The New England Patriots brought the 2016 NFL season to a fitting end Sunday night in Super Bowl LI, overcoming the largest deficit in Super Bowl history. They beat the Falcons 34-28 in overtime to capture their fifth championship, moving into second place all-time in that department.
While the Patriots undoubtedly ended the season as the best team in the league, are they the top squad heading into 2017? We ranked every team entering next season at this point in the very early stages of the offseason, from 32 to 1.
Sorry, Browns fans. Cleveland is the worst team in the NFL right now. That can change based on what the Browns do with their litany of picks and massive cap space, but they’re at least a year or two away from contending. Priority No. 1 has to be finding a quarterback.
New York Jets
The Jets have gone from near-playoff team in 2015 to completely dysfunctional in the matter of a year. They don’t have a quarterback, the defense is aging and ineffective, and their offensive playmakers are no longer the players they once were. Prepare for the worst, Jets Nation. Or the best – if you enjoy drafting in the top three.
San Francisco 49ers
Colin Kaepernick is likely to opt out of his contract, making him a free agent in 2017. That leaves the 49ers and future head coach Kyle Shanahan with major questions at quarterback. Will he and GM John Lynch try to trade for Jimmy Garoppolo? Or pick a guy toward the top of the draft? Either way, the 49ers need a QB.
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Los Angeles Rams
Jared Goff will go into next season as the surefire starter at quarterback, which should help his confidence and development as a passer. Still, the Rams are just not explosive enough on offense, especially with that offensive line.
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More than a new head coach, the Jaguars needed to hire a quarterback guru to work with Blake Bortles. If he’s going to be their franchise guy, he needs to be much better than he was in 2016, when he regressed in just about every department.
With no stability at quarterback, it’s hard to take the Bears seriously. Rookie running back Jordan Howard was a nice bright spot for them this past season, but his consistency is meaningless if the defense can’t stop opponents.
The Bills don’t exactly know who their quarterback will be with Tyrod Taylor potentially hitting the open market if they don’t pick up his option. Add in that new head coach Sean McDermott is inexperienced and it could be a rebuilding year in Buffalo.
Los Angeles Chargers
With a new coach and a new home, it’s hard to expect much out of the Chargers. But Philip Rivers is the quarterback, Melvin Gordon is the No. 1 back, and several key players will return from injury. That should make for an improved Chargers team, but they still have ways to go.
Carson Wentz is bound to improve in Year 2 after an up-and-down rookie season. That’ll be made easier if the Eagles add a few reliable receivers to the depth chart and help him out with a more consistent running game.
The Bengals have the potential to get back to their 2015 form, they just have to play significantly better than they did this past season. Retaining offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth will be key, as will the entire offensive line improving as a cohesive unit.
The Colts worked to improve the offensive line, but it wasn’t nearly enough to get them into the playoffs. Now, they need to add playmakers on defense and get some help for Andrew Luck.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints are technically contenders every year with Drew Brees at quarterback, but there are too many holes across the roster to call them serious threats to win it all. The defense has to improve greatly for them to nab that title, which it could do in the offseason.
Joe Flacco had a terrible 2016 season, and it showed in the Ravens’ record. The roster is aging, and the offense lacks playmakers, so it’s hard to see Baltimore being any better than it was this past season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis Winston nearly led the Buccaneers to the postseason this year, but the Buccaneers faltered a bit down the stretch. With another year under his belt, Winston will only improve, as will the rest of the team. They have a winning formula down in Tampa Bay, they just need to capitalize and make the necessary moves this offseason.
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The Panthers followed up their Super Bowl appearance in 2015 with a clunker of a season behind Cam Newton’s disappointing campaign. Expect him to work hard this offseason with lesser expectations, and the Panthers will be sure to improve a disaster of a secondary.
Kirk Cousins will ultimately decide where the Redskins go in 2017. He’s likely to return to Washington – either on a long-term deal or on the franchise tag, which he’s said he’s OK with – making them a fringe playoff team. If a long-term deal isn’t reached, and the Redskins don’t want to pay him nearly $24 million on the tag, they’ll be left without a quarterback and will be forced to rebuild a bit.
The Texans need to find an answer at quarterback, whether that’s an improved Brock Osweiler, Tony Romo or a rookie. They need to get better at that position to complement the Super Bowl-caliber defense they have. If that happens, with J.J. Watt returning, too, they’ll be a force in the weak AFC South.
