Oliver's NFL rankings: The 2006 season

SFI correspondent Oliver Kimokeo doesn't see it like some preseason prognosticators who simply make the safe picks of tabbing teams that finished at the top of the NFL heap in 2005 to begin the 2006 season in the same place. He goes with the current trends of shifting power in the league, taking teams that are hot to determine who's on top in his first rankings with Week 1 ready to get underway.

Check back each week as Kimokeo keeps track of the shuffling balance of might among the league's 32 teams with updated rankings every Tuesday the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.

This week | Final 2005 regular-season ranking | Team (Final 2005 record, including playoffs)

1 | 16 | DALLAS COWBOYS (9-7): Terrell Owens' secondary showboating, glory-chasing alter-ego, T.O., has come full circle. In 2000, T.O., then of the 49ers, mocked the Dallas Cowboys' star by taking his two touchdowns to Texas Stadium's midfield and outraging the Lone Star State in the process. Now, Owens will be getting into the end zone as a Cowboy, and his preseason disappearance aside, he'll push the Dallas offense to excellence, just like he did during his first season in Philadelphia. The Cowboys already have a championship-level defense in place. The team's Super Bowl run is here under Bill Parcells, whose time in Dallas already is winding down.

2 | 9 | MIAMI DOLPHINS (9-7): The Dolphins concluded the 2005 season with a six-game winning streak that serves as a preview for what Miami could do in 2006. It's the longest winning streak of any NFL team entering the season besides the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. If QB Daunte Culpepper can return to his Pro-Bowl glory of seasons past wearing a new uniform in a new conference, the Dolphins will have a chance to be the first team ever to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. This team is a young potential powerhouse.

3 | 15 | CINCINNATI BENGALS (11-6): After their first playoff appearance in 15 seasons, the Bengals are preparing to string back-to-back playoff seasons for the first time since 1981-1982. And with QB Carson Palmer all the way back from his knee injury and emerging as one of the NFL's elite, the Bengals are looking for a deep run into the postseason after their one game stopoff last year when Palmer was hurt early in an opening-round loss to the Steelers. With deep talent on both sides of the ball, Cincinnati is geared for the challenge.

4 | 7 | TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (11-6): After a couple shaky seasons after their Super Bowl XXXVII victory, the Buccaneers returned to respectability with a playoff appearance last season, setting the stage for a sleeper rise to the elite this season under coach Jon Gruden. The Buccaneers have never won division titles in consecutive years, but they will change that legacy this season as one of the league's surprise powers.

5 | 3 | WASHINGTON REDSKINS (11-7): Another team built to win now, and this is the year owner Daniel Snyder's huge investment in overpaid talent begins to pay off with the addition of three former 49ers starters. After missing the playoffs for five consecutive seasons and just one playoff appearance in their last twelve seasons, the Redskins put themselves back into the contender discussion last season. Snyder and coach Joe Gibbs have put together a good squad this year capable of doing some damage in the NFC.

6 | 6 | PITTSBURGH STEELERS (15-5): The Steelers' Super Bowl XL championship overshadowed the fact that they almost didn't make the playoffs last season, needing to win their final four regular-season games to slip in the playoff field with the AFC's sixth and final seed.. With Jerome Bettis in retirement and the aftereffects of Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle injury and subsequent emergency appendectomy, the Steelers will struggle to repeat their magical playoff run in 2006. The Steelers certainly still are top contenders, but it remains to be seen what they can do for a Super Bowl encore.

7 | 1 | DENVER BRONCOS (14-4): The Broncos blew their big chance last year by losing at home to the hot Steelers in the AFC title game after knocking off two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England the week before. We had the Broncs as the league's top team entering the postseason last year, but we're backing off a bit to start this season, even though the Broncos have had three consecutive seasons of double-digit wins. That's a feat they haven't accomplished since 1996-1998, when they won two Super Bowls. They haven't had a similar stretch of four seasons since 1984-1987. With a solid core of the 2005 Broncos returning, Denver will try to turn another season of regular-season success into a Super Bowl appearance.

8 | 4 | SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (15-4): In 2005, the Seahawks took advantage of their placement in the NFL's weakest division, the NFC West. The Seahawks will be hard-pressed to repeat their greatest season ever due to eight tough games against the talented NFC East and AFC West. But they still should cruise to another NFC West title, which will have them at home to start their defense of the franchise's first NFC championship.

9 | 12 | NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (11-7): The Patriots fell back down to earth last season and it will be tough getting back up to championship level in the tough AFC. They're still the team of the 2000s with their three Super Bowl rings, and a lot of the structure and talent that captured those titles still is around. The Patriots will put together a decent season, but the rest of the league has caught up to them.

