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Can the quarterback get hot?
In 2007 Eli Manning was inconsistent through most of the season but brilliant in leading the Giants to three road wins in the playoffs and a Super Bowl upset of New England. Likewise, Kurt Warner—at one time considered veteran insurance for Matt Leinart—threw 11 touchdown passes in last year's postseason, at age 37.
"The competitive level in the NFL is such that the difference between 10--6 and 3--13 is really not all that much," says Kuharich. "You can call it parity or mediocrity or whatever you want, but it's a big reason the league is so popular. But because of that, when you get to the postseason, I'm saying it's the quarterback who can get hot and make a huge difference."
Teams that fit: The New Orleans offense seems unlikely to stall anytime soon, as Brees has been rolling for three years. "Seattle has a chance if Matt Hasselbeck is healthy," says one veteran front-office man, "but they won't be functional without him." The Seahawks looked more than just functional on Sunday in dispatching the Rams, 28--0, at home. Hasselbeck, who missed nine games last year because of back and knee injuries and was subpar when he did play, showed the form of his Super Bowl season, throwing for 279 yards and three touchdowns. The Cowboys' Tony Romo has been the opposite of the '07 Manning: hot in the fall, cold in the winter. The Packers' Rodgers and new Bears starter Jay Cutler are talented but playoff unknowns.
Have they been quietly getting better?
Billick's Ravens went 8--8 in 1999, his first year as coach, after having won 16 games, total, in the previous three seasons under Ted Marchibroda. Suddenly in 2000 Baltimore emerged as one of the most dominant Super Bowl champions in the last quarter century, winning its last seven regular-season games and rolling through the playoffs and the Super Bowl.
But Billick says it wasn't sudden: "It took us a full year and a little more, as a coaching staff, to get the veterans to trust us. It's never a one-year process. You can even look at Arizona. They had a great year last year, but if they go back to sub-.500 this year, you'll hear, 'Same old Cardinals.' Winning is about changing the culture."
Arizona safety Adrian Wilson says his team's veteran core had been improving under Dennis Green (2004 to '06) and continued to do so when Ken Whisenhunt took over in '07. "Whenever you have a core group of guys like we have now," says Wilson, referring specifically to linebacker Karlos Dansby, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and wideout Larry Fitzgerald, all drafted in 2004, "the team can build together."
Teams that fit: The Bears, Cowboys, Packers and Saints have all been to the playoffs within the last three years and have relatively entrenched systems, so it would be hard to argue they're on the verge of an unforeseen breakthrough. The 49ers, in Mike Singletary's first full season, are different. The Hall of Fame linebacker is attempting first and foremost to restore pride and purpose to a San Francisco club that had been adrift in recent years—and the fact that his Niners went on the road to Arizona on opening weekend and beat last year's Cinderellas 20--16 could portend good things. The Texans, in Gary Kubiak's fourth year but still in search of their first playoff bid, are another such candidate. "But their division is very tough," says the veteran front-office man, "and something just seems to be missing from that team, year after year."
The 2009 Jets could add a major twist to this theory: Take a nucleus of improving players, add an off-the-reservation rookie coach and a hotshot rookie quarterback, and watch the magic. On Sunday at Houston it was the Jets of coach Rex Ryan (whose swarming defense gave up just 183 yards to last year's third-ranked attack) and quarterback Mark Sanchez (18 of 31 for 272 yards, one TD and one pick) who looked more like a playoff-caliber team than Kubiak's Texans.