The New England Patriots have tightened their grip on the No. 2 spot in ESPN.com's NFL Power Rankings heading into Week 1.
They even secured a No. 1 ranking on one ballot as perceptions hardened that New England, and 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's got 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."
"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 one 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.