Every NFL Team's Worst Nightmare This Offseason

Russell S. BaxterContributor IFebruary 21, 2013

Every NFL Team's Worst Nightmare This Offseason

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    Okay, where’s the Freddy Kruger photo?

    We opted to go in a different direction in terms of the art work as 32 teams get ready to re-launch in 2013 and hopefully prepare to serve up a Super Bowl contender.

    The focus here is an overview of the team from this past season while spinning towards the immediate future. Remember, there were eight head coaching changes over the last two months while free agency is slated to start on March 12.

    And while some of the stated nightmares may seemingly deal with the upcoming regular season than the current offseason, keep in mind that these are issues that arguably could (and should) be dealt before we get to the preseason in August.

    For some teams, it’s hard to pinpoint just one or two issues. But this is just the appetizer before we get into fulltime menu planning in three weeks.

Arizona Cardinals

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    There’s no doubt that new Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians has a lot of work to do with his quarterbacks.

    But perhaps even more has to be done with that offensive line.

    No team in the NFL gave up more sacks than the Cardinals (58) last season, marking the third straight year the team has allowed 50 or sacks.

    It’s also not a good sign when you finish dead last in the NFL in rushing and your top ball carrier gains less than 400 yards.

    The Cards used three draft choices in 2012, a fourth, fifth and seventh-round pick, on offensive line help. They have to hope left tackle Levi Brown can bounce back from a lost season and a high pick can secure a starting job.

    Worst Nightmare: Use seventh overall pick on offensive lineman, not ready to play.

Atlanta Falcons

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    In 2012, the Atlanta Falcons won a playoff game for the first time since the 2004 season.

    For the second time in three years, the Falcons were the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Still, that advantage didn’t result in a Super Bowl appearance.

    One reason Mike Smith’s team failed to advance to the Big Game was the lack of a consistent ground attack, and due in part to that, the inability to stop the run. Even though they owned a 17-0 second-quarter lead over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game, Mike Nolan’s defensive unit allowed 149 yards rushing in a 28-24 loss.

    While quarterback Matt Ryan continues to throw more touchdown passes each season, the team has gotten away from the kind of ball-control, clock-killing ground attack that helps win a championship.

    Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff may have to make a very big decision other than getting Pro Bowl strong safety William Moore re-signed.

    Worst Nightmare: Falcons release running back Michael Turner and running back Jacquizz Rodgers can’t fill the bill.

Baltimore Ravens

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    Despite losing four of their last five regular season games, the Baltimore Ravens were aroused in the postseason and parlayed a big-play quarterback and big-play defense into the franchise’s second Super Bowl title.

    As it has been well documented, quarterback Joe Flacco threw 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions during the team’s four-game playoff sweep of the Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers.

    Flacco’s contract expires in a few weeks and it will be interesting to see how the front office rewards the reliable signal-caller, who has yet to miss a start (93 straight games, including playoffs).

    Legendary linebacker Ray Lewis has retired and the Ravens have decisions to make regarding potential free agent linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe.

    Cornerback Cary Williams and a certain ball-hawking free safety will also become unrestricted free agents as well.

    Worst Nightmare: Free safety Ed Reed signs with AFC contender.

Buffalo Bills

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    The Buffalo Bills have now finished dead last in the AFC East five straight seasons and haven’t enjoyed a winning season since 2004.

    So it’s no surprise that there’s a new head coach in Orchard Park once again.

    Doug Marrone is the newest sideline leader for the franchise, one that continues to tease on occasion.

    Last season, the Bills opened 3-0 and then went 3-10 the rest of the way. In 2012, Buffalo opened 2-1 and owned a 21-7 lead over the Patriots in Week 4 before the roof caved in for the remainder of the season.

    The Bills have had their share of young and talented players, like current running back C.J. Spiller, who ran for 1,244 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry. They just need to do a better job of not only keeping them, but developing them as well.

    Worst Nightmare: Failure to re-sign both free safety Jairus Byrd and left guard Andy Levitre.

