2017 NFL Season Preview

NFL Power Rankings: Patriots, Seahawks top our list

(Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports)

With the regular season looming Thursday, here’s our first shot at the weekly NFL power rankings:

1. Patriots (14-2 in 2016): What is it that Ric Flair says? To be the best, you have to beat the best.

Reason for optimism: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still together, and going for their sixth Super Bowl ring.
Reason for pessimism: The margin for error got slimmer with the loss of Julian Edelman for the year.

2. Seahawks (10-5-1): Rejuvenated, the Seahawks are looking to get back to the Super Bowl.

Reason for optimism: Receiver Doug Baldwin is an underrated star, and that front seven looks like the best in the game.
Reason for pessimism: Is the occasional dysfunction that rears its head with that franchise enough to derail them in their quest for glory?

3. Falcons (11-5): The road to redemption starts now for the Falcons, who are looking to shake the Ghost of 28-3. Head coach Dan Quinn’s philosophy? “Embrace the suck.”

Reason for optimism: One of the fastest teams in the league on both sides of the ball is still capable of putting untold amounts of stress on opponents.
Reason for pessimism: The Super Bowl hangover is real. No Super Bowl loser has gotten back to the Big Game the following year since the Bills of the 1990s.

4. Steelers (11-5): If they stay healthy and come up with a new defensive game plan when it comes to facing the Patriots, Pittsburgh is the only team in the AFC capable of hanging with New England.

Reason for optimism: Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown. I mean, come on.
Reason for pessimism: The defense still has some holes and no idea how to stop Brady in big moments.

5. Packers (10-6): Aaron Rodgers held it all together with bubble gum and baling wire down the stretch last year. America deserves a Brady vs. Rodgers Super Bowl.

Reason for optimism: In a quarterback-driven league, Rodgers is the second-best signal-caller in the NFL.
Reason for pessimism: Has Green Bay put enough pieces in place around Rodgers for another Super Bowl run?

6. Raiders (12-4): Ready to rise? After a surprising run last year, the Raiders are the trendy pick to make some noise again.

Reason for optimism: Derek Carr and a (maybe) reborn Marshawn Lynch.
Reason for pessimism: Other than Khalil Mack, there doesn’t appear to be enough talent on defense for a true Super Bowl run.

7. Cowboys (13-3): Dak Prescott and Dallas had a wild ride last year that was ultimately ended by Rodgers, but they’ll be in the mix again in 2017.

Reason for optimism: The offensive line is the best in the NFL, and even if Ezekiel Elliott is out for a stretch, the Cowboys have more than enough offensive options to survive in the short term.
Reason for pessimism: The defense is mediocre, and ultimately could be what derails their Super Bowl expectations.

8. Giants (11-5): Outside of the Pacific Northwest, New York could have the best defense in the NFC. But will it be enough for another playoff run?

Reason for optimism: Safety Landon Collins and defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul form the nucleus of an impressive group. And on the other side of the ball, there’s the explosiveness of Odell Beckham, Jr.
Reason for pessimism: OBJ has the ability to make or break this season. And the offensive line has struggled.

9. Cardinals (7-8-1): A disappointing 2016 could give way to a playoff berth in 2017, provided many of the great individual performers mesh in Arizona.

Reason for optimism: Arizona has great talent on both sides of the ball, with Larry Fitzgerald, David Johnson, Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson. And if Carson Palmer can stay healthy, this is a team capable of playing deep into January.
Reason for pessimism: The middle and back end of the roster is a bit of a mess. There are questions on both sides of the line, and special teams were really bad last year. Genuine Super Bowl contenders get those sorts of things figured out.

10. Chiefs (12-4): They do so many things well, but aren’t good enough in one single area to make a list of genuine Super Bowl contenders. Alex Smith vs. Pat Mahomes is a brewing QB controversy that will bear watching this year.

Reason for optimism: This team has 10-6 written all over it, which should be enough for a playoff berth.
Reason for pessimism: This team has 10-6 written all over it, which means it’s still not nearly enough to compete with the rest of the teams in the upper echelon of the league.

