Every NFL team has to make tough decisions on a daily basis. Some split-second decisions set their franchise back a year and some decisions turn their teams into Super Bowl contenders.
All of the decisions that they make can be organized into a tree graph. Decisions branch off of one another and they lead to problems or solutions. The following are obstacles that cannot be avoided.
Read on to find out what's standing between your team and a Super Bowl.
The Cardinals ranked near the bottom of the league in almost every significant statistical category in 2010. They have a slew of issues, but one appears to be more glaring than the others.
Larry Fitzgerald has established himself as one of the league's best receivers, even putting up outstanding numbers without a capable quarterback. Who is behind Fitzgerald on the depth chart though? Steve Breaston has left for Kansas City and with him leaves some certainty of the receiver position. Breaston reeled in 718 yards in spite of the quarterback situation and his production will be sorely missed.
There is no clear option left to fill in for Breaston. While Early Doucet is the front-runner to start at this point, that is not a situation the team should want to be in. He is not only unproven, but also very injury-prone. At tight end, talent is sparse as well, making it a tough task for Kevin Kolb to steer this offense to the playoffs.
There is some promise from the young players that this receiving core consists of, but raw talent means inconsistency. If neither Doucet or second-year pro Andre Roberts step up, this offense will be just as anemic as it was in 2010.
The Falcons made two key moves in the offseason, adding a pass-rusher in Ray Edwards and a playmaker to the offense in Julio Jones. These were good choices, but don't expect anything spectacular out of them. Edwards never posted double-digit sacks and he was lined up across from Jared Allen, who demands double-teams.
Jones, a rookie, has loads of physical ability, but he isn't as polished as impact rookies like Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald were when they entered the league. He will show flashes, but I doubt he'll make as much of a difference as the Falcons hope.
Those two moves likely mean the Falcons will be in Super Bowl contention once again, but can they finally win a playoff game? Matt Ryan is 0-2 in the playoffs thus far in his young career and it is important that he gets over that hump soon.
In 2010, the Falcons were rolled over by the Packers in the playoffs and losses like that typically linger. It's tough to end the season on such a low point and it's possible that the team gets cold feet once January rolls around.
Before Matt Ryan can become an elite quarterback, he will have to prove he can carry his team beyond the Divisional Round. It won't come easy, but it's the next step towards building his dynasty.
Safety Ed Reed, 32, and linebacker Ray Lewis, 36, are the keys to this team's success. They are no longer in their top physical shape and have been relying on instincts and leadership abilities for years. They haven't shown signs of aging to this point, but will that continue in 2011?
While the Ravens have some young pieces in place, like Haloti Ngata at defensive end and Joe Flacco at quarterback, you don't have to look far to find a 30-year-old starter. Receivers Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans are both 30 and will be relied on heavily in the pass game. Bolding has a long history of injuries, but is tough as nails. Evans, on the other hand, did not miss a game until 2010.
Will they be able to hold up now that they are the two featured targets of the Ravens offense?
Ultimately, this team may only have a few seasons left before they have to start replacing long-time starters like Lewis and Reed. It is possible that this season will be their final run for a title and it will be tough for players like Flacco to carry that pressure and propel the Ravens into the playoffs and beyond.
Last season, the Bills compiled 27 sacks, tying them for 27th in the league. Kyle Wilson was the lone bright spot of a terrible front seven, but the Bills have made some smart moves to resurrect a defense that lacked playmakers.
Acquiring Shawne Merriman and drafting Marcell Dareus will have immediate effects. Merriman was one of the league's best defensive players for his first three seasons as a pro, but injuries have derailed his career. He'll need to stay healthy and get back on track for Buffalo's sake.
Dareus will get pressure on quarterbacks simply with effort and strength. He isn't going to put up double-digit sacks, but he will free up other pass-rushers and provide consistency on the defensive line.
The Bills tallied nine sacks against the Bears in their first preseason game and that is a good indication, but we'll have to wait until the regular season to see if that was a fluke. It is not unheard of for defensive lines to put up big sack numbers in the preseason and disappoint during the regular season.