Carolina Panthers

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    Thanks to four straight wins and a 5-1 finish, the Carolina Panthers avoided another 10-loss season.

    But they couldn’t avoid a third straight losing campaign.

    It wouldn’t be a shock to see Ron Rivera’s team seriously challenge for the NFC South title in 2013, granted they can avoid another dismal start.

    This is a young and talented roster with an emerging defense, led by linebacker Luke Kuechly, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

    But on offense, they can least afford to have quarterback Cam Newton be a one-man show of sorts. The Carolina signal-caller not only led the team (obviously) in passing yards but rushing yardage as well.

    Newton ran for 741 yards in 2012, four more yards than running back DeAngelo Williams, who got 210 of his 737 rushing yards in the last game of the season.

    Former quarterbacks coach Mike Shula takes over at offensive coordinator and has some tough shoes to fill.

    Worst Nightmare: Running game continues to take a step backwards.

Chicago Bears

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    It’s a new start in the Windy City as Marc Trestman takes over at head coach for Lovie Smith.

    There is the obvious issue regarding the return of veteran middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who is coming off another injury-shortened season.

    But Trestman is known for his offensive prowess and one thing he needs to address is quarterback Jay Cutler and his wideouts.

    Not Brandon Marshall. In his first season after being reunited with Cutler, the Pro Bowler totaled 118 catches, good for 1,508 yards and 11 scores. Admittedly neither Earl Bennett (12) nor rookie Alshon Jeffery (12) played 16 games last season, but as a duo they only combined for 53 receptions and five touchdowns.

    If the Chicago attack is to progress and be able to compete with the Green Bay Packers, Cutler must look elsewhere on a regular basis and those players must perform.

    Worst Nightmare: Either Earl Bennett or Alshon Jeffery doesn’t emerge as a consistent second wide receiver.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Although the Cincinnati Bengals have not won a playoff game since 1990, at least they’re getting more opportunities lately.

    On the strength of their defense, Marvin Lewis’ team has been to the postseason in two straight (and three of the last four) years.

    While quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green are amongst those who get a lot of the publicity, it’s a Cincinnati defense that finished sixth in the league in fewest yards allowed and third in sacks that has been a force in the team’s recent resurgence.

    But that defensive unit has a dozen players slated to be unrestricted free agents, four each on the defensive line, linebacker and secondary.

    Even if the team hits defensive end Michael Johnson with the franchise tag, they stand the chance of losing a starter or two and some depth as well.

    Worst Nightmare: Defensive unit takes too many hits in free agency.

Cleveland Browns

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    Now it’s Rob Chudzinski’s turn to try and turn around the misfortunes of the Cleveland Browns.

    It’s the latest new start for a team that had to start over in 1999 and has just two winning seasons (and one playoff appearance) to show for over the last 14 years.

    But 2012 brought running back Trent Richardson in April and promising wide receiver Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft. Richardson scored 12 of the team’s 28 offensive touchdowns this past season. Gordon caught 50 passes for 805 yards and five scores.

    Last year’s draft also brought quarterback Brandon Weeden, who had his ups and downs as a rookie and threw three more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes (14).

    The Browns don’t have a lot of free agent issues and have drafted fairly well in recent years. Arguably their best offseason move to date was getting Norv Turner to be the new offensive coordinator.

    Worst Nightmare: Quarterback Brandon Weeden fails to progress, free agent place-kicker Phil Dawson moves on.

Dallas Cowboys

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    In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys won a playoff game for the first time since 1996, ending a drought that Cowboys’ fans would rather forget.

    Welcome to “Drought, Part Deux.”

    Jerry Jones’ pride and joy has not produced a winning season each of the last three years. The owner, president and general manager of “America’s Team" is already making his share of changes.

    Depending on who you ask, head coach Jason Garrett may or may not be calling the offensive plays. Regardless, quarterback Tony Romo must bounce back from that forgettable performance in the season-ending loss to the Washington Redskins which cost the team the NFC East title.

    But it’s the other side of the ball that is drawing more headlines.

