1. Buccaneers: As always, the defending champs start on the top of the mountain. This year, it may take a while for someone to knock them off.
2. Chiefs: They’ve addressed their biggest weaknesses, and they still have their biggest strength — the best player currently in the game.
3. Bills: For all the vaccination dysfunction, Josh Allen seems to be ready to play even better than he did last year.
4. Packers: They’ll be a factor once again in the NFC. But can they do more than go 13-3 and lose in the conference championship in what quite possibly will be Aaron Rodgers‘s final year in Green Bay?
5. Rams: The upgrade at quarterback is offset by the loss of Cam Akers and a glaring lack of depth behind their first-stringers.
6. Browns: The bar is higher than it’s been in years. Can they surpass it?
7. Ravens: Even with J.K. Dobbins gone for the year, the Ravens are still the Ravens. They’ll need to finally get much more out of the passing game.
8. Chargers: On paper, the Chargers arguably should land even higher. They have to both stay healthy and prove it.
9. Saints: They swept the Bucs last year and had them on the ropes in the playoffs. They could be the one NFC team to disrupt a return to the Super Bowl by the Bucs.
10. Patriots: A massive influx of veteran talent, a rookie quarterback who plays like a seasoned pro, and the greatest coach the game has ever seen are a recipe for a trip back to the postseason.
11. 49ers: It’s a Super Bowl roster. How will it handle the ambiguities at quarterback?
12. Seahawks: New offensive coordinator Shane Waldron will be the key to climbing higher — and keeping Russell Wilson beyond 2021.
13. Titans: There’s talent galore, but they’ll need their best weapons on offense to produce, and to stay healthy.
14. Steelers: Mike Tomlin can will this team to contention, but they’ll need the offensive line to step up if they want to do more than make the playoffs and abruptly exit.
15. Washington: They’re better than they were last year, and they could end up being the team with the best chance to beat the Bucs in the playoffs, if they can get there again.
16. Dolphins: This team will go as far as Tua can take it.
17. Cowboys: They’re always near the top in hype. Lately, not anywhere near the top in performance.
18. Vikings: The defense is a lot better (it couldn’t be much worse), the offense is suddenly a question mark. The return of fans to home games will be an exclamation point.
19. Colts: Between injuries and the pandemic, they may not be able to hold it all together.
20. Bears: Yes, the Bears have been to the playoffs twice in the last three years. There’s still a feeling that they need some work in order to get to where they can be.
21. Raiders: Mike Mayock will be the next scapegoat for Jon Gruden’s inability to get back to the playoffs.
23. Broncos: In the NFC, they’d be contenders. In the top-heavy AFC, it’s going to be another long season.
24. Panthers: They’re moving in the right direction, but they still have plenty of work to do to get to where they want to be.
25. Cardinals: It’s playoffs or back to college for Kliff Kingsbury. (Prediction: It’s back to college for Kliff.)
26. Falcons: Expectations are very low. Matt Ryan could help the new-look Falcons soar past them, especially with the first offensive-minded head coach in his career.
27. Jaguars: Urban Meyer’s transition to the pro game notwithstanding, the Jaguars simply don’t have the talent to contend — especially not in the AFC.
28. Eagles: The Nick Sirianni/Jalen Hurts experiment will click or clunk. Bet the under, at least for now.
29. Bengals: Joe Burrow continues to be the bright spot on an overmatched roster. It all remains a work in progress, especially as he returns from a torn ACL.
30. Jets: This year is all about laying the foundation for becoming consistent contenders, as soon as 2022.
31. Lions: The culture change may work, but it’ll take time to get the players necessary to yield results. And they’ll likely need someone else at quarterback.
32. Texans: In their 20th season, they feel like an expansion team all over again.