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2011 playoff picture could look very different

Jerry Lai / US Presswire
Matthew Stafford staying healthy is a key component if the Lions are going to make the playoffs next season.


As much as I enjoyed watching teams like Tampa Bay and Kansas City come of age, waiting to see if Brett Favre would play a 20th season and then if his starting streak would end, and witnessing the sixth-seeded Packers rally down the season's final stretch to win a Super Bowl, it's time to move on.

Playoffs teams year after missing out (since 1996)
Year No. New teams
1996 5 CAR, DEN, JAC, MIN, NE
1997 5 DET, KC, MIA, NYG, TB
1998 5 ARI, ATL, BUF, DAL, NYJ
1999 7 DET, IND, STL, SEA, TB, TEN, WAS
2000 6 BAL, DEN, NO, NYG, OAK, PHI
2001 6 CHI, GB, NE, NYJ, PIT, SF
2002 5 ATL, CLE, IND, NYG, TEN
2003 8 BAL, CAR, DAL, DEN, KC, NE, STL, SEA
2004 5 ATL, MIN, NYJ, PIT, SD
2005 7 CAR, CHI, CIN, JAC, NYG, TB, WAS
2006 7 BAL, DAL, KC, NO, NYJ, PHI, SD
2007 6 GB, JAC, PIT, TB, TEN, WAS
2008 7 ARI, ATL, BAL, CAR, MIA, MIN, PHI
2009 6 CIN, DAL, GB, NE, NO, NYJ
2010 5 ATL, CHI, KC, PIT, SEA

I won't bore you with any nerve-racking conversation about the collective bargaining agreement because there will be plenty of time for that. We'll get to the draft and free agency (if there is any -- sorry for the CBA injection) at some point, too. I'm headed straight to next season's playoffs.

As we know, there are usually five or six new teams in the postseason each year. This time around, Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Seattle crashed the playoff party. They joined repeat contenders Baltimore, New England, New York (Jets), Philadelphia, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Green Bay.

Even though it's so hard to know now how rosters are going to look and what injuries could derail a team's season, the way the Patriots, Saints and Packers are built, it's hard not envisioning them back in the playoffs next season, regardless.

Quarterbacks and coaching stability are driving forces to teams remaining competitive as we see just about every season. That's why I'm tempted to go ahead and include the Falcons and Eagles in the group of playoff teams that I think will be back. But questions about their defenses and threats in their respective divisions have me unsettled.

This is going to be a real discussion piece, and I look forward to what you have to say, but let's take a look at the teams that didn't make the playoffs this season but could/should in 2011 and who they'll replace.

Ready to make jump in NFC

Tampa Bay

The key to making it to the postseason is your quarterback and playmakers, and the Bucs are covered in both areas. Josh Freeman is a rising star, who, like Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and New Orleans' Drew Brees, has his entire team believing in him. Wide receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, along with tight end Kellen Winslow, form a tight nucleus. On defense, Cornerback Aqib Talib could be one of the best in the game if he decides he wants to be. If the Bucs can find some pass rushers and have tailback LeGarrette Blount stay focused and improve, they could end up being the best team in the NFC. Yeah, I said it.

Detroit

I'm not kidding, but everything hinges on QB Matthew Stafford staying on the field. I'm pegging him to do so and for Detroit to be a wild-card team. The Lions finished on a four-game winning streak and have learned what it takes to compete. They lost six games (Detroit finished 6-10) by five points or less. Those are games in which Stafford could have made the difference. The last two rookie classes have been solid -- especially defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh -- and general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz have shown that they've got things on the right track.

St. Louis

The Rams complete my NFC trifecta of longstanding bottom-feeders that should be on the rise in 2011. The common thread is the young quarterback. Year 2 as a starter tends to be the toughest for almost any signal-caller, but Sam Bradford is going to improve because the Rams will finally get him some capable receiving threats. Although St. Louis has to get better perimeter speed along its front seven on defense, the Rams could be the team to beat in an NFC West that will be down once again.