    The Cowboys are back to playing the 4-3, and outside linebacker Anthony Spencer—who led the team in tackles and finished second on the club with 11.0 sacks during an injury-plagued for this unit—may be too expensive to re-sign.

    How much of a crimp does that put in the Cowboys’ plans in 2013?

    Worst Nightmare: Struggles to adapt to coordinator Monte Kiffin’s defensive system.

Denver Broncos

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    It looked like it was all theirs for the taking. That is until the Denver Broncos got taken.

    A seemingly improved defense gave up a season-high 38 points in the team’s double-overtime playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

    Goodbye 11-game winning streak. Hello offseason speculation.

    The Denver defense, despite being ranked third in the league in rushing yards allowed, showed some big cracks on too many occasions, leading to the thought that his unit (which tied for the league lead in sacks) wasn’t as good as advertised.

    Still, just as was the case in Indianapolis for many seasons, much of the Broncos’ success in 2012 was due to No. 18. But with 14 seasons on the field under his belt and off a disappointing performance in the playoffs, should we at all begin to worry about Denver’s newest standout quarterback?

    Worst Nightmare: Veteran quarterback Peyton Manning suddenly looks “old.”

Detroit Lions

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    In 2011, the Detroit Lions made it back to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.

    With any luck, they won’t have to wait that long again.

    But you wouldn’t have thought that after Jim Schwartz’s team split their first eight games last season
    before losing out in 2012. 

    The team’s 4-12 finish was a very disappointing showing for a club that many felt was on its way up. Now it will be interesting to see which direction the franchise is headed in, especially in a division where the Lions failed to win a game (0-6) this past season.

    While Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh isn’t going anywhere, he may be very lonely this season. Veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch has been released and both Cliff Avril and Corey Williams could be unrestricted free agents. Cornerback Chris Houston and free safety Louis Delmas could also test the market as well.

    Besides wide receiver Calvin Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford, the team’s defensive front has been its calling card. That card may be getting ready to be revoked.

    Worst Nightmare: Defensive line is disassembled and starts over for most part.

Green Bay Packers

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    Despite the lack of a ground game (and not for a lack of trying), the Green Bay Packers offense remains one of the best in the game thanks to quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his deep receiving corps.

    Even though Rodgers has put up gaudy numbers the last two seasons, his team has given up a total of 82 points in their last two playoff losses to the New York Giants (37-20) and San Francisco 49ers (45-31).

    Despite playing big chunks of the season without outside linebacker Clay Matthews and strong safety Charles Woodson, the Packers’ defense held its own somewhat. But the inability to stop the run consistently proved to be the difference.

    Let us not forget that general manager Ted Thompson used the team’s top six selections last April on the defensive side of the football. They made lean that way again in the draft in nine weeks, although the offensive line must be addressed as well.

    Worst Nightmare: Rookie and second-year defensive players fail to develop.

Houston Texans

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    A dozen games into 2012, the Houston Texans were 11-1 and had set a new franchise record for regular season victories.

    Unfortunately, it’s how you finish that counts. And with three losses in their last four contests, Gary Kubiak’s team squandered home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs and saw their season end in the Divisional Playoffs at Foxborough.

    There’s plenty of blame to go around for the late-season collapse. But the bottom line is that this is a very talented team as capable as any squad of getting to Super Bowl XLVIII.

    Still, there could be big concerns on defense, which had its issues after a very strong start. Second-year pro J.J. Watt was NFL Defensive Player of the Year but totaled 20.5 of the team’s 44 sacks last season.

    Second-year pro Whitney Mercilus, the team’s first-round pick in 2012, totaled 6.0 sacks as a rookie and showed plenty of promise. But can he do it on a full time basis? We may be about to find out in a hurry.

    Worst Nightmare: Can’t replace defensive depth due to too many free agent losses.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Great stories usually demand a sequel.

    But there are only so many ways for the Indianapolis Colts to follow up last season’s incredible and unexpected turnaround.

    Could quarterback Andrew Luck and company actually be in the Super Bowl discussion?

