As we get ready for the start of the much-anticipated NFL season, it’s a good time to look at the biggest key to success for each of the 32 teams in the league. It oversimplifies things to say that just one thing can make the difference between a good season and a disappointing one, but each of these factors will have a big impact on how things turn out:
Health for Michael Vick. Vick is a very good quarterback, but he is ridiculously fragile. With Nick Foles and Trent Edwards as backup options, a long-term injury to Vick would be very rough for this squad.
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Luck with receivers. It has been a rough preseason between Dez Bryant’s issues and health concerns for Miles Austin and Jason Witten. They don’t have the depth to overcome serious injury issues here.
Resilience for RGIII. Griffin has the tools to be special in this league. He’s going to endure some very tough times this year, though, thanks to a shocking lack of talent all over the field for this squad. If he lets the struggles bother him then bad things could get even worse.
New York Giants
Shaking the slump. Teams that had much better regular seasons the prior year than the Giants did have struggled mightily while playing as defending champions. The saving grace for this squad is that the core of the team has been through this before.
Cutler keeping his head on straight. Jay Cutler has a rocket of an arm, and he’s fully capable of winning with this team. He’s also a space cadet, though, and it’s hard to trust him to stay on track through a full season.
To forget what happened last year. The Packers bowed out of the playoffs in ugly fashion. They need to forget that ever happened and maintain the momentum they had through the regular season this year.
Health for Calvin Johnson. This offense was potent last year, and the incredible force of Megatron was the biggest reason. He catches anything close to him, and he distracts and intimidates even when he isn’t a target. If he were to get injured this offense would lose a lot of spark in an instant.
Progress for Christian Ponder. This team isn’t going anywhere this year and everyone knows it. What they need more than anything this year is to gain the faith that they have the quarterback of their future in Ponder.
To ignore the headlines. When you have a guy as special as Cam Newton everyone will tell you that the future is now. This is a team moving in the right direction, but they can’t rush things because they still have work to do. If they get impatient and lose focus the progress could easily be halted.
To pretend that last year never happened. Josh Freeman is a talented player and he has lots of talent around him. Everything went wrong last year, though, and it was a disaster. They need to start fresh with a new coaching staff and reach their true potential.
To ignore the chaos. It would be easy for a team facing the questionable sanctions the Saints are facing to feel sorry for themselves or let their anger and frustration carry them away. They can’t afford to lose their focus here. They have the potential to be very good if they can focus just on what matters.
Health for Tony Gonzalez. This offense is potent with the five-headed monster of Ryan, White, Jones, Turner, and Gonzalez. Each guy is crucial, but perhaps none more than Gonzalez because of the depth they don’t have at the tight end position.
Patience. Russell Wilson is a very nice player, but he’s a rookie who has been on a lightning-fast rise. He is going to be fine in the long term, but there will be road bumps. If fans and the coaching staff aren’t braced for this then they could rush things and ruin a good thing.
Strong play from Aldon Smith. A spectacular season last year was followed by a rough offseason for the young linebacker. He needs to get his head back in the game and continue to build on a great start to his career.
Progress for Sam Bradford. Two years ago, Sam Bradford was tabbed as a future star. Now there are lots of people who are calling for the Rams to make a change. He’s more than talented enough to be a star, but he needs to get back on track, learn to avoid interceptions, and play like he is capable of.
A miracle at QB. When you have two bad choices at quarterback it’s really hard to win games. This team needs someone to stand up and show that they are a capable player or this could be a wasted season.
Emerging strength at wide receiver. The tight ends are as good as they can be, but the wide receiving corps is questionable. And given the changes they made late in camp they aren’t happy with what they have. Tom Brady is brilliant, but even he needs targets. Therefore, the unit needs to get its act together fast.
New York Jets
To ignore the circus. The Sanchez and Tebow situation is sure to be a mess, and the volatile personality of Rex Ryan won’t help restore calm. This team needs to ignore the drama and focus on the game if they want to accomplish anything.
Fast chemistry on defense. On paper this team has everything it needs to contend. The Bills are making massive changes on defense, though, and that’s not easy. They struggled to gel in the preseason, but they don’t have that luxury now that games matter.
A miracle. This is a really lousy team. Ryan Tannehill has potential, but he’s going to have a rough time since he has so little to work with. Unless something dramatic and totally unexpected happens this will be a very long year.
Unexpectedly solid protection. This team really struggled to protect the passer last year. The Steelers didn’t do enough to change things, and injuries derailed the biggest move they did make. Now they need to hope they can do what they didn’t do last year or there is a good chance that Big Ben will get killed.
A step forward offensively. The formula forever in Baltimore has been to rely on the stout defense to lead the way. The core of that defense is getting old, though, and no matter how ageless they seem that will catch up to them at some point, The offense needs to lead the way this year, and it has the tools to do so.
To overcome the incompetence of Marvin Lewis. Lewis is a terrible coach, yet somehow he manages to hold onto this job every year. This team can’t afford to be held back by Lewis and needs to find a way to overcome the reality of being coached by him.
Patience. The team had an absolutely brilliant draft and is making big strides. It’s still a long road, though. The new ownership seems to be in a hurry, but it’s crucial that this team keeps taking baby steps so the Browns can keep building a team that may eventually be able to win in Cleveland.
Clarity at quarterback. I think that this team can win with Locker or Hasselbeck under center. What they can’t afford, though, is to have controversy or uncertainty at the position. QB controversies exhaust teams.
Health. Last year Matt Schaub’s injury ultimately derailed a good season. This year they have the chance to be better, but they can’t reach their full potential without Schaub. Having a healthy Andre Johnson would be a huge boost as well.
Delivered potential from Blackmon. Justin Blackmon is a special player, the kind of receiver who was impossibly better than everyone else on the field most of the time in college. He had a brutal offseason, though, and now he needs to step up and prove that he can perform like he is capable of despite the pressure and attention. Blaine Gabbert’s progress depends upon it.
Patience. This is a recurring theme here. The Colts have a very special quarterback who is sure to be a star. All of Luck’s tricks can’t turn this team into a winner now, though. They have issues everywhere and are sure to struggle. They need to accept that and understand that the journey to respectability is a slow one.
A strong September. Even a respectable September would be fine. For too much of the Norv Turner era this team has dug a deep hole in the first month of the season that has made the rest of the way much harder than it needs to be.
Health for Manning. As much as I want Manning to shine this year, I just don’t see it. Given all his health issues and his age he’s just one hit away from the end, and that hit could come at any time. That would be psychologically fatal for this team, so everyone involved needs to hope he can endure and thrive.
A return to form for Carson Palmer. When he is at his best, Palmer has all the tools to make this team a real contender. He was underwhelming at the end of last season, though, and it’s not hard to imagine him hitting the bench before November rolls around. He’s a much better option than Leinart or Pryor, though, so the team needs him to recapture his former glory.
Health. More than any other team the Chiefs need to shake the injury bug. The injured reserve for the team last year was better than the team on the field. They have a chance to win the wide-open AFC West, but only if they can keep all of their talent on the field and out of the infirmary.