Statistical issues every team faces in their 2012 Super quest

Publish date:

Some of those dreams are legit. Some are quite laughable. In either case, the Cold, Hard Football Facts refer to them as Icy Issues: the one big statistical problem each team most overcome to reach the Super Bowl. Here's a look at the iciest issues facing all 32 NFL teams in 2012.

Arizona: Does John Skelton have "it?"

The Cardinals entered 2012 camp with $63 million man Kevin Kolb the likely favorite to be the starting QB this year. But he was injured in the first preseason game, opening the door for back-up John Skelton to take the No. 1 job.

That's good news for Cardinals fans.

Skelton has all the early earmarks of a hidden gem, a guy who has proven a knack for helping guide a bad team to victory, even if he puts up pedestrian numbers.

The Cardinals are 13-19 over the past two seasons: 7-4 in games started by Skelton; 6-15 in games started by somebody else.

More impressive is the dramatic fashion in which the Cardinals have pulled out those victories with Skelton at quarterback. Compare his flair for drama to that of some of the most prominent big-name young quarterbacks in the game today:

John Skelton: 11 starts, 5 fourth-quarter comebacks, 6 game-winning drivesCam Newton: 16 starts, 1 fourth-quarter comeback, 1 game-winning driveAndy Dalton: 16 starts, 4 fourth-quarter comebacks, 4 game-winning drives.Aaron Rodgers: 62 starts, 3 fourth-quarter comebacks; 6 game-winning drives.Matt Ryan: 62 starts, 11 fourth-quarter comebacks, 16 game-winning drivesJoe Flacco: 64 starts, 6 fourth-quarter comebacks, 11 game-winning drives

(Source: Scott Kacsmar of ProFootballReference and ColdHardFootballFacts)

Atlanta: Will the Falcons fix the institutional issues that plague their defense?

Atlanta's decision to trade five picks to move up to get Julio Jones in the 2011 draft blew up in the team's face last season, when the offense was blanked (and humiliated) in a 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants.

But the longer-term issue, the one the Falcons ignored when they made the overly aggressive move to get Jones, has been on the defensive front: Atlanta consistently fields one of the worst defensive lines in football, according to the Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index.

The DHI tells us the Falcons have ranked no better than 22nd along the defensive front since 2007:

2007 -- 22nd2008 -- 23rd2009 -- 22nd2010 -- 25th2011 -- 22nd

Those problems in the defensive front were exposed -- just like everything else about the Falcons -- by the Giants in the playoffs. Atlanta was gashed on the ground for 172 yards and 5.55 YPA, while failing to get a rush on Eli Manning (1 sack in 33 dropbacks).

An underachieving defensive front was one reason Atlanta gave up 350 points in 2011, after surrendering just 288 in the 13-3 season of 2010.

NFL champions almost always have great defensive fronts with a great pass rush. The Falcons need to solve this issue if they hope to become a true contender.

Baltimore: How long before Father Time catches up with the famed Ravens defense?

Baltimore's defensive dynasty was still at the top of its game in 2011, surrendering just 16.6 PPG (3rd) while topping the NFL in Defensive Passer Rating, Defensive Real QB Rating and the Defensive Hog Index.

But it can't last forever. And it may fall apart here in 2012.

Seemingly ageless phenom Ray Lewis is 37, entering his 17th year of taking on 300-pound guards in the middle of the Baltimore defense. Ed Reed is in his 11th year and will turn 34 on Sept. 11. Oh, and 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs will turn 30 this year -- and will miss much of the season, if not all of it, with a torn Achilles.

The Ravens will need an infusion of youth, and soon. Don't be surprised if the aging Ravens take a big step back on defense in 2012.

Buffalo: How badly will Bills fans regret the decision to break the bank for defensive end Mario Williams?

Buffalo was clearly desperate for defensive help. The team could do nothing right on that side of the ball in 2011, surrendering 27.1 PPG. So it went out and signed former Texan Mario Williams to a six-year deal worth a reported $100 million, including $50 million in guaranteed money. It's the richest deal for a defender in NFL history.

But Bills management clearly overvalued his potential impact. In fact, Buffalo should have looked more closely at the Texans last year. They actually improved when Williams was on the sidelines.