    That may take another year or two. But stranger things continue to happen in today’s NFL.

    Stranger yet may be watching Luck, who threw for a rookie record 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns but also committed 23 turnovers, including 18 interceptions. Despite 814 yards rushing from fellow rookie Vick Ballard, Luck ran for a team-leading five touchdowns.

    All told, the Indianapolis ground game ranked 22nd in the league in yards gained and Luck was sacked 41 times. Both of those figures need to change, and some of that help has to come from up front.

    Worst Nightmare: Offensive line fails to make improvement.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    No way to sugarcoat it. It was a long and horrible season for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Head coach Mike Mularkey was let go after a 2-14 campaign, the worst in the history of the franchise.

    By late November, both the starting quarterback and starting running back were on the shelf and a defense that showed promise in 2011 collapsed completely.

    So what’s in store for new head coach Gus Bradley, the former defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks? He must get his side of the ball in order if the team is to compete with the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts.

    On offense there are some promising receivers, but can Blaine Gabbert continue to show signs of progress? Free agency could take left guard Eben Britton and veteran center Brad Meester, as well as underrated fullback Greg Jones.

    But what does it tell you about a team’s season when your top running back misses the final nine games and still leads the team in rushing yardage?

    Worst Nightmare: Maurice Jones-Drew doesn’t regain Pro Bowl form.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Andy Reid is the Kansas City Chiefs’ third head coach in as many seasons.

    That’s quite a contrast for a man who just spent the last 14 seasons as the leader of the Philadelphia Eagles.

    But Reid will find one unpleasant similarity as he takes over a franchise that’s actually won an NFL championship (1969) more recently than the Eagles (1960).

    Both Philadelphia and Kansas City (as well as the New York Jets) committed a league-high 37 turnovers in 2012, while both the Eagles and Chiefs finished tied for last in turnover differential (-24). Chiefs’ quarterbacks Matt Cassel (19) and Brady Quinn (eight) combined for two-thirds of those miscues.

    As we know, this is a Kansas City team that is not without talent. There’s some work to do in terms of free agents, such as wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, left tackle Branden Albert and defensive end Glenn Dorsey. But one factor needs to be resolved quickly, with or without the aid of the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.

    Worst Nightmare: Inability to find at least one reliable quarterback.

Miami Dolphins

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    After a 1-3 start last season, the Miami Dolphins were a .500 football team for the remainder of the season.

    Unfortunately, while progress was definitely made under first-year head coach Joe Philbin, the team couldn’t avoid a fourth consecutive losing season.

    While catching the New England Patriots in the AFC East has become a battle of futility for the Dolphins and the rest of the teams in the division, Philbin’s club could be headed in the right direction, aided by a young quarterback and a bend-but-don’t-break defense that allowed only 28 offensive touchdowns in 2012.

    That’s the good news. The potential bad news is the possible loss of key players such as left tackle Jake Long, team receiving leader Brian Hartline, sturdy defensive tackle Randy Starks and running back Reggie Bush.

    Bush has been the team’s top rusher each of the last two seasons. But are the Dolphins prepared for his possible departure?

    Worst Nightmare: Running game takes a step backwards.

Minnesota Vikings

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    The Minnesota Vikings were once again a playoff team and have the look of a very intriguing club.

    But does that appearance have staying power?

    Leslie’s Frazier’s squad went from three victories in 2011 to 11 wins and a wild card berth this past season, aided greatly by one of the greatest individual performances in a season by a running back.

    In no means are we suggesting NFL MVP Adrian Peterson gained 2,097 yards rushing on his own. He had help from (amongst others) right tackle Phil Loadholt and Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton, both who could be on the open market on March 12.

    Minnesota may also have some free agent holes to fill at linebacker (Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley) as well.

    What everyone really wants to know—if Peterson is indeed capable of being the first player to rush for 2,000-plus yards twice? And in some observers’ eyes, will he have to if the Vikings are to return to the playoffs?

    Worst Nightmare: Third-year quarterback Christian Ponder fails to make strides.

