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Strength of schedule will either make or break these teams

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Some of the teams that unexpectedly reach the playoffs get there, in part, because they lucked into facing injured, underachieving opponents that greased the track for their success. The following season, though -- when expectations are raised -- can often be a trap door.

If St. Louis and Kansas City are going to improve on their surprise 2010 seasons, they will have to earn it, because their schedules are loaded with rugged playoff foes.

Meanwhile, the teams in the NFC East -- if they survive each other -- have seemingly favorable non-divisional schedules that should result in another photo finish to determine who makes the playoffs.

Here are some teams who could either move forward or take a step back in 2011:

Moving forward?

Philadelphia Eagles

A lot depends on the play of Michael Vick and the secondary, but with regard to the schedule, Philly's road docket outside of the division isn't a murderer's row besides Atlanta. They also play at Seattle, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Miami.

New Orleans Saints

The schedule is hardly easy, but the Saints play host to the Texans, Giants, Colts, Lions, and Bears. They have to travel to Green Bay, but other non-division roadies are at Minnesota, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and St. Louis.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys have Detroit, Miami, Buffalo, Seattle, and St. Louis at home. More than one of those teams could be a surprise. Then again, Dallas could be called that, too, after last season's meltdown.


Washington Redskins

The NFC West is on tap, as are road games at Buffalo, Miami and Carolina, teams that combined for 13 wins and 35 losses in 2010. Tough matchups against the Jets and New England are in D.C.


Stepping back?

Atlanta Falcons

Besides playing in the tough NFC South, last year's playoff top seed has trips to Chicago, Houston, Indianapolis, and Seattle that won't be easy. Vick and the Eagles, and the Super Bowl champion Packers, come a knocking at the Georgia Dome, too.

Kansas City Chiefs

The AFC West champs finished 2-4 in the division last season, and all three opposing teams could be improved in 2011. The Chiefs also travel to the Jets, New England, Chicago, Detroit, and Indy out of the division. Green Bay and Pittsburgh pay visits to Arrowhead Stadium.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams could still win the division, but they might need to win at least five games in the NFC West to make it happen. St. Louis plays at Pittsburgh, Green Bay, the Giants, and Dallas. They play Baltimore and New Orleans at home. Sam Bradford better be provided some help.

New York Jets

Not a nice non-divisional schedule, even though the AFC West is on tap. Trips to Denver and Oakland aren't easy tasks, and neither are the Ravens, Jags or any of the NFC East matchups.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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