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Playing the 'if' game for each NFL team's chances in 2012

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If Joe Flacco plays like he did in the AFC title game, the Ravens have a chance of reaching the Super Bowl. (AP)  
If Joe Flacco plays like he did in the AFC title game, the Ravens have a chance of reaching the Super Bowl. (AP)  

We're a month away from training camps opening, the league is pretty much dark for the next four weeks as most everyone takes last-minute vacations before the madness begins, which means it's a good time to play the "if game."

It goes like this: Team X will go to the playoffs/Super Bowl if …certain things happen.

Some teams obviously have to hope their “big if” is the rest of the division deciding not to play because they have little chance. But as we've come to expect, surprises happen.

Keep these ifs in mind as you get ready for camp and see how they play out after 16 games.

I bet some of you will be saying this: If … only Prisco knew what the heck he was talking about.

Arizona Cardinals

Cardinals will be a playoff team if … Kevin Kolb or John Skelton, whoever wins the quarterback job, can throw for 3,500 yards and 25 touchdown passes. There is young talent on this team ready to break out. All they need is better passing numbers.

Atlanta Falcons

Falcons will be a Super Bowl team if … they can figure out how to be more explosive on offense and rush the passer better on defense. They will be more wide open in the passing game with new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and a nice group of weapons, but they need more from their pass rush, mainly Ray Edwards.

Baltimore Ravens

Ravens will be in the Super Bowl if … Joe Flacco can play like he did in the AFC Championship Game. If that carries over, the Ravens have a real chance to get to the Super Bowl.

Buffalo Bills

Bills will be in the playoffs if … Ryan Fitzpatrick can play like he did early last season before an unreported injury slowed him in the second half and if Mario Williams can get to 15 sacks.

Carolina Panthers

Panthers will be in the playoffs if … Cam Newton's rookie season is something to build on, he doesn't have a sophomore slump, and a defense that was 28th in the league can improve into the low teens in the rankings.

Chicago Bears

Bears will be in the playoffs if … the offensive line improves to keep Jay Cutler on the field and the pass rush improves from being 29th in the league in sacks per pass play, even with Julius Peppers on the field.

Cincinnati Bengals

Bengals will be in the Super Bowl if … Andy Dalton makes the progress going forward that he showed as a rookie. This is a team loaded with young talent. But Dalton can't have a sophomore slump.

Cleveland Browns

Browns will be in the playoffs if … Brandon Weeden plays like Dan Marino did as a rookie and Trent Richardson can rush for 1,500 yards. Otherwise, forget it.

Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys will be in the Super Bowl if … Rob Ryan can actually get the defense to play to the level of expectations. The secondary has to really step up.

Denver Broncos

Broncos will be in the Super Bowl if … Peyton Manning can be the Peyton Manning of five years ago. That's a huge if with him missing last season, the nerve issues and being 36.

Detroit Lions

Lions will be in the Super Bowl if … they run it better and stop the run better. They struggled to do both last season and even an explosive passing game couldn't overcome that.

Green Bay Packers

Packers will be in the Super Bowl if … a defense that finished 32nd in the league makes improvement into the mid-teens. They were the best team in the regular season with that defense. Imagine if it improves just a little?

Houston Texans

Texans will be in the Super Bowl if … the passing game takes a step forward. It didn't help last season that both quarterback Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson missed time.

Indianapolis Colts

Colts will be in the playoffs if … Andrew Luck is as good as Aaron Rodgers is now as a rookie. That's not happening.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jaguars will be in the playoffs if … Blaine Gabbert can prove his critics wrong and become a 3,500-yard passer with 24 touchdown passes and they move away from being so run-centric.

Kansas City Chiefs

Chiefs will be in the playoffs if … Matt Cassel can show that he's the long-term answer at quarterback and improve a passing game that was 25th in the league last season.

Miami Dolphins

Dolphins will be in the playoffs if … the starting quarterback, whoever that is, can win a handful of games with his arm. The Dolphins have been too limited in terms of the passing game.

Minnesota Vikings

Vikings will be in the playoffs if … the rest of the division decides not to play. This is a team that is a ways away. It's about growing around Christian Ponder.

New England Patriots

Patriots will be in the Super Bowl if … they improve a defense that was ranked 31st last season, and dead last in first downs allowed. The main focus: Improve the pass rush.

New Orleans Saints

Saints will be in the Super Bowl if … they can handle life without coach Sean Payton, overcome the Bounty-gate scandal and, oh by the way, improve a pass rush that was 32nd in sacks per pass play last season.

New York Giants

Giants will be in the Super Bowl if … they can avoid the Super Bowl hangover and they can handle talking everybody's best shot on a week in and week out basis. One more thing: the running game has to be better.

New York Jets

Jets will be in the playoffs if … Mark Sanchez doesn't have to spend the season looking over his shoulder at Tim Tebow and he's allowed to do more things on early downs. Oh, and a pass rusher emerges. Two big ifs.

Oakland Raiders

Raiders will be in the playoffs if … Carson Palmer can make big strides in his first full season in Oakland throwing to all that speed on the outside and a defense that struggled in all areas shows some improvement.

Philadelphia Eagles

Eagles will be in the Super Bowl if … quarterback Mike Vick can play more like he did in 2010 and less like he did in 2011. One more if: if any player says the phrase "Dream Team" fine them $50,000.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers will be in the Super Bowl if … the offensive line, which struggled last season, comes together and somebody emerges as a primary runner to take some pressure off the passing game. The Steelers were 23rd in sacks given up per pass play, and that's with a mobile Ben Roethlisberger.

St. Louis Rams

Rams will be in the playoffs if … Sam Bradford has a Tom Brady-like season and a defense that was 31st against the run can improve that into the low teens.

San Diego Chargers

Chargers will be in the Super Bowl if …they can get off the field on defense better than they did in 2011. San Diego was the worst defense in the NFL on third down last season.

San Francisco 49ers

49ers will be in the Super Bowl if … Alex Smith can get his yards up to near 4,000 and his touchdown passes to 25, especially with the supposed improvements in the receiving group.

Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks will be in the playoffs if … someone steps forward as a legitimate No. 1 quarterback. They can't have a guy who is looking over his shoulder all season. That means either Tarvaris Jackson or Matt Flynn has to be the guy and play well.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs will be in the playoffs if … Josh Freeman can bounce back from a sub-par season and a defense that put him in a lot of passing situations can improve the 30th ranking it had a year ago.

Tennessee Titans

Titans will be in the playoffs if … Chris Johnson can get back to his 2010 form and a pass rush that was 30th in sacks per pass play can influence the other team's quarterback more consistently.

Washington Redskins

Redskins will be in the playoffs if … Robert Griffin III can step in right away and do some amazing things and the running game, normally a strong point under Mike Shanahan, improves from a No. 25 ranking.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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