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Finding a route to the NFL playoffs

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Ross Jones

Ross Jones is an NFL Editor for FOXSports.com. He is a member of Pro Football Writers of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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Parity. A word NFL fans hear that holds so much meaning. It’s the sense of hope. It’s the belief that what happened last year doesn’t matter now. After every regular season, the slate is wiped clean and franchises that didn’t make the postseason have their championship dreams renewed.

Any year, any team can make a run to the playoffs. Once there, any franchise has a realistic chance at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

16 teams finished the 2010 season with sub .500-records, yet every one of them has a reason to believe.

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Due to this year’s labor-strangled offseason, teams haven’t been able to enter the free-agency period to fill voids. Players haven’t met with new staffs, and first-year head coaches only have tape to get a grasp of what their team is capable of.

Although hundreds of personnel moves are to be made, here are some reasons why each team will ascend into the postseason.

St. Louis Rams (7-9 in 2010)

In Week 17, the Rams played the Seahawks for the NFC West crown, but were unable to get the road win. Despite the unsettling finish, Rookie of the Year Sam Bradford enters his sophomore season riding a sense of optimism with Josh McDaniels as his new offensive coordinator. McDaniels has been known to develop and get the most out of his quarterbacks. General manager Billy Devaney restocked the receiving threat cabinet, drafting Lance Kendricks, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas. He also got tremendous value in the first round, picking defensive end Richard Quinn, who should have an immense impact on their pass rush. Also, former second-round pick WR Donnie Avery returns from a torn ACL.

Crucial move to make: Sign a change-of-pace back to share the load with Steven Jackson

Miami Dolphins (7-9)

The lockout will slow the installation of newly hired offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s system. Although a slow start could severely handicap their chances, veteran leadership will keep the Dolphins afloat. A revamped offense and commitment to quarterback Chad Henne is just what this team needs. The defensive unit was often the bright spot and kept them within reach. Mike Nolan enters his second season as defensive coordinator and progress should continue.

Crucial move to make: Owner Stephen Ross must repay team employees after pay reduction

Seattle Seahawks (7-9)

The defending NFC West champions look to repeat in Pete Carroll’s second season. Many cynics criticized Seattle’s draft and rightfully so, but it stabilized an aging offensive line with its first two picks. Look for young talent like Earl Thomas, Aaron Curry and Russell Okung to bloom and make the most of their opportunities. In a wide-open division, if Seattle re-signs Matt Hasselbeck, they will contend for the division again.

Crucial move to make: Sign Matt Hasselbeck

Dallas Cowboys (6-10)

When the Cowboys lost Tony Romo to a broken collarbone, they lost a three-time Pro Bowler and all-time franchise leader in completion percentage. In a quarterback-driven league, when a team loses its first-string signal caller, they are put at a major disadvantage. Romo’s return is reason enough to believe Dallas will improve, but look for owner Jerry Jones to build around a strong defensive nucleus. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan runs the 3-4 and will call for help on the back end. The Cowboys secondary was sickening last season, ranking near the league basement in passing yards allowed.

Crucial move to make: Sign Nnamdi Asomugha

Washington Redskins (6-10)

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Washington ignored its need at quarterback, so could John Beck really be the answer? Yes, he can and he will. Beck is expected to head into training camp as the starter and it will be his job to lose. He hasn’t started consistently for a team since entering the league, but provides accuracy and athleticism and he can move the chains. Mike Shanahan isn’t afraid to field a team without a household name under center. In his last coaching stint, Shanahan had playoff appearances with the likes of Jake Plummer, Gus Frerotte and Brian Griese. That fact, added to a successful draft and a very favorable schedule, could lead to Washington being a force in the NFC.

Crucial move to make: Release overpaid, overrated Albert Haynesworth

Detroit Lions (6-10)

The city of Detroit hasn’t had an NFL playoff appearance in more than a decade, but may be on the brink of something special. Former No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford, after missing 13 games last season, will return 100 percent healthy. In his three starts last year, Stafford had a stellar 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The Lions have emerging talent on the offensive side of the ball with Jahvid Best, Brandon Pettigrew and incoming rookies Titus Young and Mikel Leshoure. On defense, the front four is as good as any in the league.

Crucial move to make: Sign a veteran cornerback

Minnesota Vikings (6-10)

The Vikings have all intentions of bringing in a veteran quarterback, even though they spent a first-round pick on Christian Ponder. If Minnesota can make a play for one of the high-end free agents or deal for an experienced QB, they will be immediate contenders. Let’s not forget Minnesota is only a season removed from the NFC Championship Game and returns some key talent, including Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin. The defense showed some blemishes, but still have a nice core of talent and got younger through the draft.

Crucial move to make: Trade for Donovan McNabb

San Francisco 49ers (6-10)

The 49ers had a home-run hire in Jim Harbaugh. The former Palo Alto-favorite brings a realistic, blue-collar approach to the Bay Area and most important, a creative offense. Although it seems Alex Smith may remain the starting quarterback, the offensive core is set with a healthy Frank Gore, Vernon Davis coming off a career year, Michael Crabtree set to explode and a stabilized offensive line. The defense added a top-10 talent (Aldon Smith) through the draft to a unit that ranked sixth against the run. LB Patrick Willis has become a mainstay and will unite them.

