In the NFL, the difference between the contenders and pretenders often depends on quarterback play.
The presence of a legitimate playmaker at the position typically guarantees that a team will challenge for a playoff spot.
Last season, 10 of the top 13 signal-callers (based on passer rating) led their respective teams into the postseason. That coincides with the fact that seven of the league's 10 4,000-yard passers made the playoffs.
Given the obvious correlation between having a top-flight quarterback and the probability of reaching the postseason, several teams are hoping that their young triggermen are ready to take on a bigger role.
Although it doesn't necessarily mean that their respective squads are ready to get pass-happy, a quarterback for elite teams must be able to carry an offense.
With that premise in mind, let's take a look at five passers who must take another step in their development to lead their teams to title contention:
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
The 2008 Offensive Rookie of the Year has shown flashes of brilliance since being taken by the Falcons third overall.
Ryan became only the second rookie in NFL history to pass for more than 3,000 yards (Peyton Manning was the first in 1998). During his award-winning campaign, Ryan connected on 61.1 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His 87.7 passer rating ranked 11th in the league, and he enjoyed a nine-game streak with at least 200 passing yards.
Ryan's ability to produce explosive plays complemented the rugged running of Michael Turner, thus diversifying the offense, and propelled the Falcons to 11 wins en route to an unlikely playoff berth. Additionally, his pinpoint passing enabled WR Roddy White to earn his first Pro Bowl nod.
However, Ryan's play dipped a bit last season as injuries to Turner stymied the Falcons' running game. Without the threat to dictate eight-man fronts with single coverage on the outside, Ryan struggled at times to deliver the ball into open windows against soft-zone looks. As a result, Ryan connected on only 58.3 percent of his passes, and suffered through a six-game slump where he tossed 11 of his 14 interceptions. The Falcons went 3-3 during that stretch, which hurt their postseason chances.
To his credit, Ryan overcame his midseason woes to post a respectable 80.9 passer rating. Furthermore, he guided the Falcons to three straight wins to cap the season, creating some momentum for 2010.
Given another offseason to work with Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas and White, Ryan is poised to pick up where he left off at season's end. With the game plan tailored to accentuate his strengths (accuracy, anticipation and timing) it will lead to more confidence and better play.
Considering how close the Falcons were to posting back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history, Ryan's improvement could be the difference.
Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens attempted to remove the handcuffs on Flacco last season after having him direct a run-heavy attack as a rookie.
Given more opportunities to pass, Flacco and the offense got off to a strong start. The unit tallied 30 or more points in five of the team's first seven games. Flacco posted three 300-yard passing games during that stretch to go with 12 touchdowns and was among the highest-rated passers at that point of the season.
However, the Ravens struggled when allowing Flacco to pass 30 or more times (3-6 in those contests), and re-evaluated their approach with the playoffs on the line.
Instead of relying on Flacco, the Ravens returned to the grind-it-out approach that they employed during his rookie season. Ray Rice took on a bigger role and Baltimore relied on his game-breaking abilities to propel it into the postseason.
Though it would appear that the change was a reflection of Flacco's ability, it should instead be regarded as confirmation that the Ravens didn't possess the requisite weapons to allow him to thrive.
While receiver Derrick Mason finished second on the team with 73 receptions, the bulk of Flacco's throws were distributed between Todd Heap and a host of running backs. Without another receiver on the roster capable of generating big plays, the aerial attack often came up short, and Flacco's production slipped as a result.
The Ravens have taken several steps this offseason to ensure that Flacco has plenty of options at his disposal. They traded for three-time Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin, signed veteran wideout Donte' Stallworth and took two dynamic tight ends (Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta) in the draft.
In dealing for Boldin, the Ravens picked up a big, physical playmaker with the skills to turn short passes into long gains. He will supplant Mason as the Ravens' No.1 receiver, and his ability to attract double coverage will open up the field for his teammates.
With the blanket lifted off his other targets, Flacco should have more opportunities to push the ball down the field. The added big play element could catapult the Ravens to the top of the AFC North.
Mark Sanchez, New York Jets
The Jets gave Sanchez the keys to the franchise upon his arrival, and the rookie handled the huge responsibility well. He led them to the AFC Championship Game.