Williams has played just 18 of 32 games over the last two years, and has averaged fewer than 9.0 sacks per season in his career. But even if he were the second coming of Reggie White, it'd be hard for Buffalo to justify the shockingly large contract.

Bad organizations make desperate decisions in the misguided hope of finding a quick fix. The Williams signing looks like just such a decision.

Carolina: Can the Panthers field a defense worthy of Cam Newton's talent on offense?

The super-talented young Carolina QB wowed the football world last year with a rookie record 4,051 passing yards -- while adding 14 rushing touchdowns, second most in the NFL. Yet the Panthers wasted all that talent with a 6-10 record.

The problem was a terribly bad pass defense. In fact, it was one of the worst of all time. The 2011 Panthers surrendered 7.58 Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (which includes the impact of sacks). It was the worst in the NFL last year, and one of the worst in the Super Bowl Era.

It's virtually impossible to win games when quarterbacks shred you each week, and this list of teams proves it.

The Panthers need dramatic improvements on defense -- especially against the pass -- to take advantage of Newton's vast talents.

Chicago: Is this the season that decades of QB frustration finally ends in the Midway?

Two teams suffered crushing quarterback losses last year that ruined legit Super Bowl hopes. One was Houston in the AFC. The other was Chicago.

Both teams were sitting pretty at 7-3 in early November. Then the Texans lost Matt Schaub and the Bears lost Jay Cutler. Houston at least muddled its way into the playoffs. The Bears imploded, losing five straight before finishing 8-8.

Blame the loss of Jay Cutler on the Curse of Sid Luckman.

Luckman guided the Bears through their glory days of the 1940s. He last took a snap for the Bears in 1950. Yet he remains the leading passer in franchise history, which seems statistically impossible given the way the game has changed.

For 62 years, the Bears have failed to find a suitable replacement. They have barely fielded Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks over those decades, let alone another Hall of Famer like Luckman.

Cutler may not be a Hall of Famer. But as we saw in 2010 and 2011, he at least gives the Bears a fighting chance to succeed. Backups Jason Campbell and Josh McCown have each been given ample chance to show they can succeed in the NFL. Neither has proven it.

Cincinnati: Can the Bengals find a way to beat a good team?

Cincinnati was one of the great surprise stories in football last year, improving from 4-12 in 2010 to 9-7 in 2011, good enough to earn a wild card playoff berth.

But that 9-7 record was more than a little deceiving: The Bengals were a perfect 9-0 against teams that failed to make the playoffs, and 0-7 against teams that did -- 0-8 if you include the uncompetitive 31-10 playoff loss to Houston.

• The Bengals whipped up the pretenders 25.7 PPG to 22.5• They Bengals were beaten by the contenders 16.1 PPG to 16.9

There's plenty of reason to be excited in Cincinnati, not the least of which is the emergence of Andy Dalton as a solid No. 1 quarterback and a defense that ranked No. 4 in Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (5.80 YPA).

But the Bengals are still a long way from legit contender. They can make a big statement with a Week 1 win at Baltimore. Cincy was 0-4 last season against the AFC North power Ravens and Steelers.

Cleveland: Is Brandon Weeden the next Otto Graham, Bernie Kosar -- or Tim Couch?

Local hero Kosar was the last player you might consider a "franchise quarterback" in Cleveland. And he hasn't played in 21 years.

So the team is desperate for a star at the position to lift the team out of the offensive funk that has led its parade of losses in recent years. Since the "new" Browns were re-formed in 1999, Cleveland has finished 27th or worse in scoring offense in 10 of 13 seasons, and 29th or worst the last four years.

Enter Weeden, the No. 22 overall pick in the 2012 draft. There's always a chance he could prove a major bust, much like Tim Couch, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft. But history tells us the first-round busts are the exception, not the rule, and that contenders are built around those high-pick QBs.

Forty QBs drafted since the 1970 merger have started a Super Bowl, and they have combined to do so 67 times. More than half of those Super Bowl starts (36) were made by quarterbacks drafted in the first round.

It doesn't guarantee Cleveland hope for the future, but it does tell us contenders are built around talented quarterbacks.

Dallas: Is this the year the Cowboys finally field a playoff-caliber pass defense?

It's been extraordinarily frustrating watching Dallas in recent years, and its quarterback in particular.

