Now that the NFL draft is done, free agency has slowed to a crawl and the 2022 schedule is finalized, it’s time for the preseason power poll.

The process here is pretty simple. The expected cream rises to the top while the dregs of the league sink to the bottom. They are grouped into tiers of teams that are largely interchangeable in rankings within the tiers. To sort tiebreakers and get an actual ranking, I mentally simulated three games between the two teams in question and picked the team that I would expect to win more.

Top tier - The Super Bowl favorites

  1. Los Angeles Rams
  2. Green Bay Packers
  3. Buffalo Bills
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  5. Kansas City Chiefs

Longtime readers know I’m big on having the defending champs occupy the top spot until they’re knocked out of it on the actual field. That’s the only reason the Rams are above both the Packers and Bills, the top teams in the conferences entering minicamp season. Buffalo has the league’s best offense, Green Bay the league’s best defense--and each has formidable units on the other side of the ball too.

The Bucs and Chiefs aren’t quite as solid all-around but have quarterbacks who are dynamic enough to elevate the rest of the team. Keeping Kansas City in this tier was the source of furious internal debate, but their strong early emphasis on defense in the draft won out and keeps them with the cream. 

Second tier - Viable contenders

  1. Indianapolis Colts
  2. Cincinnati Bengals
  3. Baltimore Ravens
  4. Minnesota Vikings
  5. Los Angeles Chargers

The Colts made a massive upgrade at QB in swapping in Matt Ryan for Carson Wentz and effectively kept the rest of the talented band together. Their young defense has loads of promise. The same is true of the defending AFC Champs in Cincinnati, where the defense doesn’t get nearly enough credit because of how awesome a healthy Joe Burrow is at QB. Health is key for Baltimore, but their roster got better with Kyle Hamilton and Marcus Williams--the best safety in the draft and free agency, respectively.

I’m bullish on the Vikings as long as the young offensive line can play to expectation. Their weaponry is as good as anyone’s in the NFC and the secondary got better (potentially a lot better) in the draft. The Chargers are probably lower here than you’ll see them in most power polls and much of that is a dire lack of depth across the roster. The starting 22 in L.A. is top-5, but they’re very reliant on their standouts; much of their depth isn’t playing on other NFL rosters and that’s especially true in the trenches. The Chargers are dangerous in both directions but too high-end to drop from this tier.

Middle class tier

  1. Cleveland Browns
  2. Dallas Cowboys
  3. Las Vegas Raiders
  4. New Orleans Saints
  5. Denver Broncos
  6. Arizona Cardinals
  7. Tennessee Titans
  8. Miami Dolphins
  9. San Francisco 49ers

In general, these are all teams that could win a playoff game (or two in case of the top 3 here) but have significant enough questions to curb the enthusiasm. Cleveland probably belongs in the tier above this one and could bump up once there is resolution on the Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield situations. Their defense could be nasty-good around Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward. The Cowboys will be in the postseason as long as the lines hold up, but a playmaking back 7 and diverse weaponry keeps them pretty safe.

The Saints and Broncos are the two most difficult teams to slot and that’s some reason why both wound up in the dead middle. Russell Wilson’s fit in Denver should be fine. Should be. Arizona needs to get more out of their premium draft picks from the last 2-3 years but they can reasonably expect to be in the playoff mix. Tennessee and San Francisco are trending in the wrong direction, while the Raiders and Dolphins are moving up from where I had them at the end of 2021. I wouldn’t argue with anyone who pegs Las Vegas as a sleeper Super Bowl team.

The penultimate tier

  1. Philadelphia Eagles
  2. Washington Commanders
  3. Detroit Lions
  4. New York Jets
  5. New York Giants
  6. New England Patriots
  7. Carolina Panthers
  8. Jacksonville Jaguars
  9. Pittsburgh Steelers

Nearly all of this tier is filled with teams in various states of transition. The Lions, Jets and Giants are moving upward. Good health and positive quarterback play will elevate any of that trio into the tier above this one, and that is also true for the Eagles with Jalen Hurts and a talented but paper-thin defense.

Washington treads water with Carson Wentz and a loaded defensive front. There is considerable potential with the Commanders but so many questions. New England and Pittsburgh are plummeting in terms of roster strength but have just enough for their brilliant coaches to work with to keep them afloat. Jacksonville could emerge as a quick riser as much from the addition-by-subtraction of Urban Meyer at coach. The Jaguars should be fun.

The bottom

  1. Seattle Seahawks
  2. Houston Texans
  3. Chicago Bears
  4. Atlanta Falcons

Without being too disparaging, I’ll keep it simple with this foursome. It’s very difficult to see the path to success for these teams in 2022.