Are they solid up front?
Manning threw the TD pass that took down the Patriots, but the Giants' defensive line was tenacious throughout that postseason, and the offensive line was nearly as good. "Look what happened just this year," says former Raiders personnel boss Mike Lombardi. "Three teams [Buffalo, Kansas City and Tampa Bay] fired their offensive coordinators before the season, and all three don't have very good offensive lines. If you're looking for somebody to make a run, look at their lines, because it's very hard without them."
A year ago Arizona's offensive line protected Warner in the playoffs, and the defensive front seven, led by Dockett, developed into a serviceable complement. In 2005 Seattle went from 9--7 to 13--3 (and the Super Bowl) behind an offensive line that powered the Seahawks to a No. 3 ranking in rushing and No. 2 overall in offense.
Teams that fit: Two from Texas. The Cowboys are loaded with experience (nearly five decades among the starting blockers), and the Texans have been maturing on both sides of the line. The Saints get an asterisk. "They're not great on the offensive line," says Lombardi, "but Brees throws it so quickly, it almost doesn't matter." Something must be going right: Backup Mike Bell gashed the Lions for 143 rushing yards on Sunday.
Can they handle the ride?
The NFL season stretches from early September into February, and during that time teams are certain to encounter major obstacles, in the form of injuries, unexpected and disheartening defeats, internal squabbles and public criticism.
The '07 Giants not only were a .500 team over the second half of the season but had also needed to overcome a 17--3 halftime deficit at Washington to avoid an 0--3 start, from which no team has ever rallied to win the Super Bowl. They lost tight end Jeremy Shockey, a vital cog in the offense, with two games remaining in the regular season.
Last year's Cardinals trailed the Patriots 47--0 at one point in the second-to-last game of the regular season. "If you had told me even before the first round of the playoffs that Arizona was going to the Super Bowl," says Kuharich, "I would have said that isn't happening." In the Bears' Super Bowl year of '06 they endured a seasonlong public referendum on the worthiness of up-and-down quarterback Rex Grossman.
"You are going to face some serious adversity at some point," says Brees. "Just about every team that rises up and makes a run to the Super Bowl has a bad stretch. Problems are a given. You have to deal with them."
Teams that fit: No one can know how a team will handle rough seas. Sometimes veteran leadership or a strong coach is the steadying influence. Chicago started the season with 11 regulars left from its Super Bowl team and a six-year veteran coach in Lovie Smith, and they'll need strength early after an opening loss at Green Bay in which Cutler looked awful and linebacker Brian Urlacher was lost for the year. The Seahawks have six current starters from their Super Bowl season, including the unflappable Hasselbeck. Dallas and New Orleans have playoff experience, so the same roster component that works against them under the steady-climb theory is a positive factor here.