Percy Harvin and 20 Keys For NFL Playoff Contenders To Stay Contenders
The absence of Sidney Rice for the half season immediately put pressure on Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin. Harvin, the No. 2 guy in Minnesota before Rice's hip surgery, now finds himself as Brett Favre's top target.
Harvin, who is battling through a bout of migraines, will be relied upon to shoulder much of the wide receiver production for the Vikings and be the key to the Vikings playoff chances.
Yet, Harvin is not alone. There is a player on each of the 20 teams most consider to be playoff contenders right now which will shape their team's production and fortune when it comes to making the postseason. Here is a look at those 20 players which could mean playoffs or bust for their team.
Hakeem Nicks—New York Giants
The Giants offense didn't achieve the balance it had during the team's recent top seasons of 2007 and 2008. One reason for that is the running game. Another reason is the lack of a deep threat. The Giants hope second-year receiver Hakeem Nicks will become that target.
The Giants have lacked a viable deep threat since Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg. If Nicks can climb to that position and that threat, he will help open up the Giants offense and give more balance at least to the passing game.
More offensive balance means more consistent play for the Giants and a better shot at the playoffs.
Percy Harvin—Minnesota Vikings
As mentioned, Harvin has climbed to the Vikings No. 1 target in the passing game now that Sidney Rice will be out until the midway point of the season.
The Vikings acquired Dolphins receiver Greg Camarillo to add depth to the receiving corps, but it will be up to Harvin to spread the field and give the Vikings a deep threat.
If Harvin cannot do that, the Vikings passing game will suffer, allowing teams to stuff the box against Adrian Peterson and stifle an emergent offensive attack that pushed the Vikings deep into the playoffs in 2009.
Darrelle Revis—New York Jets
The Jets have the talent to get to the playoffs without the league's best cornerback, but the Jets' ability to stifle the large number of top-flight receivers they will face this year will be significantly impacted without Revis.
Revis alone won't be the difference between going to the playoffs or staying home for the Jets, but he could be the difference between winning an improved AFC East that features Randy Moss and Brandon Marshall. Four games against those two receivers without Revis could swing the division.
Brian Cushing—Houston Texans
Brian Cushing won the 2009 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Later, Cushing was suspended four games for performance-enhancing drug use. Thus, Cushing will miss the first four games of the 2010 season which opens a big hole in the Texans defense.
2010 is a year of big expectations for the Texans who anticipate their first playoff appearance in franchise history. They have the offense to get there, but the loss of Cushing for the first four weeks could lead to enough damage given the Texans matchups against Indianapolis and Dallas.
When Cushing returns, the Texans need him to play up and beyond even his rookie season. The Texans need him to remain a force and elevate the defense to a playoff caliber unit.
Wes Welker—New England Patriots
Perhaps no one receiver in the AFC means as much to his offense as Wes Welker. The Patriots offense suffers immediate and significant drop off without Tom Brady's target who is capable of grabbing 100 passes per season.
So far, Welker has shown he is able to bounce back from his torn knee ligaments. The Patriots need Welker to be that target we've all come to expect from him for the Patriots' offense to perform at the necessary level to compete in the dogged AFC East.
Ryan Mathews—San Diego Chargers
The Chargers spent the 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft on running back Ryan Mathews with the hope that he could, to some degree, produce like LaDainian Tomlinson did. The Chargers, barring Vincent Jackson's return, have the passing offense but they need the rushing attack to balance that side of the ball.
The Chargers were near the bottom of the league in yards per rush in 2009. Mathews will be relied upon to increase that number and take some heat off Philip Rivers and the receivers.
Byron Leftwich—Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger is suspended the first six games of the regular season. That means backup quarterback Byron Leftwich will assume starting duties until Big Ben returns (or he takes himself out with poor play).
Either Leftwich or Dixon need to navigate the Steelers through five games in six weeks including a big divisional showdown with the Ravens in Week four. A poor start, say 1-4 or 2-3, could dig too big of a whole for Roethlisberger to dig out of when he returns.
Ricky Williams—Miami Dolphins
Most running backs are in the twilight of their career after turning 30 years old. Ricky Williams is proving otherwise. The Dolphins back rushed for over 1,100 yards last season (4.7 yards per carry) and will be back to carry the load in an offense with a bona fide number one receiver in Brandon Marshall.
Quarterback Chad Henne is going to enjoy throwing to Marshall, but it will be Williams who will be the sledgehammer that keeps the Dolphins offense motoring along.
Doug Free—Dallas Cowboys
Out went Flozell Adams, in came Doug Free who now takes over as the man responsible for protecting Tony Romo's blind side. Is there any bigger job in the state of Texas? The Cowboys have the offensive weapons to do a lot of damage this year, but it will be up to Free to keep Romo upright, healthy and able to distribute the ball to his many, many weapons.
LeSean McCoy—Philadelphia Eagles
McCoy enjoyed a very strong rookie season in which he totaled nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage. Now though, Brian Westbrook is gone and McCoy is being looked upon as the dual-threat back who can fully developed into the multi-faceted weapon Westbrook was during his prime.