The Panthers will have to decide on a starting quarterback at some point or another. Whether they choose Jimmy Clausen or Cam Newton is difficult to foresee, but it will heavily determine the success of their season.
There are many benefits to choosing either one. It may be easier to choose Newton because he was the team's first overall selection in the draft, but he may not be fully ready for the ups and downs of playing in the NFL. He has the arm strength and athleticism that would attract any head coach to give him a shot at leading his team. However, it's tough to manage a young quarterback so the team may give him some time before thrusting him into the starting lineup.
Clausen may be the better choice at this point to win now, but the chances that this team makes the playoffs are very low. This means the team, as well as the fans, would enjoy watching Newton progress rather than watch Clausen, who is not the future of this team.
Losing Olin Kreutz, Tommie Harris and Greg Olsen will set this team back. Not only do they lose very talented players, but they lose players that were important in the locker room. Kreutz and Harris are both natural leaders and Olsen was well liked by teammates. They are now relying on a group of young, unproven players that are surrounded by few leaders.
Olsen was traded simply because Mike Martz was too stubborn to utilize a talented tight end into his scheme. The team acquired Roy Williams to lessen the blow to the offense, but Cutler will still miss that security blanket that Olsen provided. Look for Forte to get even more check-downs with Olsen gone.
Brian Urlacher and Jay Cutler will have to get the most out of their teammates because special teams won't be able to carry them to the playoffs this year—whether their coaches agree with the rule change or not. In 2010, the Bears finished second in kick return average, but the new rules moving the kickoff up five yards will eliminate a lot of the Bears' explosive plays.
When the Bengals declined to trade Carson Palmer, they inflicted a punishment on themselves and put the pressure on Andy Dalton to take the team back to the playoffs. Dalton was less than impressive in his debut—despite the high completion percentage—and didn't seem in control. Many expected Dalton to start off his career fast, but he wasn't able to advance the ball vertically or consistently pick up yardage.
What will make it extremely difficult for Dalton to succeed is Chad Ochocinco's departure. He was the best weapon on the offense and would have been very productive with rookie A.J. Green taking on the role of possession receiver.
Surrounded by youth, it will likely take a good amount of time for Dalton and this offense to get rolling. If that holds true, this team will be in the run for the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.
Over the final five games of the season, Peyton Hillis was unable to be nearly as effective as he was in the first half of the season. His only good statistical game in that five-game stretch came against an atrocious Bills rush defense.
Hillis runs with a physical style that gets him beat up on a weekly basis. He needs another back to lessen the load on him and Montario Hardesty will have to step into that role. However, Hardesty is coming off of knee surgery and I need to see some game action before I decide if he can truly be the featured back that the team wanted him to be last season.
The Browns are in a physical division that is based off of running the ball and playing good defense. If they want to stay true to their identity, Pat Shurmur will have to get this run game going.
In 2010, the Cowboys were on the wrong end of a lot of losses. They were handled by the Jaguars and Packers, but they were within seven points in their eight other losses. If Tony Romo wants to return from injury and bring his team to the playoffs, he'll have to be more clutch than he has been in the past.
Romo was having a great season before being injured and he'll look to start where he took off. He will have a more developed version of Dez Bryant as well as his favorite targets—Jason Witten and Miles Austin—returning so the two-minute offense should be one of the NFL's best.
Once they get to the goal line, they will have some problems though. Their rush game has a lot of room for improvement and Tashard Choice or DeMarco Murray will have to step up as the goal-line back.
All signs indicated that Kyle Orton would be traded to the Dolphins in late July and early August, but the team held onto him and they now face a tough decision—moving on with Tim Tebow or Orton.
Tebow is the fan favorite, but Orton is clearly the more complete player at this point. Although I feel starting Orton is the ideal scenario for the Broncos to win now, it is such an uncomfortable situation that I feel they need to make a change. They can get some solid value in return for Orton so why not trade him? You aren't fighting for a playoff spot; you are fighting for third place in the AFC West.
