2017 NFL power rankings: Patriots lead the way

Now that the New England Patriots have prevailed in Super Bowl LI, we take one last look at how the NFL’s 32 teams rank from No. 32 to No. 1 for the 2016 season.

The National Football League’s 97th season has come to an end and the New England Patriots are Super Bowl champions for the fifth time. The team’s 34-28 overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons (which featured a 25-point comeback) cemented them as our No. 1 choice.

So here are our final power rankings for 2016. And in this case, we did see the best two teams in the league by season’s end play in the NFL’s biggest game of the year. So how did the 32 teams rank from worst to best?

32

San Francisco 49ers

2-14

Last week: 4th, NFC West
Last rank: 32nd

Looking Back: In a word, dreadful. After blasting the Rams on a Monday night in Week 1 (28-0), the Niners dropped their next 13 games and were often non-competitive in the process. San Francisco allowed a league-worst 480 points and were dead last in the NFL in both total and run defense. And only the Los Angeles Rams gained fewer yards per contest.

Looking Forward: We are still awaiting final word on who the team’s new head coach will be. By all indications, current Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has the job if he truly wants it. The 49ers recently hired John Lynch to be their new general manager and while he lacks experience at the job, you get the sense the franchise isn’t done yet when it comes revamping the front office. The team added former Denver Broncos’ scout Adam Peters to be the Niners’ director of player personnel. And ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports than quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be opting out of his contract.

Offseason needs: Talent are the top 3 things on the list for a struggling club that is a combined 7-25 these past two seasons. Be it via retirements, salary-cap decisions or free-agent departures, the 49ers are a shell of what they were earlier in this decade. The good news is that because the team has its share of young players, there’s not a lot of potential unrestricted free agents to have to bring back. But the quarterback position is a different story in this regard. With Kaepernick apparently set to move on, veteran signal-callers Blaine Gabbert, Chris Ponder and Thaddeus Lewis are all slated to hit the market this offseason as well.

Dec 11, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) pressures Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 11, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) pressures Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

31

Los Angeles Rams

4-12

Last week: 3rd, NFC West
Last rank: 31st

Looking Back: At one time, the Rams owned a 3-1 record and had victories over the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals on their resume. But the team would win only one more game the remainder of the season. And Jeff Fisher’s tenure as head coach came to an abrupt end before 2016 even concluded.

Looking Forward: New Rams’ head coach Sean McVay has his work cut out for him. He inherits a club that has finished dead last in the league in total yards per game in each of these past two seasons. Los Angeles scored an NFL-low 224 points in 2016 and the team’s offensive unit totaled only 23 touchdowns in 16 games – three fewer than Arizona Cardinals’ running back David Johnson. One of the positives under Fisher was the fact that this team held its own against its division rivals. But that doesn’t mean much when you’re a franchise that struggles against the rest of the league and hasn’t posted a winning season in more than a decade (2003).

Offseason needs: Now that recent Super Bowl champion and 2015 NFL Assistant Coach of the Year Wade Phillips is the team’s new defensive coordinator, what kind of adjustments will the team have to make in terms of personnel on that side of the ball. This is a club loaded with talent on the defensive front and a switch to the 3-4 doesn’t figure to be an issue, according to Phillips (via Alden Gonzalez of ESPN). Yes, fixing the offense is certainly a priority but the Rams would like to make the other side of the ball a bigger factor. And getting cornerback Trumaine Johnson re-signed is a big key.

Sep 25, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey (20) celebrates after a play with defensive end Dante Fowler (56) and strong safety Johnathan Cyprien (37) in the second quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 25, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey (20) celebrates after a play with defensive end Dante Fowler (56) and strong safety Johnathan Cyprien (37) in the second quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

30

Jacksonville Jaguars

3-13

Last week: 4th, AFC South
Last rank: 30th

Looking Back: There were plenty of high expectations for a Jacksonville team that appeared to be pretty productive during the offseason. But for the sixth consecutive year, the Jaguars lost at least 11 games. Head coach Gus Bradley would be replaced late in the year by Doug Marrone, who now has the job full time as the club looks to shake off yet another horrible showing.

Looking Forward: The AFC South has been won by the Houston Texans each of the last two seasons and they’ve done it with a 9-7 record each year. Hence, this is a division that is within reach of all four teams if they can put the right pieces together. Marrone has inherited a very young squad with plenty of promising performers. This may be an offseason that the Jaguars continue to add to their roster strictly via the draft while enabling the team to develop more continuity on both sides of the football. General manager David Caldwell has utilized free agency in a big way the last two offseasons and it would not be a surprise to see them back off a bit in that department this spring.

Offseason needs: The defensive unit is loaded with a lot of young players (although four-year strong safety Jonathan Cyprien can become an unrestricted free agent). The Jaguars ranked sixth in the league in fewest yards allowed but needs to find some additional talent when it comes to shoring up their run defense (19th in the NFL in ’16). Rebuilding quarterback Blake Bortles’ confidence and improving his accuracy is also something that needs to be addressed. The 2014 first-round pick took several step backwards this year and totaled nearly as many turnovers (22) as touchdown passes (23). And in three seasons he’s still yet to have higher than a completion percentage of 58.9.

Oct 23, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (11) reacts on the sidelines against the Cincinnati Bengals in the second half at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 31-17. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 23, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (11) reacts on the sidelines against the Cincinnati Bengals in the second half at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 31-17. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

29

Cleveland Browns

3-13

Last week: 4th, AFC North
Last rank: 29th

Looking Back: Will the misery ever end? The Browns flirted with history for most of the season and finally broke into the win column in the next-to-last game of 2016. The franchise stressed youth and the draft last April and the growing pains were not unexpected. But that’s little solace to a team that hasn’t posted a winning season since 2007.

Looking Forward: Last April, the Browns tied a seven-round draft record by selecting 14 players and all made the team. The club does own a pair of first-round draft choices and plenty of other picks this spring and we shall see if the franchise opts to go with even more youth in 2017. The team still needs to find a reliable quarterback and giving 2016 third-round pick Cody Kessler a chance to win the job could reap a lot of benefits if he proves to be the right answer. But the Browns have already made their first good decision of 2017: Retaining head coach Hue Jackson.

