Preseason rankings are entertaining, generally have no meaning and mean even less in the NFL than they do in college football because the NFL actually has a playoff system.
But I just found one set of NFL rankings worth paying attention. Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, one of the nation’s most respected football writers, just ranked the NFL teams, Nos. 1 to 32. Something you will find noteworthy: He has the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints ranked only eighth — one spot behind the Falcons.
Because I’ve known Gosselin for years — though not for all 35 years he has been covering the league — I decided to give him a call, just to be certain all of his faculties were still intact. When you read Gosselin’s answers, I’m sure you’ll realize what most already know: He knows his stuff.
♦ Question: The Saints eighth?
Answer: “You can’t go status quo because every year more than half of the teams that qualify for the playoffs don’t qualify the following year. I think the number is something like 5.8 of the 12 [playoff teams] qualify the next year. Life changes in the NFL. Parity gives us that.”
♦ Question: Thoughts on the Falcons?
Answer: “Two years ago, the Falcons were on the doorstep of being a Super Bowl contender. Now they have Michael Turner back, healthy again, and Matt Ryan is a potential franchise quarterback. I really like what [Thomas] Dimitroff and [Mike] Smith have going. They’re a young team on the rise.”
♦ Question: With the Saints, are you just thinking in terms of Super Bowl hangover?
Answer: “It was just a miracle type season for them. I think they’re a really good team but almost everything went right. I covered both the NFC [championship] and the Super Bowl and I thought the better team lost twice. The Vikings basically beat themselves in the NFC game and [Peyton] Manning was taking the Colts in [for a potential tying score before an interception] in the Super Bowl. It’s hard for even great teams to come back after winning the Super Bowl, I saw it here in Dallas, and the Cowboys were a great team. The Saints are not a great team, but they won the Super Bowl.”
♦ Question: How far do you see the Falcons going?
Answer: “I think they’ll win the division and make the playoffs. After that, I don’t know. I just ranked the teams, but Indianapolis and Dallas are my top two so I have them going to the Super Bowl.”
♦ Question: And the Falcons will win the division because . . .
Answer: “It’s just the history of that division. I think in one stretch they had four different winners in four years. It’s such a topsy turvy division. I just like their young quarterback. I always used to think quarterbacks were 70 percent of the equation, but after watching the league last season I think now it’s 80 percent. Matt Ryan is going into his third year. The third year is when guys blossom. This is when Troy Aikman took off. The light bulb goes on. If you look at my rankings, my top 10 teams are pretty much all predicated on the quarterback.” (Note: Gosselin is correct on the NFC South’s unpredictability. The winners since 2001: Tampa-Carolina-Atlanta-Tampa-New Orleans-Tampa-Carolina-New Orleans.)
♦ Question: Who’s going to win it all?
Answer: “The Colts are the best team. They were the best team last year. They were 14-0 until they shut it down. They came within three minutes of winning the Super Bowl without the best defensive player in football, Bob Sanders, and a starting wide receiver, Anthony Gonzales. Now they’ve added [defensive end] Jerry Hughes [in the draft]. He’s perfect for them. They’re the best.”
So, are you convinced?
Here’s the link to Rick’s complete rankings, but I’m listing the top 10 below, with his comments.
1. Indianapolis: The Colts were the AFC’s best team a year ago despite getting nothing from their running game (No. 32 in NFL) and a disappointing 34 sacks from a pass rush that features two Pro Bowl edge rushers (Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis). Peyton Manning had to shoulder more of the burden than usual, and he responded. He used 2009 to develop two young wideouts into playmakers (Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon) and led seven fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victories. The Colts also overcame 65 games lost by starters because of injury to win the AFC.
2. Dallas: Only the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints had a more prolific offense than the Cowboys in 2009. The arrival of WR Dez Bryant gives the Cowboys the best offense in the NFL. QB Tony Romo, HB Marion Barber, WRs Miles Austin and Roy Williams and TE Jason Witten all have been to Pro Bowls, and first-round draft picks Bryant and HB Felix Jones have Pro Bowl potential. The Cowboys will need all of that to survive a schedule that includes games at Indianapolis, Green Bay, Houston and Minnesota. The Saints also visit Cowboys Stadium.
3. Baltimore: The Ravens have always won with defense. They reached the AFC semifinals last season with the NFL’s third-ranked defense and figure to be even stronger in 2010 with the additions of pass rusher Sergio Kindle and nose tackle Terrence Cody with their first two draft picks. But the offense is no longer just a spare tire – not with the emergence of Ray Rice as a Pro Bowl running back and the arrival of WR Anquan Boldin this offseason in trade. They will help accelerate the development of QB Joe Flacco, who passed for 3,613 yards last season.
4. Green Bay: The Packers finished sixth in the NFL in offense and second in defense last season with the youngest roster in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers emerged as a Pro Bowl quarterback, and Green Bay re-emerged as a playoff contender, winning seven of its final eight games to qualify as a wild card. Twenty-one of the 22 starters return with only Aaron Kampman defecting in free agency. First-round draft pick Bryan Bulaga bolsters the blocking front.
5. San Diego: LaDainian Tomlinson was the face of the franchise for the last decade. But he left this off-season after averaging only 3.3 yards per carry and gained a career-low 730 yards. The Chargers had already transitioned to a pass-first attack with Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers and went 13-3 in 2009 with that approach. San Diego used a first-round draft pick on RB Ryan Mathews to balance the attack.
6. Minnesota: Pencil Brett Favre in at quarterback. Officially, he remains undecided on his future. Unofficially, Favre underwent ankle surgery last month to restore his mobility. Don’t look for Favre to walk away from football following a 4,202-yard, 33-TD passing season. But he’s 40. When do his wheels start to wobble? The 21 other starters are back from a team that finished 12-4 and played into overtime in the NFC title game. This team has unfinished business.
7. Atlanta: The Falcons return all 22 starters from a 9-7 team, and young QB Matt Ryan has another year under his belt. A healthy RB Michael Turner will energize the NFL’s 16th-ranked offense; he missed five games because of injury last season. Coach Mike Smith addressed the NFL’s 21st-ranked defense by signing CB Dunta Robinson in free agency and using his first two draft picks on that side of the ball (OLB Sean Weatherspoon, DT Corey Peters).
8. New Orleans: The Saints enjoyed a magical season in 2009 – starting with a 13-game chase of perfection and finishing with a first-ever Super Bowl championship. But can New Orleans rebottle that magic? Offensively the Saints will be fine with Drew Brees at the controls. But defensively the Saints took a hit with the free-agent defection of LB Scott Fujita.
9. Houston: The Texans have never made the playoffs in their eight years of existence. But Houston has strung together three consecutive nonlosing seasons, highlighted by a 9-7 finish in 2009. The Texans have a Top 5 offense, featuring the game’s best WR in Andre Johnson, and some defensive standouts in DE Mario Williams, LBs DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing and SS Bernard Pollard.
10. NY Jets: The Jets reached the AFC title game last season with a rookie quarterback. They are sparing no expense to take the next step, signing RB LaDainian Tomlinson and DE Jason Taylor and trading for WR Santonio Holmes and CB Antonio Cromartie. Gone is 1,400-yard rusher Thomas Jones, which will put greater pressure on QB Mark Sanchez.