Giving Tebow a full season to show what he's got makes sense. If he wastes his opportunity, you have a chance to draft Andrew Luck. If he does well, you have a quarterback of the future and can begin building around him.
Matthew Stafford's career has been haunted by injuries early on. In his first two seasons, he has only played 13 games and has not had the chance to show the NFL how talented he truly is. In my estimation, he's right up there with the league's best—talent-wise.
If Stafford does stay healthy, this will be a great offense and potentially a playoff team. If he gets injured, it will be another long, hopeless season. Nonetheless, this is a young, talented team that will continue to grow year after year. We can only hope that eventually Stafford can change his injury-prone ways.
Some may see this as a cop-out answer, but there is no other answer for the returning Super Bowl champions.
The Packers have tons of returning talent, and Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley are coming back from season-ending injuries in 2010. The Packers made some very nice selections in the draft as well so it appears they will be just as good or better than they were last season.
But in the NFL, being the best team doesn't necessarily mean you will win the Super Bowl. The Packers were not the best team in the NFL last season, but they played well when it counted and you cannot predict who will play best once the playoffs start. The Packers will be in the playoffs again, but will they get lucky enough to get a chance to repeat?
The Texans are always a trendy pick to make the jump from mediocrity to Super Bowl contention, but they have yet to make that leap. Last season, they came out of the gates fast, but ended with a disappointing 6-10 record.
They have have all of the weapons, but they have failed to achieve to their potential. You can attribute that mainly to their defense though. Bringing in Johnathan Joseph will be great for 2010's worst pass defense and we know what to expect from this offense, even if Arian Foster does not put up the gaudy statistics that he did last season.
Peyton Manning is injured now, but don't expect him to miss any regular-season games. He will be good to go—Colts fans just better hope the rest of the team is. With Manning behind center, the Colts are never out of a game, but it makes it a lot easier on Manning when the rest of the team stays healthy. However, that was a problem last season as many of Manning's targets were down with injury for a large portion of the season.
The Colts have their mind on keeping Manning out of harm's way. They drafted linemen Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana, who have a great chance to start and will protect Manning's blindside. Manning makes his reads so quickly that it wouldn't be out of the question to expect sack numbers in the teens again for this team.
Melvin Bullitt, Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez, Kelvin Hayden and Jerraud Powers have all recovered from injuries and most will start from day one and have a huge impact on this season's outcome for the Colts.
Much like their division foes, the Houston Texans, Jacksonville got into a groove at one point but faltered towards the end of last season. They were one of the streakier teams in the league and ended on the wrong type of streak—a three-game stretch of losses to Indianapolis, Washington and Houston.
The Jags could have helped themselves by adding depth to their secondary or drafting a pass-rusher, but instead elected to draft Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick, a choice that could come back to haunt them if Gabbert does not pan out.
The key for the Jaguars in their quest to not burn out near the end of this season will be determined by their depth on the offensive and in the secondary, where they lacked a playmaker that could make the difference in close games down the stretch.
Last season, Matt Cassel managed the Chiefs, throwing only seven interceptions and helping the team finish fifth in the league in turnover differential. But for this team to become one of the league's best, Cassel will have to throw more than 3,116 yards. They'll need to attack downfield and improve on the 2010's third-worst passing offense.
Drafting Jonathan Baldwin was a risk, but it may pay off if Baldwin brings effort and consistency. He is a first-round talent, but if he doesn't have the work ethic, he won't last in the NFL.
Jamaal Charles was the most efficient runner in NFL history last season, but the Chiefs neglected to feed him the ball as much as he deserved. His 6.4 yards per carry dwarfed Thomas Jones' 3.7. Despite this glaring difference, Jones was handed the rock 15 more times than Charles. I'm not sure if Charlies Weis was intentionally sabotaging the team or if he forgot to watch the offense when Charles was in the game, but let's hope new offensive coordinator Bill Muir better involves him in the offense.
Chad Henne threw 19 interceptions and fumbled four times last season. Defenses took advantage of the offense's lack of ball security and the Dolphins ended up finishing third to last in the NFL in turnover differential.
