Here is one man's top-five list of teams, in alphabetical order, that are poised to surprise in 2011:
The inexperience of first-year coach Pat Shurmur figures to be mitigated by the fact that he fully shares the offensive vision that Mike Holmgren managed to convey to Colt McCoy last season, even though Eric Mangini was the coach. Look for McCoy to take some big steps forward. The first two drafts of the Holmgren era appear strong. The 2010 draft class, highlighted by defensive tackle Phil Taylor, gives new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron more of the tools he needs to effectively lead the conversion from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme. Whether all of this is enough to break through the Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens ceiling in the AFC North remains to be seen. But the Browns should put some pretty good dents in it.
Tony Romo is healthy, and the Cowboys' offense should be humming. Jason Garrett is entering his first full season as head coach, and although the lockout has hampered his efforts to fully implement all of his changes from the Wade Phillips regime, the Cowboys should benefit from Garrett's ability to start 2011 with a cleaner slate. Expect them to pick up significant help through aggressive free-agent shopping.
Watch out for these guys! Even if the Lions aren't able to add a cornerback in free agency, their defense should still have the ability to control games on a regular basis. Ndamukong Suh is going to be better than he was during his defensive-rookie-of-the-year season in 2010. The addition of first-round draft pick Nick Fairley gives the Lions more options to put Suh in spots where he can wreak havoc. Don't forget about Corey Williams' contribution to what could very well be the most menacing defensive interior in the league. If Matthew Stafford stays healthy (and it's a pretty big if), the Lions are going to have something to say about who wins the NFC North.
This, finally, will be the season that the Texans make the playoffs. They should be on equal footing with the perennial kings of the AFC South, the Indianapolis Colts, because of a defense that is expected to be significantly better under the guidance of Phillips. As he has said repeatedly, the Texans need to add experience to their secondary, and figure to be fairly aggressive in the free-agent market. The Texans should also continue to be explosive offensively with one of the game's most prolific quarterbacks in Matt Schaub, and can beat opponents in a variety of ways thanks to the presence of ultra-talented running back Arian Foster.
St. Louis Rams
Look for a solid encore to the offensive-rookie-of-the-year season Sam Bradford had in 2010. That should be enough to allow the Rams to be in the thick of things in a wide-open division. The front office helped Bradford's cause by loading up on pass-catchers with reputations for reliable hands. Steve Spagnuolo's defense added a difference-making pass rusher in first-round draft pick Robert Quinn. Adding a running back via free agency (Darren Sproles?) to complement Steven Jackson would be tremendously helpful to the Rams' status as a rising contender.