A team that made the playoffs with a young quarterback last season has reason to feel optimistic about its future. Then again, the Cincinnati Bengals have been known to take good situations and turn them into missed opportunities. An underachieving franchise needs to handle prosperity with uncommon maturity and professionalism.

It was bad enough for the Baltimore Ravens when receiver Lee Evans failed to hold onto a Joe Flacco pass in the end zone in the final minute of last season's AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots. It was worse when the Ravens then watched in horror as kicker Billy Cundiff gacked on a 33-yard field goal attempt, denying the Ravens an overtime period and sending New England to the Super Bowl.

Lovie Smith, the head coach of the Chicago Bears since 2004, has been outlasted in length of tenure by only three active NFL head coaches: Andy Reid, who joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999; Bill Belichick, brought aboard by the New England Patriots in 2000; and Marvin Lewis, the boss of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003.

Head coach Leslie Frazier is trying to steer the Viking ship to safer and calmer waters, but he's paddling against the current. Playing seven teams who earned winning records in 2011 won't help the Vikings in a stacked NFC North Division. When one looks at the offense, it's still piloted by a young quarterback who is trying to feel his way through the league.

You don't have to look very long or very hard to identify the Green Bay Packers as a foremost Super Bowl contender. You also don't have to look very far to see where and how this team can still fall short of pro football's ultimate game. We'll see whether this team's strengths catapult it to another NFC championship, or if its weaknesses create another stomach-punch loss in the month of January.

It's not exactly a bad time to be a Pittsburgh Steeler, but it's not quite the best time to be a part of this franchise, either. Pittsburgh finds itself at a crossroads this season. There's a palpable sense that the qualities that made this team so good over the past several seasons might not emerge in 2012, sending the most successful Super Bowl-era team into a slight dip...

Having made the playoffs for the first time in many years, the Detroit Lions will now have a big bulls-eye on their backs. Can they handle the heat? That's one question. Can they fight past the Green Bay Packers and make their first-ever Super Bowl appearance? That's not very likely. Still, these are better times in the Motor City. A franchise can genuinely hope for a big playoff push; that's not normal for the Honolulu Blue and Silver.

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