Offseason needs: Despite a one-win season, the Browns seek some long-awaited continuity. Showing patience during this latest rebuilding process is essential if the team is to escape the AFC North basement for the first time since 2010. Wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (team-high 77 receptions for 1,077 yards and 4 touchdowns) is due to become an unrestricted free agent in March and comes off a breakout campaign and he is easily the team’s biggest offseason priority. But could Cleveland’s front-office package some picks and make a play for a young yet experienced quarterback such as New England’s Jimmy Garoppolo? Stay tuned.

Dec 18, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard (24) with the ball during the second half against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field. Green Bay won 30-27. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 18, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard (24) with the ball during the second half against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field. Green Bay won 30-27. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

28

Chicago Bears

3-13

Last week: 4th, NFC North
Last rank: 28th

Looking Back: Year Two of the John Fox Era in the Windy City looked promising after the Bears added some additional talent via free agency and the draft. But instead of improving on that 6-10 finish of the previous season, “duh” Bears managed only half as many victories and were forced to utilize too many quarterbacks.

Looking Forward: Is the Jay Cutler Era over in Chicago after eight iffy seasons? The team had problems keeping all of their men behind center healthy in 2016. And it’s worth noting that both Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley’s contracts will soon expire. But this is a club that did discover some young talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Jordan Howard was a fifth-round pick in April but finished second in the league in rushing yards behind Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott. And one year after catching 11 passes for 120 yards in 11 games, wide receiver Cameron Meredith led the Bears in grabs (66) and receiving yards (888) and tied for the team lead with four touchdown receptions.

Offseason needs: The Bears were the only team in the NFC North to finish with a losing record this season. And this is a franchise that is not only 9-23 the past two seasons but hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2010. Free agency has been kind to this club under general managed Ryan Pace and the defense has some pieces. But the club needs to find a reliable entity at quarterback and it may finally be time to move on from Cutler. Chicago appears to be the only team in its division headed in the wrong direction. A young signal-caller who could develop around Meredith and Howard may be the way to go.

Sep 15, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New York Jets wide receiver Quincy Enunwa (81) runs after a catch and breaks a tackle by Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore (24) during the first quarter at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 15, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New York Jets wide receiver Quincy Enunwa (81) runs after a catch and breaks a tackle by Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore (24) during the first quarter at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

27

New York Jets

4-12

Last week: 4th, AFC East
Last rank: 27th

Looking Back: Do we really have to? After teasing many with a season that saw them post 10 victories, Todd Bowles’ club fell hard and fast in ’16 and there was plenty of blame to go around. From quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s erratic year to a major fall on defense, the Jets found themselves back in the AFC East basement for the second time in three years.

Looking Forward: The Jets certainly have their share of young quarterbacks on the roster. But when will we found out how many of them can play? Fitzpatrick was an enormous disappointment and both parties failure to get a deal done earlier in the offseason certainly hurt. Geno Smith did get his chance this season but went down due to injury and it’s somewhat unlikely he will be back with the team. Bryce Petty threw three touchdown passes compared to seven interceptions in limited action. However, 2016 second-round pick Christian Hackenberg never saw the field. Head coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan need to make this top priority.

Offseason needs: Could this be another offseason of wheeling and dealing by the Green and White, as was the case in 2015? Young players such as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa and defensive end Leonard Williams stepped to the forefront and showed plenty of promise. But inside linebacker David Harris now has 10 physical seasons under his shoulder pads. And veteran cornerback Darrelle and the New York secondary in general suffered through a forgettable year. The Jets allowed 30 touchdown passes while the team as a whole totaled a mere 14 takeaways. And finding an edge pass rusher would be a big help.

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

26

Los Angeles Chargers

5-11

Last week: 4th, AFC West
Last rank: 26th

Looking Back: It has been a slowly but steady decline for the usually-talented Bolts. They followed up a four-win season with a 5-11 showing this past fall. The Chargers steadily found ways to squander leads in the fourth quarter and wound up leading the NFL with 35 turnovers – 26 of those by veteran quarterback Philip Rivers.

Looking Forward: For the first time since 1960, the Chargers will call the city of Los Angeles home. Yes, that was the franchise’s lone season in that city before moving to San Diego in ’61. Now equipped with a new head coach (Anthony Lynn) and a new logo, the club looks to escape the AFC West basement following consecutive last-place finishes. The team could use a little better luck when it comes to injuries. It’s been a rough two-year stretch for wideout Keenan Allen. Last season, running back Danny Woodhead was lost early on. But the Chargers have something to build around in running back Melvin Gordon.

Offseason needs: San Diego’s stoppers played respectable football in 2016 and did wind up with NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa, who led the team with 10.5 sacks. But if the Chargers fail to re-up with 2012 first-round pick Melvin Ingram (8 sacks in ’16), opponents will have the luxury of double-teaming the third overall selection in last April’s draft. Inside linebacker Manti Te’o will have also played out his rookie contract when the new league’s fiscal year begins in a little over a month. Meanwhile, the talented Gordon does come off an injury-shortened season and the Bolts could use a little more depth at running back. And is it time to explore options when it comes to Rivers’ eventual successor?

Dec 11, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) runs after a catch while San Diego Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward (26) pursues in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers defeated the Chargers 28-16. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 11, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) runs after a catch while San Diego Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward (26) pursues in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers defeated the Chargers 28-16. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

25

Carolina Panthers

6-10

Last week: 4th, NFC South
Last rank: 25th

Looking Back: Despite the fact that this team was 15-1 and Super Bowl-bound in 2015, the franchise’s failure to post back-to-back winning seasons is a streak that still hasn’t come to an end. League MVP Cam Newton took his licks. And so did a Carolina secondary that utilized a lot of young players and also missed standout cornerback Josh Norman.

Looking Forward: From finishing eight games ahead of the Atlanta Falcons to plummeting to dead last and winning five less games than the current NFC South champions. It was quite the fall for Ron Rivera’s team. But this remains the only franchise in the brief history of this foursome to win a division title in back-to-back years. The good news was the return of a healthy Kelvin Benjamin after the young wideout missed all of ’15 with a knee injury. And Carolina’s defense still has a lot of young talent on the front seven if they can get some of their key players re-signed in time.