Tony Romo has produced numbers that stand among the best in history. His career passer rating of 96.9 is second all-time only to Aaron Rodgers (104.1). That's right, ahead of elite contemporaries Tom Brady (96.4), Peyton Manning (94.9) and Drew Brees (94.0).

Of course, all those other quarterbacks are champions. Romo's Cowboys have won but a single playoff game, and that was three seasons ago. But don't blame the QB for the lack of success. Dallas has consistently fielded pass defenses well below the standards of an NFL champion.

Defensive Passer Rating is one of the greatest single measures of championship potential. Only four teams in history have won a championship with a Defensive Passer Rating worse than 80.0. The Cowboys have consistently fallen far below that mark.

2011 -- 88.37 (25th)2010 -- 92.75 (29th)2009 -- 83.48 (16th)2008 -- 86.21 (20th)2007 -- 75.15 (5th)2006 -- 83.2 (20th)

Romo has produced his share of frustrating moments. But Dallas has produced only one pass defense in recent years that gave it a legit shot at a Super Bowl run.

This year they made all the right moves to solve his problem, selecting defenders with their first four picks in the draft, led by No. 6 overall pick CB Morris Claiborne, and signing Brandon Carr to a big-money deal.

Denver: Will a dreadful defense hijack Peyton Manning's Mile High debut?

The conventional wisdom out of Indianapolis over the past 14 years was that Peyton Manning's Colts routinely fell short of Super Bowl success because of its sub-standard defense. If that's the case, it could be a very disappointing year in Denver, where the Broncos need to make vast improvements on defense to be Super Bowl worthy.

The Denver D produced a few sparkling moments last year, but it was largely abused, surrendering 24.4 PPG last year (24th). It was torched for 40-plus points in five games, including three times in the final five games.

The truth is that the defense Tim Tebow played with last year in Denver was worse than almost all those Manning was paired with during his years in Indy.

• Manning's Colts gave up more yards than the 2011 Broncos only twice (1998, 2004)• Manning's Colts gave up more points than the 2011 Broncos only twice (1998, 2011)• Manning's Colts gave up a higher Defensive Passer Rating than the 2011 Broncos only once (1998)

Meanwhile, Manning played with four defenses in Indy that ranked in the top eight in scoring. Denver has fielded just three defenses ranked in the top eight in scoring since Manning was a rookie in 1998.

Manning will need a super-human 2004-type performance this year if the Broncos don't show some dramatic improvements on defense.

Detroit: Is Detroit's big-name defensive front overrated?

The short answer is yes.

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is one of the game's most visible defensive stars. The organization doubled down on the position in the 2011 draft, grabbing Nick Fairley with the No. 13 overall pick. And Kyle Vanden Bosch has given the team an elite veteran pass rushing specialist at defensive end.

But the unit was largely overwhelmed in 2011, despite the big-name roster. Detroit surrendered 24.2 PPG (23rd) and was a no-show after the bye week, surrendering 31.7 PPG over the final nine contests, including 90 in its last two outings (regular season and playoffs combined).

One big problem was a failure to plug the holes up front: the Lions were gashed for 5.0 YPA in 2011 -- one of just 22 teams in history to allow opponents to rush for at least 5 yards on every rush. In all of Lions history, only the 0-16 team of 2008 was worse (5.14 YPA).

Green Bay: Do the front-running Packers have the stones to win a street fight?

The Packers have been one of the dominant teams in football in recent years, winning the Super Bowl in 2010 and 15 of 16 regular season games in 2011.

Head coach Mike McCarthy has suffered just one losing season, while posting a nifty 63-33 record (.656) and winning five of eight playoff games.

But there is one major weak link amid the chain of victories: the Packers do not win close games, and they don't overcome deficits if they trail at the half or in the fourth quarter.

The Packers are just 7-26 (.212) in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities since McCarthy took over the team in 2006. For some perspective, the New York Giants produced seven fourth-quarter comebacks in 2011 alone.

Only two teams battled the Packers in the fourth quarter last year: the Chiefs and then the Giants in the playoffs. The Packers lost both games.

Green Bay is on the verge of a dynasty. But the great teams in history all had a knack for overcoming the odds to win tough games. The Packers need to learn how to win those street fights at the end if they're to join that elite status.

Houston: Are the Texans the best team in football?

