We planned to run the rankings after Peyton Manning signed with Denver, figuring that would be a good time to reassess the NFL landscape. Voters cast ballots by Tuesday. But when the Saints' punishment came down Wednesday, complete with a one-year suspension for coach Sean Payton, one of the highest-ranked teams was suddenly reeling.
Every panelist downgraded the Saints. John Clayton pointed to the Payton suspension as the single greatest blow. He saw New Orleans dropping from 12 to nine victories.
"Payton's mind, play-calling ability and leadership will be impossible to replace," Clayton wrote. "Payton took a Super Bowl ring away from Peyton Manning with his decision-making. His call for an onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV is a classic example of how a coach can win a game. Plus, his creative game plans and bold gambles will be missed."
The Saints and Oakland Raiders each dropped nine spots from our most recent rankings, which ran after the regular season. The Broncos climbed six spots to No. 8 after adding Manning as voters hedged somewhat over Manning's health. The Chicago Bears jumped a league-high 10 spots as voters anticipated Jay Cutler's return to the lineup.
The New York Giants were a near-unanimous No. 1 after winning the Super Bowl. Clayton ranked them fifth while other voters figured the defending champs should start at the top. "Unless they suffer giant losses, the Super Bowl champs deserve to be No. 1 in any preseason poll," voter Paul Kuharsky said. "That is my default setting."
And now, a closer look at the ranking, beginning with a look at how teams changed (or did not change) in the rankings from Week 18 last season:
Falling (15): New Orleans Saints (-9), Oakland Raiders (-9), Cincinnati Bengals (-8), Atlanta Falcons (-5), Miami Dolphins (-4), Tennessee Titans (-4), Pittsburgh Steelers (-3), Arizona Cardinals (-3), Green Bay Packers (-2), Cleveland Browns (-2), Dallas Cowboys (-1), San Francisco 49ers (-1), Minnesota Vikings (-1), Seattle Seahawks (-1), New York Jets (-1).
Rising (14): Chicago Bears (+10), New York Giants (+8), Denver Broncos (+6), Carolina Panthers (+5), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+5), Kansas City Chiefs (+5), Houston Texans (+4), Philadelphia Eagles (+3), Buffalo Bills (+2), St. Louis Rams (+2), New England Patriots (+2), Detroit Lions (+1), San Diego Chargers (+1), Washington Redskins (+1).
Deadlocked: We broke four ties. Denver prevailed over Pittsburgh at No. 8 based on the first tiebreaker, head-to-head results. New Orleans edged Philadelphia at No. 11 based on the second tiebreaker, overall record. Arizona edged Seattle at No. 21, also on overall record. St. Louis beat out Cleveland at No. 29 based on head-to-head results.
Like minds: Only one spot separated high and low votes for the Packers, 49ers and Cowboys. Two spots separated high and low votes for the Patriots, Saints, Chiefs and Vikings.
Agree to disagree: Ten spots separated high and low votes for the Cardinals. Panelist James Walker ranked them only 27th, 10 spots lower than Paul Kuharsky and Ashley Fox ranked them.
"I think the Cardinals are stuck in the mud with Kevin Kolb," Walker said. "He's not a franchise quarterback, and the Cardinals can only go as far as Kolb takes them. Arizona has to live with that mistake for at least another year or two."
Walker, who covers the AFC East, was much higher on Buffalo. He ranked the Bills at No. 16. Everyone else had them between 22nd and 25th.
"The Bills have done everything right this offseason," Walker said. "I expect them to take the next step to at least the middle of the pack in 2012 -- if not more. It's not just the Mario Williams signing. Buffalo also gets back a healthy Fred Jackson and Kyle Williams."
A look at the teams generating high-low disparities of at least seven spots in the rankings:
Cardinals (10): Kuharsky and Fox ranked them 17th, higher than any other voter ranked them. Walker ranked them 27th, lower than any other voter ranked them.
Bills (9): Walker 16th, Sando 25th.
Panthers (8): Kuharsky and Fox 16th, Clayton 24th.
Bengals (8): Walker 14th, Kuharsky and Fox 22nd.
Jets (8): Clayton 15th, Sando 22nd.
Seahawks (8): Sando 17th, Kuharsky 25th.
Buccaneers (8): Clayton 19th, Kuharsky 27th.
Titans (7): Sando 16th, Walker 23rd.
Power Rankings histories: These colorful layered graphs show where each NFL team has ranked every week since the 2002 season.
Ranking the divisions: Teams from the NFC East ranked 12.8 on average, highest for any division. That was a change from Week 18 last season, when the AFC North and NFC North were 1-2 in highest overall ranking average.
A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least five spots since Week 18:
Sando: Bengals (-9), Saints (-8), Dolphins (-5), Raiders (-5), Titans (-5), Broncos (+6), Buccaneers (+7), Giants (+8), Bears (+12).
Clayton: Raiders (-13), Saints (-9), Bengals (-8), Giants (+6), Eagles (+8), Buccaneers (+9), Bears (+10).
Kuharsky: Bengals (-11), Saints (-9), Titans (-7), Raiders (-6), Dolphins (-6), Panthers (+5), Broncos (+5), Chiefs (+6), Redskins (+7), Giants (+9), Bears (+9).
Walker: Saints (-9), Titans (-9), Dolphins (-9), Raiders (-6), Falcons (-6), Steelers (-6), Cardinals (-6), Texans (+6), Giants (+7), Bills (+8), Broncos (+8), Buccaneers (+9), Bears (+9).
Fox: Bengals (-12), Saints (-10), Raiders (-7), Titans (-6), Falcons (-6), Jets (-5), Texans (+5), Redskins (+6), Panthers (+7), Giants (+8), Bears (+10).
Note: No Excel file this time. The file sheds light on potential voting inconsistencies during the season, when on-field results can be used as a reference.