Offseason needs: You will recall that the Panthers used three of their five draft choices in 2016 for cornerback help. It would seem to be a wise move by the franchise to add a veteran or two at the position to teach the young players the tricks of the trade. Elsewhere, 10-year pro Charles Johnson could test the free-agent waters. And fellow defensive linemen Kawann Short (a candidate for the franchise tag) and Mario Addison (team-high 9.5 sacks) could join him on the open market. The offensive line had some issues this past year and veteran right tackle Mike Remmers’ contract is also set to expire. General manager Dave Gettleman has some key decisions to make.

Sep 29, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (97) sacks Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) in the second half at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 22-7. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 29, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (97) sacks Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) in the second half at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 22-7. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

24

Cincinnati Bengals

6-9-1

Last week: 3rd, AFC North
Last rank: 24th

Looking Back: For the first time since 2010, the Bengals were not headed to the playoffs. Despite a solid season from quarterback Andy Dalton, the team struggled to score points due to a lack of bodies at wide receiver. But the biggest fall from grace in the Queen City was a defensive unit that looked like a shell of its recent solid self.

Looking Forward: Having a healthy A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert to throw to for an entire season certainly may have helped. Versatile running back Giovani Bernard also saw his season cut short by injury. The continued development of young receivers such as Tyler Boyd, Cody Core and James Wright is extremely important. The Bengals must also do a little tweaking on defense, especially when it comes to tightening up a group that finished 21st in the NFL in that key department in 2016. Head coach Marvin Lewis certainly deserved to return after a disappointing year. But he and the club must make amends quickly.

Offseason needs: The Bengals are a team that usually relies on the draft and probably will do so again in April. Meanwhile, veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler could both opt for free agency in March. However, it would be a bit of a surprise if the team lets either of them get away. Cincinnati has drafted plenty of cornerbacks in the first round in recent years and now must decide if they want to retain Dre’ Kirkpatrick. The five-year veteran tied for the team lead with three interceptions in 2016 and finished second on the club with 10 passes defensed.

Dec 24, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) after scoring a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders during the fourth quarter at the Oakland Coliseum. The Oakland Raiders defeated the Indianapolis Colts 33-25. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 24, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) after scoring a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders during the fourth quarter at the Oakland Coliseum. The Oakland Raiders defeated the Indianapolis Colts 33-25. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

23

Indianapolis Colts

8-8

Last week: 3rd, AFC South
Last rank: 23rd

Looking Back: After three consecutive seasons of going deeper into the playoffs, the Colts finished 8-8 for the second consecutive year. The team had its chances to get back to the playoffs but at times Indianapolis was its own worst enemy. Andrew Luck enjoyed a solid year but once again he didn’t get the support he truly needed.

Looking Forward: Embattled Chuck Pagano is still the team’s head coach. And we do know that Pat McAfee is no longer the team’s punter – opting for retirement following a colorful career. But what does that mean for a club that has seemingly underachieved in some people’s eyes? Of course, we know that’s not really the case and this is a club in need of talent in many aspects. It’s time to take a closer look at the true issues surrounding the club. Despite all their problems, the Colts fell just short of winning the AFC South each of the past two years.

Offseason needs: The Colts have a new general manager in Chris Ballard. His first and main priority is to address a defense that seemed to get worse over the last few years. In 2016, Indianapolis ranked 25th against the run, 27th vs. the pass and only two teams in the NFL allowed more total yards per game. Outside linebacker Erik Walden had a big year and accounted for one-third (11.0) of the team’s sub-par 33 sacks. But he is slated for free agency, as is strong safety Mike Adams. One of the Colts’ surprise player of ’16 was tight end Jack Doyle and he could hit the market as well.

Sep 25, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (91) tackles Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) during the second quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 25, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (91) tackles Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) during the second quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

22

Philadelphia Eagles

7-9

Last week: 4th, NFC East
Last rank: 22nd

Looking Back: A 3-0 start and an impressive play from rookie quarterback Carson Wentz had hopes high for the Birds and first-year NFL head coach Doug Pederson. But reality set in eventually and the Eagles’ problems away from home (1-7) were part of several problems this team had as the season unfolded.

Looking Forward: Wentz looked wise beyond his years early in the year but eventually reality for any first-time signal-caller sets in. Of course, it also didn’t help that the Philadelphia wide receiving corps was one of the more disappointing groups in the NFL this past season. And while the club did finish 11th in the NFL when it came to rushing yards per game, that figures to get better in 2017 if right tackle Lane Johnson can avoid another suspension. More importantly, general manager Howie Roseman has implemented a plan that appears to be on course. This is now a team headed in the right direction.

Offseason needs: We already mentioned the team’s deficiencies at wide receiver. Roseman did bring in Dorial Green-Beckham from the Tennessee Titans but he still appears to be a work in progress, as does 2015 first-round pick Nelson Agholor. The team’s best pass-catcher remains wideout Rishard Matthews. There’s been speculation that the Birds could take a flyer on a free agent such as Miami’s Kenny Stills (via Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com). But this is also a defensive unit that could use a little more help. Jim Schwartz did a terrific job but the group still has its shortcomings. Re-signing defensive tackle Bennie Logan is certainly a priority.

Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) catches a touchdown against Arizona Cardinals cornerback Brandon Williams (13) in the fourth quarter at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) catches a touchdown against Arizona Cardinals cornerback Brandon Williams (13) in the fourth quarter at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

21

New Orleans Saints

7-9

Last week: 3rd, NFC South
Last rank: 21st

Looking Back: Despite the amazing numbers put up by quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints once again finished under the .500 mark. To be more specific, Sean Payton’s squad has posted a 7-9 record three straight years and in four of the last five campaigns. The defense got somewhat better in 2016 but it remains a major albatross.

Looking Forward: The future remains bright for Payton and Brees in terms of offense. In each of the past 11 seasons, the Saints have been ranked no lower than sixth in total yards per game. And this year, New Orleans led the NFL in total offense. Young receivers such as Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas and Willie Snead make this quite an attack. And running backs Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower were keys to an improved ground attack. But Dennis Allen is the latest defensive coordinator on the hot seat in the Big Easy.

Offseason needs: The Saints continue to have defensive issues but the team got a big year from defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who they need to re-sign. However, this unit produced only 30 sacks while New Orleans came up with only 21 takeaways. The team needs to find a couple of top-notch pass-rushers in the draft and invest most of their picks on this side of the football. Playing in a division with Matt Ryan, Jameis Winston and Cam Newton is tough enough without having major issues in the secondary. Things were better than a year ago but no team in the league allowed more passing yards per contest.

