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:
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 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.
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.
Kansas City Chiefs
St. Louis Rams
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.