However, that statistic is not wholly the responsibility of the offense. The defense lacked playmakers and finished the season with a lowly 11 interceptions.
If the Dolphins want to remain relevant this season, they'll have to turn around their turnover woes and move the ball efficiently. They won't have a high-powered offense, but they will once again have one of the top defenses in the league. They'll need to slow down every game to keep any lead of their opponent manageable.
The Vikings finally used a high draft pick on quarterback Christian Ponder, but then traded for Donovan McNabb. It turns out that not even rookie head coach Leslie Frazier is willing to be patient with a franchise that needs to begin rebuilding.
The Vikings have just begun moving on from Brett Favre's short stint with the team and are already moving on to another quarterback who will not win them a championship. I am not a believer in letting a young quarterback sit behind a veteran and it would have been a better deal for them to sign a veteran to compete with Ponder, rather than hand McNabb the starting job.
If the Vikings don't compete for a playoff spot, it will be a failed season and the Donovan McNabb experiment will have been a waste.
The Patriots have the same goal as the Atlanta Falcons—to win a playoff game. Now that seems like a simple task for Tom Brady, who is known for his success, but since coming back from knee surgery in 2008, Brady has yet to win a playoff game with the Patriots.
The playoffs are in their future, but any season that does not result in at least an AFC title would be a disappoint for New England fans. The team has tons of talent and has swindled multiple teams in deals that gave them highly talented players like Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth for late-round draft picks.
Brady has to be craving a Super Bowl appearance more than ever and a Colts vs. Pats matchup in the playoffs would be great to watch. Can the team escape playoff hell though?
Luck was on New Orleans' side two seasons ago when the team beat the Colts in the Super Bowl. They lacked many debilitating injuries and were able to walk away with the Lombardi Trophy because of it.
This season, the Saints' ballhawking cornerback Tracy Porter is sidelined with a knee injury, as is Alex Barron, an offensive tackle who the Saints had high hopes for. However, in the offseason the Saints added some depth and some clear-cut talent, thus making themselves less prone to falling short of expectations due to injuries.
This is a tough team to figure out because they seem to have added some nice pieces in Aubrayo Franklin and Olin Kreutz, but there are many durability issues among all of the positions.
The Giants made some unforeseeable moves in free agency that will hurt them in the short term. Releasing Shaun O'Hara and Rich Seubert takes away the consistency and chemistry that this offensive line had built together. They helped to form one of the league's best lines and with them gone, the new guys will have to step up.
Eli Manning had a rough season, leading the league in interceptions. They'll need to limit turnovers to get to the playoffs, but with a new offensive line, that task will be much more difficult, as blown assignments will be aplenty.
In consecutive seasons, the Jets have failed to move past the AFC Championship. Once the playoffs come around, Mark Sanchez and the offense play at a different level of urgency, and it pays off. Sanchez, who is the offense's weakness during the regular season, finds a way to manage the game by being efficient in the red zone and limiting turnovers.
However, it will be much more difficult for the Jets to get to the AFC Championship the third time. I'm not suggesting that a team coached by Rex Ryan will lack motivation, but I just don't feel that they have the talent to do it this season. Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery were integral parts of this offense and losing them may cause Sanchez to sputter this time around.
Not to mention, LaDainian Tomlinson was a totally different back in the second half of 2010. Look for this to be his final statistically significant season.
The Raiders will have their hands full this season. They have to replace arguably the best cornerback in the NFL, Nnamdi Asomugha, and their leading receiver, Zach Miller. They now lack any great target for quarterback Jason Campbell so they will likely rely heavily on the running game. The key will be for Darren McFadden to stay healthy.
The team has some sprouting young talent on defense, mixed in with some veteran leadership. That talent will have to step up big to recover from the loss of Asomugha, who completely eliminated a receiver when he was on his game.
The Eagles went on a huge spending spree, signing top-flight free agents like Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Harris while they failed to re-sign their own players, like recent holdout DeSean Jackson.