Vikings

Oct 9, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) celebrates with defensive end Everson Griffen (97) and defensive tackle Tom Johnson (92) during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Texans 31-13. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

20

Minnesota Vikings

8-8

Last week: 3rd, NFC North
Last rank: 20th

Looking Back: Despite losing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the entire season and running back Adrian Peterson for the vast majority of 2016, Mike Zimmer still watched his team jump out to a 5-0 start. But a lack of talent eventually caught up with the Purple Gang, who dropped eight of their final 11 games and out of the playoffs.

Looking Forward: The much-discussed trade to obtain Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles just before the start of the season had its share of critics. But with Bridgewater’s status for 2017 still up in the air, you can understand why general manager was willing to give up two picks (first rounder in 2017 and fourth rounder in 2018) to get the still-young signal-caller. Despite the midseason resignation of offensive coordinator, Bradford did manage a respectable season. But things should be much better with more time to prepare for 2017. However, the one-time Rams’ quarterback needs to push the ball downfield a bit more and that will come with continued experience.

Offseason needs: A new medical staff? Zimmer’s team certainly had to deal with more than its share of injuries throughout the year. But be it Bridgewater and now Bradford, this is an offense that needs to be a bit more aggressive. Who knows what to expect from Peterson this fall. But this was a team that managed to split 16 games despite the NFL’s worst running attack. General manager Rick Spielman has some very big decisions to make in terms of tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, both slated to hit the open market in March. And have we seen the last of linebacker Chad Greenway and cornerback Terence Newman?

Dec 18, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy (25) runs with the ball during the second half against the Cleveland Browns at New Era Field. Bills beat the Browns 33-13. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 18, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy (25) runs with the ball during the second half against the Cleveland Browns at New Era Field. Bills beat the Browns 33-13. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

19

Buffalo Bills

7-9

Last week: 3rd, AFC East
Last rank: 19th

Looking Back: Rex Ryan didn’t even make it through his second season with the Bills. Two years under his guidance produced a combined 15 victories. And keep in mind that this was a club that boasted a 4-2 record after six games. The defense was even more troublesome than in 2015. Now this franchise once again has a new head coach.

Looking Forward: It is little wonder that this franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs this century. The lack of continuity both at head coach and at quarterback has derailed this club for more than a decade. Now it’s up to former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to get this franchise to the postseason for the first time since 1999. There’s more than enough talent on defense here but it needs to be properly utilized. And remember that 2016 second-round pick Reggie Ragland missed his rookie year. He could be an immediate impact player at the inside linebacking spot.

Offseason needs: Settling on a quarterback would be a good start for this underachieving club. It’s safe to say that Tyrod Taylor has earned the job but it doesn’t appear to be an opinion shared by everyone on the club. But general manager Doug Whaley also has some work to do in regards to his wide-receiving corps. It was an up-and-down year for Sammy Watkins in terms of healthy. More significantly, the quartet of Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, Justin Hunter and Brandon Tate are all potential unrestricted free agents come March. And linebackers Zach Brown and Lorenzo Alexander could also headed elsewhere as well.

Dec 4, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) runs for a fourth quarter touchdown against the Washington Redskins at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 4, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) runs for a fourth quarter touchdown against the Washington Redskins at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

18

Arizona Cardinals

7-8-1

Last week: 2nd, NFC West
Last rank: 18th

Looking Back: Bruce Arians’ team was a major disappointment in 2016. From the erratic play of quarterback Carson Palmer to the disaster known as the Arizona kicking game, the team saw its wins cut nearly in half from a 13-3 finish a year ago. And even the Cardinals’ second-ranked defense faded as the season unfolded.

Looking Forward: There’s been some speculation and quite a few rumors that Palmer may be done with football. They appear to be completely unfounded…for now. But what is evident is that this is not the same player that set franchise records in 2015. The issues began late a year ago and seemed to carry over into this campaign. Head coach Bruce Arians needs to take a closer look at his veteran signal-caller and find out what’s ailing him as of late. Despite all their issues, the team still managed to finish sixth in the league in scoring. And there’s still plenty of support with weapons such as running back David Johnson and wideout Larry Fitzgerald.

Offseason needs: Yes, the Cardinals released wide receiver Michael Floyd after some off-the-field issues during the year. But this club wasn’t that much different than the one that managed 13 victories and got to within one game of Super Bowl 50 one year earlier. The clubs has a number of potential unrestricted free agents to make decisions on but in truth, this team looks like one that had an off-year and not a squad in need of major revamping. General manager Steve Keim has a large number of defensive backs that he may or may not opt to bring back. But Arizona’s biggest priority seems to be potential free agent defensive end Calais Campbell.

Nov 24, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Washington Redskins wide receiver Jamison Crowder (80) avoids the tackle of Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick (32) in the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium. Dallas won 31-26. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 24, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Washington Redskins wide receiver Jamison Crowder (80) avoids the tackle of Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick (32) in the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium. Dallas won 31-26. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

17

Washington Redskins

8-7-1

Last week: 3rd, NFC East
Last rank: 17th

Looking Back: It was truly a rollercoaster showing for the defending NFC East champions. Jay Gruden’s club still had a chance to secure a playoff invitation on the final Sunday of the regular season. But the Redskins came up short at home to the Giants and there was no second straight trip to the playoffs.

Looking Forward: Scoring points doesn’t really seem to be the issue with Gurden’s squad. And it was no surprise that defensive coordinator Joe Barry was given his walking papers after back-to-back seasons in which Washington allowed the fifth-most total yards in the league. The team promoted Greg Manusky and the pressure is on. The team could still use some help on the defensive front but they have assembled some big-time players in terms of pass rushers. Cornerback Josh Norman was a big-time addition but this unit is still in dire need of talent at numerous positions. And in case you’re wondering, stopping the run and the pass have both been big-time sore spots in recent years.

Offseason needs: Getting a new deal done with quarterback Kirk Cousins should be the top priority. From top to bottom, the Redskins may have the best receiving corps in the NFL. Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson are complemented by Jamison Crowder. And we are still waiting to get more from Josh Doctson. Add in tight end Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis and this is quite the group. But Garcon, Jackson and Davis are all unrestricted free agents as of March. This is a Washington team dependent on its offense these days. Keeping this group intact is important. Of course, retaining all three potential free agents may not be realistic.

