NFL Power Poll: Look for reloaded Saints to challenge Packers in NFC
When the NFL season kicks off Thursday, Sept. 8 at Lambeau Field, the reigning league champion Green Bay Packers will play host to the team that previously occupied the top spot in the football world.
Just like the Pack did during the Super Bowl XLV run, the New Orleans Saints leaned on a fiery quarterback and an aggressive, playmaking defense to do the job against another perennial AFC power a year earlier.
When they made quick work of the Raiders on Sunday night, Drew Brees and his teammates proved they are out to rebound from last year's short playoff stay in Seattle and take another run at the Lombardi Trophy with a reloaded team.
For the best bets to dethrone Green Bay in the NFC, just look to the South, where Brees' Saints and Matt Ryan's Falcons are now both giving Aaron Rodgers' Packers some company in this week's updated top five:
1. Green Bay Packers (previous rank: 1)
Who's most valuable? QB Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers was in the zone during the Packers' playoff run as a wild card, and with Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant back healthy to flank him, the offense is even better.
2. New England Patriots (2)
Who's most valuable? QB Tom Brady
Don't worry about Chad Ochocinco not quite fitting in the offense yet. Brady will simply pick up the pieces with all the other receivers, backs and young star tight ends he has at his disposal.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (4)
Who's most valuable? S Troy Polamalu
He is the ultimate chess piece for Dick LeBeau's constant disguising of blitzes. Without Polamalu, the Steelers' 3-4 defense loses much of its unpredictability.
4. Atlanta Falcons (5)
Who's most valuable? QB Matt Ryan
They call him Matty Ice because he's cool under all the pressure thrown on him as the face of the franchise. He should be chilling a little more this year with Julio Jones on the perimeter.
5. New Orleans Saints (8)
Who's most valuable? QB Drew Brees
Beyond Brees’ importance to the Saints; his presence as a passionate leader means a great deal to the Crescent City. How can you not be motivated with him as your teammate?
6. Baltimore Ravens (5)
Who's most valuable? ILB Ray Lewis
Sure, Lewis has lost a few steps and isn't the dominant force he once was, but he's still a man most teams would love to have anchor the middle of their defense.
7. Philadelphia Eagles (7)
Who's most valuable? QB Michael Vick
The Eagles' season really banks on Vick’s ability to stay healthy and adjust to all the extra pressure he expects to face every week.
8. San Diego Chargers (9)
Who's most valuable? QB Philip Rivers
Rivers isn't the reason this talented team missed the playoffs last season. He was an electric passer and will have more juice having Vincent Jackson from the get-go.
9. New York Jets (6)
Who's most valuable? CB Darrelle Revis
Revis looks better than ever after a bit of an "off" season. His shutdown ability opens the door for Rex Ryan to be as aggressive as he wants to be with the other 10 defenders.
10. Indianapolis Colts (10)
Who's most valuable? QB Peyton Manning
Reports of Manning's injury have been greatly exaggerated. Counting him out for Week 1 is a mistake, but the Colts will need his best to hold off the Texans in the division.
11. Houston Texans (11)
Who's most valuable? RB Arian Foster
Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson is a premier passing duo, but the new lifeblood of Gary Kubiak's offense is an old-school feature back. The Texans need his hamstring to heal fast.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12)
Who's most valuable? QB Josh Freeman
Freeman looks the part of the next great quarterback in this pass-happy and pass-rush era. With his size, mobility and accuracy, he might already be there.13. Detroit Lions (13)
Who's most valuable? DT Ndamukong Suh
They're happy to have Matthew Stafford back to direct a potentially high-flying passing game, but the foundation of Jim Schwartz's rising team is its front four stud.
14. Dallas Cowboys (14)
Who's most valuable? OLB DeMarcus Ware
Ware should do just about everything in new coordinator Rob Ryan's defense. Bank on him making even more big plays this season.
15. New York Giants (17)
Who's most valuable? QB Eli Manning
They will go as far as Manning takes them. In his quest to be more consistent and less turnover-prone, he’ll need big help from Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham.
