NFC West: Brian Waters

Tom Brady was on injured reserve with a knee injury the last time his New England Patriots visited the Seattle Seahawks.

The year was 2008.

The Seahawks had a 2-10 record. Seneca Wallace was their starting quarterback. Mike Holmgren was their coach. Pete Carroll was at USC.

Now, for the really different part: The Seahawks' defense, currently ranked No. 1 in yards allowed, ranked 30th back then. It had allowed six total rushing and passing touchdowns in its previous two games, one more than the 2012 team has allowed in five games this season.

Brady is back and leading the NFL's top-ranked offense against Seattle's top-ranked defense in Week 6. The teams kick off Sunday afternoon at CenturyLink Field, Brady's first road start against the Seahawks. The matchup has us talking already.

Mike Sando, NFC West blog: The last time an NFC West team drew New England, Arizona pulled off one of the more shocking upsets of the season, holding Brady to 18 points and leaving Gillette Stadium with a 20-18 victory. New England lost Aaron Hernandez to injury in that game. The Patriots have regrouped. They've scored 113 points in three subsequent games. Was that Arizona game an aberration, or should the Seahawks' defense expect similar results?

James Walker, AFC East: It feels like two different offenses since New England’s loss to the Cardinals, Mike. New England looked shell-shocked after losing Hernandez in that game. He's usually such a big part of the Patriots’ game plan that they had trouble adjusting on the fly. But New England made the proper changes. Tight ends no longer are the first option; now receiver Wes Welker is the top target. New England is no longer passing the ball 60 or 70 percent of the time; its run-to-pass ratio was 54-31 this past week against the Denver Broncos. The Patriots also used a no-huddle offense in all four quarters for the first time in that game. Can New England keep up that kind of pace, especially on the road? The Patriots are concerned about crowd noise in Seattle. Will the 12th man affect this game?

Sando: Yeah, the crowd will be a factor because the defense is good enough to make it one. Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo combined for 19 points in Seattle. Brady and the Patriots are playing better offensively than Green Bay or Dallas, though. One key will be whether Brady can get the ball out to Welker quickly enough to avoid Seattle's pass-rushers. Bruce Irvin, Chris Clemons and Jason Jones could have big games against the Patriots' offensive front if Brady holds the ball. But Welker should have a big advantage against nickel corner Marcus Trufant. Welker leads the NFL with 24 receptions from the slot over the past three games. Seattle's opponents haven't gone after Trufant all that much, but St. Louis slot receiver Danny Amendola did give him some problems. Welker is a tough matchup for everyone and should be a tough one for the Seahawks.

Walker: Seattle’s pass rush is the biggest concern for New England. Brady’s sack totals have gone up each of the past three seasons, and he already has been sacked 12 times in five games. Brady is not a young pup anymore and only has so many hits left in his 35-year-old body. New England’s pass protection hasn’t been the same after losing left tackle Matt Light and Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters in the offseason. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and guard Logan Mankins also have played hurt this year. The Patriots have done things schematically to counter their shaky pass protection. New England is running the ball more, and the no-huddle has slowed down opponents. But you wonder whether the inconsistent pass protection eventually will catch up to New England this season, especially this weekend against a good Seattle defense.

Sando: Seattle's defense was good last season, and it's better in 2012. This is a legitimate top-five defense with big, pressing cornerbacks and the potential for a strong pass rush, particularly at home. The Seahawks are allowing 3.2 yards per carry overall and 3.0 when we remove quarterback scrambles (Brady isn't exactly a running threat). There's speed at every level of the defense. Holding the Patriots' offense to a reasonable level -- say, somewhere in the 20-point range -- should be realistic as long as Seattle fares OK against Welker. The bigger question is whether Seattle's offense can score enough points to win the game. Russell Wilson is coming off his best game, but the offense isn't putting up enough points.

Walker: New England’s defense has improved in a lot of areas. The front seven is more physical and the pass rush is better, specifically with the addition of first-round pick Chandler Jones. However, New England is still 30th against the pass and continues to give up chunks of yards through the air. The safety play has been horrific at times. I think Seattle’s best chance to win is using play-action over the top. Patriots coach Bill Belichick usually tries to take one thing away, and I assume the focus this week will be Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. There will be plenty of opportunities in the passing game if Wilson can take advantage. Speaking of taking advantage, your NFC West division has crushed the AFC East at nearly every turn. What is going on here? Is this a special year for the NFC West, and will Seattle repeat what the Cardinals did by knocking off the top dog in the AFC East?

Sando: I've gone into several of these nondivision games a little skeptical about whether the NFC West team would score enough to win. The offenses in Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis lag in the rankings. But the defenses and special teams have more than made up the difference. I think Seattle has a winning formula and a good shot at pulling it off, but I still think Brady is more likely than Wilson to reach 20-plus points.

I've had similar thoughts before and been wrong. I really thought some of these top opposing quarterbacks would enjoy greater success against the NFC West. Brady, Jay Cutler, Rodgers, Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, Romo, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford are a combined 2-8 against the division, and both victories were against St. Louis. Those quarterbacks have seven touchdown passes and nine picks against the division. Outside the division, NFC West teams have gone 10-0 at home and 11-3 regardless of venue.