Dec 4, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (55) reacts after a play during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore Ravens defeated Miami Dolphins 38-6. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 4, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (55) reacts after a play during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore Ravens defeated Miami Dolphins 38-6. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

16

Baltimore Ravens

8-8

Last week: 2nd, AFC North
Last rank: 16th

Looking Back: From a 3-0 start to four consecutive losses and eventually an 8-8 finish, it wasn’t a bad bounce back year for John Harbaugh’s club. But the Ravens basically did just enough to win and lose close games all season. And when the smoke cleared, the team finished three games out of first place in the usually-formidable AFC North.

Looking Forward: Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. will now be talking about football instead of playing it. That means it’s time for 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman to shift his game into another gear. The club also needs to re-establish a ground attack and the immediate future could be Kenneth Dixon. Tight end Dennis Pitta was a great comeback story and another year of health will mean good things for quarterback Joe Flacco. General manager Ozzie Newsome has always done a good job of restocking the cupboard. But after missing the playoffs three of the past four seasons (after going to the postseason in each of John Harbaugh’s first 5 years as head coach), is this club truly in decline?

Offseason needs: Nose tackle Brandon Williams is one of more underrated players at his position in the NFL. Similar to Damon Harrison and Linval Joseph with the New York Jets and New York Giants, respectively, Williams will command a lot of attention should he hit the open market. That was certainly the case for the aforementioned duo, now members of the Giants and Minnesota Vikings, respectively. It would not be a shock to see Newsome utilize the franchise tag on his sturdy defensive lineman. No doubt the Ravens would also like to re-sign potential free-agent fullback Kyle Juszcsyk, who has impressed with his hard-nosed play.

Nov 27, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA;Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) celebrates after they sacked Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) (not pictured) during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 27, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA;Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) celebrates after they sacked Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) (not pictured) during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

15

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

9-7

Last week: 2nd, NFC South
Last rank: 15th

Looking Back: Dirk Koetter’s club stumbled a bit out of the gate. A win at Atlanta was followed by three consecutive losses. But this club slowly but surely got its act together on both sides of the football and challenged for a playoff berth. Kudo’s to the head coach and defensive coordinator Mike Smith as the Bucs finished above .500 for the first time since 2010.

Looking Forward: This will be a fascinating club to watch down the line. Quarterback Jameis Winston has emerged as a strong team leader and his rapport with wideout Mike Evans has been impressive. The team has incorporated new weapons via wide receiver Adam Humphries and emerging tight end Cameron Brate. A more consistent ground attack would make this offense even more formidable. It will be interesting to see what the future has in store for running back Doug Martin, although Charles Sims is certainly a viable option. Defensively, there’s a lot to build on here, especially with young performers such as defensive end Noah Spence and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.

Offseason needs: The Buccaneers have some holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball in terms of potential unrestricted free agents. Four-year pros William Gholston and Akeem Spence could be available to others teams, as could safeties Chris Conte and Brad McDougald. Adding some depth at the skill positions certainly wouldn’t hurt. And will veteran wideout Vincent Jackson be back with the club after missing all of 2016? There’s speculation that he may retire but his contract will expire. However, what this young and talented team perhaps needs more than anything else is another year of seasoning with the current coaching staff.

Jan 1, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Anquan Boldin (80) runs after a catch against Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Jake Ryan (47) and strong safety Morgan Burnett (42) during the second quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 1, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Anquan Boldin (80) runs after a catch against Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Jake Ryan (47) and strong safety Morgan Burnett (42) during the second quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

14

Detroit Lions

9-7

Last week: 2nd, NFC North
Last rank: 14th

Looking Back: Head coach Jim Caldwell led the Lions to the playoffs for the second time in three years. But this was a team that slumped down the stretch. A 9-4 start was followed by a season-ending three-game losing streak that saw the Green Bay Packers rally to win the NFC North. And the Detroit offense was quiet in a 26-6 wild card loss to the Seahawks in Seattle.

Looking Forward: Mathew Stafford came into his own as a complete quarterback and leader in 2016. But a late-season figure injury limited his effectiveness down the stretch. Still, the Lions have a solid season to build off of and if they shore up a few areas, they should once again contend in the division. Veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin led the team with eight touchdown receptions but he has 14 years under his belt. But Caldwell, Stafford and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter still have plenty of options at the position with Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Andre Robert if Boldin doesn’t return.

Offseason needs: Be it injuries or just a lack of talent, the absence of a running game in the Motor City these past three seasons has been unnerving and made life a lot harder on Stafford then it has to be. Having Ameer Abdullah healthy in 2017 would be huge but general manager Bob Quinn may want to invest a pick or two on the position just in case. Theo Riddick wound up leading the team with 357 yards on the ground and Zach Zenner (334) ran hard when given the chance. But this is an area that must be addressed and that also starts with decisions on potential free-agent blockers in Riley Reiff and Larry Warford.

Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris (25) celebrates his interception with Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib (21) and strong safety T.J. Ward (43) in the fourth quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris (25) celebrates his interception with Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib (21) and strong safety T.J. Ward (43) in the fourth quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

13

Denver Broncos

9-7

Last week: 3rd, AFC West
Last rank: 13th

Looking Back: It looked like it would be business as usual for the defending Super Bowl champions. Despite new faces at quarterback, the Broncos jumped out to a 4-0 start. But the defense was not what it was in 2015 and the team’s inability to consistently run the football saw this club dropped seven of its final 12 games and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

Looking Forward: It remains to be seen who new head coach Vance Joseph will opt for when it comes to his starting quarterback. We saw a lot of Trevor Siemian and a little of 2016 first-rounder Paxton Lynch. But the jury is certainly out on both players. What we do know is that Mike McCoy is back with the Broncos after four seasons at the helm of the San Diego Chargers. With a healthy C.J. Anderson around and Devontae Booker coming off a respectable rookie showing, Denver should improve on a ground attack that finished 27th in the NFL this past year.

Offseason needs: The defense was good in 2016 but it was far from the unit that paved the way for a Super Bowl championship one year earlier. That’s because the team missed free-agent defectors such as defensive tackle Malik Jackson and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan. The results were a club that ranked fourth overall in terms of fewest yards allowed. But only four teams in the league allowed more yards on the ground. Denver did not pick up the option on four-year nose tackle/2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams. And we’ll see if veteran outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware will return for a 13th NFL season. In any case, new defensive coordinator Joe Woods has a daunting task.

