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Look for Texans, 49ers to become contenders in 2010

The Houston Texans just missed the playoffs, but finished the season strong. Now, they're a hot pick to do damage next season.

Raise your hand if you've heard that before.

Our experts have, but they aren't putting any stock in Houston's recent past, in which the Texans have perennially teased their own constituency to the brink of cynicism.

We asked our panel: What two teams will you have your eyes on in 2010 based on what they did in 2009? Here's what they had to say:

Gil Brandt: Texans, 49ers on the rise

Team rankings

The Saints are the Super Bowl champions, but our experts like the runner-up Colts to start out next year as the favorite. Where do they land on your season-ending **rankings**?

Houston Texans: The Texans are coming off their first winning record in franchise history and seem to have all the pieces in place. The only things that kept them out of the playoffs in 2009 were a few missed field goals. They have an explosive offense with Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. The defense gave up 61 fewer points in '09 than '08, and is improving with young players like LB Brian Cushing and DE Mario Williams.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers are coming off their best season since 2003. Looking ahead, they have settled on Alex Smith at quarterback, and I think he'll do a good job for them. Vernon Davis might be the best tight end in the NFL. Having WR Michael Crabtree for a full season is big, but I also think Josh Morgan should have a breakout season. The defense played extremely well in 2009; re-signing free agent DT Aubrayo Franklin is key.

Bucky Brooks: More growth expected

Houston Texans: Gary Kubiak guided the Texans to their first winning season, but bigger and better things are on the horizon in 2010. The Texans' underrated defense started to flex its muscles down the stretch, and the Matt Schaub-to-Andre Johnson connection has become the league's top passing combination. With the Texans bound to add a few more pieces in the offseason, Houston is a lock to make its first postseason appearance next year.

San Francisco 49ers: Mike Singletary's crew lost six games by seven points or fewer, but the presence of a hard-hitting defense and an emerging offensive core has things looking up in San Francisco. If Alex Smith can continue to develop chemistry with Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, the 49ers have the pieces in place to reclaim their spot at the top of the NFC West.

Vic Carucci: NFC North movers, shakers

Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers has emerged as one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks. With another year of experience as a starter under his belt, he should be well equipped to help take the Packers deep into the postseason. Green Bay's defense also should benefit from a full year and another offseason and preseason of working in the 3-4 scheme.

Chicago Bears: It will be interesting to see what the arrival of new offensive coordinator Mike Martz means to quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears hired Martz to salvage their massive investment in Cutler, who proved to be a major disappointment last season. If Martz is successful, he could also go a long way toward helping save Lovie Smith's job.

Chat transcript: Pat Kirwan senior analyst Pat Kirwan was asked during his weekly live chat if San Francisco should stick with quarterback Alex Smith next season.

"I think Alex deserves a shot to be the QB there. They want him to succeed. With the emergence of Vernon Davis and a whole offseason for Michael Crabtree, Alex Smith will be fine."  **More ...**

Pat Kirwan: Spotting a trend

San Francisco 49ers: Mike Singletary has the young talent facing in the right direction and he has weeded out the guys that don't share his passion for the game. I spent some time with team owner Jed York last week and he seems to get it. The retirement of Cardinals QB Kurt Warner opens the door for a new champion in the NFC West, and the Niners -- who combine a solid running game with a passing game that features All Pro tight end Vernon Davis and up-and-coming WR Michael Crabtree -- could fill the void. Alex Smith is constantly criticized, but I believe he's ready for the next step in his career. I could see the Niners addressing their safety, cornerback and pass-rushing needs in the draft.

Houston Texans: The Texans were another team I didn't like last year but started to take notice of as the season went on. As long as Peyton Manning is in the division, Houston might have to settle for the wild-card spot, but with Matt Schaub and his passing offense, that isn't a bad spot to be in. Look for the Texans to take a defensive tackle, a corner and maybe even a running back early in the draft. Coach Gary Kubiak just received a vote of confidence with a new contract extension and that creates the stability required to become a serious contender.

Steve Wyche: Watch out for the Bucs

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: I'm not saying the Bucs will get to the Super Bowl, but the annual worst-to-first thing in the NFC South can't be overlooked. Neither can the expected improvement out of QB Josh Freeman and a defense that got a lot better once Raheem Morris took over. Five draft picks in the top 99 could pay quick dividends.

Houston Texans: The Texans are on the verge of breaking through. Winning their final four games when they were poised to mail it in last season showed character. QB Matt Schaub is legit. The talented defense needs to be better and obtaining a running back is a must. The Colts should feel threatened.

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