QB play: Matt Schaub hasn’t skipped a beat since winning Pro Bowl MVP honors in late January.
Breakout player: Finally healthy after dealing with multiple leg injuries, second-year running back Ben Tate has strutted his stuff with 147 rushing yards, a 7.4-yard average and one touchdown in two preseason games. Tate’s emergence should make Houston feel a bit better if 2010 NFL rushing leader Arian Foster (hamstring) can’t play Sept. 11 against Indianapolis.
Biggest concern: Mario Williams is having a difficult time making the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme. Such growing pains could have been lessened if Williams had a chance to work on the move in the typical NFL offseason.
Summary: This preseason was no mirage. The Texans are loaded.
QB play: Possibly in the best preseason physical condition of his eight-year career, Ben Roethlisberger is among the preseason leaders in quarterback rating (146.6) and touchdown passes (4).
Breakout player: Wide receiver Antonio Brown. The speedy second-year player is quickly joining Hines Ward, Heath Miller and Mike Wallace on the list of Roethlisberger’s favorite receiving options. Brown is among the preseason leaders in receiving yardage (230) and touchdowns (3).
Biggest concern: As usual, the offensive line is under heavy scrutiny after another round of injuries. Roethlisberger was sacked five times in 37 drop-backs.
Summary: If the NFL’s oldest defense can hold up, Pittsburgh will be right back in the Super Bowl mix.
QB play: Tom Brady’s arm remains golden, but the physical abuse he took in a 34-10 loss to Detroit on Aug. 27 is reason for worry if his pass protection doesn’t improve.
Breakout player: Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. New England’s leading tackler appears set to become even more multi-dimensional in blitz packages. The two sacks Mayo notched against Tampa Bay in Game 2 matched his total for the entire 2010 season.
Biggest concerns: Chad Ochocinco is proving more prolific on Twitter than as a Patriots wide receiver. Fellow newcomer Albert Haynesworth also must prove he can stay healthy. Haynesworth made his preseason debut Sept. 1 with two tackles against the New York Giants.
Summary: New England wants its veteran defensive-line acquisitions (Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter) to bolster the pass rush and compensate for the lack of an established pass-rushing threat at outside linebacker. If these pickups pay dividends, New England will have all the pieces in place for another Super Bowl run.
QB play: Rebounding from a poor Game 2 outing at Denver, Ryan Fitzpatrick posted a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating with an 11-of-12, two-touchdown passing performance Aug. 27 against Jacksonville. Stevie Johnson appears ready to grab the mantle from the traded Lee Evans (Baltimore) as Buffalo’s most dangerous receiving threat.
Breakout player: Defensive lineman Spencer Johnson. After making only 18 starts in a nondescript seven-year career, Johnson may be one of the league’s rare late bloomers. If his standout preseason play continues, it will be hard for the Bills to keep him out of the starting lineup.
Biggest concerns: Overall depth and the offensive line, particularly at left tackle with Demetrius Bell.
Summary: Buffalo’s top goal entering the preseason was improving its horrific run defense from 2010. Not only have the Bills accomplished that mission so far, but outside linebacker Shawne Merriman has also shown signs of regaining the form that made him one of the NFL’s top pass rushers.
QB play: Philip Rivers is humming with a 68.9 completion percentage (31 of 45) and four TD passes.
Breakout player: Vincent Jackson looks ready to enter the upper echelon of NFL wide receivers. Jackson is averaging a ridiculous 18.1 yards on 10 catches, including receptions of 29-plus yards in each of his three preseason games.
Biggest concern: Run defense. Although some key players haven’t played while rehabbing to get ready for the start of the regular season, the Chargers have gotten gouged throughout the preseason. This may not bode well with Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and New England’s productive committee approach on the schedule for San Diego’s first three games.
Summary: Improved special teams and roster health have the Chargers looking like the cream of the crop in the AFC West.
QB play: Chad Henne has quieted the "We Want (Kyle) Orton" sentiment that Dolphins fans chanted during one preseason practice. Henne also has done a much better job getting wide receiver Brandon Marshall involved early and often in the passing game.
Breakout player: Defensive end Jared Odrick. Now recovered from the leg injury that cost him all but one game of his rookie season, this 2010 first-round draft choice is excelling on what may be the NFL’s deepest defensive line.
