Let’s just get this out of the way up front: This is a fool’s errand. Ranking teams before any of them have played a meaningful down is a really futile and stupid gesture. And I’m just the guy to do it.
Knock on wood if you’re with me.
Even if I know what I’m talking about (highly debatable), a million things can change between now and the end of the season -- injuries, arrests, flash retirements, etc. Any combination of those can throw a team off-course. So can a bad call in a crucial spot, or even fumble luck.
So when you feel tempted to ask, “He’s ranking the teams before the season?” (said like Hansel says “In the computer?” in Zoolander), please know I realize I’m tilting at windmills here, but that’s half the fun.
Because power rankings are a dime a dozen, I don’t want to simply rank the 32 NFL teams in whatever arbitrary order I choose. I also want to include a bonus list each week where I arbitrarily rank something else. This week that means taking a closer look at the hierarchy within the 49ers’ division in 2019. So let’s get right to it.
Exploring the (NFC) West
Wait, he also loves sculpting his fauxhawk with copious amounts of gel. So I guess he came here to do three things.
I love to make fun of McVay, but there’s not much to criticize about his job performance. Well, there was his seeming inability to adjust in the Super Bowl. But Todd Gurley’s disappearance down the stretch had a lot to do with that, and the bones of a lot of good coaches are buried in Bill Belichick’s back yard.
Gurley’s murky physical status and the growing presumption that he may not be the dominant player we knew and hated due to degenerative leg woes raises questions about how they’ll look moving forward.
Bottom line: If Gurley is noticeably less effective, we may see more pressure being put on Jared Goff. Because of that, I see them taking a step back this year, but not necessarily enough of one to allow the Niners to make up the gap.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Confession #1: Putting the 49ers above Seattle is a blatant homer pick, but I stand by it.
Confession #2: I’m a contrarian. When everybody all on the 49ers and Jimmy G’s jock last year, predicting great things, I was cautioning that 2018 was likely the year before the year. Now, while the roster is improved, the bandwagon looks pretty empty. There’s the ‘What has Shanahan actually ever done besides losing a Super Bowl with bad play calling?’ Crowd. Not to mention the ‘What has Jimmy G ever proven?’ Faction, which grew after the post-Bronco game freakout. This only made me more confident this is the year the 49ers can at least claw their way back to .500.
The only thing holding me back from predicting a playoff appearance is all these damn injuries which seem to pop up every day, no matter who the training staff is. Bosa, Ford, Hurd, McKinnon, Taylor, Person... Enough is enough! I have had it with these monkey-fighting injuries on this Monday-to-Friday team!
That being said, I wasn’t counting on any meaningful contribution from McKinnon even before he re-injured his knee, and all the others should be back before too long, so it’s not a dire situation. Yet. (cue: ominous music)
Bottom line: To be completely honest, I see this more like a building year than the year it all comes together. Anything between 7-9 and 10-6 wouldn’t surprise me. But I’m feeling optimistic for a change, so I’m saying 9-7. They go into the final weeks at least in shouting distance of a wild card spot. Personally, I’ll be happy with eight wins if it comes with a healthy Jimmy G showing he can be an upper-tier QB. Anything beyond that would be gravy.
The bad news: Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll still exist. The good news: Brian Schottenheimer is still their offensive coordinator.
Wilson is signed long term, which is both good news and bad news. He’ll be around haunting the division with ridiculous escapes, back-breaking 3rd down conversions, and goofy grins for some time, but his contract should hamstring the front office when constructing the roster. Wilson is the kind of guy who can make things happen all in his own, but keeping the talent around him as scarce as possible helps.
Speaking of which, management hasn’t helped him much lately, getting weapons who didn’t quite fit in (Jimmy Graham), reaching in the draft (Rashad Penny), and failing to protect him with a quality offensive line. DJ Metcalf may give him a dangerous deep threat, but he’s already hurt. Still, Wilson appears excited for the season.
Bottom line: I feel like there’s less and less reason to fear the Seahawks every year. And now that the entire Legion of Boom has moved on, Doug Baldwin has retired, Frank Clark’s been traded, and Jarran Reed suspended, they look more vulnerable than ever. Or at least they did before the big Jadeveon Clowney
theft deal. Yes, this is just another example of how lucky the Seahawks are and how they continually have good players fall in their lap, but instead of using it as an excuse to leapfrog the Seahawks over the 49ers, I’m hoping Clowney is the next Graham or Percy Harvin -- another team’s star who fails to impress in Seattle.
Arizona: It’s not just for retirees, racists, and meth-heads anymore! Now, it a place with primo knockoffs which would make the purveyors on Canal Street proud.
You can’t get actual proven offensive mastermind Sean McVay, but you can have his stunt double Kliff Kingsbury. Just don’t worry about the fact he couldn’t win in college despite having Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield (who he benched and pissed off enough he transferred to a conference rival).
You can’t get actual Super Bowl-winning super-hobbit Russell Wilson, but you can have Kyler Murray, who also made his name in one season after transferring schools, was drafted in baseball, and is even smaller! Just try to ignore the fact his college success came under the offensive mind who recognized Mayfield’s talent after Kingsbury didn’t.
