The following quotes are from NFL scouts, coaches and front-office personnel, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
• "Can you think of a team in the AFC North that has ever won without a top-10 running back? You have to go back a long time. The reason Pittsburgh fared so well this year was because (Rashard) Mendenhall came on. Ray Rice is one of the best in the league. (Peyton) Hillis is OK in Cleveland, but he's not great. (Cedric) Benson was top 10 last year, but they got away from running it and he was not as effective this year. To counter good running backs, you need strong linebackers. You have to go back to the Steel Curtain — before free agency and the salary cap — to find a group of linebackers that have been as good as (Lawrence) Timmons, (James) Farrior, (LaMarr) Woodley and (James) Harrison. Those guys are great. There are none better in the league. You have to give the Rooney family credit. They have a strong, tough running game and a tough, hard-nosed defense — it fits the city of Pittsburgh. They never forget who they are or what they came from, and it sells tickets."
• "If you want to beat the Patriots, you need to look at the job Cleveland did on them. The one thing (Eric) Mangini definitely knows is how to beat New England. They had a phenomenal game plan. I've never seen Tom Brady so confused. They had 11 guys standing, and (Brady) had no idea who was coming and who was dropping. No team is good playing from behind, especially if the offense can run at you. Colt McCoy made a few plays early, and (Peyton) Hillis ran at them. That is the winning formula to beat New England. It's a copycat league, and you have to know where you could pull from."
• "Coaching salaries really got out of control when Nick Saban came to the Dolphins. If you remember, that is the first time there was a position coach making next to a million when they hired Hudson Houck to coach the offensive line. That is when coordinators started going over the million-dollar mark. What did Washington pay Gregg Williams and Al Saunders — in the high ($2 millions)? It got really high and that is what kicked up (Jack) Del Rio and Lovie (Smith) and those guys. Assistants were making as much as head coaches."
• "Coaches remember what a player did. Personnel guys are supposed to be on top of coaches to remember what (players) can do. Every team has different power structures. What you have to realize with coaches is that very few of them can separate the emotion."
• "The identity of your team can change during the course of the year depending on who is healthy, who is playing and what is working — and most importantly, what gives you the best opportunity to win. Look at Philadelphia. Kevin Kolb was going to be the quarterback in training camp. Who could have foreseen what was coming with Michael Vick? That changed the Eagles' entire approach. What is really interesting is how good coaches can adapt. A player like Vick can change both sides of the ball. If your offense can score at will, you can afford to be more aggressive on defense. Or you may just not want to give up big chunks of yardage and play smart and sound. If you have a dominating defense, it becomes more important not to have turnovers on the short side of the field, so you may want the offense to play more conservatively on their own side of the 50, more like Pittsburgh does."
• "What (Bill) Belichick does better than anyone — he drafted two tight ends with entirely different skill sets. (Aaron) Hernandez motions and splits out. (Rob) Gronkowski can block in-line and run you over after the catch. They do nothing the same — but they both had great rookie years. It's just like his three-headed halfback — he has the pounder, the slasher and the third-down back. (Belichick) is the master of playing to his players' strengths."