Dec 4, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) runs past Baltimore Ravens linebacker Matt Judon (91) during the second half at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore Ravens defeated Miami Dolphins 38-6. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 4, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) runs past Baltimore Ravens linebacker Matt Judon (91) during the second half at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore Ravens defeated Miami Dolphins 38-6. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

12

Miami Dolphins

10-6

Last week: 2nd, AFC East
Last rank: 12th

Looking Back: Following a 1-4 start, new head coach Adam Gase’s Dolphins looked a lot like the team’s recent predecessors. But thanks to a revitalized ground game led by running back Jay Ajayi and better offensive line play, the team won nine of its final 11 contests and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Looking Forward: While veteran Matt Moore certainly held his own, having Ryan Tannehill back and healthy in 2017 would obviously be a major plus. And it will be interesting to see if the team decides to bring back wide receiver Kenny Stills, who could become a big target for other teams in free agency. Still, the elephant in the AFC East room remains the New England Patriots. The Dolphins were the last team to win the division (2008) before Bill Belichick’s club embarked on its current run. And Gase and company must find a way to end the Pats’ dominance if they want to challenge for a Super Bowl from other than the wild card route.

Offseason needs: For all of the good news, the Dolphins’ defense remains a major disappointment. Only the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns gave up more yards on the ground than this club. And those teams combined to win three games in 2016. The franchise has done more than its share when it comes to free agency and trades and now must address this unit heavily during the draft. With Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake and Reshad Jones to build around, the cupboard is not bare. But it’s safe to say that new defensive coordinator Matt Burke has his work cut out for him.

Nov 13, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) is sacked by Tennessee Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo (98) during the second half at Nissan Stadium. The Titans won 47-25. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 13, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) is sacked by Tennessee Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo (98) during the second half at Nissan Stadium. The Titans won 47-25. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

11

Tennessee Titans

9-7

Last week: 2nd, AFC South
Last rank: 11th

Looking Back: You simply have to be impressed from what you saw from this young team. After managing a combined 5-27 record the previous two season entering 2016, Mike Mularkey guided the Titans to a 9-7 finish. The defense had some ups and downs but was a much-improved unit. And thanks to quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back DeMarco Murray, the Tennessee offense grew as the year wore on.

Looking Forward: This is a very promising team more than capable of winning a division title in 2017. The team has put together a formidable offensive line and only the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys ran the ball better this year. Mariota made considerable strides as the season unfolded, although he did suffer a broken leg in a Week 16 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Murray rebounded from an odd year in Philadelphia by finishing third in the NFL in rushing. Tennessee’s young but talent-laden offensive line can only get better and Dick LeBeau’s defense may be a couple of key components from being extremely formidable.

Offseason needs: While only the Dallas Cowboys gave up fewer yards on the ground, some help is still needed in the secondary. Tennessee ranked 30th in the league in passing yards per game allowed. While the Titans only surrendered 35 offensive touchdowns in 16 games, 25 of those scores came through the air. But LeBeau’s defenders only picked off 12 passes and the team managed only 18 takeaways. Cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Brice McCain remain under contract, as is underrated strong safety Da’Norris Searcy. If the club fails to bring back Matt Cassel, Marrone’s club could be in the market for a veteran backup behind Mariota.

Dec 18, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans running back Lamar Miller (26) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 18, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans running back Lamar Miller (26) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

10

Houston Texans

9-7

Last week: 1st, AFC South
Last rank: 10th

Looking Back: If you would have told anyone that J.J. Watt would miss the final 13 games of the season and the Texans would finish as the league’s top-ranked defense in terms of fewest yards allowed, you would hang around waiting for the punch line. And Houston rode this unit, as well as workhorse running back Lamar Miller, to a second straight division title.

Looking Forward: Despite giving free-agent quarterback Brock Osweiler a four-year deal worth $72 million last March, the job behind center appears to be wide open. Head coach Bill O’Brien has gone through eight different starting quarterbacks in three seasons with the club and the team has to settle on one signal-caller if they are to take the next step in terms of a championship. Three-year pro Tom Savage finally got his chance to show what he could do as a starter but he certainly didn’t wow the team. On defense, Romeo Crennel remains with the franchise but Mike Vrabel was elevated to defensive coordinator in January.

Offseason needs: With veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork thinking about retiring after 13 seasons, the Texans hope to find a worthy successor who can clog the middle. After a slow start, this was a defense that got much better when it came to stopping the run. And Houston needs to build on that, especially with the Tennessee Titans and one of the league’s best running games fast on their heels. Houston’s front-seven emerged as a force and underrated outside linebacker John Simon is a player the club needs to bring back. Strong safety Quintin Demps had six of the team’s 11 interceptions but he could also opt to test his value on the free-agent market in March.

Nov 27, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; New York Giants strong safety Landon Collins (21) just misses an interception on a ball intended for Cleveland Browns tight end Seth DeValve (87) during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 27, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; New York Giants strong safety Landon Collins (21) just misses an interception on a ball intended for Cleveland Browns tight end Seth DeValve (87) during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

9

New York Giants

11-5

Last week: 2nd, NFC East
Last rank: 9th

Looking Back: It was another rollercoaster year for Big Blue. Only this time, the Giants were back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011. The defense rebounded from a disappointing 2015 and were playing good football entering the playoffs. But the team’s shortcomings on the offensive side of the ball reared their head throughout the year and especially in the lopsided Wild Card loss to the Green Bay Packers.

Looking Forward: First-time NFL head coach Ben McAdoo drew mixed reviews during his debut campaign. The Giants did return to the playoffs but the lack of consistency on offense was perplexing given McAdoo’s forte. Only three teams in the league ran for fewer yards than the Giants. But on a positive note, running back Paul Perkins could bear watching in 2017. A fifth-round draft choice in April, he finished second on the team with 456 yards rushing. He needs to play a bigger role in the immediate future if this offense is to become more balanced. And that can only make an improving defensive unit better.