New England Patriots

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    Wow. It’s been a whole eight straight seasons since the New England Patriots have won the Super Bowl.

    But it hasn’t been for a lack of trying, as Bill Belichick and company logged their 12th straight winning season in 2012 and came within a game of a sixth Super Bowl appearance in a dozen years.

    Still, they haven’t been able to close the deal for quite a while now, and could it be time to make some major changes?

    The team continues to rack up points (500-plus in each of the last three seasons) but veteran Wes Welker is one of four wide receivers on the team slated to become an unrestricted free agent next month. That list includes Julian Edelman, who has often drawn the Welker comparison.

    But back to Welker and his 672 catches since joining the team in 2007. Stranger things have happened, but it’s hard to believe that the most successful franchise in the league dating back to 2001 would just let a player with so much production simply walk away.

    Worst Nightmare: Letting wide receiver Wes Welker leave via free agency.

New Orleans Saints

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    It was a forgettable season that New Orleans Saints fans will never forget.

    But back to the normal business of football in the Crescent City, where head coach Sean Payton returns following a one-year suspension for his role in “Bountygate.”

    But the only really gate regarding the Saints in 2012 was the wide open one—referencing a defensive unit that gave up more yards in a single season than any other in NFL history.

    Quarterback Drew Brees led the NFL in passing yards (again) and touchdown passes (again). But he also tied for the league-lead in interceptions. As for that Saints’ offense, wideout Devery Henderson and left tackle Jermon Bushrod are eligible for free agency.

    But it’s the other side of the ball that’s a major issue in regards to last season’s performance.

    Defensive lineman Sedrick Ellis is the lone starter who could walk away. But there may be bigger issues as the team switches to a 3-4 alignment under a new assistant coach.

    Worst Nightmare: Saints don’t have the right parts for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

New York Giants

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    For those shocked that the New York Giants failed to reach the playoffs the year after winning Super Bowl XLVI, don’t be.

    Keep in mind this is a team that has finished 8-8, 10-6, 9-7 and 9-7 each of the last four seasons dating back to 2009.

    A year ago, Tom Coughlin’s club got hot at the right time. This time around, the G-Men weren’t playing their best football when it counted most.

    Still, the NFC East (won by each of the four teams the last four seasons) is likely up for grabs again. As for potential holes, the Giants must address the left side of their offensive line, as tackle Will Beatty and guard Kevin Boothe are eligible for free agency. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Beatty get the franchise tag.

    The club has already released defensive lineman Chris Canty and linebacker Michael Boley. They also cut running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who rushed for 1,015 yards and six touchdowns last season.

    But will the heir apparent be ready for the workload?

    Worst Nightmare: Running back David Wilson can’t fill the Ahmad Bradshaw role.

New York Jets

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    Perhaps New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan should go back to guaranteeing Super Bowls.

    For the first time since he took over the Green and White in 2009, he didn’t assure people that his team would be in the Big Game in 2012.

    And for the first time under his guidance, the Jets finished with a losing record (6-10).

    All kidding aside, this team is guaranteed to have a lot of new looks in 2013.

    Start with coordinators Marty Mornhinweg (offense) and Dennis Thurman (defense). Veteran linebackers Calvin Pace and Bart Scott are gone and there could be more changes on defense if safeties Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry don’t return.

    The Jets finished 26th in the league against the run last season.

    Speaking of 26, that’s also the number of turnovers that quarterback Mark Sanchez has committed each of the last two seasons. It’s also the number of offensive touchdown Ryan’s team scored in 2012—and that won’t get it done.

    With an offensive front (that in part allowed 47 sacks last season) it will be interesting to see what the future holds for potential free-agent guards Brandon Moore and Matt Slauson.

    By the way, we won’t be “covering” any other rumored issues with the team until they actually happen.

    Worst Nightmare: Once-talented offensive line continues to deteriorate.

Oakland Raiders

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    It will now be more than a decade since the Oakland Raiders had their last winning season.

    That’s almost hard to believe for one of the premier franchises in league history.