The Cold, Hard Football Facts track the across-the-board strength of each NFL team with our Quality Stats Power Rankings. It's normally a reliable indicator of overall team strength and of Super Bowl-winning potential.

Houston topped that indicator in 2011: the best, most complete team in football, with incredible strength in almost every phase of the game. The Texans finished in the top five in seven of 14 indicators, and No. 9 or better in 12 of 14. Houston boasted productive stars on offense and a ferocious defense that was easily the best in franchise history.

This was a team built for the Super Bowl: a team with no weaknesses.

Then, of course, the Texans lost their top two quarterbacks and entered the stretch run and playoffs with rookie T.J. Yates at the helm of the offense. Yates played admirably. But there was a noticeable drop in offensive production when he took over, beyond the obvious problem that rookie QBs simply do not win Super Bowls.

But Schaub and oft-injured star wideout Andre Johnson are back. And the defense excelled even without Mario Williams, who is now with Buffalo.

The best team in football through the first 13 games of 2011 appears ready to stake its claim as the best team in the game in 2012.

Indianapolis: Can Andrew Luck win immediately?

Luck may prove the second coming of Peyton Manning. All signs indicate that he has the physical and mental tools needed to succeed in the NFL.

It would be an enviable string of quarterbacking greatness if he does, handing the scepter from Manning to Luck with only a one year interregnum.

But even if Luck lives up to the hype, the 2011 Colts were a team with huge issues well beyond its injured superstar quarterback.

Whereas Houston topped the NFL in our Quality Stats Power Rankings, the Colts finished the year dead last -- the weakest team top to bottom in the NFL. The issues on defense were atrocious: Indy finished the year No. 31 in the Defensive Hog Index, No. 31 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 32 in Defensive Real QB Rating.

Remember, even Peyton Manning struggled through a 3-13 season as a rookie. And the team he joined was better than the one Luck inherits here in 2012.

Jacksonville: Should the Jaguars dish out big bucks to get MJD back in the fold?

Jaguars star running back Maurice Jones-Drew is holding out for a big contract. But there's no way he should get it.

The Jaguars need to move away from the old mindset of Jack Del Rio -- fired midseason 2011 -- that you build a team around the running game. If their inaction with MJD is any indicator, the club, its new ownership and new coach Mike Mularkey appear ready to make that bold but logical move.

Great running backs are largely overvalued, more valuable in imaginary fake football than in actual real NFL football. Championships are won by teams that pass the ball efficiently -- and always have been, for that matter -- regardless of how well or how poorly they run the football.

Consider the state of the AFC South alone, which has produced the NFL's last three rushing leaders:

2011 -- Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville (1,606 yards)2010 -- Arian Foster, Houston (1,616 yards)2009 -- Chris Johnson, Tennessee (2,006 yards)

Those three teams all share something in common: not one produced a winning record. MJD himself has enjoyed just one winning season in the NFL, and that came in 2007 -- the year that David Garrard was one of the league's most efficient QBs, with an awesome 102.1 passer rating.

Whether MJD is on the field or not, the future of the Jaguars rests on the development of second-year QB Blaine Gabbert and the success of newcomers such as stud rookie Justin Blackmon.

Kansas City: Does Romeo Crennel have the tools to build a winner?

The Chiefs showed signs of new life at the end of the 2011 season, when Crennel replaced the fired Todd Haley for the final three games of the year. Kansas City shocked undefeated Green Bay, lost in overtime to the Raiders, then toughed out a 7-3 win over AFC West champ Denver in the season finale.

So the Chiefs enter the 2012 season with some momentum, not to mention critical players returning at key positions.

Matt Cassel is back from injury and has looked sharp in the preseason (114.8 rating). Running back Jamaal Charles missed almost all of last year and returns with explosive game-breaking talent (his career average of 6.1 YPA puts him on pace to shatter Jim Brown's record of 5.2 YPA). And wide receiver Dwayne Bowe ended his holdout last week, reportedly wowing teammates with his conditioning when he returned to camp.

It all adds up to a legit opportunity for the Chiefs to capture the division crown in the wide-open AFC West.

Miami: Can Miami protect Ryan Tannehill?

Tannehill was the No. 8 pick overall in the 2012 draft, has played fairly well so far in the preseason and will likely be the team's Week 1 starter.

