Every year there is one team that made a run at the playoffs the year before that unexpectedly takes a step back the following season. Which team will that be this season?
There are several teams that will undoubtedly take a step back this year, but I think a likely suspect is Chicago.
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A) The Lions have gotten better. The Bears aren't sweeping them this season.
B) Chicago could very well open up 0-3 facing Atlanta, New Orleans and Green Bay in successive weeks.
C) Until that offensive line gets better, getting to 10 wins will be a stiff challenge.
D) There's still no wideout on this team that scares anyone.
E) I don't see Green Bay getting any worse; in fact they might go 12-4. So, Winning the NFC North again is probably not going to happen.
This is not to say they are going to tank. I just don't see Chicago winning the division, and certainly not hosting the NFC Championship Game again. I think 8-8 or 9-7 is a good bet.
The Chicago Bears won the NFC North last year, which might come as a surprise as we remember the division-rival Green Bay Packers' run to the Lombardi Trophy involved beating the Bears to both make the playoffs and go to the Super Bowl. I see the Bears contending again in 2011, but they will be challenged for a wild-card bid, not by Minnesota, but by Detroit, which -- if Matthew Stafford plays 16 games -- is my pick as the surprise team of 2011.
The Bears will have a tough time retaining their spot among the ranks of the elite. Although their defense played very well last year, I don't know if they can continue to play that well based on their age. Their best players -- Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, and Charles Tillman -- are over 30, and you wonder about their respective games falling off.
Also, they were fortunate enough to avoid major injuries from any of their key players on both sides of the ball, and you wonder if they have enough depth to overcome any adversity that could come their way this season.
Finally, I have serious concerns about the offense's progress in Mike Martz's second season. The unit hasn't been able to build on last year's concepts, and you wonder if they will be able to quickly progress with an abbreviated training camp on the horizon. Jay Cutler, in particular, will need to quickly rediscover his rhythm within the system to keep the offense afloat. He struggled at times with the timing of the offense and he hasn't been able to work out the kinks through OTAs and minicamp sessions. While I'm sure that he has gotten together with his receivers, trying to get it done without coaches' supervision will hinder the progress of the offense.
The Steelers could be in for a little bit of a fall. Their defense, which carries the team, might very well slip. It continues to find itself in the crosshairs of the NFL's rules-makers, and the Twitter complaints of the Steelers' defenders is a sign that they aren't prepared to deal with officials who are going to have a more watchful eye on their aggressive play. It also has to be a bit distracting that Rashard Mendenhall got himself into trouble with Twitter postings after the death of Osama bin Laden. The general focus of the team just might not be what it needs to be for the Steelers to maintain their lofty status this season.
Initially, I was going to say Chicago -- and I still think they're going to have a hard time making the playoffs despite almost beating Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game with a backup quarterback. Maintaining success hasn't been easy for Chicago, plus Detroit could make a surge and Green Bay should be back in the mix. I'm going to go with Kansas City on this question. I really like what coach Todd Haley and GM Scott Pioli are building, but the Chiefs have a brutal schedule -- especially on the road, and Oakland and San Diego could be better. The Chiefs are still growing, but teams are going to be coming after them this season and their maturity will be tested.
The Buccaneers had a great season last year with a 10-6 record and have a young team on the rise, but their division is so tough with the Falcons and Saints that they could be a better team with a worse record. They will not sneak up on anyone this year, and their 4-4 home record isn't exactly a homefield advantage. They could only drop one more game, finish 9-7 and once again be on the outside looking in at the playoffs. They are really counting on four defensive linemen who do not have one complete season between the group (Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers)