Which groups are contenders earlier than week 1?

NFL power rankings, pre-kickoff issue as the 2021 regular season approaches (previous rank in brackets):

1. Privateer (1): They have their entire starting XI back. You could win an entire season with WR Antonio Brown, TE OJ Howard, and additions like RB Gio Bernard and OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka in the first round. The Bucs are even 100% vaccinated. Have there ever been better conditions for a repeat bid?

2. Chiefs (2): Their revamped Offensive Line projects have three players (Rookie C Creed Humphrey, RG Trey Smith and RT Lucas Niang) teaming up for zero NFL starts. Could be a tough start for a team that will meet Myles Garrett, Calais Campbell and Joey Bosa in September.

3. Shades of brown (3): Has any team from the free agency to the draft to the return of WR Odell Beckham Jr. had a better offseason? Unlike 2019, it’s time to take the Super Bowl hype in Cleveland pretty seriously …

4. Packer (8): “The Last Dance” vibe on this team would be sweet … if it weren’t for an overtone like that for junior high. Unlike the Chicago Bulls 1997-98, the pack hasn’t been a hit in a decade.

5. Invoices (4): A line of defense reinforced by rookies Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham and the return of star Lotulelei could be enough to jump last year’s AFC finalists past Kansas City.

6. Aries (6): They have some holes in last year’s top defensive and won’t have the # 1 RB Cam Akers (Achilles). But the arrival of QB Matthew Stafford, who remained under wraps the previous season, continues to fuel the Super Bowl aspirations … even though he has never won a playoff game.

7. Titans (9): Good luck finding a better quartet of offensive players than QB Ryan Tannehill, RB Derrick Henry, and WRs Julio Jones and AJ Brown. But with defense questions remaining, Tennessee may still need to score 30+ points per game to be successful.

8. Ravens (5): A team trying to level their offense may not have much of a choice as Baltimore’s running back room has been weeded out recently.

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9. 49er (7): If you’re a West Coast team that opens with two kickoffs at 1 p.m. in the eastern time zone, you’ll want them – this year, anyway – in Detroit and Philadelphia.

10. Sea falcons (12): Add new coordinator Shane Waldron’s offense – and it wasn’t revealed with starters back in the preseason – to a defense that’s getting younger, and it’s worth asking if the defending NFC West champions might stumble at a time in which the relationship with QB Russell Wilson seems strained.

11. Dolphins (10): Brian Flores’ team have won 15 of their last 25 games, but Miami’s manager continues to ask questions linking his club to Houston QB Deshaun Watson. The group that Flores will pick up in Week 1, including QB Tua Tagovailoa in their sophomore year, certainly appear to be playoff-caliber.

12. Chargers (19): They didn’t show much in the preseason, but the cautious approach of new coach Brandon Staley also kept the Bolts from suffering the catastrophic injury that normally strikes them. Still, new staff and new plans could mean a slow start with Washington, Dallas and KC on the lineup in September.

13. Patriots (15): Questions on either side of the ball with rookie QB Mac Jones and 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore (for now). But reloaded pats seem ready to fight again.

14. Cowboys (14): The spotlight has understandably been on rehab / enrichment / newly injured QB Dak Prescott for months. But an offensive line that collapsed in 2020 stumbles in Week 1 with All-Pro G Zack Martin testing positive for COVID-19 over the weekend and RT La’el Collins scrambling to get back on the lineup.

15. Vikings (16): Given the reinforcement of a defense that embarrassed coach Mike Zimmer last year, Minnesota should return to postseason form … assuming Kirk Cousins, who was unvaccinated at the start of training camp, doesn’t become the newest QB up close COVID- 19 contacts.

16. Saints (11): Who hasn’t been a bit excited watching the new QB1 Jameis Winston hurl deep in the preseason, something we haven’t effectively seen in retired predecessor Drew Brees in recent years? But it’s also hard not to worry about a team reassigned to wandering status while waiting for New Orleans to become habitable after the wrath of Hurricane Ida.

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17. Steelers (21): OLB TJ Watts contract standstill is perhaps one of the underrated stories of the preseason, its availability for the opener is increasingly being called into question.

18. Broncos (23): Despite an arsenal of talented pass catchers, QB Teddy Bridgewater’s rise as Denver’s starter could signal a heavy reliance on RB’s Melvin Gordon and rookie Javonte Williams.

19. Washington (18): It’s hard not to get excited about the reigning NFC East champions. Equally difficult to imagine, given the short-term approach being applied to the quarterback position, they are avoiding a one step forward and two step backward fate.

20. Colts (13): Pretty disastrous preseason for a team trying to bring in a new quarterback whose vulnerability to injury and aversion to vaccinations spun the offensive in August and stared the course of a potentially brutal start into Indianapolis’ early schedule.

21. Cardinals (17): CB Malcolm Butler’s abrupt, mysterious resignation weakens an already shaky pass defense – one that now relies even more on JJ Watt and Chandler Jones to defeat opposing quarterbacks.

22. Giants (22): RB Saquon Barkley and WR Kenny Golladay appear ready to ride to the rescue of QB Daniel Jones … provided that still suspicious line doesn’t bury him.

23. Panther (20): The new QB Sam Darnold could start a once promising career in New York. He could also have trouble breaking bad habits with ball safety, which first popped up at USC before it deteriorated with the Jets … and still seemed obvious back in the preseason.

24. Robber (25): They continue to sign their best defenders to fill very important roles or to compete for them. Not a great sign.

25. Bears (26): They’ll take on pass rushers Aaron Donald, Trey Hendrickson and Garrett in September … a trio that could be a weekly reminder of Chicago’s self-inflicted O-Line troubles.

26.Hawks (24): New coach Arthur Smith’s offense works very well … when Henry carries the burden. But how effective will it be with journeyman RB Mike Davis – and without Julio Jones joining Smith’s old crew in Nashville?

27. Nozzles (29): They hope the recently acquired pass rusher Shaq Lawson can help defeat the Lawson after the demoralizing loss of the underrated Carl Lawson at training camp to an Achilles tendon rupture.

28. Bengal (27): QB Joe Burrow’s only preseason pass was dropped by former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase, so you’d assume things will only get better in the future … even though we’re talking about Cincinnati.

29. Jaguars (28): Who better navigates the rookie learning curve, Urban Meyer or Trevor Lawrence? The No. 1 designed quarterback seems to set the early pace.

30. Eagle (30): Teams with that many studs in the trenches usually have great post-season potential. Is probably not the case here.

31. Lions (31): New coach Dan Campbell continues to win his press conferences, but wins on the field are sure to be much more difficult.

32. Texans (32): If the newly announced start of QB Tyrod Taylor’s recent luck is any indication, then rookie Davis Mills will play in week 3 when Houston is supposed to make its only prime-time appearance on Thursday.


Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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