 5 overall pick. The offensive line remains a concern, however. Burrow took a lot of hits last season and could do so again. The Bengals need to do a much better job protecting him if he's going to play a full 17-game slate.

27. Philadelphia Eagles

Previous ranking: N/A

The Eagles are no longer a top contender in the conference, but given how bad the NFC East was in 2020, it wouldn't be crazy if Philly is in the division title mix late in the season. The main objective for the Eagles this season should be developing 2020 second-round pick and starting quarterback Jalen Hurts. He played well in training camp and the preseason, which was certainly an encouraging sign. Hurts also will have a really talented wide receiver in 2021 first-round pick and reigning Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith to target in the passing attack. The Eagles will go as far as Hurts takes them in 2021.

26. New York Giants

Previous ranking: N/A

Like the Eagles, the Giants can't be ruled out as a playoff contender because of the NFC East's mediocrity. That said, this is a huge season for franchise QB Daniel Jones. This will be his third season as the starter, and with the return of elite running back Saquon Barkley and the free agent signing of wide receiver Kenny Golladay, there's no excuse for the Giants offense to be the second-lowest scoring unit in the league for the second straight season. Jones threw for 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 14 games last year. Plenty of improvement is needed from him in 2021.

25. Atlanta Falcons

Previous ranking: N/A

The Falcons started out 1-6 last season and seemed to find new ways to lose every week, including several blown leads late in games. Atlanta is a sneaky bounce-back candidate for 2021, and its offense is the reason why. Matt Ryan is still a very good quarterback, and with wide receiver Calvin Ridley and No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts at tight end, there are plenty of weapons on the field for him to target. The defense likely will be the Falcons' weakness. This unit allowed the fourth-most yards last season, and not enough additions were made in the offseason to expect meaningful improvement on that side of the ball.

24. Denver Broncos

Previous ranking: N/A

Drew Lock losing the QB competition to Teddy Bridgewater was a little unexpected, but the Louisville product has been an effective starter for multiple teams in his career. The defense has the potential to be very good, especially if the devastating pass rush duo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb remains healthy for a full season. The AFC West is a competitive division with the Chiefs as the clear-cut best team along with two other playoff hopefuls in the Chargers and Raiders. The Broncos should be in the mix for a wild card spot in the AFC, but it's still hard to bet on them getting in.

23. Carolina Panthers

Previous ranking: N/A

The return of elite running back Christian McCaffrey is a massive boost to a new-look Panthers offense that also saw the arrival of Sam Darnold as its starting quarterback. One player on defense to watch is second-year safety Jeremy Chinn, who had a fantastic rookie season with a team-leading 117 tackles. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they are in a tough NFC South division. The playoffs probably aren't a realistic goal for Carolina, but this team should be a lot of fun to watch if McCaffrey stays healthy for a full campaign.

22. Chicago Bears

Previous ranking: N/A

Head coach Matt Nagy's decision to start veteran Andy Dalton and not first-round pick Justin Fields at quarterback has prompted a fiery reaction from Bears fans, and rightly so. Fields is a better player and should start right away. He will inevitably replace Dalton at some point in the regular season, so why not play him now? The Bears still have a really good defense, so any improvement at the quarterback position could put them in the mix for an NFC wild card playoff berth this season.

21. Las Vegas Raiders

Previous ranking: N/A

The Raiders were, at one point, a real playoff contender last year but ultimately fell short of an AFC wild card berth after losing three of their last four games. Two things need to happen for the Raiders to make the playoffs in 2021. For starters, the defense must play a lot better. This unit gave up the eighth-most yards and third-most points last season. Secondly, starting quarterback Derek Carr also needs to be a top-tier player again, which he's fully capable of doing. Carr doesn't lack quality playmakers at the skill positions on offense, with running back Josh Jacobs, wide receiver Henry Ruggs III and tight end Darren Waller leading the way. 

20. Los Angeles Chargers

Previous ranking: N/A

Injuries were again a factor for the Chargers last season as multiple key players missed a chunk of games. If the Chargers are going to threaten for a playoff berth, 2020 first-round pick Justin Herbert must continue his ascension to the top-tier of quarterbacks. Herbert was awesome as a rookie, throwing for 4,336 yards with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The problem for Los Angeles is it plays in a tough AFC West division and five of its first seven games are against 2020 playoff teams, including matchups versus the Chiefs, Ravens, Browns and Patriots.