    But that’s the reality for a team that’s gone 49-111 since 2003 and has lost at least 11 games eight of the last 10 seasons.

    General Manager Reggie McKenzie and second-year head coach Dennis Allen have numerous decisions to make. The Raiders gave up 446 points and are in desperate need of youth on the defensive side of the ball.

    As to free agency, unsung tight end Brandon Myers and star punter Shane Lechler could leave, although don’t be stunned if the Raiders slap the franchise tag on Lechler.

    On offense, only four teams in the league ran for fewer yards than the Silver and Black. That’s because one thing never seems to change when it comes to a very talented runner. Perhaps this is the season.

    Worst Nightmare: Running back Darren McFadden still isn’t 100 percent.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    The “dream team” turned into a total nightmare and the dynasty was just…nasty.

    Word it anyway you want, but the Philadelphia Eagles turned the supposed-momentum of a season-ending four-game winning streak in 2011 into just four wins in 2012. And now longtime head coach Andy Reid is in charge of the Kansas City Chiefs.

    Enter Chip Kelly, who hopes to bring some semblance of his exciting offense to the pros. He’s decided to keep veteran quarterback Michael Vick and signed one-time Oregon Duck Dennis Dixon.

    Now we’ll find out soon enough who’ll be around for the new transformation in the City of Brotherly Love. While the Eagles have very few impending free agents, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be wholesale changes.

    More importantly, while the focus will be on Kelly and his attack, the other side of the football is in need of a little help.

    Worst Nightmare: Chip Kelly’s offense progresses, defense doesn’t.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    There’s no time to lick your wounds in the National Football League.

    It was a strange and uneven 2012 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers as injuries and inconsistency led to a perplexing 8-8 finish.

    Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, strong safety Troy Polamalu and outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley were amongst the numerous walking wounded in the Steel City.

    But not all of it can be blamed on injuries. Sloppy play down the stretch cost this team a playoff berth.

    Despite giving up the fewest yards in the league this past season, the Steelers have some decisions to make regarding their veterans on defense, as nose tackle Casey Hampton and inside linebacker Larry Foote are slated to become unrestricted free agents

    And the Steelers’ brass also has to see what the future holds for former first round running back Rashard Mendenhall, who’s slated to become a free agent as well.

    Worst Nightmare: Can’t find a reliable running back.

St. Louis Rams

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    New head coach Jeff Fisher did wonders with a St. Louis Rams team that won only two games in 2011.

    The Rams finished 7-8-1 last season, including an impressive 4-1-1 record within the now-rugged NFC West.

    Quarterback Sam Bradford had a very solid season after being limited to 10 games the previous year. Running back Steven Jackson continues to show he can get it done and the Rams’ talented defensive line bears watching.

    But back to Bradford and the St. Louis passing attack as the former first overall pick threw for 21 scores compared to only 13 interceptions. The last two drafts have brought wideouts Chris Givens, Austin Pettis and Brian Quick, who combined for nine touchdown receptions last season.

    Still, it was Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson who finished one-two on the team in receptions (combing for eight scores) and both could be available for the right price in mid-March.

    Worst Nightmare: Team is unable to re-sign free agent wide receiver Danny Amendola.

San Diego Chargers

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    Four straight AFC West titles morphed into three straight non-playoff appearances for the once-talented San Diego Chargers.

    Former Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator Mike McCoy takes over at head coach for Norv Turner, who had his moments but failed to deliver an NFL championship.

    Off their first losing season since 2003, the Chargers have more questions than answers. And that’s not good when you finish six games behind the AFC West champion Denver Broncos.

    Only the Arizona Cardinals gained fewer yards per game last season than the Bolts, who finished 27th in the league in rushing.

    But it’s hard to ignore the struggles of arguably the team’s best player, who can’t seem to hang onto the football the past two seasons. And what will John Pagano’s defensive unit look like as we head into free agency?

    Worst Nightmare: Quarterback Philip Rivers can’t shake the turnover bug, revolving door on defense.

