Power rankings: Patriots embark on a new era

The preseason was kind of dull. There was some news, because there always is, but there weren’t many seismic shifts. More teams than ever were fine punting the preseason to avoid injuries. 

The New England Patriots, of all teams, made the biggest headline. 

The Patriots picked rookie first-round draft pick Mac Jones over Cam Newton, then cut Newton. Then the question became: Are the Patriots better off with the fifth quarterback taken in this year’s draft than a former NFL MVP? Bill Belichick thinks so. 

The biggest reason he may be right is that Newton looks finished as an NFL passer. He threw for eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions with just 177 yards per game last season. As great as Newton was with the Carolina Panthers, you are going to have a tough time competing in the modern NFL with a quarterback who throws for one touchdown every other game. 

Even though Jones is no sure thing, and he’s not the running threat Newton is, it’s OK to view it as an upgrade for the Patriots. Again, eight passing TDs in today’s NFL is not going to give a team a chance to win much. It’s a miracle the Patriots were 7-9 given their roster issues. It was one of Belichick’s best coaching jobs, which seems strange to say about his first losing season in a couple decades. But the roster and quarterback position simply weren’t good enough. 

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones steps into the starting lineup in Week 1. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones steps into the starting lineup in Week 1. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

The roster is better now. The Patriots spent a ton in free agency and got linebacker Dont’a Hightower back after he opted out of last season. The talent, especially around the quarterback, has been upgraded. 

Jones’ progress will be the difference between the Patriots being in the playoffs or missing out for a second straight season. He was fantastic in the preseason, though that’s not always a precursor of what’s to come when the games count. He should be able to run the Patriots’ offense, which puts a premium on getting the ball out on time to playmakers. The biggest X-factor is Jones not making mistakes. 

The Patriots are going to be better this season. They’ll be in playoff contention again. Whether you believe they’ll be back in the postseason depends on what you think of their decision to ride with a rookie QB this season. 

Here are the pre-Week 1 power rankings. Click on the link for each team name to read our in-depth summer preview of that squad. For this edition of power rankings, “last week” will refer to our ranking before the preseason began in early August.  

32. Houston Texans (Last week: 32)

Tyrod Taylor will be the starting quarterback. It’s not like that can be a surprise after Deshaun Watson hasn’t fully practiced with the team. It will be weird for one of the game’s best young quarterbacks to basically be redshirting all season. Though we all know why

31. Detroit Lions (LW: 31)

Releasing Breshad Perriman was a surprise, and it’s a reminder this team is going to have a poor passing game. Expect a lot of 16-10 games. At least the Lions hope most games are 16-10. 

30. Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 30)

I want to be higher on the Jaguars. But has there been one thing Urban Meyer has said or done that should give anyone confidence he can coach in the NFL? Once the games start the Jaguars might be fine. Meyer has a great college track record of winning. But it’s hard to be optimistic right now. 

29. New York Jets (LW: 29)

Zach Wilson looked great in the preseason. He’s strangely flying a bit under the radar, compared to the other four first-round rookie quarterbacks, but he’ll be a fun one to watch this season. 

28. Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 27)

The trade for Gardner Minshew II was fine; it’s not like the Eagles gave up much. But it also is another indication that Jalen Hurts has a lot to prove this season, and better not wait long to do it.

27. Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 28)

Joe Burrow reportedly was looking better late in training camp, coming off his knee injury. But he took three snaps and threw one pass in preseason. Ja’Marr Chase is struggling with drops. There are a lot of questions for Cincinnati heading into Week 1. 

26. Atlanta Falcons (LW: 25)

Mike Davis could end up having a very nice season. He played well last season for Carolina when Christian McCaffrey was hurt, and now he steps into a situation in which he should be among the NFL’s leaders in snap percentage for a running back. And defenses have to worry about the Falcons’ passing game way before Davis. 

25. Carolina Panthers (LW: 26)

Sam Darnold was 20-of-27 for 178 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 116 rating this preseason. That’s fairly meaningless, but it’s better than him struggling out of the gate.

24. New York Giants (LW: 23)

The Giants won’t enter the season with much momentum. Saquon Barkley’s status for the opener is unknown. Due to injuries, the passing game might not get off to a great start either.

“I’m excited when I look in the huddle and see all those guys, it’s very exciting. But people have been in and out of the lineup, so we’re gonna be a little probably slow to get off,” receiver Kenny Golladay said, via the Daily News.

23. Chicago Bears (LW: 22)

I’m unsure there’s one good reason to start Andy Dalton. Maybe to protect Justin Fields as long as possible from playing behind a bad offensive line, but I doubt that’s Matt Nagy’s reason. It’s a weird decision from a coach already on the hot seat. Everyone knows Fields is the better option, except the guy making the call.

22. Las Vegas Raiders (LW: 24)

The Raiders have quite an opportunity on Monday night of Week 1, at home in front of fans in Las Vegas for the first time in the regular season, against a Baltimore team that has dealt with some adversity. And Jon Gruden’s teams generally have started well.

