2011 NFL Predictions: Handicapping the 2011 NFC Wild-Card Races
2011 saw some unsurprising teams at the top of the wild-card races in 2010, with the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers all "sneaking into" the playoffs.
While many things are being discussed for the new labor deal, it seems as though the playoff structure will stay the same.
With two NFC wild-card spots open, here are the teams that could punch their ticket to the postseason with a wild-card spot.
1st NFC Favorite: New Orleans Saints
Why they will: The Saints bulked up in the shortened offseason this year, adding young back Mark Ingram to the fold and also giving their defensive line a serious upgrade with Shaun Rogers and Cam Jordan.
New Orleans would probably win most divisions in the NFL, but in a tough NFC South, look for the Saints to get a wild-card.
Why they won't: Depending on who you listen to, Drew Brees' production is tailing off, and this could be the year that the quarterback falters.
Don't forget either that the Saints play in a very hotly contested NFC South and could get beat up by the Falcons and Buccaneers.
2nd NFC Favorite: New York Giants
Why they will: Many of Eli Manning's interceptions were a result of plain bad luck in 2010, and the Giants will have a renewed focus on protecting the ball in 2011.
Adding Prince Amukamara and Marvin Austin too improves the Giants defense from good to very good.
Why they won't: Turnovers are turnovers, and the Giants have a real problem sustaining offensive drives. With no new offensive weapons, it could be much of the same in New York next year.
Turning the ball over is a state of mind, and the Giants showed weak mental toughness down the stretch in 2010, dropping the playoffs like their receivers dropped passes.
1st NFC Outside Shot: Chicago Bears
Why they will: The Chicago Bears had an incredibly stingy defense last year, ranking ninth overall and second against the rush.
Fresh off of a big divisional win in 2010 and now one offensive lineman stronger with Gabe Carimi, the Bears will be back in the playoffs in 2011.
Why they won't: Jay Cutler got murdered behind the Bears offensive line last year, and one rookie tackle isn't going to change his fortunes.
In a division with teams like the Packers, Lions and now even the Vikings getting competitive, it's hard to say just how far the Bears can bend until they break.
2nd NFC Outside Shot: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Why they will: Last year, the Buccaneers showed will and desire—two things necessary for an NFL team to have sustainable success.
Having Josh Freeman entrenched as the franchise quarterback as well as young pieces all around him, Tampa Bay is ready to compete today and for the long haul.
Why they won't: Enough with the intangible stuff like "will" and "desire." The fact remains that Tampa Bay now has injury concerns along their defensive line, a crumbling linebacker corps if Barrett Ruud leaves and a secondary set to lose its main piece (Aqib Talib).
The Buccaneers have a tougher schedule this year and may not get as many victories over low-win teams in 2011, setting the stage for their demise.
1st NFC On-the-Fringe: Detroit Lions
Why they will: The Lions could have one of the most high-powered offenses in the NFL in 2011 with Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Jahvid Best and new pieces Mikel Leshoure and Titus Young.
Defensively, the line featuring Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril will set everything up for the linebackers and secondary.
Why they won't: Matthew Stafford hasn't proven he can stay healthy for a full season and could, quite possibly, miss a lot of time due to another injury in 2011 with no upgrade along the offensive line.
In the secondary, the Lions will still have a considerable amount of trouble defending the pass, having completely ignored their defensive back need in the draft.
2nd NFC On-the-Fringe: Dallas Cowboys
Why they will: The Cowboys aren't far removed from a run to the divisional round of the playoffs in 2009 and many pieces remain from that team.
Tony Romo suffered a freak injury last year, but will be back to form to lead his Cowboys to the playoffs in 2011.
Why they won't: Dallas is on the wrong track from last year, showing a lack of mental toughness and a tendency to underachieve.
With a rookie head coach on the job, it could be more of the same for the Cowboys in 2011 as their roster becomes less-talented, player-for-player, than many of the teams discussed here.