I'll probably wind up picking the Patriots, but Seattle's defense gives the Seahawks a good chance.

Walker: It looks as if the AFC East is having a second consecutive down year, and the arrow is certainly pointing up for the NFC West. But the Patriots are a legit team. Barring significant injuries, I expect New England to carry the banner for the division all season. I’m 15-2 predicting AFC East games this year, so I feel pretty confident in my picks. I think New England will pull this one out. The Patriots’ offense is very balanced, and their tempo puts a lot of pressure on teams. If they score points early, it could put too much pressure on Wilson to answer. Wilson has beaten Rodgers, Romo and Newton this year. But I don’t think Wilson will add Brady to that list.

Power Rankings: How the voters voted

September, 6, 2011
The New England Patriots have tightened their grip on the No. 2 spot in's NFL Power Rankings heading into Week 1.

They even secured a No. 1 ranking on one ballot as perceptions hardened that New England, not so much Philadelphia, posed the greatest threat to the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.

"I think the Patriots' additions of Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth, Brian Waters and Shaun Ellis should make them the favorites," panelist James Walker said in explaining why he put New England atop his ballot. "The Packers were the best team in February, but that doesn't automatically make them the best team in September. Super Bowl champions usually do not repeat."

The Patriots were the last team to do it, but their championship victories over Carolina and Philadelphia are fading memories. The NFL has crowned six champions since New England last won a title. But Tom Brady's excellence and the Patriots' offseason maneuvering caught voters' attention.

Four of five panelists ranked the Packers first and Patriots second on their ballots. Walker previously ranked the Eagles first, but he dropped them to third this time. Paul Kuharsky and I dropped Philadelphia one spot apiece.

Kuharsky has been higher than most on the Detroit Lions all along. He had them 18th in the final regular-season balloting from 2010, higher than anyone else had them. He's got them 12th this time, five to six spots higher than most other voters ranked them. And he's got them a full seven spots higher than Chicago.

"I'm just not a huge believer in the way the Bears are doing things," Kuharsky said. "You have to find a way to use Greg Olsen, not give him away for next to nothing. That offensive line isn't fixed. They won't get away with it two years in a row."

Walker was also among those shaking up things within a division. He has Baltimore beating out defending AFC champion Pittsburgh for the AFC North title. He moved up the Steelers one spot to seventh on his ballot, but he moved up the Ravens one spot as well, to sixth.

"I picked the Ravens to win the AFC North back in July, so I'm staying loyal to my prediction and keeping Baltimore one spot higher," Walker said. "Sunday's game will determine if I made the right call."

The Indianapolis Colts, ranked ninth, could be the most volatile team heading into Week 1. Peyton Manning's shaky status is everything for that team.

"If they look bad with Kerry Collins in Houston, certainly my vote will reflect it in a major way," Kuharsky said.

Voters are already downgrading Seattle. The Seahawks fell six spots from our previous rankings, the biggest drop, as voters realized the team was serious about heading into the 2011 season with Tarvaris Jackson behind an offensive line that has not yet found its bearings.

And now, a closer look at the rankings heading into Week 1 ...

Rising (10): Houston Texans (+6), Minnesota Vikings (+5), Jacksonville Jaguars (+3), Pittsburgh Steelers (+2), Dallas Cowboys (+2), Lions (+2), Baltimore Ravens (+1), Oakland Raiders (+1), Washington Redskins (+1), Buffalo Bills (+1).

Falling (10): Seattle Seahawks (-6), Kansas City Chiefs (-4), New York Giants (-4), Tennessee Titans (-3), St. Louis Rams (-2), Carolina Panthers (-1), Cleveland Browns (-1), Colts (-1), New Orleans Saints (-1), Philadelphia Eagles (-1).

Unchanged (12) Packers, Patriots, Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets, San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals.

Deadlocked: We broke three ties this week. San Diego prevailed over Houston at No. 10, Chicago prevailed over Dallas at No. 13 and Oakland prevailed over Tennessee for No. 22. The tiebreakers are, in order, head-to-head results, overall record, which team won most recently and previous ranking. Since no games have been played in this regular season, we used 2010 records to break ties.

Like minds: Every voter but Walker had the Packers first and the Patriots second. Four of five voters had the Ravens eighth.

Agree to disagree: The Raiders generated the largest disparity between highest and lowest votes. The gap between highest and lowest votes was at least seven spots for five teams:
  • Raiders (14): Ashley Fox ranked them 15th, higher than any other voter ranked them. Walker ranked them 29th, lower than any other voter ranked them.
  • Chargers (12): Sando and John Clayton seventh, Fox 19th.
  • Bears (10): Fox ninth, Kuharsky 19th.
  • Dolphins (7): Clayton 21st, Sando 28th.
  • Giants (7): Fox 11th, Clayton 18th.
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 North ranked highest with a 12.7 average ranking. The chart below shows how each voter ranked each division on average. Highest votes in red. Lowest votes in blue.

For download: An Excel file -- available here -- showing how each voter voted, high and low votes for each team, correlation between voters and divisional rankings. This file will expand in future weeks to include week-to-week comparisons and a "powerflaws" sheet showing potential inconsistencies on voters' ballots.