16. Chicago Bears (15)
Who's most valuable? DE Julius Peppers
Lovie Smith's defense is based on getting pressure with the defensive line and controlling the point of attack. To that end, Peppers is the best of a strong front seven.
17. Kansas City Chiefs (16)
Who's most valuable? RB Jamaal Charles
The Chiefs are wary of overworking Charles because they want to maintain his effectiveness as a big-play runner and receiver. With other offensive questions, however, they may need to lean on him more.
18. Cleveland Browns (18)
Who's most valuable? LT Joe Thomas
We've heard a lot about Colt McCoy and Peyton Hillis making the offense highly productive under Pat Shurmur. But that wouldn’t be possible without the Browns’ rock of a blocker.
19. St. Louis Rams (19)
Who's most valuable? QB Sam Bradford
As he inches toward the game's elite passers, Bradford gets a boost from both a coach (new coordinator Josh McDaniels) and two new targets (Mike Sims-Walker and Lance Kendricks).
20. Arizona Cardinals (22)
Who's most valuable? WR Larry Fitzgerald
Like Cleveland’s Thomas, Fitzgerald was shown the big money for good reason. His route-running and great hands will come in handy as the team breaks in Kevin Kolb.
21. Tennessee Titans (20)
Who's most valuable? RB Chris Johnson
If Vick, Thomas and Fitzgerald are all seeing bank, it's a shame the Titans aren't feeling a sense of urgency in locking up their indispensable 2K back.
22. San Francisco 49ers (21)
Who's most valuable? LB Patrick Willis
There's nothing wrong with the quarterback of their defense. His upfield speed and strong tackling should work very well in new coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme.
23. Oakland Raiders (23)
Who's most valuable? DL Richard Seymour
The Raiders have a very effective but still underrated defensive line rotation. Seymour's end-tackle versatility opens up the pass rush for everyone else.
24. Jacksonville Jaguars (24)
Who's most valuable? RB Maurice Jones-Drew
All of the offensive attention has been on quarterbacks David Garrard and Blaine Gabbert, but MJD is key and the Jags will be dragged down if his knee doesn't check out.
25. Minnesota Vikings (25)
Who's most valuable? DE Jared Allen
Although Allen will be rushing the passer this season without the benefit of Ray Edwards on the other side, the team will need him to get back to the 15-sack range of 2007-'09.
26. Seattle Seahawks (26)
Who's most valuable? DT Brandon Mebane
He hasn't been to the Pro Bowl in his first four seasons, but he's a premier run stuffer in the team’s 4-3 scheme. He was the worth the $25 million over five years that it took to keep him.
27. Washington Redskins (27)
Who's most valuable? OLB Brian Orakpo
He's just getting warmed up as an edge rusher with terrific size (6-4, 260) to go with good pop. The Redskins will need to win with defense, and he's their best defender.
28. Miami Dolphins (28)
Who's most valuable? OLB Cameron Wake
Wake and Orakpo are part of an exciting young group of 3-4 outside linebackers, with Clay Matthews, Tamba Hali and LaMarr Woodley also in that conversation.
29. Cincinnati Bengals (32)
Who's most valuable? LT Andrew Whitworth
He's the main man protecting rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, and he's no slouch in opening holes for Cedric Benson in the running game.
30. Denver Broncos (30)
Who's most valuable? QB Kyle Orton
There's a lot of pressure on Orton because the running game and defense are still big concerns. He'll need to prove he can keep the team and offense together in what should be a trying year.
31 Carolina Panthers (27)
Who's most valuable? MLB Jon Beason
Beason provides the glue for the Panthers’ front seven, and he does it without consistent defensive tackle support. Beason and Willis have become the NFC's top inside men.
32. Buffalo Bills (31)
Who's most valuable? DT Kyle Williams
Williams had been flying solo as a defensive line anchor, but now that he’s flanked by rookie Marcell Dareus, Buffalo can at least boast one of the NFL's best fronts.
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