19. Washington Football Team

Previous ranking: N/A

An excellent defense, which ranked No. 2 in yards allowed and No. 4 in points allowed, carried Washington to an NFC East crown despite a 7-9 record. Washington should be right back in the division title mix this season with an improved offense that will receive better quarterback play after the offseason addition of veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. Running back Antonio Gibson also is poised for a breakout campaign, and Terry McLaurin has shown signs of being a legit No. 1 wide receiver. Don't sleep on Washington this season. 

18. Minnesota Vikings

Previous ranking: N/A

The Vikings defense allowed the fifth-fewest points per game in 2019, but the unit took a giant step back in 2020 and allowed 29.7 points per game, which was the second-most of any team. Minnesota has a quality offense, led by an accurate quarterback in Kirk Cousins, an elite dual-threat running back in Dalvin Cook and a rising star in wide receiver Justin Jefferson. But unless the defense shows huge improvement, the Vikings won't make the playoffs. 

17. Indianapolis Colts

Previous ranking: N/A

The Colts made a huge trade for Carson Wentz in the offseason and likely will only go as far as he takes them. Unfortunately for the Colts, Wentz is not a very reliable player based on his injury history and his struggles throwing the football last season. Working in Indy's favor is the team's excellent rushing attack, led by last year's rookie standout Jonathan Taylor. The former Wisconsin running back tallied 1,169 yards (5.0 per carry) and 11 touchdowns on the ground.

16. Miami Dolphins

Previous ranking: N/A

The Dolphins missed the playoffs last year despite having a 10-6 record. If Miami is going to play football into mid-January, they'll need quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to make a sophomore leap. He wasn't bad as a rookie, but 1,814 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 games isn't great, either. The Dolphins have a tough schedule to begin the season with four of their first five games coming against 2020 playoff teams, including the Patriots, Bills and Buccaneers.

15. Arizona Cardinals

Previous ranking: N/A

The Cardinals are a good team with a star quarterback in Kyler Murray and arguably the league's best wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins. Arizona should've made the playoffs last year after a 6-3 start, but it faltered down the stretch by losing five of the last seven games. The Cardinals again have a tough schedule in 2021, which includes six games in what's probably the most competitive division in football -- the NFC West. Arizona will be in the mix for a wild card spot this season, but it must show improvement in close games. Five of the Cardinals' eight losses in 2020 were decided by only one score.

14. Dallas Cowboys

Previous ranking: N/A

The Cowboys are the best team in the NFC East if quarterback Dak Prescott is healthy. He only played in the first five games last season and his ankle injury completely destroyed Dallas' chances of being a legit contender in the NFC. If Prescott plays a full season, the Cowboys should have an explosive offense headlined by running back Ezekiel Elliott and sophomore wideout CeeDee Lamb. Dallas' defense also needs to be better after giving up 29.6 points per game a year ago, which was the fifth-most in the league.

13. New England Patriots

Previous ranking: N/A

The Patriots saw their 11-year streak of winning the AFC East end in 2020 with a disappointing 7-9 record in the first season of the post-Tom Brady era. New England reacted by going on a massive free agent spending spree to address key areas on offense (wide receiver and tight end) and defense (front seven and secondary). The Patriots also selected a quarterback in the first round -- Mac Jones at No. 15 overall -- for the first time in the Bill Belichick era. Jones won the QB competition over the last month and gives the Patriots a much-needed upgrade over Cam Newton, who struggled mightily in 2020 as the team ranked near or at the bottom in many passing statistics. A strong running game, a top 10 offensive line and a solid defense should be enough for the Patriots to get back in the playoffs. Jones doesn't need to be amazing, he just can't make too many mistakes. Based on what we've seen of Jones so far, he should be able to handle that.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers

Previous ranking: N/A

One of the most exciting rookies to watch all season will be Steelers running back Najee Harris, who should play a huge role in Pittsburgh's offense after dominating at the University of Alabama. The Steelers are a really good team and should be a legit contender in the AFC if Ben Roethlisberger plays 16 or 17 games. Pittsburgh went 12-4 last season and yet few people are taking them seriously as a threat to the Chiefs and Bills.

11. San Francisco 49ers

Previous ranking: N/A

Injuries decimated the 49ers in 2020. Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo missed 10 games, elite tight end George Kittle missed eight games and star pass rusher Nick Bosa missed 14 games. All eyes are on the QB position as Garoppolo battles No. 3 overall draft pick Trey Lance for the starting role. How short will Garoppolo's leash be if he struggles? The 49ers gave up multiple first-round picks to trade up and take Lance. If he's ready, San Francisco should play him early.