11. Texans (9-7): If Houston gets the quarterback position squared away, the Texans can be a playoff team.

Reason for optimism: J.J. Watt is healthy again, and the offensive core is grown up.
Reason for pessimism: The quarterback position probably isn’t quite squared away just yet.

12. Titans (9-7): Quarterback Marcus Mariota appears poised for greatness in Tennessee.

Reason for optimism: The Titans were playing meaningful games in December. At this stage of their development as a team, that’s as good as it gets. If everything comes together, look for more of that this year.
Reason for pessimism: Good young teams almost always suffer some sort of regression in their development. This year might bring that inevitable step back for Tennessee before they reach bigger heights down the road.

13. Bucs (9-7): The NFC South is going to be a fistfight, but if Tampa Bay stays healthy, it’ll be good enough to at least make things a little uncomfortable for the Falcons.

Reason for optimism: An explosive offense, with Jameis Winston, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard, Mike Evans and Doug Martin.
Reason for pessimism: Some uncertainty on defense, including the pass rush.

14. Broncos (9-7): It’s reasonable to think that the individual talent — at least on paper — will put them back in the playoff mix. But with the uncertainty at the quarterback position, they’re still not a true Super Bowl contender at this point.

Reason for optimism: Denver still has one of the best defenses in the league.
Reason for pessimism: The Broncos still have a ton of questions on offense.

15. Dolphins (10-6): A playoff team in 2016, The Jay Cutler Experience will dictate how far they’ll get in 2017.

Reason for optimism: Running back Jay Ajayi and receiver Jarvis Landry are two of the best in the league and their position, and the front of the defense is impressive.
Reason for pessimism: Questions in the secondary, as well as a shaky offensive line. It could make things dicey for Cutler.

16. Lions (9-7): Best possible scenario for Detroit? More than one playoff game.

Reason for optimism: The passing game is among the best in the NFC, with Matthew Stafford, Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Eric Ebron.
Reason for pessimism: Question marks when it comes to defense and the running game.

17. Redskins (8-7-1): The Redskins are looking for another season above .500, and Kirk Cousins is looking to head into free agency (probably) with a nice deal.

Reason for optimism: Cousins is going into a contract year, so he should be motivated. Tight end Jordan Reed and cornerback Josh Norman are also two of the best at what they do.
Reason for pessimism: Maybe it’s just a gut feeling, but this team has more boom-bust potential than most. They could go 5-11 or 11-5.

18. Saints (7-9): NFC South is going to be a tough group — can New Orleans hang with the rest of the division?

Reason for optimism: Drew Brees can still sling it, and the rest of the offense looks pretty good.
Reason for pessimism: There are still questions as to whether or not the defense has improved to a point where the Saints can be considered a member of the conference elite again.

19. Eagles (7-9): Almost every year over the last decade-plus in the NFL, one team has gone from worst in the division to a division title. If Carson Wentz is ready, this team has the best shot of any of the last-place teams in 2016 at making that leap in 2017.

Reason for optimism: A very good defensive front and some upgrades at the skill positions on offense.
Reason for pessimism: Unsure about some depth in key spots, as well as the overall state of the running game.

20. Vikings (8-8): With their team-building approach this past offseason, Minnesota has a chance to be sneaky good in 2017, but a lot has to fall into place to make that happen.

Reason for optimism: One of the NFL’s more underrated defenses, anchored by a steady line that is adept at rushing the passer and stopping the run. There are also some pretty good pieces on offense as well.
Reason for pessimism: Questions about the offensive line.

21. Chargers (5-11): New city, new head coach, new start for the Chargers, who now call Los Angeles home.

Reason for optimism: If they’re healthy, Philip Rivers will have a multitude of options on offense, including Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Joey Bosa will be big off the edge.
Reason for pessimism: This is a team that almost always struggles with injury — first-round pick Forrest Lamp is already done for the year with a torn ACL.

