NFL power rankings are a critical piece of football culture.
The overall hierarchy of the league is an eye-of-the-beholder matter, but within each set of rankings lies detailed info that acts as a coherent, all-inclusive way to catch up on the latest bits of info surrounding each team and how it all meshes to form a consensus.
This is an especially critical tool now that the preseason kicks off Sunday and the march toward September begins in earnest.
Below is a look at the current league outlook.
1. Denver Broncos
Until teams actually take the field, rankings must be construed via an on-paper outlook.
On paper, no team is better than Denver.
Perhaps the real focus should be on the defensive side of the ball, where John Elway and Co. made a point to land upgrades with names such as DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. A better unit means less work for Manning, not that he wants a reduction in attempts.
2. Seattle Seahawks
The most intriguing question at the moment pertains to the defending champs and their quest to repeat.
Pete Carroll and the front office have built the NFL's best team, but the window will slam shut at some point with major contracts eventually needing to be addressed. But for safety Earl Thomas, the focus is on the now:
3. New Orleans Saints
It can be easy to overlook the New Orleans Saints, especially with losses such as Darren Sproles and Lance Moore, not to mention a stigma that the defense is an issue.
But it isn't, not with Rob Ryan at the helm as the unit eases into its second year of the 3-4 scheme and dominant players such as Cameron Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro are joined by safety Jairus Byrd.
Offensively, Drew Brees will continue to be his normal self, especially with Kenny Stills (who led the league in yards-per-catch average last season) and explosive rookie Brandin Cooks on the roster.
4. New England Patriots
Health is the key for the New England Patriots as they enter this season a year removed from a quiet 12-4 campaign.
Tom Brady made the most of the situation highlighted by younger players. But he is going to need Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski in the lineup more consistently, although the latter says he will not change a thing, per NFL on ESPN:
It helps that the defense in Foxborough continues to do nothing but improve. Jerod Mayo and Co. gave up just 21.1 points per game last year, good for a top-10 placement.
5. Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is like Manning in that he simply needs to be on the field for his team to be labeled a contender. He missed seven games a season ago, but as long as he and Randall Cobb are healthy, the team will be just fine.
During the preseason, the real focus should be on rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and how he fits. Should he unseat Morgan Burnett for the starting gig, it means that Rodgers will be flanked by an improved defense next season.
6. San Francisco 49ers
A horrible offseason has a way of bleeding into the preseason, so we will know rather quickly if the wealth of issues San Francisco faced recently will have an impact.
Either way, NaVorro Bowman remains sidelined with an injury. The behavior of Aldon Smith is in question, and so is the performance of quarterback Colin Kaepernick now that all of his targets should be healthy.
The spotlight to help mask injuries and issues will be on rookies such as back Carlos Hyde and linebacker Chris Borland. No pressure. For a roster as deep as San Francisco's, there is much to be sorted out in a short period of time.
7. Cincinnati Bengals
There are exciting pieces in Cincinnati despite offseason losses such as Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson.
Darqueze Dennard is a standout rookie at corner, and Jeremy Hill may push for playing time at running back. Yet, none of that will take the heat off quarterback Andy Dalton, and perhaps rightfully so when one peruses numbers provided by ESPN's John Buccigross:
The pressure is on as Dalton and A.J. Green play with new contracts in mind, and it is beginning to feel like now or never in the Queen City.
8. Chicago Bears
Chicago quietly has one of the most talented rosters in the NFL from top to bottom, but it may wind up a moot point if Jay Cutler—who has not played a full 16-game schedule since 2009—cannot stay on the field.
Defensively, the Bears have some jelling to do, with Kyle Fuller learning from Charles Tillman and veterans Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston getting accustomed to their new setting.
9. Philadelphia Eagles
DeSean Jackson is gone, but Nick Foles appears to have preferred working with Riley Cooper anyway. Add in a healthy Jeremy Maclin and an intriguing rookie in Jordan Matthews, and Chip Kelly's offense won't skip a beat next year.
Defensively, the Eagles shocked some by grabbing Marcus Smith in the draft. The unit as a whole oozes potential, though, especially with an enforcer like Fletcher Cox up front and an upgrade like Malcolm Jenkins in the secondary.
The NFC East looks to be in hand, provided Foles does not implode.
10. San Diego Chargers
Kevin Acee of U-T San Diego offers a glimpse into San Diego's camp:
Fans better get accustomed to the formula, because Philip Rivers is coming off a Comeback Player of the Year award and playoff triumph under Mike McCoy, while Ladarius Green is set to see the biggest uptick in production.