10 | 2 | JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (12-5): The Jags were our sleeper team from the start in 2005, and they came through with a 12-4 season before being bounced by the defending champion Patriots to begin the playoffs. Jacksonville has made good strides to be taken seriously in the NFL, but still seems to be a bit overlooked entering the season. The Jags, incidentally, have had an impressive streak of no last-place divisional finishes in the last 10 years. Only Kansas City, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh have had longer runs. Not bad for a team that has played only 11 seasons.

11 | 5 | INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (14-3): The Colts had the NFL world at their feet for most of the 2005 campaign. But it's difficult to get excited about their franchise-record 14 victories last season when they finished off the season 1-3. Some NFL teams have already figured out how to contain Peyton Manning's offense, and now he'll be working without Edgerrin James behind him, which is a void that definitely will be felt.

12 | 11 | CAROLINA PANTHERS (13-6): When the Panthers have a winning season, they definitely make the most of their seasons. Three trips to the NFC championship game out of three playoff trips in three winning seasons has given them a 5-0 franchise record in Wild Card and Divisional playoff games. The Panthers are potentially loaded, but it's difficult to have faith in a team that has failed to have two winning seasons in a row in franchise history.

13 | 10 | KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (10-6): Even though the Chiefs have been competitive through the 1990s and 2000s, they haven't won a playoff game since 1993. When that drought is compared to their 18-game December home winning streak dating back to 1997, it's nothing short of mind-boggling. So, here's the standard preseason analysis of the Chiefs: they have talent; they will not use it to their fullest potential.

14 | 8 | NEW YORK GIANTS (11-6): The Giants looked like they turned a corner in 2005 with an exceptional offense, but the playoffs tend to distort the view of the season. They managed to get themselves shut out at home in their Wild Card game even though they had a 20-game streak of scoring in double digits prior to that game. The Giants will have a tougher time in 2006 because of their schedule and division placement.

15 | 14 | CHICAGO BEARS (11-6): It seemed like NFL followers had a hard time of what to make of the Bears in 2005. Were they worthy playoff participants or a beneficiary of a dismal NFC North division? As usual, the defense is excellent and the offense is in need of improvement. But, what else is new?

16 | 21 | ARIZONA CARDINALS (5-11): Nobody expects much of the Cardinals. They are just a team that floats near the bottom of the standings with a standard early draft pick every season. But for the first time since 1928, the Cardinals will play in a stadium that they don't have to share with a baseball or a college football team. The new and immaculate Cardinals Stadium should give them a boost in the same way that Edgerrin James, their new running back, will in their offensive backfield. Expectations are raised again this season, and this time the Cards seem poised to deliver.

17 | 17 | SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (9-7): The best team not to reach the postseason last year, the Chargers were designated by some as one of the best NFL teams ever to miss the playoffs. But the fact is, the Chargers didn't live up to their potential last year and it was their own fault. Is their window of opportunity closing due to QB Drew Brees' departure? There's some top talent here, particularly on offense, but new QB Philip Rivers must deliver, and he won't make his first NFL start until Monday against the Raiders.

18 | 22 | PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (6-10): After four consecutive NFC championship appearances, the 2005 Eagles eroded in a horrible fashion. The 2006 season will tell the NFL community if the Eagles are rebuilding for the future or rebounding after a one-season slump. Philly won't have it easy in the NFC East and there is no guarantee or a rise back to playoff prominence.

19 |27 | BUFFALO BILLS (5-11): The Bills haven't been to the playoffs for the last six seasons, since being on the wrong end of the dramatic finish in the Music City Miracle. After a strong climb in 2004, the Bills fell back miserably last season and this year's version doesn't generate much excitement. This looks like a team that is in need of a superstar but it doesn't look one plays for the Bills right now.

20 | 19 | BALTIMORE RAVENS (6-10): It has been 10 years since the Ravens have perched upon the Baltimore landscape. If their Super Bowl XXV championship is taken out of the discussion, the Ravens haven't been at the NFL forefront much. Their defense is among the best of this decade but their offense needs a resurgence for them to become a serious contender in the NFL again. Adding QB Steve McNair is a step in the right direction, but he won't be able to do it on his own.

21 | 20 | ATLANTA FALCONS (8-8): It seems like QB Michael Vick has the "Michael Jordan complex." Jordan didn't win his first NBA championship until he got over his personal hype and involved his teammates in solid team wins. Vick has a gift for football excellence but he still has to learn how to use it to the fullest potential. In the same way, the Falcons still have to learn how to fly in the skies of the NFL elite. Last year's drop back to .500 after reaching the NFC title game in coach Jim Mora's first season of 2004 was a big disappointment.