The Dolphins are certainly desperate for a star at the position. He's the first QB the team has taken in the first round since Dan Marino himself way back in 1983

Now they just need a unit up front to protect him -- and they didn't have that unit in 2011.

Miami finished the season No. 26 on our Offensive Hog Index, largely because the OL struggled all year to protect the passer, surrendering 52 sacks. Only the Cardinals (54) and lowly Rams (55) watched their quarterbacks get pillaged more often than Miami's. Basically, one of every 10 dropbacks ended in a sack. Miami suffered a Negative Pass Play (sack or INT) on 12.48 percent of dropbacks (30th).

Rookie quarterbacks often struggle even in the best of circumstances. And Miami's OL provided far from ideal last season.

Minnesota: Did the Vikings do enough to shore up one of the worst pass defenses in history?

Donovan McNabb and Christian Ponder were put in what was, almost quite literally, a no-win situation last year: forced to compete despite being paired with the NFL's worst pass defense.

The Vikings surrendered a 107.8 Defensive Passer Rating in 2011. It was both the worst mark in football and in franchise history. Put another way, the Vikings made every quarterback look like Tom Brady or Drew Brees at the peak of their powers.

That's no way to win a football game. In fact, only one team in history posted a Defensive Passer Rating worse than the 2011 Vikings: the 0-16 Lions of 2008 (110.9).

The Vikings should have been all-in on improving the defense in the 2012 draft. Instead, they devoted four of the top six picks to offensive players, grabbing defenders only with late first- and early second-round picks.

New England: Did the Patriots land the defensive playmakers they need to win another Super Bowl?

New England's formula for winning Super Bowls was rock solid: pair a meat-and-potatoes but highly efficient offense with a ball-hawking opportunistic defense that repeatedly made big plays in big games.

It wasn't pretty or glamorous. But it yielded three Super Bowl victories in four years.

The Patriots since 2007 have been very glamorous, setting offensive records of one kind or another almost every season. But their prettier style of football has fielded zero Super Bowl victories, including two crushing defeats in the big game itself in which the offense failed to show.

The missing element has been those game-changing defenders making big plays in critical moments, while handing the offense easy points. So the Patriots this year went all in on defense in the draft, grabbing stoppers with the first six of seven total picks.

The group was led by first-round selections Chandler Jones, a pass rushing specialist defensive end, and Dont'a Hightower, a multi-purpose linebacker. Jones has shown signs of game-changing pass rush capabilities so far in the preseason. If he and one or two other young defenders prove home-run picks, it should be all New England needs to relive its Super Bowl-winning glory days.

New Orleans Saints: Will 2012 go down as a lost season?

The NFL handed New Orleans the closest thing to a death penalty we've ever seen as punishment in the bounty scandal.

The biggest loss, of course, is head coach Sean Payton for the entire season -- a shockingly harsh punishment, and one that could single-handedly ruin what would otherwise be a promising Saints season.

Clearly, Payton has benefited from being paired with a prolific, Hall-of-Fame-caliber passer such as Drew Brees. The two arrived in New Orleans together in 2006. But you don't win consistently in the NFL without great coaching. And the reality is that Saints history changed on a dime when the tandem hit New Orleans in 2006.

The Saints enjoyed 10-plus wins five times in their first 39 years; they've won 10-plus games four times in six years under Payton. The Saints never won more than 12 games in the 39 years before Payton arrived; they won 13 games in both 2009 and 2011 under Payton.

The Saints had scored more than 400 points just twice in their first 39 seasons; they've scored more than 400 points four times in six years under Payton.

The Saints won one playoff game in their first 39 years. The Saints have won five playoff games under Payton, including a victory in Super Bowl XLIV.

Great coaches bring immense value to an NFL sideline. It's hard to envision a scenario where the Saints are again Super Bowl contenders with their valuable coach watching the games at home.

New York Giants: Is Tom Coughlin the best big-game coach in the game today?

Statistically speaking, the 2007 and 2011 Giants had zero business winning Super Bowls.

The 2011 Giants won a Super Bowl despite the worst record (9-7), worst point differential (-6) and worst Defensive Passer Rating (86.1) of any champion in NFL history. The 2007 Giants were not much better: 10-6, +22 with an 83.4 Defensive Passer Rating.

