The New York Giants won six straight games to close out the 2011 season, finishing with a 21-17 upset victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. You can point to Eli Manning’s consistent calm under pressure, Victor Cruz’s game-changing speed, or the defensive line’s fearless pursuit of opposing quarterbacks as the main reason behind Big Blue's second Super Bowl in five seasons. You could just as easily point to Tony Romo’s inability to connect with Miles Austin on a third-and-5 pass during the fourth quarter of a Week 14 game that would have given the Cowboys the NFC East, eight dropped passes by Packers receivers in an NFC divisional round battle at Lambeau, or San Francisco punt returner Kyle Williams’ inability to hold on to the ball in overtime of a rain-soaked NFC championship game. Turns out Oliver Stone was right on the money in “Any Given Sunday.” Football really is a game of inches. So what inches will dictate the seismic shifts that the 2012 NFL season will encounter on its way to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans? With camps over, the preseason in the books and cut-down day behind us, here are my 10 things that will make or break the 2012 NFL season. — Peter Schrager
The Atlanta Falcons in January
I know. They’re a playoff team. Seems like they always are. But for as good as Atlanta is in November and December, that team always stinks in January. Atlanta is 0-3 in playoff games since QB Matt Ryan (pictured getting sacked in last season's playoff meltdown vs. the Giants) and head coach Mike Smith showed up in 2008, and Tony Gonzalez still has never won a playoff game during his Hall of Fame career. There’s a new offensive coordinator, second-year players Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers are both expected to make the leap, and the defense looked great all summer. But none of it matters until the Falcons win a postseason contest. If Atlanta can win one — be it wild card or divisional round — watch out! Confidence grows once you get that monkey off your back.
The 49ers’ schedule
I’m not taking anything away from the 2011 49ers and head coach Jim Harbaugh (pictured). They won some tough games last season, including bouts with the Lions, Giants and Steelers. That playoff win over the Saints was tremendous. But they had a fairly manageable regular-season schedule in 2011. 2012? It’s no joke. Trips to Green Bay, New Orleans and New England are likely losses. Home games versus the Giants, Lions, Bills and Bears won’t be easy, either. And the NFC West is always a crapshoot. The 49ers return 11 defensive starters, but that road to New Orleans isn’t easy.
The Roethlisberger-Haley marriage in Pittsburgh
They’re both saying all the right things this summer (and apparently jogging together at practice), but these are two very unique, very temperamental personalities. Though it wasn’t always smooth sailing, Ben Roethlisberger thrived as the signal caller in Bruce Arians’ offense. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley is a fiery personality. So is Big Ben. If things go well, they could get along swimmingly and the Steelers could compete for the Lombardi Trophy. But there’s just as much of a chance that we see one of those QB-OC screaming matches on the sideline. The Steelers are my pick to win the AFC this year; I’m glass half-full on this one.
The Bears offensive line
There was a lot of excitement in Chicago this summer about the Jay Cutler-Brandon Marshall reunion, a healthy and well-compensated Matt Forte, and dynamic rookies Alshon Jeffery on offense and Shea McClellin at defensive end. Guess what? None of that will matter if the offensive line is still awful. The O-line nearly got Cutler killed the past two seasons and, though the unit looked solid during the preseason, there’s still reason for concern. Is J’Marcus Webb good enough to be a quality starting left tackle? We shall see.
Michael Vick’s health
It’s pretty simple. If Vick can stay on the field and on his feet, as he was in the Eagles’ final four games of the 2011 season, the Eagles are going to be pretty damn hard to beat (as their 4-0 finish to the season could attest). If he’s injured and on the sideline, the Eagles — overflowing with talent everywhere else — are being led by a rookie quarterback who never won a big game in the Pac-12. The Eagles need Vick to stay healthy for 16 games; something he’s only done once in his entire career.
The Fab Five and the Tremendous 10
Ten of the NFL’s 32 opening-day starting quarterbacks are in their first or second years. Five rookies, five second-year guys — nearly a third of the league. Hey, history is on their side. At least one rookie quarterback has started a playoff game in three of the last four seasons. Will that run continue, perhaps with 2012 top-two overall picks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (pictured, from left)? If so, and if not them, who’s making the leap?
Pete Carroll’s risky roll of the dice at QB
From the very start, when the Seahawks first acquired Matt Flynn in March, Carroll said the starting quarterback position would be an open competition. Little did anyone realize that it’d be a third-round pick, Russell Wilson (pictured with Carroll), getting the nod over both Tarvaris Jackson (who has since been traded to Buffalo) and Flynn. Seattle also brought in Kellen Winslow, Antonio Bryant, and Terrell Owens, only to waive all three veterans this summer. Do Carroll and GM John Schneider have a plan? Time will tell.
The Jets’ Tebow-led wildcat package
Could Rex Ryan be pulling a fast one on us? If he is, he has us all just where he wants us. After becoming the first team to not score an offensive touchdown in its first three preseason contests since the 1977 Atlanta Falcons, there seem to be absolutely zero expectations for the 2012 Jets. The commonly held belief is that the offense is a mess, the offensive line is a joke, and the Tebow acquisition was more media ploy than football decision. But we didn’t see Tebow out of the Wildcat. By design, Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano kept the package from the media in practices and didn’t use it in once in the preseason. Maybe they’ve got something up their sleeves. Maybe.
The Sean Payton-less Saints offense
For a while there, before Drew Brees inked his new deal, the prospect of a Chase Daniel/Aaron Kromer QB/head coach combo on opening day was looking very real in New Orleans. Brees is back in the saddle, but Payton is suspended for the season. Since Payton recruited (and accidentally drove him through the most hurricane-ravaged part of town) Brees to play for the Saints in 2006, the two have built and groomed an offensive philosophy together. And the Saints didn’t lose just Payton. They lost the top offensive guard in football in Carl Nicks to free agency, too. Can Brees (pictured with interim coach Joe Vitt, who himself is suspended for the first six games while Kromer fills in) carry the load without them?
As countless writers of all levels of credibility confidently pencil in the Denver Broncos as their pick to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVII, I can’t help but acknowledge the giant elephant in the room. Whether it’s a case of whistling by the graveyard or a genuine belief in Manning’s recovery, it seems everyone forgets the four-time MVP hasn’t played in a competitive football game in 18 months, hasn’t felt the pressure of a blindside sack in seemingly forever, and is working with an offensive line that is not nearly as skilled or as talented as the one that protected him in Indianapolis. The doctors say he’s fine enough to play, and he looked good enough in the preseason. But to assume he will be the same guy he was in 2010 before four neck surgeries? What if he’s not? What if he’s rusty? What if he’s gun shy because of those surgeries? The elephant in the room.