Biggest concerns: A suspect starting offensive line surrendered three sacks Aug. 27 against Tampa Bay. While the unit should improve when left tackle Jake Long (shoulder/knee) returns from injury, right tackle Mark Colombo and right guard Vernon Carey must play better. The Dolphins also are gambling that Reggie Bush can handle the punishment inherent in being a feature running back.
Summary: Miami’s starters rebounded from a weak effort in the preseason opener against Atlanta with better performances vs. Carolina and Tampa Bay, but none of this has convinced Dolphins fans to buy tickets. The franchise is facing its first regular-season local television blackouts since 1998.
QB play: Matt Hasselbeck has done fairly well despite the challenging transition of learning a new offense after spending the past 10 seasons in Seattle.
Breakout player: Rookie running back Jamie Harper. The 2011 fourth-round pick took advantage of his chance to shine in the absence of Chris Johnson with 146 rushing yards and three touchdowns. At 5-foot-11 and 233 pounds, Harper has a power running style that should complement Johnson well.
Biggest concern: San Diego wide receiver Vincent Jackson (calf) and New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis (hamstring) experienced subpar 2010 seasons when injured after missing significant practice time in contract disputes. The Titans must hope that Johnson can avoid the same fate after signing his four-year extension Sept. 1.
Summary: Johnson’s imminent return ends a preseason-long soap opera that threatened to make general manager Mike Reinfeldt’s rebuilding job even harder.
QB play: After a sizzling preseason start, Colt McCoy came back down to earth during a Game 3 loss to Philadelphia. Even so, he deserves credit for learning new head coach Pat Shurmur’s West Coast-style offense more quickly than expected.
Breakout player: Tight end Evan Moore. Unable to stick with New Orleans and Green Bay early in his four-year career, Moore has starred in training camp as a nightmare defensive matchup. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Moore was dominant in Game 2 against Detroit with three catches for 40 yards and two touchdowns.
Biggest concern: A lack of experience and depth on defense. There also will be a learning curve as the Browns shift from a 3-4 system to 4-3 scheme under new coordinator Dick Jauron.
Summary: McCoy gives Cleveland hope for the future, but expecting a 2011 playoff run is overly ambitious.
QB play: Kyle Orton is further proof that sometimes the best trades are the ones that aren’t made. After Denver’s talks with Miami fell through in late July, Orton quickly snatched the starting spot from Brady Quinn and the disappointing Tim Tebow. Orton has looked especially sharp with his downfield passing, completing eight passes of 20-plus yards.
Breakout player: Outside linebacker Von Miller. The 2011 draft’s No. 2 overall selection, Miller and the returning Elvis Dumervil show earmarks of being a devastating pass-rush combination. Miller notched three sacks in Denver’s second and third preseason games.
Biggest concern: Injuries have hit the front seven hard, particularly across the defensive line. Ty Warren (triceps) already is out for the season; Marcus Thomas (pectoral muscle), Kevin Vickerson (ankle) and Brodrick Bunkley (knee) are sidelined.
Summary: Denver will need all the points Orton and Co. can muster with the injury and depth issues on defense.
QB play: Joe Flacco didn’t consistently play at his usually high level, but some of his woes can be attributed to lousy pass protection by an injury-wracked offensive line.
Breakout player: Nose tackle Terrence Cody. In much better shape than his rookie season, the 6-foot-4, 349-pound Cody’s emergence has allowed Baltimore to shift fellow behemoth Haloti Ngata to defensive end, like former nose tackle Vince Wilfork in New England.
Biggest concern: Left tackle. Believing Michael Oher is better suited away from the blind side, the Ravens signed Bryant McKinnie in hopes he can round into shape and play left tackle. Oher will shift to the right side if McKinnie is ready for the Sept. 11 meeting with Pittsburgh.
Summary: With so many changes on offense and a new defensive coordinator (Chuck Pagano), having to face the archrival Steelers in the regular season opener isn’t an ideal situation.
QB play: Inconsistent, which was Mark Sanchez’s biggest problem during his first two seasons. Sanchez can make great throws — his 26-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress in Game 2 against Cincinnati was sweet — but he struggled badly Aug. 29 against the New York Giants.
Breakout player: Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. The Jets had hoped their 2011 first-round draft pick could immediately replace the departing Shaun Ellis (New England). Wilkerson has stepped into the role nicely.
Biggest concerns: Injuries have contributed to mediocre offensive line play. Sanchez must continue to develop his rapport with Burress and fellow newcomer Derrick Mason in the passing game.