The Giants have twice won Super Bowls with a set of statistical DNA that lay well outside the normal parameters of champions. If it happens once it's an outlier. If it happens twice, something bigger is at work.

Credit Coughlin himself, who has a long history of winning games that he shouldn't.

His 2007 Giants famously knocked off the unbeatable Patriots in Super Bowl XLII -- ruining the only 19-0 season in NFL history.

Back in 1995, he took the humble 9-7 Jaguars into Mile High and knocked off John Elway and the powerful 13-3 Broncos -- ruining what the experts thought at the time was Elway's last best chance to win a Super Bowl.

And way back in 1993, he took his upstart Boston College team into South Bend and knocked of No. 1-ranked Notre Dame -- ruining college football's greatest dynasty in the process. The Irish have never regained their No. 1 status.

Coughlin simply knows how to prepare his teams for big games against seemingly superior opponents. Pair that ability with Eli Manning's proven flair for the dramatic moment, and it makes the Giants the proverbial team "nobody wants to face" in the playoffs.

New England's Bill Belichick is widely considered the best coach in the game. But Coughlin has won 5 of 6 games against him.

New York Jets: How long before third-stringer Greg McElroy becomes the starting quarterback?

The question all summer out of New York was: how long before Tim Tebow steals the starting job from Mark Sanchez?

But maybe we're looking at the wrong former national champion QB out of the SEC.

After all, neither Sanchez nor Tebow have proven in their careers that they can consistently pass the ball at a championship level. And each appears to have regressed badly through two preseason games.

The offensive numbers are just that: offensive. Gang Green has scored just 9 points in two games, and averaged 160.5 YPG -- each easily the worst in the NFL through two preseason games.

Tebow has completed just 9 of 22 passes with a 35.4 rating. Sanchez has been much more accurate (13 of 17), but for a mere 80 yards (4.7 YPA) with a sub-standard 60.9 passer rating.

Both entered camp with plenty of question marks. Both have created even more in the preseason.

McElroy might prove the best option on the team. Hey, stranger things have happened. He was fairly productive for perennial power Alabama, guiding the school to a national title in 2009 while posting impressive career numbers (8.6 YPA, 39 TD, 10 INT).

Oakland Raiders: Is new head coach Dennis Allen in over his head?

Reggie McKenzie took over as general manager of the Raiders in early January and immediately continued the grand tradition pioneered by the late Al Davis of whacking head coaches at the mere wisp of the autumn wind.

He immediately fired Hue Jackson after a one-year term and replaced him with Dennis Allen, the team's eighth head coach in 12 years. For a little perspective, that's eight head coaches since the infamous "Tuck Rule" game sent the organization into a tailspin.

Allen, who turns 40 in September, does not have the most impressive resume by head coach standards. He was an NFL assistant for 10 seasons, but only as a coordinator for one of them, last year leading the defense in Denver. It's worth noting that Denver's defense surrendered 390 points (24th).

Now he inherits a defense with all kinds of issues: the Raiders last year surrendered 433 points, among the three worst totals in franchise history, and ranked No. 29 in both scoring defense and total defense.

The 2011 Raiders couldn't stop the run, joining the short list of teams in NFL history that surrendered more than 5.0 YPA on the ground. They failed to stop the pass, too. They were torched for 31 TD passes in 2011, better only than the historically inept Vikings.

Meanwhile, on offense, his choices at quarterback are a pair of former Heisman-winning QBs from USC who never quite lived up to expectations in the NFL: Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.

Philadelphia Eagles: Can Nick Foles prove a worthy fill-in for fragile Michael Vick ?

The Eagles are a pretty easy team to decipher: they'll succeed if Vick stays healthy. They'll fail if he's injured. That knowledge certainly must keep Eagles fans up at night.

The fragile Vick has played just one full season in his entire career, back in 2006. He missed five games for the Eagles in 2010, and three more last year.

The Eagles are 15-9 when he starts and 3-5 when he does not.

And the preseason is off to an inauspicious start: Vick injured his ribs Monday night in Philly's 27-17 win at New England. The x-rays were negative and Vick is scheduled for further testing Tuesday.

But the Eagles this year may have harvested a suitable insurance plan in third-round draft pick Nick Foles.