Crucial move to make: Sign a veteran wide receiver

Houston Texans (6-10)

The three-headed monster of Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson is reason enough for Houston to be a viable contender. The offense is a polished product, ranking third in the league in yards amassed last season. Despite a seismic leap in offensive production, the defense often hindered the team’s overall success — ranking last against the pass. Gary Kubiak is on his last leg in Houston, so he hired Wade Phillips as new defensive coordinator. Phillips, who runs the 3-4 defense, added two elite pass rushers (J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed) in the draft to a group that is already well-respected. Although the Texans have never had a playoff appearance, they aren’t far off.

Crucial move to make: Must sign an experienced cornerback

Tennessee Titans (6-10)

Expect Mike Munchak, the new head man in Nashville, to target a veteran quarterback in free agency. A move to re-sign Kerry Collins to a short-term deal would allow rookie Jake Locker grooming time and bridge the gap until he’s ready to play. Collins, often referred to as a ‘game manager,' has proven he can win when he has the full commitment of his team. Munchak, an offensive-line technician, will build his team around one of the most lethal running backs in the game (Chris Johnson). The defensive unit is loaded with young talent and could hit its stride at the right time.

Crucial move to make: Re-sign Kerry Collins

Arizona Cardinals (5-11)

The NFC West had a sub .500-team win the division last season and the title seems to be up for grabs again. It has been widely speculated that once the lockout is over, the Cards will make a play for Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterback Kevin Kolb. Arizona will also employ a running back rotation that features Tim Hightower, Larod Stephens-Howling, Beanie Wells and rookie Ryan Williams. The defense should improve as the defensive line has matured, working together for another year. The drafting of Patrick Peterson leads many to believe they will soon have one of the best corner tandems in the league with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie starting opposite of him.

Crucial move to make: Trade for Kevin Kolb or Kyle Orton

Cleveland Browns (5-11)

The cornerstones of the offense are in place. Colt McCoy is an ideal fit for first-year head coach Pat Shurmur’s West Coast offense. The former Rams offensive coordinator, Shurmur assisted in QB Sam Bradford’s development. Peyton Hillis will carry the load, but Montario Hardesty’s return from a torn ACL will assist him. Rookie wide receiver Greg Little will compete to be their No. 1 vertical threat. The defense will be completely revamped, hiring Dick Jauron as coordinator. Jauron wants to bring an aggressive 4-3 defense to Cleveland and has some young talent to play with in the secondary, including Joe Haden and T.J. Ward.

Crucial move to make: Sign a pure 4-3 linebacker to ‘quarterback’ the defense

Denver Broncos (4-12)

Last season’s bottom-rated defense has gotten better over the offseason. The Broncos spent their first-round pick on the most complete player in the draft, Von Miller. And 2009 sack leader Elvis Dumervil will return from a torn pectoral muscle. Oh yeah, John Fox — a heavily defensive-minded coach — has taken over in the Mile High City. Fox brings the 4-3 defense to Denver — which has had six different coordinators over the last six seasons — and will exhaust all resources to improve. A decision has yet to be made on a starting QB, but Tim Tebow has VP of pro operations John Elway’s blessing. Brandon Lloyd, who led the NFL in receiving yards, will head an up-and-coming bunch including Eddie Royal, Eric Decker and crafty vet Jabar Gaffney.

Crucial move to make: Acquire RB DeAngelo Williams

Buffalo Bills (4-12)

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The Bills have plenty of bright spots despite coming off a four-win season. Kyle Williams, one of the most disruptive defensive forces in the division, will work in a 3-4/4-3 hybrid defense alongside rookie Marcell Dareus. Young talent looking to blossom can be found all over the defense including: Leodis McKelvin, Paul Posluszny, Jairus Byrd and rookie Aaron Williams. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has won Chan Gailey over, throwing for 3,000 yards last season. Lee Evans and Stevie Johnson are legit receiving threats. Running back C.J. Spiller will be expected to take on a more relevant role in the offense behind an offensive line that is building cohesion.

Crucial move to make: Sign an offensive tackle

Cincinnati Bengals (4-12)

Remember two seasons ago when Marvin Lewis convinced his team it was them against the world? They made the playoffs that year and now return many of the same players from that roster. Carson Palmer won’t be one of them. Palmer has been adamant that he won’t return to Cincinnati and has threatened to retire if not released or traded. The Bengals may be in the market for a quarterback with game-time experience.

Crucial move to make: Re-sign DB Johnathan Joseph

Carolina Panthers (2-14)

The Panthers picked the most polarizing player in the draft, Cam Newton. Expectations are massive, but Newton’s moxie has led many to believe he is capable. He will be tutored by new head coach Ron Rivera. Carolina’s running game, although it's unknown whether DeAngelo Williams will re-sign, will be the primary focus. Rivera, who engineered the Chargers defense the last three seasons, has the task of rebuilding a team that won two games. It starts with defense. Jon Beason leads a unit that fared pretty well against the pass, but must improve against the run.

Crucial move to make: Re-sign Richard Marshall
 

Tagged: Bills, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Titans, Raiders, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, Eagles, 49ers, Seahawks, Redskins, Panthers, Cardinals, Texans, Kerry Collins, Matt Hasselbeck, Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub, Ryan Fitzpatrick, DeAngelo Williams, Patrick Willis, Kevin Kolb, John Beck, Kyle Williams, Chris Johnson, Stevie Johnson, Tim Hightower, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Patrick Peterson, Aaron Williams, Ryan Williams, Titus Young

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