The Chargers very quietly accomplished a lot last season and further improved through additions in the offseason. In short, they are a rather scary team with a lot clicking together at once.
11. Detroit Lions
Defensively speaking, the Detroit Lions do not offer a lot in the way of excitement as we head into next season, outside of an additional pass-rusher in the form of rookie 'backer Kyle Van Noy.
Just as well—the offense will continue to be the focal point.
Megatron is still around, yes, but the real excitement centers on the addition of versatile rookie Eric Ebron and veteran wideout Golden Tate, one of the league's most criminally underrated players. The unit appears as unstoppable as ever, with the only kryptonite once again coming in the form of health.
12. Arizona Cardinals
Much of the attention coming out of the desert at this juncture is on the new deal for corner Patrick Peterson, as ESPN's Adam Schefter helps to illustrate:
While much deserved, fans would be wise to keep a keen eye on Bruce Arians' offense.
Andre Ellington is set to become the feature back after leading the NFL in yards per carry last season, Larry Fitzgerald is still in his prime, and Michael Floyd is a hot pick to break out.
Albeit quietly, the Cardinals are one of the best teams in the league, especially if Carson Palmer can keep his interception numbers down.
13. Indianapolis Colts
It would be silly to suggest that Andrew Luck finally has a competent defense backing him up, but at least things continue to look better around him on the offensive side of things.
T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne are still around, but the real focal point is on new addition Hakeem Nicks, who seems to be doing just fine so far in camp:
A third weapon to help counteract what may be the lack of a strong running game once again is just what the doctor ordered for the Colts in a division that looks rather weak.
14. Atlanta Falcons
This might be too low for the Atlanta Falcons, but the globe needs to see that the overhaul on defense actually works before crowning them as contenders.
Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, on paper, give the Falcons some bite in the trenches against the run as the unit undergoes a schematic change. Second-year player Desmond Trufant figures to at least give a weak secondary the proverbial boxer's chance.
Matt Ryan and Co. will post plenty of points, but a revamped defense will make or break the 2014 Falcons.
15. Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton will decide if the Carolina Panthers are contenders next season.
It sounds too obvious, right? But ponder this—Newton is not fully recovered from ankle surgery, as captured by Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer:
Normally, missing some reps in camp or not taking them at 100 percent would not be an issue, but remember that he has an entirely new wideout corps (Kelvin Benjamin, Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery) that he must establish timing with before the season.
The clock is ticking.
16. St. Louis Rams
Rinse and repeat—it all hinges on Sam Bradford in St. Louis.
The former Oklahoma star is backed by an elite defense that includes a sleek new addition in tackle Aaron Donald—who can consistently provide unorthodox pressure up the middle—but it matters little if Bradford is not on the field.
Bradford missed nine games last season, and should he do so again, Shaun Hill is not exactly going to lead the team to the promised land.
17. Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs have no easy task in front of them next season in the tough AFC West.
Chris Owens and Sean Smith are a strange pairing in the secondary, although Reid certainly hopes that the addition of yet another talented pass-rusher in Dee Ford will help keep the pressure off the back end of his defense.
Offensively, Alex Smith will not be asked to do much outside of get Jamaal Charles the ball. That in itself will at least have the Chiefs in the hunt for the division crown.
18. Baltimore Ravens
Perhaps this is the year Joe Flacco quiets the doubters after his ridiculous contract. After all, last year was quite horrific, as Chris Raybon of DraftDayConsultants points out with help from Pro Football Focus:
In theory, things should be better.
Veteran wideout Steve Smith should help move the chains more often, and Bernard Pierce continues to have the look of a feature back on his own. But again, it all hinges on the big men up front, who put forth a resounding failure last year.
19. New York Giants
Eli Manning tossed the most interceptions in the NFL last year, but things figure to be much better next season now that the front office decided to get him some help at running back.
David Wilson is a liability, but Rashad Jennings is wildly underrated (163 carries for 733 yards and six scores last year on a 4.5 average—in Oakland), and Andre Williams has the talent to steal the job outright despite his rookie status.
It may not come to that, but at least the Giants have better options than Peyton Hillis this year. With defenses kept honest, Manning should be able to take better care of the football.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers
There is a lot of excitement in Pittsburgh as it pertains to the offensive side of the football.
Ben Roethlisberger is getting his way with more no-huddle action, Antonio Brown is one of the league's best receivers, and Markus Wheaton figures to take a leap. Even better, Dri Archer is reminding some of the NFL's best, per Judy Battista of NFL.com:
The uptick in offensive tempo this year should help to cover for any issues on the defensive side of things as questions linger there.