The rookie out of Arizona is built in the tall lanky mold of a traditional pocket passer and has been borderline brilliant in the preseason. He's completed 63.2 percent of his passes with 9.5 YPA, 4 TD, 1 INT and a gaudy 118.4 passer rating.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Can Dick LeBeau's defense keep its head on straight in the postseason?

The famed Steelers defensive coordinator has been the little Dutch boy of football.

He's stemmed the rising tide of passing yards in recent years by fielding units that have dominated by today's standards and even compare favorably to the Steel Curtain teams of the 1970s.

The 2011 Steelers led the NFL surrendering just 4.9 Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (which includes the impact of sacks). It was an incredible number in this day and age. The Steelers surrendered the same average per dropback in their dominant Super Bowl winning season of 1978 and were only fractionally better (4.8 YPA) in 1979.

The difference has been in the playoffs, where LeBeau's defense has suffered notable meltdowns in big games. The Steelers barely survived a 377-yard effort by Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XLIII. Aaron Rodgers ripped the team for 304 yards and 3 TDs in Super Bowl XLV.

And then came the ultimate indignity in the 2011 playoffs, getting torched by famously inaccurate Tim Tebow for 316 yards on just 21 attempts. Tebow's average of 15.0 yards per attempt was the greatest in NFL postseason history by a QB with at least 20 attempts.

For some reason, the Steelers defense has been a different unit in the postseason. They need to find a way bottle the regular season formula to become champions again.

San Diego Chargers: Can San Diego solve its major problems on pass defense?

Philip Rivers was widely blamed for San Diego's disappointing 8-8 season in 2011. He did have a down year by his standards, and quarterbacks are always lightning rods when things don't go well.

But in reality, San Diego's biggest issues were on defense, and on pass defense in particular. In that respect, the Chargers were much like the Cowboys: disappointing teams with big-name quarterbacks who shouldered the blame.

San Diego simply could not stop anybody in the air: No. 27 in Defensive Passer Rating, No. 28 in Defensive Real QB Rating and No. 28 in Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt.

Hell, it's a miracle they went 8-8 with a defense so porous against the pass.

So San Diego did the smart thing in the draft: they grabbed defenders with their first three picks, as well as a handful of veteran defenders, such as Atari Bigby, who played for the Seahawks last year.

If that unit can make only slight improvements, it will help the team go a long way toward capturing the AFC West title. San Diego still has the best offense in the division (No. 5 league-wide in scoring in 2011) and missed out on the crown only by tie-breakers last year.

San Francisco 49ers: Will newfound offensive weapons give Alex Smith & Co. and elite offense?

Smith was the proverbial "game manager" last year, playing solid, mistake free football at quarterback.

Paired with a blazing defense and a team that played highly efficient situational football in all phases of the game, it lifted San Francisco to a 13-3 record and put them within one game of the Super Bowl.

The 49ers were No. 1 last year in Bendability, our measure of defensive efficiency, and No. 2 in Scoreability, our measure of offensive efficiency. No team played smarter football.

The 49ers are now looking for turn that efficient offense into a game-breaking offense. They drafted A.J. Jenkins and the electrifying LaMichael James with their first two picks, while adding veteran wide receivers Mario Manningham and Randy Moss in free agency.

Manningham was the Giants' hero of Super Bowl XLVI. Moss is only one of the most productive receivers in the history of football.

The moves are certainly enough to excite football fans. But they will work only if coach Jim Harbaugh and his team keeps their focus on the fundamentals that got brought them so far in the space of one season.

St. Louis Rams: Is Sam Bradford closer to a bust than he is to a star?

The 2-14 Rams had problems in all phases of the game last year, not the least of which were on offense: St. Louis scored a Stone Age 12.1 PPG, dead last in the NFL.

Sure, Sam Bradford's injuries hurt the team. He missed six games. But even then, St. Louis was only 1-9 in the games that he played and never scored more than 20 points in any of his 10 starts.

Bradford has yet to show any of the statistical hallmarks of an elite NFL passer at this point in his career.

The most damning evidence is his average per pass attempt. A solid NFL quarterback will average 7.0 YPA. An elite NFL quarterback might average 8.0 YPA. A historic young quarterback might average nearly 9.0 YPA. In fact, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger averaged an incredible 8.9 YPA in each of his first two NFL seasons.