Out of the playoffs

In January and February, NFL.com took a look at the five pressing questions facing each team as it heads into the offseason.

AFC East:
» Buffalo Bills: Must remedy draft failures
» Miami Dolphins: Need to overcome awkwardness
» New England Patriots: Issues start on defense
» New York Jets: Rocky road to reach Super Bowl
AFC North:
» Baltimore Ravens: Immense pressure on Flacco
» Cincinnati Bengals: Distractions cloud team's future
» Cleveland Browns: New coach faces no easy fix
» Pittsburgh Steelers: Father Time is biggest hurdle
AFC South:
» Houston Texans: Big issues on defense
» Indianapolis Colts: Big decisions on key players
» Jacksonville Jaguars: Same issues haunt team
» Tennessee Titans: Big void at QB with Young gone
AFC West:
» Denver Broncos: Defense will dictate offseason
» Kansas City Chiefs: Sustaining is next challenge
» Oakland Raiders: Team has hope, questions
» San Diego Chargers: Bolts aim to bounce back
NFC East:
» Dallas Cowboys: More holes to fill than coach
» New York Giants: Many lingering questions
» Philadelphia Eagles: More drama on horizon
» Washington Redskins: Huge problems to tackle
NFC North:
» Chicago Bears: Cutler opens deep bag of issues
» Detroit Lions: Closing in on respectability
» Green Bay Packers: Champs face tricky offseason
» Minnesota Vikings: Uncertainty surrounds team
NFC South:
» Atlanta Falcons: Need help to take next step
» Carolina Panthers: Plenty of room to improve
» New Orleans Saints: Time to tackle backfield, D
» Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Next step won't be easy
NFC West:
» Arizona Cardinals: QB quandary still an issue
» San Francisco 49ers: Must settle QB situation
» Seattle Seahawks: Playoff run can't hide issues
» St. Louis Rams: Reason for optimism

Chicago

QB Jay Cutler is going to be under non-stop scrutiny. The Packers and Lions could be too much to overcome. Minnesota will also be better.

Atlanta

The defense is passable, but schemes can only cover up so much. Talent and toughness upgrades are needed. The Falcons have to improve along the offensive line, too.

Seattle

There are still a lot of potential moving parts to be settled on both sides of the ball, including quarterback.

Ready to make jump in AFC

Houston

I know. I know. Don't we go through this every offseason only for the Texans to prove themselves as phonies? I just can't help but think Wade Phillips' arrival as defensive coordinator will make a huge improvement in the one area that needs adjusting. Inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans could be a monster in the 3-4 scheme, and outside linebacker Brian Cushing will be developed into a top-flight pass rusher. Phillips might not turn Cushing into DeMarcus Ware, but remember, Phillips helped make Ware into the force he is in Dallas.

San Diego

The Chargers are really going to show us who they are because they will have to beat out the rising Chiefs and Raiders to win the division, and their non-divisional opponents are no joke. I don't think a wild-card team is coming from the AFC West. San Diego has a lot of very good, underrated talent on defense that will now be entrusted to Greg Manusky. Offensively, a lot hinges on the durability of tight end Antonio Gates and running back Ryan Mathews. QB Philip Rivers proved that he's the goods. Everyone else, including coach Norv Turner, can't wait until midway through the season to get going.

Out of playoffs

Kansas City

The Chiefs are going to be good and are building something for the long haul, but they just might not be good enough. Learning to improve after a down season is easy, so to speak. Improving upon success will be the hard part.

New York Jets

This seems crazy since New York has made it to the AFC title game two straight seasons. I'm also a huge Rex Ryan fan because he's far more than a yapper. He's an exceptional coach. While QB Mark Sanchez is going to be better, can the same be said for his receiving and running options? Also, this team always seems to be surrounded by drama, and thriving off of it only lasts so long. At some point, it might become problematic.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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