22 | 13 | MINNESOTA VIKINGS (9-7): The Vikings are the epitome of streaky. When they are on a winning streak, everything is going excellent and they have the NFL observers talking. When they are down for the count, the players can't escape their personal scandals and the team looks like an wounded organization in need of rehabilitation. So, the Vikings will have the best of times and the worst of times again in 2006 under new coach Brad Childress, and expect the bad to outweigh the good.

23 | 26 | ST. LOUIS RAMS (6-10): After being dubbed the "Greatest Show on Turf" in the early part of this decade, the Rams have resumed their franchise's struggles prior to their Super Bowl XXXIV win. The 2006 edition will be a rebuilding process as the Rams will be in a search of a new team identity under new coach Scott Linehan.

24 | 25 | NEW YORK JETS (4-12): In this decade, the Jets have been good but not good enough to get deep into the playoffs. With a couple of losing seasons sandwiched between seasons of divisional playoff appearances, the Jets will find out this season if they are winners or losers, and the talent on hand for Eric Mangini suggests the debut season of the NFL's youngest head coach might not be pretty.

25 | 28 | OAKLAND RAIDERS (4-12): The Raiders are hoping that Art Shell will do for them what Joe Gibbs has done for the Redskins: returning the team to respectability and erasing the embarrassments of the previous seasons. As in previous seasons, Oakland will have a veteran core looking to regain its mystique as a NFL force to be reckoned with, but the unraveling of the Raiders since reaching the Super Bowl after the 2002 season should take a while to get reversed.

26 | 30 | DETROIT LIONS (5-11): The Lions were never the luxury five-star restaurant of the NFL but they hardly ever were the fast-food establishment that they are today. They were usually the middle-of-the-road team looking to remain respectable. Now, they're a team that doesn't know what steps to take up the NFL ladder, which has sent them fading in the other direction.

27 | 18 | CLEVELAND BROWNS (6-10): The Browns have been a disappointment since their return to the NFL in 1999 and their bark has been reduced to a whisper since their last upward surge in 2002. It will be more of the same this season despite an upgrade in talent and the good intentions of second-year coach Romeo Crennel.

28 | 24 | SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (4-12): The worst team in the league much of the 2005 season, the 49ers finished with a two-game winning streak and carry over that momentum as they make strides for improvement in 2006. Seven of San Francisco's eight home games are against teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2005, and that could give the Niners a chance to climb from the depths. It's hard to get too excited because the 49ers seemingly still have a long way to go, but there is a solid nucleus of emerging talent and San Francisco could make a surprising run at .500 if everything goes right. If it goes wrong, look out below.

29 | 29 | TENNESSEE TITANS (4-12): The Titans just put together their two worst seasons since 1985-1986 when they were in their previous incarnation as the Houston Oilers. It might not get much better for a while as the team waits for Vince Young to come along at quarterback, which could take years. The Titans are looking at another season of struggling since they face the NFC East this season along with a tough slate of AFC foes.

30 | 32 | NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (3-13): Throughout this decade, the Saints had been respectable and always turned out an entertaining performance. But as the physical tragedy of Hurricane Katrina hit the franchise, it puts the Saints in a position of a literal rebuilding process. It will be a good day for the Saints when Katrina isn't associated with their struggles any longer, but there won‘t be any quick return respectability this year, despite the additions of QB Drew Brees and RB Reggie Bush.

31 | 23 | GREEN BAY PACKERS (4-12): These aren't your older brother's Packers any longer. As has been the case in the last 14 seasons, the Packers will flourish and perish at the feet of QB Brett Favre. Favre will create his usual spark which will keep the Packer faithful on their toes, but the spark won't be enough to create a winning season, and sometimes it will flame out in the form of mistakes and interceptions. While the Packers weren't as bad as their final record last season, the potential is there for things to unravel quickly under first-year coach Mike McCarthy, who coached the worst offense in the league last year when he was offensive coordinator in San Francisco.

32 | 31 | HOUSTON TEXANS (2-14): The Texans sure fooled NFL observers into thinking that 2005 would be their breakthrough season as a franchise. Now, they have taken a step all the way back into the position that they started as an expansion franchise in 2002. The Texans are hoping that their faith in QB David Carr and the potential of young talent such as DE Mario Williams will result in a first-ever playoff appearance a few years down the road. In the meantime, the Texans begin the 2006 season marked here as the worst team in the NFL.

Oliver Kimokeo is a freelance writer based in Azusa, Calif.


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