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It’s been reported that Teddy Bridgewater will miss all of 2017 due to his significant knee injury. That’s obviously disappointing for Bridgewater, but fortunately the Vikings have Sam Bradford under contract. The defense will return to form and the offensive line will be healthier than it was this season, both of which will help their chances in 2017.
The Lions wound up with a much better record than most people expected, largely thanks to the play of Matthew Stafford. As long as the Lions address their non-existent running game, they’ll improve in Year 2 without Calvin Johnson.
The Dolphins were arguably the biggest surprise of the 2016 season, making the postseason after expectations were relatively low. With Ryan Tannehill not expected to require surgery, the Dolphins are going to reload and only get better in 2017. They have their surefire No. 1 back in Jay Ajayi now, too, which they didn’t have entering this past season.
The Cardinals were a complete disaster this past season. After entering the year with Super Bowl aspirations, they fell well short of that goal. That should change in 2017 as the Cardinals are expected to bounce back and return to their 2015 form. The defense is elite, Larry Fitzgerald is returning and Carson Palmer is expected back, so things are looking up in Arizona.
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Assuming Marcus Mariota recovers on time from his leg injury, the Titans are going to be a great team in the AFC next season. They have two first-round picks thanks to last year’s trade of the No. 1 overall pick, and the offense is relatively young across the board. Add a few playmakers for Mariota and shore up the secondary and the Titans are cooking with gas.
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Trevor Siemian? Paxton Lynch? Tony Romo? Regardless of who’s playing quarterback for the Broncos next year, they’re certain to rebound and improve in 2017. They have a Super Bowl-caliber defense, and C.J. Anderson will be back and healthy, breathing life into the running game that was a weakness in 2016. The Broncos just need to improve that offensive line.
New York Giants
The Giants weren’t nearly as good as their record indicated, and that was on display against the Packers in the postseason. Despite their failure in the wild-card round, the Giants boast a young, dominant defense with just about all of its playmakers returning for another season. Pencil them in near the top of the NFC East again next season.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have been one of the more underrated teams in recent years. Where they tend to falter is in the postseason, which is why they’re often overlooked as Super Bowl contenders. However, the Chiefs will once again be a great team in 2017 as long as free-agent safety Eric Berry returns and they retain their key free agents.
If not for Derek Carr’s crushing leg injury, the Raiders likely would have made a deep run into the postseason. Unfortunately, it wasn’t their year, but there is plenty of hope in Oakland. They have Carr, the Defensive Player of the Year in Khalil Mack and a top-three offensive line, so they’ll certainly be back in the mix next season – likely better than they were in 2016.
With Russell Wilson at the helm, anything is possible for the Seahawks – especially with a top-five defense on the other side. Getting safety Earl Thomas back and healthy will help Seattle greatly as he was sorely missed. Just ask his replacement, Steven Tyrell, how the defense played without Thomas in the middle of the field.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers overachieved this season after getting off to a disastrous start. That was all thanks to Aaron Rodgers, who carried them to the NFC Championship game. Green Bay is likely to rebuild on defense through the draft and in free agency, which could put the Packers over the top in 2017.
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The Steelers have a big decision to make this offseason regarding Le’Veon Bell and free agency, but he’s expected to be back. The same goes for receiver Martavis Bryant, who’s returning from suspension. As long as Ben Roethlisberger is back in 2017 -- he has said he's at least considering retirement -- the Steelers will be one of the top teams in the NFL.
The Cowboys appeared to be on a collision course with the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, but Aaron Rodgers got in the way of that. Despite their disappointing end in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the Cowboys have several reasons to feel good about 2017: Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, the best offensive line in football, plus Dez Bryant. The Cowboys are going to be good for a long time.
The Atlanta Falcons put together one of the best offensive seasons in NFL history this season, scoring a total of 540 points in the regular season. Matt Ryan and his full cast of weapons will be back, making the Falcons offensive juggernauts once again. And that defense, despite blowing a 25-point lead to the Patriots, is much better than it got credit for this season. This crushing loss in Super Bowl LI isn’t a sign of things to come. Atlanta will be back.
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New England Patriots
The Patriots went 14-2 this season, only to cap off their impressive regular season with a fifth Super Bowl title. They did so in historic fashion, not only winning the first overtime Super Bowl game but completing the largest comeback in Super Bowl history. With Tom Brady as sharp as ever, the defense looking extremely strong and Rob Gronkowski returning in 2017, the Patriots will once again be the best team in the NFL.