Statistic storylines (cont.)
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.
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