10. New Orleans Saints

Previous ranking: N/A

The Saints are being a little underrated entering the 2021 season. Sure, losing future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees to retirement is a blow, but there's still a ton of talent on this roster. Jameis Winston isn't an elite QB, but when surrounded by the right pieces, he can be an effective player. He also won't have to do too much because the offense is built around elite running back Alvin Kamara, who could be a top MVP candidate this season. The Saints probably aren't a top Super Bowl contender, but it would still be shocking if they missed the playoffs.

9. Tennessee Titans

Previous ranking: N/A

The Titans have reached the playoffs in three of the last four years, but 2020 ended on a sour note as the Ravens defeated Tennessee in the AFC Wild Card round. Tennessee's success is built around one of the league's best rushing attacks headlined by star running back Derrick Henry. He led the league with 374 carries, 2,027 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns last season. A Henry-centric offense will again be the recipe for the Titans' success in 2021, but the first three weeks could pose a bit of a challenge because two of Tennessee' opponents (Seattle and Indianapolis) during that stretch had top-five run defenses a year ago.

8. Los Angeles Rams

Previous ranking: N/A

Expectations are sky high for the Rams this season after they upgraded at quarterback by replacing Jared Goff with Matthew Stafford via trade. Losing Cam Akers to a season-ending Achilles injury was a tough blow, but the Rams should still have enough depth and talent at running back with Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel. The strength of the Rams is their defense, which allowed the fewest points per game (18.5) last season. Winning the NFC West will be difficult, but the Rams deservedly are the betting favorites to take the division crown.

7. Cleveland Browns

Previous ranking: N/A

The Browns finally made the leap last season by winning 11 games and reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2002. The next challenge for Cleveland is building on that success and becoming a consistent contender in the AFC. All the pieces are in place for that to happen, especially on offense, where Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb form one of the best QB-RB duos in football. A healthy Odell Beckham Jr. also adds another dimension at wide receiver after he missed the Browns' last 11 games (including the playoffs) last season.

6. Seattle Seahawks

Previous ranking: N/A

Will 2021 finally be the year Russell Wilson wins league MVP? It's hard to find many players more crucial to their team's success than Wilson, who has totaled 106 passing touchdowns and 25 interceptions over the last three years. The 2020 campaign was one of Wilson's best as he posted career highs with a 68.8 completion percentage and 40 touchdown passes. 

5. Baltimore Ravens

Previous ranking: N/A

J.K. Dobbins' ACL tear is a massive blow to a Ravens running game that led the league in rushing yards and ranked No. 3 in rushing touchdowns last season. Now it's up to Gus Edwards to take on the lead running back role in Dobbins' absence, while star quarterback Lamar Jackson also plays a huge role in the rushing attack. The Ravens will play the Chiefs in Week 2, which should be one of the best early-season matchups featuring legit title contenders.

4. Buffalo Bills

Previous ranking: N/A

The Bills won their first AFC East title since 1995 last season, ending the Patriots' dominance and reaching the AFC Championship Game. Getting to the Super Bowl is the goal for a Bills squad loaded with talent and depth on both sides of the ball. Josh Allen broke into the top tier of quarterbacks in 2020 and should be among the top MVP candidates this season. Can the Bills beat the Chiefs in January? We'll get an early look in Week 5 when Buffalo visits Kansas City.

3. Green Bay Packers

Previous ranking: N/A

The offseason drama surrounding quarterback Aaron Rodgers' future in Green Bay ultimately ended with him returning to the Packers. While the reigning league MVP's long-term future with the franchise remains unclear, Rodgers' presence keeps Green Bay in the upper tier of Super Bowl contenders. The Packers and Bucs seem destined to square off in the NFC Championship Game for the second consecutive year.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

Previous ranking: N/A

The Chiefs have won the AFC back-to-back years and it's difficult to envision a team ending that streak in 2021 unless quarterback Patrick Mahomes battles injury. This offense is the most explosive in the league, led by the best quarterback, an elite wide receiver in Tyreek Hill and a great tight end in Travis Kelce. The only real concern for the Chiefs is their defense. This unit did not look good against Tom Brady's Buccaneers offense in Super Bowl LV. Luckily for Chiefs, their offense will put up enough points against most opponents to make up for the team's defensive issues.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Previous ranking: N/A

How can we not put the defending champs in the top spot? The Bucs have brought back all 22 starters from last season's Super Bowl-winning roster, including legendary quarterback Tom Brady. With a full and normal offseason and preseason to build chemistry and practice, there's a good chance an already good Bucs offense will be even better in 2021. Tampa Bay is absolutely loaded on both sides of the ball and hungry to become the first repeat champions since Brady's Patriots in 2003 and 2004.