Elite players get the glory, the postseason awards and the Madden video game covers, but team success depends in large part on how stars, supporting cast and coaches work together within a unit. A veteran, top-tier running back might not be able to carry an offense; rotate him with an explosive young talent and maybe you're playoff-bound. The league's best units deftly balance power and speed, experience and youth, confidence and hunger—and finding players who complement each other is one of the secrets to victory. These eight units, not a collection purely of All-Pros, would form the ultimate NFL team.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
DEPTH IS nice at the game's most important position, but an elite starter trumps all. The Pats get the call over the Colts because Tom Brady wins more in January. He's 14--3 in the playoffs, with 14 more touchdowns than interceptions and 62.5% accuracy—and seven of those games were played in subfreezing conditions. The synergy among Brady, Bill Belichick and coordinator Josh McDaniels is unmatched. So what if they don't have an experienced backup? Brady hasn't missed a start since early in 2001. "This is the perfect place for a quarterback," he says. "No distractions. All football."
August 31, 2008
THOUGH FRED TAYLOR, 32, and Maurice Jones-Drew, 23, compete for carries in this backfield, they're as close as teammates can be: They talk on the phone almost daily in the off-season, work out together and just hang. No jealousy here. "We complement each other," says Jones-Drew. "I'm learning things every day from him." They also know that by sharing the load—last year Taylor had 223 attempts, Jones-Drew 167, for a combined 1,970 yards—they have a better chance of staying healthy. Says Taylor, the NFL's 16th-ranked rusher all time, "It's a young man's game, but I'm here to stay."
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
LAST YEAR New England traded for two players whose teams didn't want them—Randy Moss of the Raiders and Wes Welker of the Dolphins—and got one of the greatest seasons in NFL history by a pair of wideouts: 210 receptions, second-most ever for a duo, and 31 touchdown receptions, most all time. Welker tied for the league lead in receptions. The two are back this year, with dependable Jabar Gaffney as the No. 3 receiver, Ben Watson as the tight end with wideout speed and Kevin Faulk as one of the league's classiest pass catchers out of the backfield.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
CENTER NICK HARDWICK barely played high school ball and was a walk-on at Purdue. Guard Kris Dielman was an undrafted free agent. Right tackle Jeromey Clary was a practice-squadder two years ago. On this line only left tackle Marcus McNeill, a second-round pick in 2006, and guard Mike Goff, an 11-year vet, have pedigrees. Yet they all come together on Sunday, using zone schemes, man schemes, gap schemes—anything to give LaDainian Tomlinson a sliver of space. "We're blue-collar guys," Clary says. "You want guys on the line who are willing to die for you. We're willing to do that."
THEY ALREADY had the best run-stopping line in the league, anchored by plus-300-pound tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. What was needed was an impact defensive end to make foes pay when they dropped back to throw, and the Vikings got one of the best when they traded for Chiefs All-Pro Jared Allen. He led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks in '07—including two in a tour de force against Minnesota. "The cool part is that nothing is directed at me," Allen says. "It's not like, We brought you here to get us off the field [on third down]." The Vikings may not be saying it, but they're definitely thinking it.
NEW COACH John Harbaugh discovered in camp that his linebackers "practice just like they play in the game." It's demanded of them by coordinator Rex Ryan and unit leader Ray Lewis. After a completion by Troy Smith in one August drill, Lewis went to each of his 'backers, gesturing and shouting, "Unacceptable!" Of the four starters, only Lewis is older than 28. Jarret Johnson's a top run-stopper on the strong side; Terrell Suggs, a premier rusher on the weak; and insiders Lewis and Bart Scott are the sideline-to-sideline forces Ryan needs to clean up plays past the line of scrimmage.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
WITHOUT A falloff, the Bucs have rebuilt on the fly and continue to do so with '08 first-round pick Aqib Talib, who is slated to eventually replace Ronde Barber. In the last two years coordinator Monte Kiffin and tough-as-nails secondary coach Raheem Morris have slotted three new players, corner Phillip Buchanon and safeties Tanard Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli, into impact roles. The safeties attack. The corners cover. On nickel downs Barber moves inside and becomes the game's best blitzing corner. In '07 the unit allowed a measly 76.2 passer rating. Expect more of the same for years to come.
PART OF the reason Bobby April's units are consistently among the NFL's best is that the intense veteran coach fights for every one of his guys when final-cut day arrives. Says April, "I tell [everyone] a skilled special-teamer is a lot more valuable than someone who comes in for three plays as a backup safety." In '07 the Bills had the league's top punt returner in Roscoe Parrish; in April they picked perhaps the best return man in the '08 draft, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, a first-round choice who tied an NCAA record with eight career TDs on kick and punt returns. He's in the right place.