22. Panthers (6-10): Cam Newton is eyeing a return to MVP consideration after struggling in 2016. If he can get there, it’ll make the NFC playoff picture a whole lot more interesting.

Reason for optimism: The front seven is impressive, and should keep this team in every game. And the backfield, with the addition of Christian McCaffrey, should be able to keep the chains moving.
Reason for pessimism: Questions in the secondary.

23. Ravens (8-8): Baltimore has a very un-Ravens like 13-19 record the last two seasons, and will be looking to turn things around in 2017.

Reason for optimism: Defense and special teams should be able to keep them competitive.
Reason for pessimism: Joe Flacco has been dogged by injury, and there are multiple questions about the overall health of the offense.

24. Bengals (6-9-1): It’s the same question every year with the Bengals — is this the season Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis win a playoff game?

Reason for optimism: Dalton will have A.J. Green, Gio Bernard and Tyler Eifert back, which makes the Cincy passing game one of the more formidable groups in the AFC.
Reason for pessimism: A banged-up offensive line and an over-reliance on youngsters at some key areas on defense.

25. Colts (8-8): So much riding on the quarterback. If Andrew Luck is healthy, this could be a playoff team. If not, they might be in the mix for a high draft pick.

Reason for optimism: A super-easy early schedule means Indy could generate some early momentum.
Reason for pessimism: If Luck struggles with health and Indy has to go to backups behind an unsteady offensive line for an extended stretch, it could get ugly.

26. Bears (3-13): Did Chicago finally find a franchise quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky? We’ll find out.

Reason for optimism: Trubisky has looked steady and impressive in the preseason, but he apparently isn’t going to be the starter, at least in the early going. Running back Jordan Howard also looked very good as a rookie last year.
Reason for pessimism: While there are some good things to say about the Bears front seven, there are questions about the back end of the defense.

27. Bills (7-9): Buffalo hits the reset button with a new GM and new coach, which likely means a long season for the Bills Mafia.

Reason for optimism: A stout front seven on defense. And running back LeSean McCoy is still one of the best in the league at his position.
Reason for pessimism: Questions about quarterback Tyrod Taylor, as well as the lack of proven depth at several other positions, including at wide receiver and in the secondary.

28. Niners (2-14): New GM (John Lynch) and new coach (Kyle Shanahan) means the Niners are starting all over again.

Reason for optimism: Lynch had a good draft, and put some solid pieces in place for future success.
Reason for pessimism: That rebuild is going to take a few years, and the ownership group isn’t known for its patience.

29. Rams (4-12): It’s not saying much, but the second season in Los Angeles should be a little better than the first.

Reason for optimism: A talented young defense that should be better when/if Aaron Donald settles his contract stalemate with the team.
Reason for pessimism: The offense. Entering his second season, quarterback Jared Goff needs to take things to the next level and prove himself worthy of the franchise quarterback mantle.

30. Browns (1-15): With a non-traditional approach this offseason, Cleveland made some bold moves. If nothing else, we give them credit for trying something different.

Reason for optimism: DeShone Kizer looked impressive in the preseason, and there is some good individual talent on the roster, including Myles Garrett. We’re also big fans of Joe Thomas and Jabril Peppers.
Reason for pessimism: The back end of the defense looks shaky at best, and the rebuild is going to take some time.

31. Jaguars (3-13): Jacksonville has chosen in top 10 of the NFL draft for a league-record 10 consecutive years. Bank it on being 11.

Reason for optimism: Receiver Allen Robinson is a genuine 1,000-yard threat going into a contract year. If he can get another 1,000 receiving yards in that offense, he should garner a big deal when he hits the market. It should also be fun to see what Leonard Fournette is capable of.
Reason for pessimism: Just about everything else on offense.

32. Jets (5-11): There is the very real chance that New York ends up 0-16.

Reason for optimism: A winless season would set them up nicely for a shot at a franchise quarterback.
Reason for pessimism: Did you not understand us when we said they might go 0-16?