Bradford has averaged a dismal 6.0 YPA. That inability to get the ball downfield is the biggest reason the Rams have struggled to put points on the board the last two seasons.

You can cite a dearth of talent around him. And there's certainly some merit to that argument.

But history shows us that elite quarterbacks, even young quarterbacks, get the ball downfield effectively and make everyone around them better. We've yet to see that kind of statistical upswing out of Bradford's Rams.

Seattle Seahawks: Will Matt Flynn and/or Russell Wilson survive a year of "As The T.O. Turns?"

The inevitable Terrell Owens drama is only a problem if he makes the team. And the jury is still out on that decision.

Owens did not catch a single pass in his debut this past weekend for the Seahawks, a 30-10 win at Denver. In fact, he was targeted five times, and along the way dropped what should have been a long touchdown pass from Matt Flynn.

Perhaps both Flynn, the free agent signee from Green Bay, and Russell Wilson, the promising third-round draft pick out of Wisconsin, are secretly wishing that Owens doesn't make the team.

After all, the volatile wide receiver has a long history of shooting his way out of town, aiming directly at the quarterback along the way. Neither one needs the drama as each lobbies for the starting gig. So far in the preseason, it's advantage, Wilson.

In fairly equal time, the rookie has averaged 8.5 YPA with 3 TD, 1 INT and a 110.5 passer rating. Flynn is a distant second in all areas: 3.9 YPA, 0 TD and a 56.9 rating.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How long will it take Greg Schiano to build a competitive defense?

It's hard to overstate just how bad Tampa's defense was in 2011.

It was the worst unit in franchise history, by most any measure, from points allowed (30.9 PPG) to Defensive Passer Rating (97.2) to run defense (5.01 YPA). In fact, only seven teams in the Super Bowl Era were worse against the run.

2006 Colts -- 5.33 YPA2003 Chiefs -- 5.17 YPA1976 Chiefs -- 5.15 YPA2008 Lions -- 5.14 YPA1973 Patriots -- 5.09 YPA1969 Bengals -- 5.07 YPA2011 Raiders -- 5.07 YPA2011 Bucs -- 5.01 YPA

That made rookie head coach Greg Schiano's mission pretty easy: almost any move he makes is certain to improve one of the worst defenses the league has ever produced.

Tennessee Titans: Can the Titans build an identity under Mike Munchak?

It's hard to name one distinguishing characteristic of the Titans in 2011.

They went 9-7, averaged 20.3 PPG and surrendered 19.8 PPG. They did very little very well, but did very little poorly. They even ranked a perfectly mediocre No. 16 overall in our Quality Stats Power Rankings.

The lights also went out on the team's marquee offensive star, the once-explosive Chris Johnson, who was remarkably unremarkable in 2011: he ran for 1,047 yards, averaged a perfectly average 4.0 YPA and scored just 4 TDs.

The greatest indictment of the Titans might be that they don't have an identity. At least Jeff Fisher's squads had a reputation as a team that was going to punch you in the nose each and every week, even if the results in the win column varied year to year.

Handing the reins to second-year quarterback Jake Locker may help forge that identity and, more importantly, give the team the more important lift on the playing field.

He took only limited snaps last season, but at least provided some excitement when he did. His 4 TDs, 0 INT and 99.4 passer rating gave the team the closest thing it had to a statistical signature in 2011.

Washington Redskins: Is Robert Griffin III the second-coming of Cam Newton?

The quarterback situation in Washington has been so desperate in recent years that the Feds offered it a bailout.

That bailout's name is rookie RGIII -- a freakish physical phenom, multi-dimensional talent and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner who will run the Redskins offense in 2012.

He has a big act to follow, too. After all, 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton produced one of the great rookie seasons in history last year with the Panthers. So now the pressure is on.

Comparing college production is not usually a very good barometer of pro success. But for now, it's the only way we have to compare RGIII to Newton statistically.

And in that respect Griffin was much more effective than Newton passing the football in their Heisman-winning seasons:

Newton: 66.1 percent completions, 2,854 yards, 10.2 YPA, 30 TD, 7 INTGriffin: 72.4 percent completions, 4,293 yards, 10.7 YPA, 37 TD, 6 INT

Doesn't ensure Griffin a stellar rookie season. But it does offer Redskins fans plenty of reason to hope that happy days are here again.