Offseason needs: Quarterback Eli Manning has wideouts Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Sharpe and Victor Cruz. But this teams could still use more help at the position. General manager Jerry Reese has some issues to address on the other side of the ball as defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul can test free agency in March. And could the team bring in a veteran to push left tackle Ereck Flowers, who has had his issues in two NFL seasons? The Giants have been a lot busier in free agency in recent seasons than in the past and that’s not expected to change this spring.

NFL

Dec 18, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) reacts during the first quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

8

Oakland Raiders

12-4

Last week: 2nd, AFC West
Last rank: 8th

Looking Back: The Silver and Black finally returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Quarterback Derek Carr and the Oakland offense was the major reasons why. But the third-year signal-caller went down with a broken leg in a Week 16 win over the Colts. And Jack Del Rio’s team would go out quietly in the wild card round.

Looking Forward: The Raiders’ quarterback figures to be ready sooner than later. And if his first three seasons are any indication, this is an offensive unit that will only get better thanks in large part to his heady play. Oakland ranked sixth in the league in total offense and rushing but general manager Reggie McKenzie must decide on whether to bring back running back Latavius Murray and at what price. The rest of the offense remains intact. But the defense needs another year of fine-tuning despite a number of key additions last offseason. Of course, learning how to beat the Kansas City Chiefs would help as well.

Offseason needs: The offense is one of the best in the league. But when this unit sticks the ball in the end zone 46 times and the defense allows 45 offensive touchdowns, you won’t be going very far in terms of the playoffs. This is a team that features 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack and spent big money last year on free agents Sean Smith and ball hawk Reggie Nelson. But the end result was disappointing and it looks like McKenzie is going to have to focus on this side of the football for a second consecutive offseason.

Oct 16, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (25) defends Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) during the second quarter at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 16, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (25) defends Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) during the second quarter at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

7

Seattle Seahawks

10-5-1

Last week: 1st, NFC West
Last rank: 7th

Looking Back: Yes, the team won the NFC West and have now reached the playoffs in each of the past five seasons. And usually Pete Carroll’s team is surging into the postseason. But after a 7-2-1 start the club split its final six regular-season games and were eventually denied a Super Bowl trip by the Atlanta Falcons.

Looking Forward: After being arguably the best division in football over the course of five seasons, the Seahawks were the only team in the NFC West to enjoy a winning season (the Cardinals, Rams and 49ers combined for a 13-34-1 record) in ‘16. But this club still managed to lose at Los Angeles and a home game to Arizona. This is a franchise that has excelled under the current head coach and quarterback Russell Wilson since 2012. But for the first time during this current run, we saw some very disturbing signs from this club. Was this simply an off-year or does this franchise need to change some of its philosophies?

Offseason needs: The Seahawks need to bring in some quality offensive linemen that are truly masters at their craft instead of simply trying to develop projects into players. In recent seasons, they’ve lost one-time first-round picks such as left tackle Russell Okung and guard James Carpenter to free agency. Not having star free safety Earl Thomas down the stretch proved to be extremely costly despite the talent in the secondary. Perhaps the Seahawks could use an early-round pick to grab a little insurance for the seven-year pro. The defending NFC West champions could use a little more depth on the defensive front as well.

Dec 8, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) celebrates after making a catch against the Oakland Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won 21-13. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 8, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) celebrates after making a catch against the Oakland Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won 21-13. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

6

Kansas City Chiefs

12-4

Last week: 1st, AFC West
Last rank: 6th

Looking Back: One year after rebounding from a 1-5 start to finish 11-5 and grab a playoff berth, the Chiefs shook off an erratic first four games (2-2), went 10-2 the rest of the way and won the AFC West for the first time since 2012. And while this team ended its long postseason losing streak in 2015, Andy Reid’s club couldn’t build on that this season and fell at home to the Steelers in the Divisional Playoffs.

Looking Forward: The Chiefs have mastered that game of takeaway. Back in 2014, Reid’s squad forced only 14 turnovers in 16 contests. One year later, the club more than doubled their pleasure in that department (29). In ’16, Kansas City led the NFL in forcing 33 turnovers. But it’s also worth noting that Bob Sutton’s defender depended on those takeaways, which is certainly not a good habit to get into. While quarterback Alex Smith and the offense could always use a little more firepower, the Chiefs won’t get away with another season in which they finish 24th in the league in total defense and rank 26th in the NFL against the run.

Offseason needs: With veteran running back Jamaal Charles basically a non-factor in 2015 due to injuries, it will be interesting to see if the Chiefs opt to bolster this position even with Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West in toe. Age is starting to become a big factor when it comes to veteran linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali. But nose tackle Dontari Poe could become an unrestricted free agent in March. And perennial Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry, who comes off a year in which he made more than his share of huge plays to rescue the Chiefs, has already made it clear he won’t play under the franchise tag in 2017 (as he did this season).

Dec 11, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs with the ball as Buffalo Bills inside linebacker Preston Brown (52) pursues and strong safety Aaron Williams (23) defends during the second half at New Era Field. Steelers beat the Bills 27-20. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 11, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (26) runs with the ball as Buffalo Bills inside linebacker Preston Brown (52) pursues and strong safety Aaron Williams (23) defends during the second half at New Era Field. Steelers beat the Bills 27-20. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

5

Pittsburgh Steelers

11-5

Last week: 1st, AFC North
Last rank: 5th

Looking Back: The season concluded with a disappointing showing in the AFC Championship Game. All told, it was still a season with more positives than negatives as Mike Tomlin’s club reached the postseason for the third straight year. And following a 4-5 start, the determined Steelers reeled off nine straight overall wins before falling hard in Foxborough.

Looking Forward: We saw the AFC North champions re-invent themselves on offense at midseason. They took advantage of their talent on the offensive line and running back Le’Veon Bell’s versatility and the combination carried Mike Tomlin’s attack. Now consider that the talented performer missed the first three games of the season due to a league suspension and rested in Week 17. Still, Bell put up a gaudy 1,884 yards from scrimmage in a dozen outings, third in the NFL behind only Arizona’s David Johnson and Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott. Granted he gets re-signed, we can probably look for more of the same in 2017. There’s a lot of life left in Bell’s legs and he’s more than capable of even better things down the road.