21. Denver Broncos (LW: 21)

The Broncos went with Teddy Bridgewater, and it’s not a shock. It is a shock the Broncos are so confident with Bridgewater after the Panthers paid for him to go away in favor of Sam Darnold. Once Denver got Bridgewater and did nothing else at QB, Drew Lock needed a good August to win the job. It wasn’t good enough. 

20. New Orleans Saints (LW: 15)

The Saints won’t have a home game in September. The opener was moved to Jacksonville due to Hurricane Ida. They were already dealing with a new quarterback in Jameis Winston and missing star receiver Michael Thomas. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Saints start very slow.

19. Arizona Cardinals (LW: 18)

Rondale Moore looked explosive in the preseason. The Cardinals love bubble screens, and those screens will look a lot better with Moore running after the catch.

18. Dallas Cowboys (LW: 20)

Guard Zack Martin is out for the opener due to COVID-19, and that’s a big blow. It was already a tough opening-night test vs. Tampa Bay. The Cowboys don’t want to get out of the gates slowly this season, but they aren’t starting great. 

17. Minnesota Vikings (LW: 17)

The Vikings improved what was Mike Zimmer’s worst defense last season. Cincinnati in Week 1 is a great test to see if it’s much better. 

16. Washington Football Team (LW: 19)

I’ll be picking WFT to win the division with confidence. The defense should be top three in the NFL, and the offense is going to be a ton better. The opener against the Chargers might end up being the best game of Week 1.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 16)

Will T.J. Watt play in Week 1? He has not practiced in full with the team as he looks for a new contract. Even if Watt wants to play, will the Steelers put him in without practicing? Given that the Steelers start with the high-powered Bills, it’s a huge question. 

14. Los Angeles Chargers (LW: 12)

The Chargers had a quiet preseason. That’s good, because they usually seem to be one of the NFL’s snakebitten teams before the season ever starts. It’s very easy to talk yourself into the Chargers having a nice breakout. 

13. Indianapolis Colts (LW: 5)

It has been a while since a team had so much bad news through training camp and the preseason. Between injuries and COVID-19 issues, nothing went right. I still like a healthy Colts team, but will we see that team?

12. New England Patriots (LW: 14)

For the record, I think the Patriots will find their way into the playoffs. I don’t think they’ll win the AFC East, but I can’t go against Bill Belichick. Mac Jones will be good enough.

11. Miami Dolphins (LW: 13)

Left tackle Austin Jackson went on the COVID-19 list, and his status for the opener is unclear. That’s obviously a big issue heading into a huge opening game against the Patriots.

10. Cleveland Browns (LW: 11)

Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com said Odell Beckham Jr. is on track to play in the season opener, that he has passed all the tests and “looks great in practice.” Beckham could end up being one of the key players to the 2021 season. 

9. Tennessee Titans (LW: 10)

Ryan Tannehill was on the COVID-19 list and Julio Jones has been dealing with an injury without much update from the team. Both participated in Monday’s practice, according to reporters there, so there shouldn’t be much concern about their Week 1 status. 

8. Seattle Seahawks (LW: 9)

The Seahawks are expecting left tackle Duane Brown to play Week 1, despite not practicing during a “hold-in” as he seeks a new deal. It’s a situation worth monitoring for the opener and perhaps beyond. 

7. Los Angeles Rams (LW: 7)

The Rams traded draft picks for running back Sony Michel because the Rams hate draft picks and want to trade them all. Bill Belichick thought Michel didn’t have a lot left. He’s rarely wrong on these things. 

6. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 4)

The Ravens barely had any receivers healthy in August and lost running back J.K. Dobbins for the season in their last preseason game. Baltimore is always an easy stock to invest in, but it could be a slow start. 

5. San Francisco 49ers (LW: 6)

Trey Lance is the right pick for quarterback, but the 49ers are playing it safe. That’s fine. They have enough around Jimmy Garoppolo to win games early. When Lance gets the job, the 49ers’ offense is going to be a lot better.

4. Green Bay Packers (LW: 8)

Left tackle David Bakhtiari is still recovering from a torn ACL and will miss at least six games on the PUP list. Don’t underestimate that loss. Bakhtiari is one of the NFL’s best.

3. Buffalo Bills (LW: 3)

In the Bills’ last preseason game, their first 16 plays were passes out of shotgun and every time the clock was running, they ran no-huddle. Not everything you see in August is what you’ll see in September. But I do believe the Bills’ offense will look at least mostly like that, and if that’s the case Josh Allen might set some single-season records. 

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 2)

The Bucs’ opener will be interesting. They should put up plenty of points against a suspect Dallas defense. The Cowboys will be without guard Zack Martin and we saw in last season’s Super Bowl what a depleted line looks like against Tampa Bay’s defense. A huge audience could see what amounts to a victory lap. 

1. Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 1)

The Chiefs’ rebuilt offensive line looked very good by the end of the preseason. If the line is one of the NFL’s 10 best, how do you stop this offense?