McCoy's development is especially important now that Kevin Kolb is the main man in Philly. Kolb has plenty of receiving targets to throw to, but it will be McCoy's ability to run and receive that could determine whether or not the Eagles reach the playoffs in the first year of Kevin Kolb's tenure.
B.J. Raji—Green Bay Packers
The combination of the loss of Aaron Kampman, the switch to the 3-4 defense and the positioning of B.J. Raji to nose tackle will put a lot of expectations and pressure on the 2009 ninth overall pick. Raji, who has just one sack and 25 tackles in his career, will be expected to anchor the defensive line and clog up the middle of a defense that was shaky at times in 2009.
Kampman left party due to the switch to the 3-4. Raji now needs to emerge as a defensive force to help solidify the Packers defense and give them balance on both sides of the ball that will be needed for a playoff run.
Brian Urlacher—Chicago Bears
Urlacher's 2009 season lasted less than one game and already the heart and soul of the Bears defense was dinged by injury in the preseason.
The Bears offense figures to take steps forward in Mike Martz's system, but the Bears defense absolutely needs Urlacher to be there every week and play at a high level. Urlacher played in 32 games in 2007 and 2008, but even then his numbers began to dip.
If the Bears are going to compete in the fiercely competitive NFC North, they need Urlacher to find the form that made him one of the most feared linebackers in the NFL.
Malcolm Jenkins—New Orleans Saints
2009 14th overall pick Malcolm Jenkins made the move from cornerback to safety and in 2010 could have big shoes to fill. With Darren Sharper battling knee injuries, Jenkins—who New Orleans coaches think highly of-could slide into Sharper's role.
That's a big step considering Sharper was singularly responsible for defensive touchdowns last season. The Saints defense as whole must find a way to improve on its 25th overall ranking from 2009. Jenkins emergence could go a long way towards giving the Saints a security blanket in the defensive backfield.
John Abraham—Atlanta Falcons
In a division where teams have to get after the quarterback, John Abraham figures to play a significant role in the Falcons' ability to get back to the postseason. Abraham suffered a significant drop off in 2009, recording just 5-1/2 sacks after totaling 16-1/2 in 2008.
The Falcons struggled with their pass rush last season which exposed a weak secondary. The team needs Abraham to regain his 2008 form, take pressure off a reconfigured secondary and give the Falcons defense the boost it needs especially when competing against the Saints.
Anquan Boldin—Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have concerns in their defensive backfield, but it is at wide receiver where their season may be made or lost. The Ravens traded for Anquan Boldin with the belief that he will be their No. 1 receiver. Boldin needs to deliver.
Boldin arrives, instantly becoming Joe Flacco's No. 1 target and the weapon the Ravens hope will open up the playbook and make the offense more dynamic.
The Ravens look like a surefire bet for late-January football anyways, but Boldin's performance can put that expectation in concrete.
Jarvis Moss—Denver Broncos
The Broncos suffered an enormous blow when their top pass rusher Elvis Dumervil went down with a torn pectoral muscle.
Now, 2007 first round pick Jarvis Moss is being looked upon to fill the void left by the top sack artist in 2009. It is a very, very tall order to expect Moss to replicate Dumervil's 17 sacks from 2009, but Moss has to give the Broncos a legitimate pass rush threat if their defense is to hold up over the course of the season.
Terrell Owens—Cincinnati Bengals
Maybe it's a bit hyperbolic to suggest the Bengals' playoffs chances rest on T.O., but the team didn't sign him as a charity case. The Bengals need a very productive season from Owens counter Chad Ochocinco to take pressure off Ochocinco and give the offense weapons on both sides of the field.
The Bengals passing game was a cluttered mess at times in 2009. If Owens can open up the passing game and give Carson Palmer another reliable target (also allowing rookie Jordan Shipley to find space to operate) the Bengals offense will in shape to lead the team back to the playoffs.
Bob Sanders—Indianapolis Colts
Bob Sanders is arguably the most important defensive piece on any team in the league. However, health has limited Sanders to only eight games over the past two seasons. Sanders is the guts of the Colts defense and there is a visible, qualitative difference when he is on the field as opposed to when he's not.
The Colts offense should hum along at its normal, dominant pace, but having Sanders back and healthy for a full season will be a huge lift for a defensive unit that could use his security in the backfield.
Alex Smith—San Francisco 49ers
We've been waiting for the 49ers to take their young talent and make the jump to return to the playoffs. The 49ers have the leadership on defense and the weapons on offense. Now, it comes down to the development of quarterback Alex Smith.
With Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr., and Vernon Davis on the offense, Smith has the tools to elevate his game. But, it comes down to Smith's physical growth and his growth between the ears to grab the reins and take the 49ers back to the playoffs.
Offensive Line—Washington Redskins
The Redskins made many moves to improve their offensive line. Washington brought in six new lineman including top pick Trent Williams in an effort to get more life out of the running game in addition to protecting Donovan McNabb.
McNabb already went down with a sprained ankle on a sack which cannot be a repetitive sight if the Redskins are to overcome the challenges in their own division let alone make a push to the playoffs.
The offensive line must become a protective wall for McNabb and a lane-opener for the veteran stable of running backs in Washington (Larry Johnson, Willie Parker, Clinton Portis) that are not as quick as they used to be.