Offseason needs: The Steelers need to get Bell a new contract and by all indications, they will slap the franchise tag on the four-year pro. Elsewhere, there were some promising signs by some of the team’s young defensive players such as second-year outside linebacker Bud Dupree and rookies such as safety Sean Davis and defensive linemen Javon Hargrave. But the club lacked consistency when it came to rushing the passer. The team also has some decisions to make on potential unrestricted free-agent linebackers Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones (the team declined his fifth-year option) and James Harrison. General manager Kevin Colbert could also look to add some youth and depth at the running back position.

Jan 8, 2017; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) during the game against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 8, 2017; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) during the game against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

4

Green Bay Packers

10-6

Last week: 1st, NFC North
Last rank: 4th

Looking Back: From a 4-6 start to one game within the Super Bowl, the Packers found themselves shorthanded at running back and in the secondary for the majority of the season. A big second-half from quarterback Aaron Rodgers and some improvisation on the part of head coach Mike McCarthy saw Green Bay reach the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year.

Looking Forward: Rodgers comes off another sensational year (NFL-best 40 touchdown passes) and there’s no reason to believe that he’s not capable of many more. But he can’t do it alone and that seemed to be the case for most of 2016 due to injuries in the backfield, hence a lack of balance on offense. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for four-year running back Eddie Lacy, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March. His last two seasons have been disappointing compared to his initial pair of campaigns in which he topped the 1,100-yard mark each year and ran for a combined 20 scores.

Offseason needs: Will general manager Ted Thompson finally opt to make free agency a bigger part of Green Bay’s offseason? First things first. And that means re-signing several key performers such as 2016 team sack leader Nick Perry, valuable defensive back Micah Hyde, guard T.J. Lang and possibly tight end Jared Cook. Will outside linebacker Julius Peppers return for another season? This is a team that has come within one game of the Super Bowl in two of these past three years but at times it also looks like a club hanging on by a thread.

Sep 28, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick (72), guard Ronald Leary (65) and tackle Tyron Smith (77) on the line of scrimmage against the New Orleans Saints at AT&T Stadium. Dallas beat New Orleans 38-17. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 28, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick (72), guard Ronald Leary (65) and tackle Tyron Smith (77) on the line of scrimmage against the New Orleans Saints at AT&T Stadium. Dallas beat New Orleans 38-17. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

3

Dallas Cowboys

13-3

Last week: 1st, NFC East
Last rank: 3rd

Looking Back: For the second time in three years, the Cowboys won the NFC East thanks to a dominant running game, a talent-laden offensive front and the ability to keep a suspect defense off the field. Quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott came up big. But ultimately, that aforementioned defensive unit proved to be the team’s undoing in the playoff loss to the Packers.

Looking Forward: There are a lot of positives when it comes to this club. Prescott corralled NFL Offensive Rookie of the year honors and Elliott easily led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards. The offensive line is young and talented as well. Wide receiver Dez Bryant and Prescott finally got on the same page as their playing time with each other increased. All that being said, the team won’t be able to take the next step unless their defensive unit starts to make strides. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the Cowboys ranked first in the NFL against the run. The same team also ranked 26th in the league when it came to allowing yards through the air.

Offseason needs: We feel like we are beating a dead horse. But you can’t overestimate the issues on that side of the ball. Outside linebacker Sean Lee had a big year and defensive end David Irving showed promise as a pass rusher. Still, the Cowboys have their share of decisions that have to be made in terms of personnel considering cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr and safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox can all become unrestricted free agents in March. The team would be wise to invest the vast majority of April’s draft on defense and let those young players grow and learn under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) looks to pass during the second quarter against the New England Patriots during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) looks to pass during the second quarter against the New England Patriots during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

2

Atlanta Falcons

11-5

Last week: 1st, NFC South
Last rank: 2nd

Looking Back: The Atlanta Falcons reached the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history. The team owned a 28-3 lead in the game and couldn’t close the deal. The club has a lot to be proud of following a 2015 season in which they opened 5-0 and finished 8-8. But this will be the one that got away.

Looking Forward: The Atlanta offense was prolific this season, scoring a league-high 540 points (tied for the eighth most in NFL history). Quarterback Matt Ryan was the NFL’s MVP. And youth was served when it came to the Atlanta defense in April’s draft and rookies Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De’Vandre Campbell all made their presence felt more and more as the season unfolded. Head coach Dan Quinn has stressed speed when it comes to that side of ball and it was evident down the stretch and throughout the postseason. There is a lot to be optimistic about despite the heartbreaking loss to the Patriots in Houston.

Offseason needs: This is basically a young roster with very few contractual issues in front of it. The team has its share of veterans on both sides of the ball but the majority of those performers are there for depth. General manager Thomas Dimitroff did quite the job during the 2016 offseason with the draft and free agency and there’s no reason to think the team can’t build off this year. The defense is still in need of some work and eventually it wore down after a tremendous start on Super Sunday. The Falcons need to put the Super Bowl loss behind them as soon as possible. And that won’t be easy.

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) and wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) celebrate their win over Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. The Patriots won 34-28. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) and wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) celebrate their win over Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. The Patriots won 34-28. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

1

New England Patriots

14-2

Last week: 1st, AFC East
Last rank: 1st

Looking Back: It was only fitting that the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady stage the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. The team’s 34-28 overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons saw the legendary signal-caller, who didn’t appear in a game this season until Week 5, throw for a record 466 yards and a pair of touchdowns (1 interception) in erasing a 28-3 deficit. Congrats to the champs once again.

Looking Forward: How do you top what we saw in Houston? That’s easy. Because this franchise is all about consistency and efficiency. Five Super Bowl titles in 16 years and no losing seasons over that stretch. But as we know, there will be changes to the roster as mastermind Bill Belichick has perfected the art of winning under the current system. Brady shows no signs of slowing down and that can only mean good things for a club that has won eight consecutive AFC East title and won 10 or more games every year since ’03. This is an organization on one of the greatest runs in the league’s 97-year history.

Offseason needs: As usual, the Super Bowl champion Patriots will have some interesting decisions to make when it comes to their payroll. The two biggest names in terms of potential free agents on the defensive side of the ball are middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower and cornerback Logan Ryan (but let’s not forget Jabaal Sheard and Alan Branch). On the other side of the ball, tight end Martellus Bennett and running back LeGarrette Blount could become available to other clubs around the league. And what are the Patriots feeling when it comes to wide receiver Michael Floyd? All told, this franchise may make some unpopular decisions but they are likely the correct ones.

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