Bottom line: Even a faux Russell Wilson can cause hives, and they could conceivably cause nightmares for a defense. Of course, they could also fall apart like a substandard imitation. In either case, I don’t see Kingsbury winning many his first year given the state of the team.
32 Flavors (and then some)
Oh, and did I mention there would be tiers?
Tier 1: Frontrunners
The teams who have a legitimate shot at hoisting the Lombardi at the end of the season. And that’s what I’m really ranking here. It’s also why I’ll list Super Bowl odds instead of record (0-0 for everybody) and/or last week’s rank (N/A for everybody).
1. New England Patriots (Super Bowl odds: 7-1)
Do they have the best roster? No. So why are they at the top? You and I both know that, so let’s not waste each other’s time, shall we?
2. Philadelphia Eagles (14-1)
3. Kansas City Chiefs (8-1)
4. New Orleans Saints (9-1)
Tier 2: Regression Candidates
These were great teams in 2018, winning 25 games between them, but each faces some headwinds which could keep them from achieving the same success in 2019.
5. Los Angeles Rams (11-1)
6. Chicago Bears (15-1)
Fangio Fun Fact #1: In four seasons before Fangio took over the Bears defense, they finished 30th, 31st, 20th and 24th in points allowed. In his two years there, they finished 9th and 1st.
They still have Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, et al., but it will be hard to repeat last year’s success. And while I like what Matt Nagy’s been able to do with Mitchell Trubisky, I have a hard time seeing another 12 wins.
Tier 3: Asterisk Division
Both have the roster talent to compete for a championship. Both are missing some of that talent, at least temporarily.
Tier 4: The Window Is Closing...
But not closed just yet. Can any of them sneak through?
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (19-1)
10. Minnesota Vikings (30-1)
11. Atlanta Falcons (32-1)
12. Green Bay Packers (19-1)
I’m not buying the Aaron Rodgers/Matt LaFleur relationship until I see it succeed. I love Rodgers as a player, but I’m not sure I’d want to be his coach.
Oh, and if Rodgers gets hurt, as he increasingly has over the past few years...
now becomes the only non-Rodgers QB on the Packers roster https://t.co/icJ1Tb6ch4— patsfb (@patsfb) August 31, 2019
Tier 5: The Window Is Opening...
But not open just yet. Can one of them find a way to slip through? Vegas seems to think so — just not the team you’re hoping for.
13. Cleveland Browns (15-1?!)
The hype is real. So is the talent. But they have a rookie coach named Freddie, and also have zero experience winning meaningful games in the NFL. They made a quantum leap last year with Mayfield under center, but it’s different ballgame with outsized expectations, which is what they have now.
14. San Francisco 49ers (36-1)
Tier 6: Hanging Around The Fringes
All these teams have made the playoffs in the last couple of seasons, but all seem to be in transition or stalled out.
15. Seattle Seahawks (32-1)
16. Baltimore Ravens (32-1)
17. Carolina Panthers (50-1)
Tier 7: Four Mediocre Teams, One Division Winner
I don’t think any of these teams are all that great, but one of them will win the AFC South.
18. Houston Texans (30-1)
I love DeSean Watson and DeAndre Hopkins, and not a whole lot else, but that might be enough in this suddenly Luck-less division. Still, giving away your best players -- particularly to the Seahawks -- is no way to get on my good side.
That being said, acquiring an honest-to-goodness LT in Laremy Tunsil to actually protect Watson for a change helps significantly.
19. Jacksonville Jaguars (31-1)
20. Indianapolis Colts (60-1)
21. Tennessee Titans (40-1)
Tier 8: Pin The Tail On The Decent Team
History tells us at least one of these teams won’t suck like we think they will. But which one?
22. Buffalo Bills (80-1)
23. New York Jets (60-1)
24. Denver Broncos (70-1)
Fangio Fun Fact #2: For ten seasons from 2001 to 2010, the 49ers never finished higher than 16th in points allowed. Then Vic Fangio took over the defense in 2011, and they finished 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, and 10th in his four seasons. They haven’t finished better than 20th since. Now Fangio gets Von Miller and Bradley Chubb to play with. Something tells me the Denver D has a chance to make a leap up from the 13th best unit in the league.
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (70-1)
26. Oakland Raiders (100-1)
27. Arizona Cardinals (110-1)
28. New York Giants (80-1)
29. Detroit Lions (80-1)
30. Washington Redskins (100-1)
31. Cincinnati Bengals (150-1)
32. Orlando Apollos (N/A)
33. Miami Dolphins (170-1)
I’ll give Miami this: They’re doing a great job of tanking. No matter what they say.
Step 1: Hire a good coach and GM. It’s early, but Chris Grier and Brian Flores seem to qualify.
Step 2: Trade anything of value. Check.
Step 3: Accrue draft capital. With multiple picks in each of the first three rounds of the 2020 draft and the first two in 2021, they’re well on their way.