As most years do, the 2010 NFL season threw a few surprises at us, like the Kansas Chiefs taking the AFC West from the San Diego Chargers.
There are no guarantees, but here are the teams I think will make the playoffs next year.
NFC West Champion: St. Louis Rams
One win from the postseason in 2010, the Rams will only get better. Sam Bradford showed he's an NFL-quality quarterback while working with a relatively unknown receiving corps led by Danny Amendola and Marty Gilyard. St. Louis has a quickly developing offense, and the most complete defense in the division.
Arizona and San Francisco are missing key elements that they cannot replace any time soon.
NFC East Champion: Dallas Cowboys
Don't let the 6-10 record fool you. This team is loaded with great players.
The key reason for Dallas' losing season was a lack of discipline and concentration. Many of their defeats were caused by horrid miscues, bad choices, and failure to focus on the task at hand.
Under Jason Garrett, things changed. Greater attention to detail allowed the Cowboys to be much more competitive in the second half of the season, and the return of QB Tony Romo next year will send them back to the playoffs.
NFC South Champion: New Orleans Saints
It's a tough choice, but ultimately the Saints have a more complete team than the Atlanta Falcons, who are missing a few pieces.
The defense has some holes (such as outside linebacker) but also has playmakers like Will Smith and Malcolm Jenkins. The Saints have a great deal of playoff experience, and they can make any play, at any point, at any position.
NFC North Champion: Green Bay Packers
The still-peaking Packers are truly explosive.
James Starks and Ryan Grant will solidify Green Bay's running game, and Jermichael Finley will return as a big-time player.
The Packers' defense only seems to improve. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are developing into solid corners, while Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews disrupt all phases of opposing offenses.
NFC Wild Card: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons won the NFC South in 2010 with efficiency, but they lacked explosiveness. Their flaw was exposed in the playoffs, and teams now have a way to shut down Atlanta's offense.
Age will also work against them, as Tony Gonzalez is over 30 years old and past his prime. The team is still playoff-capable, but they'll lose a few more games next season than they did this year.
NFC Wild Card: Philadelphia Eagles
Michael Vick will get the offseason practice reps of a starter, and will be at his best in 2011. He's shown great chemistry with his teammates, and their solid relationship should transfer to the field.
The defense faced multiple injuries in 2010 (Brandon Graham, Nate Allen and Ellis Hobbs were placed on IR, while Asante Samuel also missed multiple games), and were able to stay afloat. With a full-strength D, the Eagles will perform at a higher level next year.
AFC East Champion: New England Patriots
This past season, the Patriots got to 14-2 with a large troop of rookies and second-year players. While they won't repeat the lofty record in 2011, they can still raise their game.
Players such as Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez made huge impacts in their first years, while Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis became blue-collar workhorses. The young New England team will grow, and get even better.
Tom Brady again showed why he's one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL right now, and maybe even the best to ever play.
AFC South Champion: Jacksonville Jaguars
Finally, the Jaguars are in position to take the division crown from the Indianapolis Colts.
Jacksonville is a physical team with a great running back, a solid quarterback, and a load of youthful players. Maurice Jones-Drew IS their offense; when he's not in the game, they're simply not as good.
The Jags were close to the postseason last year, but a few late-season losses ended their hopes. They've got the pieces for a playoff run; they just need to put it all together.
AFC North Champion: Pittsburgh Steelers
Time and time again, the Steelers have proven that if you want to win the AFC North, ya gotta go through Pittsburgh.
The Ravens are their closest competition, but Baltimore lacks true playmakers on offense. The Steelers have game-changers on both sides of the field: guys like Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace.
Pittsburgh's defense is still one of the toughest in the league, even on the game's greatest stage. 21 of the Packers' 31 points in Super Bowl XLV came from turnovers or a short field.
AFC West Champions: San Diego Chargers
Special teams absolutely killed them in 2010. Statistically speaking, San Diego sported both the best offense and the best defense, and every single one of their losses was close.
The Chargers should have made the playoffs, and 2011 will be their chance for redemption.
Philip Rivers is one of the most competitive players in the NFL, and a great team leader. He conjured stars out of the backups and free agents who made up his offense last year.
If Rivers gets some big-time teammates, he could take his team to the Super Bowl.
AFC Wild Card: Indianapolis Colts
Has Peyton Manning's time finally come?
Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, but to win, even he needs elite teammates. Losing Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai to injuries last season hampered the precision-timing plays that Manning thrives on, and led to interceptions.
The Colts also need something on the other side of the ball.
Bob Sanders is no longer a reliable factor; the tragedy is, he's the team's best defensive player. Sanders brings toughness to the defense and makes everyone around him better, but injuries have almost caused him to miss whole seasons.
AFC Wild Card: Oakland Raiders
At times last year, the Silver and Black resembled the terrifying Raiders teams of the 1980s.
Led by Darren McFadden, Oakland had one of the best running games in the NFL in 2010. Jason Campbell had a sub-par season, but he'll be in his second year learning the ins and outs of the offense, now under Hue Jackson.
The Raiders' speedy receivers will develop into more reliable players, and the defense will come together, leading to a long-awaited playoff spot.