Summary: There is plenty to clean up if New York is going to justify its Super Bowl self-promotion.
QB play: Jason Campbell didn’t have to worry about fellow retreads Kyle Boller and Trent Edwards challenging for his starting spot. Campbell is completing 69.7 percent of his passes, although none has gone longer than 40 yards. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey isn’t helping matters with his spotty route running.
Breakout player: With Heyward-Bey struggling, rookie wideout Denarius Moore has helped pick up the slack. The 2011 fifth-round pick already has worked his way into the starting lineup.
Biggest concern: Pass coverage. Cornerback depth is shaky, which is reflected by the recent signing of veteran Lito Sheppard. Starting in place of the injured Chris Johnson (who is now back at practice), rookie DeMarcus Van Dyke was schooled trying to play man coverage against New Orleans Saints wide receivers in a 40-20 loss on Aug. 28.
Summary: While the offensive line remains iffy, Oakland’s offense will receive a boost from the return of running back Darren McFadden from a fractured orbital bone. It will be interesting to see how the departure of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (Philadelphia) affects how opponents attack Oakland’s defense.
QB play: 2011 first-round pick Blaine Gabbert had the chance to compete for a starting spot with David Garrard (back) ailing early in training camp. However, Gabbert wasn’t ready for the job.
Breakout player: Defensive tackle Tyson Alualu. Although critics panned the selection at the time, Alualu is justifying Jaguars general manager Gene Smith’s selection of him with the No. 10 pick in last year’s draft.
Biggest concern: The recovery of running back Maurice Jones-Drew and defensive end Aaron Kampman from knee surgeries. Both made their preseason debuts in Thursday night’s finale against St. Louis. Jones-Drew had a 14-yard gain on his first carry, which is a positive sign that his burst is back. Kampman played for two series but it may take longer for him to regain his prior form.
Summary: Garrard and Gabbert both entered the Rams game with a quarterback rating of 60.8. That’s not going to cut it in the regular season. Ditto for a defense that didn’t log a sack in the first three preseason contests.
QB play: The fact Matt Cassel played for almost the entire first half in the fourth preseason game against Green Bay speaks volumes about how much work Kansas City’s offense needs heading into a Sept. 11 matchup against Buffalo. Such a risky move almost blew up in head coach Todd Haley’s face as Cassel left the game with what is believed a minor shoulder injury.
Breakout player: Defensive end Wallace Gilberry. Judging by a bulked-up physique designed to help him hold up better against the run, Gilberry wasn’t slacking during the lockout.
Biggest concern: The future of rookie wide receiver Jon Baldwin. The 2011 first-round pick reportedly incurred the wrath of running back Thomas Jones for a disrespectful attitude, leading to a locker-room fight that left Baldwin with a cracked thumb. Baldwin’s diva act won’t fly with Haley, a stickler for perfection at the wide receiver position.
Summary: The Chiefs had better hope this preseason isn’t a sign of things to come.
QB play: Curtis Painter struggled enough in the first two preseason games that Indianapolis brought Kerry Collins out of retirement as a potential replacement for Peyton Manning, whose regular-season status remains uncertain as he recovers from offseason neck surgery.
Breakout player: Defensive tackle Drake Nevis. This 2011 third-round pick has played well enough to earn a spot in Indianapolis’ defensive line rotation.
Biggest concern: Manning’s health tops the list. The Colts also must give Manning better run support, both offensively and defensively, when he does return. Indianapolis was largely unimpressive in both areas this preseason.
Summary: History shows that the Colts’ recent poor preseason records haven’t carried over to the regular season. But with all the turmoil in Indianapolis since the lockout lifted, it’s hard to feel bubbly about this club entering the 2011 campaign.
QB play: The Bengals have shoved rookie Andy Dalton into the starting lineup on an offense trying to learn a new system under coordinator Jay Gruden.
Breakout player: Defensive end Michael Johnson. With a well-defined role for the first time in three NFL seasons, Johnson has exhibited the pass-rush prowess that made some draft analysts believe he had first-round potential (he slid to the third round in 2009).
Biggest concern: Carson Palmer ending his "retirement" and reporting in an effort to force a trade or his release. Bengals owner Mike Brown has stated he won’t do either, but the other option is carrying Palmer at an $11.5 million salary and undermining Dalton’s development.
Summary: The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1991. There’s scant reason to believe that streak will be ending.