Rick Gosselin's Week 1 NFL rankings -- it's top heavy with the AFC

Patrick Mahomes photo courtesy of USA Today

Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes was the NFL's best player as a first-year starter. How good can he be in Year 2?

Editor's note: Rick Gosselin is in his 47th season reporting on the NFL in 2019. He has covered the Lions, Giants, Chiefs and Cowboys in his career plus 36 Super Bowls. He has served on the Hall of Fame selection committee and is a member of both the senior and contributor sub-committees. Gosselin also is one of the 12 voters for the AP 32, the weekly ranking of NFL teams conducted by the Associated Press. Here is his ballot for Week 1:

The NFL has not had a repeat champion since the New England Patriots in 2003-04. So don’t be so quick to pencil in the Patriots as a repeat champion in 2019. Here’s how Rick Gosselin sees the NFL rankings heading into the opening weekend:

1. Kansas City Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes was the NFL MVP in his first season as a starter in 2018 when he became just the third quarterback in history to throw 50 TD passes, joining Payton Manning and Tom Brady. How much better can he be now that he has seen all that NFL defenses have to offer? Coach Andy Reid is anxious to find out.

2. Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers have the script to contend for a Super Bowl with a Top-5 defense and a franchise quarterback in Philip Rivers. But the Chargers are without their top running back Melvin Gordon, who continues to hold out for a better contract. When does he show up?

3. New England Patriots. Tom Brady is 42 and will be without his best offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski, who has retired. But playing in a soft division should give the Patriots their 11th consecutive AFC East crown and keep them in contention for the top playoff seed in the conference.

4. Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles will be as good as quarterback Carson Wentz – or more accurately, his health -- allows them to be. In 2017, Wentz was having an NFL MVP-caliber season before a knee injury ended his year after 13 games. Then last season he again sat the final three games, this time with a back injury. The acquisition of RB Jordan Howard and WR DeSean Jackson and the presence of Pro Bowl TE Zach Ertz give Wentz and the Eagles an offensive cast to reach a Super Bowl.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers. The distractions created by a disillusioned running back (Le’Veon Bell) and a disenchanted wide receiver (Antonio Brown) are now gone. The Steelers return a franchise quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) and the NFL’s best pass rush. That formula alone guarantees playoff contention.

6. Dallas Cowboys. The NFC East has not seen a repeat champion since the Philadelphia Eagles in 2003-04. The Cowboys are seeking to repeat and, after a summer-long holdout, their best player Ezekiel Elliott has signed a contract that makes him the NFL's highest-paid running back. This is the deepest team Dallas has fielded since its Super Bowl era. No excuses now for head coach Jason Garrett.

7. Los Angeles Rams. Todd Gurley was an NFL MVP candidate in 2018 when he scored 21 touchdowns on 17 runs and four receptions. But he wasn’t the same back in the post-season because of a knee injury. He averaged only 10 carries per game in the playoffs, down from his 18 carries per game during the season. A return to the Super Bowl by L.A. could hinge on Gurley’s knee. In 2019 will he be the back the Rams saw in the regular season … or the back they saw in the playoffs?

8. Chicago Bears. Defense carried the Bears to their last two championships in 1985 and 1963. They have the defense to win it all again in 2019. The Bears return four Pro Bowlers from a Top-3 defense: edge rusher Khalil Mack, interior run stuffer Akiem Hicks, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson. But QB Mitch Trubisky needs to offer more than the 3,200 yards passing and 24 TDs of his rookie season in 2018.

9. New Orleans Saints. Tom Brady isn’t the only former NFL MVP in his 40s this season. Drew Brees also is 40 and will be 41 if the Saints reach the Super Bowl. But Brees seems to be showing his age. He failed to pass for 4,000 yards last season for the first time in 13 years. The offensive focus may be shifting to dynamic RB Alvin Kamara.

10. Jacksonville Jaguars. A Top-5 defense and the addition of past Super Bowl hero Nick Foles to stabilize the quarterback position has fueled aspirations of a Super Bowl in Jacksonville. But the Jaguars went 0-4 in the preseason. Only one team in history finished winless in the preseason and then went on to win the Super Bowl – the 1982 Washington Redskins.

11. Baltimore Ravens. Like the Bears, the Ravens are at their best as a Super Bowl contender when they play great defense. And they do play great defense. Baltimore finished first in the NFL in defense a year ago and are better on paper in 2019 with the arrival of Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas. The question mark remains QB Lamar Jackson. Can a running quarterback hoist a Lombardi Trophy?

12. Seattle Seahawks. The Legion of Doom is no longer with the departures in recent years of Pro Bowlers Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. But MLB Bobby Wagner remains, and the Seahawks added teeth to the pass rush with the acquisition of Pro Bowl edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney last weekend. Russell Wilson works magic at quarterback.

13. Minnesota Vikings. Kirk Cousins passed for 4,200 yards and 30 touchdowns in his debut season with the Vikings. With Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs as his targets, that wasn’t nearly enough for the Vikings to contend for a playoff spot. Coach Mike Zimmer has built a Top-5 defense. He needs his offense to be much better than their No. 20 ranking of 2018.

14. Green Bay Packers. The Packers have the most efficient passer in NFL history in Aaron Rodgers, a quarterback capable of beating any opponent on any field on any given weekend. This season Green Bay will have a new head coach (Matt LaFleur) and an increased emphasis on defense with a flurry of free agent signings. Even with Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers can’t compete for Super Bowls when they are allowing 400 points in a season.

15. Atlanta Falcons. Like the Packers, the Falcons have a past MVP taking the snaps at quarterback (Matt Ryan) but a deficient defense that prevented Atlanta from competing for a playoff spot a year ago. The Falcons finished 28th in defense and allowed 423 points. That cost defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel his job, and head coach Dan Quinn will take over the coordinator duties himself. But the Falcons didn’t spend a draft pick on defense until the fourth round.