San Francisco 49ers

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    The San Francisco 49ers had the Baltimore Ravens just where they wanted them. Only this time, Jim Harbaugh’s team had dug too big of a hole.

    The Niners’ 34-31 loss in Super Bowl XLVII was indeed disappointing to the franchise, but it was also the team’s first appearance in the Big Game in 18 years. And if the team continues on its current track, they should make another Super Bowl trip sooner than later.

    Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick showed enormous potential after taking over for Alex Smith, the defense (despite a late-season swoon) is one of the best in the business.

    This is still a very young and talented team that only has two starters slated to become unrestricted free agents, one of which they may not be able to afford to lose. Then again, the team as of this moment has plenty of extra draft choices this April.

    Worst Nightmare: Failure to re-sign free-agent free safety Dashon Goldson.

Seattle Seahawks

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    There are those who would make the case that the Seattle Seahawks were playing the best football in the NFC by the time the playoffs rolled around this past season.

    And Pete Carroll’s club did overcome a 20-point deficit in the Georgia Dome only to see Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan rally his team in the closing minute for a win.

    Still, these are promising times in the Pacific Northwest as the Seahawks closed the regular season with five straight wins and totaled as many victories last season as any team in the NFC—save for the Falcons.

    Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson improved weekly, running back Marshawn Lynch ran over everything in his path and Carroll’s club gave up a league-low 245 points.

    Free agency wise, this is a team that has very few potential losses.

    But speaking of the defense, consider that defensive end Chris Clemons will be coming off a knee injury he suffered in the playoff win over the Washington Redskins. That may put a little pressure on the team’s first-round pick in 2012, who totaled 8.0 sacks last season. But he may have to do much more.

    Worst Nightmare: Second-year defensive end Bruce Irvin doesn’t improve.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Just 10 games into 2012, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 6-4 and had already topped their win total from the previous season by two.

    Unfortunately, a five-game losing streak brought this new-look team back to earth and it resulted in a second straight last-place finish in the NFC South.

    Despite certain strides on the defensive side of the ball, the Bucs did allow the most passing yards in the league this past season. While Greg Schiano’s team did give up 30 touchdown passes, they did total 18 interceptions and ran back three for touchdowns.

    And any guess who led the team in interceptions in 2012? The savvy veteran’s departure would indeed leave a big void in a young and promising defensive unit.

    Worst Nightmare: Unrestricted free-agent free safety Ronde Barber leaves or retires.

Tennessee Titans

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    It proved to be a sobering year for the Tennessee Titans.

    A team that some thought may be on its way back up, finishing 9-7 under first-time head coach Mike Munchak in 2011, was a quiet disappointment last season.

    Okay, maybe not so quiet. Tennessee finished 6-10, with all six victories coming against teams that did not own a winning record. And no club in the league was easier to score on, as the Titans gave up a franchise-record 471 points.

    While it was an erratic and painful year for first-year starter Jake Locker and former Pro Bowl runner Chris Johnson—who continued to have his own ups and downs—it was a defensive unit that gave up nearly twice as many offensive touchdowns (47) as the team managed in takeaways (24).

    And while the Titans upped their sack total from 28 in 2011 to a respectable 39 last season, 14 of those sacks came in two games vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars. The search continues.

    Worst Nightmare: Continued inability to find top pass rusher via draft or free agency.

Washington Redskins

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    The Washington Redskins appeared to possibly be heading towards another last-place finish in the NFC East after dropping six of their first nine games last season.

    But a funny thing happened on the way to disaster, as Mike Shanahan’s team rallied to win its last seven games and capture the division for the first time since 1999 (when Shanahan was head coach of the Denver Broncos as his team was coming off back-to-back Super Bowl wins).

    Of course, much of the offseason discussion with the Washington Redskins will focus around the health of quarterback Robert Griffin III. The 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year is recovering from a knee injury he suffered in the playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

    But when you lead the league in rushing, potential losses up front to a unit that stayed pretty much intact all season may indeed be a bigger issue.

    Worst Nightmare: Changes on offensive line (left guard and right tackle).