The pressure index

Pressure is felt is just about every walk of life. That’s not to say it’s always present, but at some point pressure will find you and it will weigh on you. Jobs, families, sweating out the final two minutes of Thursday night’s Kings-Sharks thriller—pressure is completely and utterly inescapable over the long haul.

The members of the NFL family know this fact all too well. Front office personnel, coaches, players, hell even the fans feel the pressure that accompanies the win-at-all-costs mentality of professional football.

But depending upon the situation, some in the NFL will feel the pressure more than others. As we continue our approach towards the 2013 season, here are the 12 teams we believe will be feeling the most heat in the coming months.

12. Miami Dolphins: No more rookie quarterback, no more first-year head coach, no more mundane offense. But more importantly, the Miami front office sent a message this past winter when the team shelled out $121 million on free agents Mike Wallace ($60 million), Dannell Ellerbe ($35 million) and Phillip Wheeler ($26 million). Spend that kind of money and people are going to expect results. The Dolphins don’t need to win 12 games in 2013, but the team has to show significant improvement over last year’s respectable 7-9 season.

What must be accomplished: Miami has posted just one winning season over the last seven years (2008). 8-8 or better should suffice.

Jay CutlerNo more excuses. Cutler has what he needs to pile up the yardage.

11. Chicago Bears: The only team with a first-year head coach to make this list, offensive guru Marc Trestman and quarterback Jay Cutler have to find a way to jump start this Chicago offense. Since joining the team in 2009, Cutler and the Bears have ranked 23rd or worse in the NFL in total offense each season. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery is entering his second professional campaign, tight end Martellus Bennett was acquired during free agency and the offensive line received a much-needed facelift with the additions of Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson and rookie Kyle Long. Even if linebacker Brian Urlacher re-signs with the club, Chicago’s identity will no longer be tied to the defensive side of the football.

What must be accomplished: Finish the season in the top-12 in total offense, get back to the playoffs.

10. New York Jets: With a first-year general manager and a rookie quarterback likely to take the reins at some point during the season, the only person feeling the heat in New York this season is head coach Rex Ryan. But the pressure is going to trickle down to the rest of the organization if Ryan can’t find a way to eliminate the Ringling Brothers-like atmosphere that has plagued this team over the last two years. The unfulfilled Super Bowl guarantees, the demise of Mark Sanchez and the Tim Tebow debacle need to become a thing of the past. It’s the only way this franchise can start to move forward.

What must be accomplished: No more talk, no more drama and a definitive answer on who will start at quarterback for the foreseeable future. Keep the mouths shut and play hard-nosed football. The rest will take care of itself.

9. Cincinnati Bengals: One of the pleasant surprises to emerge as of late, the Bengals have gone 19-13 during the regular season over the last two years, earning back-to-back trips to the postseason for the first time since 1981-1982. The team looks to have a franchise quarterback in Andy Dalton, one of the league’s best receivers in A.J. Green and a top-notch defense that ranked sixth in the NFL in yards allowed last season (319.7 yds/gm). But after falling at Houston in the wild card round in each of the last two years, the time has come for this franchise to take the next step.

What must be accomplished: Win at least one playoff game.

8. Tennessee Titans: A 9-7 start to the Mike Munchak era had the Titans headed in the right direction, but everything since has amounted to repeated steps in the wrong direction. The team failed to land free agent quarterback Peyton Manning during the 2012 offseason and then proceeded to go 6-10 with first-round selection Jake Locker, ranking 26th in the league in total offense and 27th in total defense. Munchak escaped the firing squad and has been retained for another season, but he’s on thin ice and owner Bud Adams is nearby wielding a sledgehammer. This season will tell us whether it was 2011 or 2012 that was the anomaly.

What must be accomplished: An 8-8 record for sure, and even that may not be good enough.

Cam NewtonTime for Cam Newton and company to put a winning record up on the board.

7. Carolina Panthers: The country was predicting big things for the Panthers after rookie quarterback Cam Newton set the league on fire in 2011, but Carolina followed up a commendable 6-10 season with just seven wins in 2012. Granted, the team showed some guts by winning five of their final six contests, but a 1-6 start proved far too much to overcome. Now entering their third seasons, head coach Ron Rivera and Newton need to show the league that the Panthers are a legitimate playoff contender. Anything short of 8-8 will be considered a failure.

What must be accomplished: A winning record with at least three divisional victories.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: You can’t spend the kind of money Tampa Bay has doled out over the last two years and not expect to attract a significant amount of attention. Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, Eric Wright, Dashon Goldson, Darrelle Revis…the list goes on and on. And while last year’s 7-9 record under rookie head coach Greg Schiano wasn’t a complete disappointment, the fact that the Buccaneers collapsed down the stretch for the second season in a row has raised some red flags. Tampa Bay plays in a brutal division, but the holes in the secondary have been plugged and the offense has more than enough firepower to light up the scoreboard. It’s time for the opposition to worry about a matchup with the Bucs, not laugh.

What must be accomplished: .500 or better over the months of November and December with a defense that ranks in the top-10 against the pass.

5. Detroit Lions: Remember that 10-6 season in 2011 that culminated with a trip to the playoffs? Remember how we stopped making jokes at the Lions’ expense? Yeah, well, those days were short-lived as Detroit reverted back to their old ways last season with a 4-12 campaign that had the organization right back in the NFC North cellar. The Lions haven’t won a playoff game since 1991. Think about that for a second. The last time this organization tasted success in the postseason, “I Wanna Sex You Up,” by Color Me Badd was the No. 2 song in the country. That’s the type information that warrants a prescription for Prozac.

What must be accomplished: End the drought, shock the world and win a playoff game already.

4. Atlanta Falcons: Had Matt Bryant not drilled that 49-yarder with eight seconds remaining in the NFC divisional round against the Seahawks, Atlanta would be No. 1 on this list. But Bryant connected, the Falcons had their first playoff win of the Matt Ryan-Mike Smith era and the franchise bought itself a sliver of breathing room. Now it’s time to take another step forward. Otherwise, this team is going to become the 2001-2003 Philadelphia Eagles.

What must be accomplished: A return to the NFC Championship game at a minimum. A spot in the Super Bowl preferably.

Gary KubiakOne playoff win is no longer good enough for Gary Kubiak and the Texans.

3. Houston Texans: Had the Texans not hired former Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips to run their defense prior to the 2011 season, there’s no doubt that Houston boss Gary Kubiak would have been sent packing. That’s how much Phillips and this new-look defense have meant to the franchise. Back-to-back trips to the postseason have been nice and a franchise-record 12 wins in 2012 was even nicer. But beating up on Cincinnati at home and then getting railed by the big boys the following week in each of the last two postseasons has run its course. Once again, time is running out on Kubiak.

What must be accomplished: A spot in the AFC Championship game.

2. Dallas Cowboys: Tony Romo is getting paid like a Super Bowl-winning quarterback without having won the Super Bowl. Jason Garrett is still the head coach despite coming up short in Week 17 play-in games in each of the past two seasons. Jerry Jones continues to tell us that these two guys are in the long-term plans for the Dallas Cowboys. But the bottom line is that this is an organization that has been to the postseason just once over the last five years and has notched only one playoff victory since 1996.

What must be accomplished: Expectations should be higher, but one playoff win is more than enough considering this team’s recent history.

1. Denver Broncos: No matter how many times it’s been uttered, it still bears repeating: The Denver Broncos won more playoff games with Tim Tebow under center than they did with Peyton Manning. As played-out as that statement is, you can’t help but think about it after last year’s colossal failure at Mile High. The Broncos tore through the regular season with their new $20 million quarterback, but an ultra-conservative game plan coupled with critical errors on both sides of the ball against the Ravens left this team with as many postseason victories in 2012 as the Jacksonville Jaguars. 13 or more wins during the regular season means absolutely nothing. For Denver in 2013, it’s all about what happens in January and February.

What must be accomplished: A trip to the Super Bowl.

Hit me up on Twitter: @JoeFortenbaugh

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