32 keys to the NFL’s 2011 season (Part II)

(See Part I here)

16. Peyton Manning's neck, Peyton Manning's back, and the rest of Peyton Manning. Say Peyton Manning doesn't make it back at all, and Kerry Collins plays about as well as you'd expect Kerry Collins to play, and the Colts go 6-10. Does that not make a really good case for Peyton Manning as the MVP in a year where he didn't even play?

15. The year that changes a culture. Everybody deserves to win sometime, including the Detroit Lions. It's easy to feel the time is now, with their talent on both sides of the ball, including the dominant Ndamukong Suh. Curses don't exist, but sometimes, going from a loser to a winner takes longer than you'd think.

14. A remodeled Jacksonville Jaguars defense becoming one of the league's better units. It won't be a high-flying, record-setting offense for the Jaguars, but the defense could be good enough to carry them. Don't overlook them as a team that could steal the AFC North if the Colts slip.

13. Proving that last year was no fluke. There's no question that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a good, young team. But with their schedule getting tougher and two potentially elite teams in the division, they'll have to improve to win as many games as they did last year.

12. Making the reality match the paper. The Dallas Cowboys went 5-3 in the Jason Garrett half of last season, and now they have Tony Romo back. On paper, maybe that projects at 10 wins or more in 2011. Paper can be a really cruel liar, though.

11. This really, seriously, for real for real, being the year that the Houston Texans climb the ladder and break into the playoffs. It's their yearly habit to make a sucker out of me, but I'm buying it again. Wade Phillips is the right guy for that defense.

10. The New York Jets having enough firepower elsewhere to win despite their quarterback. You can be an above-average team with an average quarterback. But can you be the best team in the league with a quarterback who will probably rank somewhere between 20th and 25th in the league?

9. Embracing football's time-tested clichés. It's true that turning the football over will kill you. It doesn't mean you can't win -- the New York Giants won 10 games last year, despite Eli Manning's 25 interceptions -- but it will probably keep you out of the playoffs. What happens when they can hang on to the ball?

8. Chad Ochocinco fitting into the Patriot way. So far, the issue hasn't been showboating or calling attention to himself, but instead, finding a way to fit into the New England Patriots offense.

7. Joe Flacco's readiness to be a leader and/or a really good quarterback. There's some instability on the offensive line, the defense is getting older, and some veteran leadership is gone. If the Baltimore Ravens are going to get to where they should go, it's on Flacco.

6. Needing more than a good offense and a good defense to be a good football team. Two things killed the Chargers last year, despite the fact that they were really good at most basic football-related tasks: Special teams disasters and a lack of early season urgency. Correcting both of those would make the Chargers a favorite this year.

5. Relying on rookies. The Falcons were awfully close to being in the Super Bowl last year, and the way they treated the draft, it sure seemed like they felt that wide receiver Julio Jones was the one missing piece. Their offense could put on quite the show in 2011.

4. Investing wisely. Historically, spending huge amounts of money on free agents is not a great indicator of success, but can any of the additions to the Philadelphia Eagles be categorized as foolish spending? I don't see any of that. The Eagles don't find out if their investments were worth it until Feb. 5, 2012.

3. Climbing back to the top. Sometimes it feels like the New Orleans Saints get forgotten when talking about the elite teams in the league. I don't think that will be the case six weeks from now, and Saints vs. Falcons could turn into one of the league's best rivalries.

2. Health for the Pittsburgh Steelers. There's no reason this team shouldn't be dominant defensively and explosive offensively. The Steelers are not without a few question marks, but they're smaller and fewer than you'll find on most teams.

1. Staying good, as opposed to getting good. In the age of 32 teams worth of parity, it's near impossible to repeat as champion. But it's also hard to imagine a roster in this era better than that of the Green Bay Packers. Imagine what they'll look like if they stay healthy this year.

(See Part I here)

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