Although New York buffered Sanchez by relying heavily on its top-ranked rushing attack and suffocating defense, the rookie showed uncanny poise and resiliency while overcoming several tough performances during his first season.
Sanchez had four games with three or more interceptions, and his 53.8 percent completion percentage and 63.0 passer rating ranked near the bottom of the league among starters. Additionally, his 20 interceptions were tied for the second-highest total in the league (Jay Cutler led the way with 26 interceptions).
While those woeful numbers are indicative of the growing pains experienced by most rookies, Sanchez showed his mettle by bouncing back with a series of solid performances in the playoffs. He completed over 60 percent of his passes in the postseason and compiled an impressive average of 7.9 yards per attempt on the way to posting a 92.7 passer rating.
Of course, Sanchez operated under a conservative game plan that featured passes in favorable situations.
However, the Jets will need to open up the offense a bit to become the title contender that most would expect. Therefore, the onus falls to Sanchez improve in his second season.
The obvious areas of concern would be his decision-making and accuracy, but the Jets have taken steps to make the game easier for him.
First, New York added LaDainian Tomlinson to give him another playmaker in the backfield. While the veteran has shown signs of slippage as a runner, he's still a dangerous threat as a receiver. Prior to last season, he had tallied 50 or more catches in eight straight seasons. His receiving skills are considerably superior to his predecessor (Thomas Jones), which enables the Jets to utilize more screens and check downs. That should boost Sanchez's completion percentage and keep the Jets in manageable situations.
Second, the Jets acquired Santonio Holmes in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Though he will miss the first four games of the season due to a suspension, Holmes gives Sanchez a consistent receiver with big-play ability. With Braylon Edwards and Dustin Keller also capable of delivering impact plays, Sanchez has more options. His willingness to spread the wealth could make the offense a feared unit by season's end.
Chad Henne, Miami Dolphins
The third-year pro stepped in for an injured Chad Pennington in Week 3 and showed outstanding promise while logging 13 starts. Henne had a 60.8 percent completion percentage, 2,878 yards passing, 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Although his overall numbers aren't impressive on the surface, his strong play in December has scouts calling him the real deal.
Henne recorded three 300-yard passing games during the month. He repeatedly picked apart defenses with his superior arm strength and accuracy. The highlight of his season might have been a come-from-behind win against the New England Patriots.
The fourth-quarter rally was his third of the season, providing further proof he's capable of putting the team on his back in the clutch, and has the requisite intangibles to blossom into a franchise quarterback.
Marshall, a two-time Pro Bowler with over 100 receptions in each of the last three seasons, gives Henne a physical playmaker. Marshalls' ability to command double coverage will free up the cast of complementary receivers in Miami. Additionally, he gives Henne a security blanket in critical situations.
Given Henne's ability to produce with an unheralded cast of pass catchers, adding one of the game's top receivers could push him into the ranks of the elite and propel the Dolphins.
Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Smith, who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, understands those expectations after floundering during his first three seasons as a starting quarterback. In the 30 starts that Smith logged during that period, he connected on only 54.4 percent of his passes to go with 31 interceptions and only 19 touchdowns. More importantly, the 49ers were 11-19 with Smith as the starter at that time.
Although some expected Smith to need time to make the transition in a conventional offense after running a spread scheme in college, his maddeningly inconsistent play led many to wonder if he would ever fulfill his potential.
Last season, however, Smith finally looked like a player capable of developing into an elite passer. He played with more poise and confidence. That additional self-assurance led to more decisiveness in the pocket. Of course, the 49ers' stellar cast of young receivers made it easier for Smith to get the ball out of his hands quickly. Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan repeatedly came up with clutch receptions, which led to Smith having enough confidence to throw their way even when they appeared to be covered.
The aerial attack is bound to improve as Smith's chemistry grows with his pass catchers, and the upgrades along the offensive line could also help him perform at a higher level.
First-round picks Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati will not only provide better pass protection, but their ability to move people off the ball in the running game will ultimately make the play-action package more explosive. With opponents forced to defend a resurgent running game, the 49ers should have more opportunities to attack downfield and that should open up things for Smith on other downs.
If Smith can take advantage of the opportunity, the 49ers will not only make the postseason, but wear the crown as NFC West champions.