The Eagles have just as much ability as any team in the NFL. To make it work will require time though. There are glaring holes on this team, like the linebacker position, that may limit how far this team can go. They are densely talented at certain positions, it will be tough to get everyone the playing time they deserve—or that they think they deserve.
The very well-documented "Super Bowl Slump" has derailed many great teams over the years. It's unclear whether it's caused by complacency or simply by luck, but the slump is a very clear trend that has a chance to get your team, no matter how good it may be.
The Steelers were limited in the offseason by the salary cap. They had to cut some key contributors—such as Max Starks and Antwaan Randle El— but also made a nice move by signing Jerricho Cotchery. The key to this season's success will come down to turnovers. The ball seemed to bounce the Steelers' way last season and they ended up with the NFL's second-best turnover margin. Who knows if that's a stat that will be manipulated by the curse.
Last season, Sam Bradford did all that he could to carry the Rams offense. The team's receivers were dropping way too many passes and it likely cost them a playoff spot and a division title.
This season, the Rams acquired Mike Sims-Walker and Donnie Avery is healthy. These two can only have a positive effect on the offense. Avery is a speedster who will stretch the field and Sims-Walker will give Bradford a big red-zone target whom he hopefully will be able to trust not to drop the ball.
The Chargers have loads of talent and they finished tops in the league in total offense and total defense. Now how does a team do that well and miss the playoffs?
They started off slow last season and their first five losses came by no more than one score. By the time the team turned it around and began to crush even the NFL's best teams, it was simply too late and the Chiefs' lead was never able to be surpassed. If the Chargers are able to start off quickly, they will be a force and likely finish with one of the league's best records.
I feel terrible saying this, but at this point, it seems that Alex Smith is a lost cause. He has been coached up for several years and there is a reason that he has not developed into a serviceable NFL quarterback.
While I'm not suggesting that they do have the answer on the roster, it will be a tough task for Jim Harbaugh to turn Smith's career around. If he can do so, then he will establish himself as one of the league's leading offensive masterminds, but until then, Smith is standing between the 49ers and success.
With the departures of Matt Hasselbeck and Lofa Tatupu comes a leadership gap. Neither the offense nor the defense has a clear identity right now and they'll need to find one soon.
Hasselbeck was the fire under this team towards the end of the season and was the driving force in the upset of the year over the Saints. Lofa Tatupu never lacked in confidence and had the defense running smoothly once the playoffs began.
The team now has a great group of receivers and an inconsistent quarterback, as well as a talented running back who doesn't always give his best effort. We still don't know whether they'll be a smash-mouth team or a pass-first team—and I'm not sure that they know either.
LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams stepped up huge last season and almost drove the Bucs into the playoffs. Blount was the team's leading rusher and Williams had one of the best rookie seasons by a receiver in recent memory—964 yards, 11 TDs.
We have seen a lot of sophomore slumps in recent memory by running backs—Steve Slaton and Kevin Smith come to mind—and it wouldn't surprise me if we saw another from a physical running back like Blount. Behind Blount, the team doesn't have many options so it is important that they keep him healthy and that he continues to improve.
Chris Johnson deserves top dollar for what he brings to the Titans offense. He is a rare playmaker and the most recent running back to surpass 2,000 yards on the ground. He undoubtedly deserves more than $1.065 million.
Negotiations between the team and Johnson seem about as futile as the labor negotiations were during the spring. Johnson won't come to camp without an agreement and the Titans won't negotiate without Johnson in camp. The Titans should forget their ego—as Johnson will certainly not—and throw Johnson a bone, because without him, they are possibly the worst team in the NFL.
Mike Shanahan neglected to address the most important position in football through the draft and is now left with a football team that is going to live and die by either Rex Grossman or John Beck. While Joe Theismann would let you know that these guys are Pro Bowl players, it is obvious that this season will not be pretty with either one behind center.
Shanahan may trust his own instincts too much and he has put his team in a bind. They don't have a lot of skill surrounding their quarterback on offense and they were the second-worst defensive team in the NFL last season. It doesn't look good right now for 'Ole Shanahan.