21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Many will key on the battle between Josh McCown and Mike Glennon under center, but perhaps the more important storyline is the health of back Doug Martin.
By all accounts, including that of the Tampa Bay Times' Greg Auman, the elite back is ready to go:
Martin's production will do much to take the stress off the signal-caller, as will an elite defense that only improved thanks to bringing on superb talents in end Michael Johnson and corner Alterraun Verner.
Robert Griffin III is set for a major comeback.
Now healthy, RGIII gets to work with a great offensive mind in head coach Jay Gruden while handing off to Alfred Morris and tossing the pigskin to Pierre Garcon (last year's league leader in receptions) and DeSean Jackson.
Defense continues to be a work in progress, but the offense is the definition of explosive.
23. Miami Dolphins
Ryan Tannehill was the most-sacked quarterback in the league last season, something that may not change given the state of flux in the offensive line at the moment.
That said, Tannehill continues to develop at an impressive clip. He has an elite deep threat in Mike Wallace, a chain-mover in Brian Hartline and a mismatch nightmare who can line up at three different positions in Charles Clay.
Treading water next year is not such a horrible thing when one considers the state of the offensive line.
24. Dallas Cowboys
Despite a lofty extension, much of the Dallas Cowboys' success next season hinges on back DeMarco Murray, not Tony Romo.
Murray finally had that breakout season a year ago, which coincidentally came with what was his healthiest season to date. A line of 1,124 yards and nine scores on a 5.2 per-carry average in 14 games speaks volumes to his ability and the faith the staff will continue to show in him.
For Romo, that means the job gets easier, especially with young guns like Terrance Williams only set to improve.
25. Minnesota Vikings
All that is missing is a quarterback, although it should eventually be rookie Teddy Bridgewater. As Bleacher Report's Ryan Riddle points out, the weapons, in tandem with coaching, make for a nurturing environment:
Regardless, weapons are in place that suggest the Vikings can make a run at the division, as loaded as it is.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars
Unlike Minnesota, it would be wise for the Jacksonville Jaguars to allow their rookie signal-caller to sit for a year.
Blake Bortles is raw, and the team will do well enough with Chad Henne under center while the rookie learns.
Meanwhile, Gus Bradley will get a serious look at his new feature back in Toby Gerhart and rookie wideouts Allen Robinson and Marquise Lee.
27. Houston Texans
It would be outlandish to suggest Houston will lose another 10 or more games in a row this season, but things certainly do not look great.
J.J. Watt and an elite defense could not prevent a horrendous skid last year, and now it will be one of either Ryan Fitzpatrick or Case Keenum under center.
Suffice it to say, another one of Arian Foster's prime years is about to go swirling down the drain.
28. New York Jets
Rex Ryan is an elite, if not legendary, defensive mind stemming from the Ryan family tree, but his actions on the offensive side of the ball are questionable.
He can't win. If Michael Vick gets the starting job, Geno Smith's confidence would falter, and he turns out to be a wasted pick. If Smith gets the gig, Ryan would have to deal with a disgruntled Vick, who may or may not be thrown into specific packages.
Because we all know how well a rotational quarterback system works.
Tough sledding is ahead for the Jets.
29. Oakland Raiders
It has to show on the field first, but one should not feel too ridiculous naming the Oakland Raiders as a team that will shock the league next season.
That does not imply playoffs or anything of the sort, but a backfield that consists of Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden, flanked by an underrated wideout corps and Matt Schaub, should do some damage.
As should the combo of Khalil Mack and Sio Moore on defense. Believe it or not, things are looking up.
30. Cleveland Browns
The focal point in Cleveland is not inflatable swans and money phones, but the suspension of elite wideout Josh Gordon:
Should Gordon return, the prospects of Johnny Manziel or Brian Hoyer shoot through the roof next season.
As does the Browns' chances at finally turning this thing around. The defense is borderline elite but cannot do it on its own.
31. Tennessee Titans
Until he proves otherwise, Jake Locker will continue to hold the Tennessee Titans back.
He has missed 25 games over the course of the past three seasons. The offense no longer has Chris Johnson to lean on during difficult times, either. Let's not dismiss rookie Bishop Sankey outright, but something has to give.
32. Buffalo Bills
While a major buzz surrounds Sammy Watkins, the staff in Buffalo showed a general disinterest in how to use C.J. Spiller last season.
That may carry over this year and perhaps even apply to Watkins. Add in the fact that EJ Manuel is headed into his sophomore year, Jairus Byrd is in New Orleans, Kiko Alonso shredded ligaments in his knee, and Marcell Dareus did not care to show up to camp in shape, and the Bills look like the worst team in football.