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NFL Power Rankings: Champs start on top, but will Seahawks finish there?

Richard Sherman and the Seahawks are focused on a repeat.(USATSI)
Richard Sherman and the Seahawks are focused on a repeat. (USATSI)

The Seahawks finished last season No. 1 and open there to start 2014. But there will be plenty of competition for that top spot, even in Seattle's own division. Will all the offseason distractions end up derailing the 49ers? Can the Cardinals overcome key big defensive losses?

We'll soon start finding answers to those questions when the season kicks off Thursday night in Seattle.

1. Seattle Seahawks: They have had a very impressive preseason and look as sharp as they did at the end of 2013. I don't expect the new emphasis on illegal contact and pass interference to hurt the Seahawks. They were the most penalized team last year and won it all.

2. New England Patriots: Last year the Pats got to the championship game without their defensive tackles. If everyone stays healthy they will be back in the conference finals once again. The Pats attacking no-huddle offense is back in 2012 form.

3. Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning isn't going away just yet and the Broncos have enough fire power on offense and some key additions on defense to get back to the big game.

4. New Orleans Saints: Rob Ryan has developed a nice defense which should be even better this year. Brees and company can still put points on any team in the league.

5. San Francisco 49ers: Some strange doings in the offseason including rumors about the coach, contract holdouts and, of course, Aldon Smith. This team is too good to fall apart but distractions do add up.

6. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have been knocking on the door for three years and appear ready for the next step. There's lots of depth on the roster for a late run. Replacing both coordinators is still a question to be answered.

7. Green Bay Packers: Dom Capers gets Julius Peppers, a healthy Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. The defense can live up to its end of the bargain. Protecting Aaron Rodgers is most important thing, and I like the Packers' chances to have a 12-win season. The loss of BJ Raji makes the interior defensive line thin.

8. Philadelphia Eagles: Chip Kelly has a year under his belt in the NFL and we will see even more good things from his offense. Hopefully the defense is improved. Until teams figure out how to contain LeSean McCoy and slow the pace of this offense down, the Eagles keep winning games.

9. Indianapolis Colts: With Reggie Wayne back on offense and D'Qwell Jackson leading the defense I may have the Colts a bit too low. Last year this team beat Seattle, San Francisco, Denver and Kansas City and averaged 30 points a game doing it.

10. San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers had a career year last year and gets Malcolm Floyd back to go along with Keenan Allen. The defense surprised me late last year and this is one of the dangerous teams not many people are factoring in right now. DE Corey Liuget played like the best defensive lineman in the league this summer. Now can he do it in the regular season?

11. Carolina Panthers: I love the front seven on defense but wonder about the secondary and the wide receivers. Cam Newton will play without left tackle Jordan Gross and Steve Smith so I'm a little in the wait-and-see mode. Newton isn't 100 percent healthy and he is missing his top three wide receivers from last year.

12. Chicago Bears: The Bears offense is dangerous and should even be better this year, but that defense has to improve or this team will fall short of the playoffs.

13. Pittsburgh Steelers: Some believe the Steelers are old and finished. I'm not one of them, especially after their 6-2 finish last year. Todd Haley and Big Ben look like they figured out how this offense works. The run game with Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount will remind fans of the old days. I like the young speed on defense.

14. Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco gets Steve Smith but loses Ray Rice for two games. The defense is not what it used to be, but is improving with young players like C.J. Mosley. Hopefully the off-field distractions of the spring are behind the Ravens.

15. Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs found out late last year what happens when your top pass rushers can't go and added to that department in the draft. Alex Smith is the perfect QB for Andy Reid's offense and if someone will emerge as another receiving threat, watch out! There is too heavy a load on Jamal Charles and he better stay healthy.

16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lovie Smith is just what the doctor ordered for the Bucs. They will improve quickly on both sides of the ball and could find themselves in playoff contention late in the season. Josh McCown is a short-term answer but a good answer. Look for the Bucs to play much better defense this year.

17. Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals would have been higher up the Power Rankings if they didn't lose Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby. They were the top two defensive performers with a combined 197 tackles, 9 1/2 sacks, and 30 passes defended. The next setback was the loss of Darnell Dockett and now last season's No. 1 rush defense is vulnerable and division foes Seattle and San Francisco run the ball.

18. Tennessee Titans: Is Jake Locker the right guy or not? That can only be answered during the season. The Titans told me they were pleasantly surprised where Locker is right, now but keep in mind new head Coach Ken Whisenhunt has been known to have a quick hook with quarterbacks. I think they are still playing meaningful games in December.

19. Detroit Lions: I don't believe a team can go the distance in the NFL trying to outscore opponents. The Lions defense is either the key or Achilles heel to this team. Matthew Stafford and company are capable of 30 points every Sunday.

20. St. Louis Rams: Like Tampa Bay, this team looks poised to make a move. The problems are their division and the loss of Sam Bradford. Some would have you believe journeyman Shaun Hill can get the job done. I like Hill but he's thrown just 16 passes in the last three seasons.

21. New York Giants: Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin have a history of rebounding from bad seasons and this should be no exception. The sooner the defense gets Jon Beason back, the sooner the whole team will look better. The offensive line is as unsettled as any line in the league and that means lots of pressure on Eli Manning.

22. Washington Redskins: I talked with RG3 and Pierre Garcon recently and I like what I heard about their focus and direction this season. The preseason results haven't indicated that the offense, especially the passing game, is ready for a push in the NFC east. The defense has its issues to solve but the Skins could join the Bucs and Rams as a surprise team.

23. New York Jets: If Geno Smith or Mike Vick come through with the Jets defense and a revised running game, things might go well for Rex Ryan's team. How long will Rex Ryan stick with Geno if he's not playing well? The Jets are more likely wild-card candidates than division champs and every win counts. Don't be surprised if they lead the league in rushing this year with Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory leading the way.

24. Atlanta Falcons: Protect Matt Ryan, keep Julio Jones on the field, find a replacement for Tony Gonzalez and manufacture a pass rush. Get all of that done and this will prove to be too low of a ranking.

25. Miami Dolphins: I have to see the offensive line deliver and Ryan Tannehill take the next step in his development before I start seeing this team as a playoff team. The Dolphins are better than perceived, but two division games to start the season will set the stage for the season.

26. Houston Texans: I like the defense but have questions about Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Bill O'Brien will probably prove me wrong about the QB, but for now I will hold back on being bullish about the Texans. I hope rookie Tom Savage gets a chance to play with that big arm -- at least to figure out what they have in him.

27. Buffalo Bills: The Bills are headed in the right direction behind the team of Doug Whaley and Doug Marrone. It comes down to EJ Manuel and the for sale sign on the Bills front lawn. Manuel struggled enough this summer to raise some concerns, especially with the weapons around him. The season-ending injury to linebacker Kiko Alonzo is devastating to the Bills' ambitions in 2014.

28. Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson is running out of time in his brilliant career. Replacing Jared Allen, fortifying the linebackers and upgrading the secondary can't all be done overnight. It remains to be seen if the outdoor University of Minnesota stadium has the same home-field advantage that the Metrodome had.

29. Dallas Cowboys: Jerry Jones said the defense can't be any worse than last year. But the Boys lost DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee for 2014. I hope people don't blame Tony Romo or Jason Garrett for what may be ahead.

30. Oakland Raiders: Derek Carr getting the start in Week 1 spells rebuild, except that the older veterans brought in the offseason want to win now.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars: I hope Gus Bradley gets his rookies up and running and gets stronger as the season goes on. Jacksonville is headed in the right direction and it appears they made the right move drafting QB Blake Bortles. This is a team I could be patient with because they will be better as the year goes on and will finish higher than where they start.

32. Cleveland Browns: The defense is ready for an 8-8 season but with the loss of Josh Gordon and a rookie QB that will eventually be on the field, the offense isn't. Johnny Manziel is getting a lot of offseason attention and he better be ready to play or the Browns fans will be more frustrated than ever.

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