16. Cleveland Browns. The Browns haven’t been to the playoffs in 16 seasons, the longest drought in the NFL. But the arrivals of QB Baker Mayfield in 2018 and WR Odell Beckham in 2019 have provided a rare optimistic spin for the Browns this season and real hope that the drought could be ending soon.

17. Carolina Panthers. Defensive mainstays DE Julius Peppers and OLB Thomas Davis are gone. So the Panthers will have to rely even heavier on offense than in years past. The season once again will hinge on the hands and legs of Christian McCaffrey and the arm and legs of Cam Newton.

18. Buffalo Bills. The NFL has been waiting for more than a decade for someone in the AFC East to rise up and challenge the Patriots. Will it finally be the Bills? Sean McDermott has built a Top-3 defense, and the continued development of Josh Allen, a Top-10 pick in 2018, gives Buffalo hope that better days are ahead. The free-agent additions of WRs John Brown and Cole Beasley should accelerate Allen’s development.

19. Houston Texans. Bill O’Brien is still in the running for NFL Coach of the Year, but he can forget about Executive of the Year. Serving as the team’s interim GM, O’Brien received too little from Seattle for a Pro Bowl pass rusher (Jadeveon Clowney) and then paid too much to Miami for a non-Pro Bowl left tackle (Laremy Tunsil) in trades last weekend. The Texans also lost RB Lamar Miller to a preseason knee injury.

20. Washington Redskins. The addition of S Landon Collins in free agency gives the Redskins a playmaking dimension at the back end of the defense to go along with one of the league’s better pass rushes at the front end. Washington used a first-round draft pick on Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins but free-agent acquisition Case Keenum is less likely to make the mistakes to put the Redskins’ defense in bad positions.

21. Tennessee Titans. Coach Mike Vrabel wants to play old school football – run the ball on offense, control the clock, and allow a fresh defense to become a shutdown force. That was the formula in 2018 as the Titans finished just out of the playoffs with a 9-7 record. If Derrick Henry has another 1,000-yard season in 2019, Tennessee may be ready to take the next step as a contender.

22. Denver Broncos. The Broncos had success in the past bringing in a Super Bowl MVP (Peyton Manning) to fix their quarterbacking woes. This time they have brought in another past Super Bowl MVP (Joe Flacco) to settle things down again. But the AFC West is stacked with the Chiefs and Chargers sitting at the top.

23. Detroit Lions. The Jaguars weren’t the only team to go winless in the preseason. So did the Detroit Lions. But August football has always been meaningless for the Lions. They finished 4-0 in the 2008 preseason and then went on to become the first NFL team to finish 0-16.

24. New York Jets. The Jets replaced defensive-minded Todd Bowles as head coach with offensive-minded Adam Gase, and his influence is already apparent. The Jets signed Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell and WR Jamison Crowder in free agency, which should speed the development of QB Sam Darnold as he enters his second season.

25. San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers acquired edge rusher Dee Ford in a trade with the Chiefs and signed LB Kwon Alexander in free agency away from the Buccaneers. They also signed RB Tevin Coleman away from the Falcons in free agency. What they really need is for QB Jimmy Garoppolo to stay healthy. He missed 10 games last season with a knee injury, and the season went south.

26. New York Giants. The clock is now ticking on two-time Super Bowl-winning QB Eli Manning. His heir apparent has arrived in Daniel Jones, a Top 10 pick last April. And Jones flashed in the preseason, completing 85 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and no turnovers. Manning needs to win to stay on the field.

27. Oakland Raiders. The Raiders spent more than $100 million in free agency this offseason on two participants from the last Super Bowl, Patriots' left tackle Trent Brown and Rams' safety LaMarcus Joyner. Like head coach Jon Gruden, they know what it takes to get to a Super Bowl. But what the Raiders don’t have is Tom Brady at quarterback and the Rams’ pass rush on defense. So the rebuild continues.

28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jameis Winston relies too much on his cannon arm and takes too many chances – 58 interceptions in four seasons. Quarterback whisperer Bruce Arians is the new head coach, and he’s been trying to convince Winston he should utilize his check downs rather than try to force dangerous throws down the field. The fewer mistakes Winston makes in 2019, the better the Bucs will play.

29. Indianapolis Colts. How quickly can a team go from consequential to inconsequential in the NFL? As quickly as it takes a franchise quarterback to retire – as Indy’s Andrew Luck did last week. With his talented right arm, Luck won 62 percent of his career starts. Now the offense is in the hands of Jacoby Brissett, who has won 29 percent of his career starts.

30. Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in 18 years, the longest such drought in the NFL. At least Marvin Lewis kept the Bengals competing for playoffs spots in the last 15 seasons. Now he’s gone, and Zac Taylor steps in to replace him. He was the quarterback coach of the NFC-champion Rams last season and helped Jared Goff to his best season. He’ll have a steeper uphill climb in Cincinnati with Andy Dalton.

31. Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins traded for Josh Rosen, a Top-10 draft pick in 2018 who started as a rookie for the Arizona Cardinals. Then Rosen lost the battle for the starting quarterback spot in training camp to journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. Where are Bob Griese and Dan Marino when you really need them? Trading away Laremy Tunsil to the Texans last weekend officially began the rebuilding process.

32. Arizona Cardinals. No franchise has gone longer without a championship than the Cardinals, whose drought is at 71 years and counting. Their hopes rest in 2019 with a coach who has never coached in the NFL (Kliff Kingsbury) and a quarterback who has never played in the NFL (Kyler Murray).

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