Even though the 2011 NFL season has yet to begin, it is not too early to consider who might be playing once the playoffs roll around. With a short 16 game season, playoff talk starts early, and goes strong until the actual postseason starts.
Taking into account strength of schedule and offseason acquisitions, here are the top 12 NFL teams that have the easiest road to the playoffs this season.
After a dismal 5-11 season last year in the NFC West, the Arizona Cardinals are a much-improved team coming into the 2011 season.
Their lack of a competent starting quarterback is what mainly contributed to their poor record. However, the Cardinals were able to trade for QB Kevin Kolb, who was the backup quarterback in Philadelphia.
Kolb's presence immediately improves Arizona's offense and makes them a contender in the weak NFC West. Their division was so weak last season that the Seattle Seahawks won it with a 7-9 record.
Since they play in a division with no clear-cut leader, the Cardinals have a decent chance of making a playoff push in 2011. Arizona also has the weakest schedule in the entire NFL.
That will go a long way towards their success in this coming NFL season.
After a disappointing 2010 season that saw them go 6-10, the Tennessee Titans are looking to bounce back in 2011.
Departing the team in the offseason was QB Vince Young, who consistently experienced off-field issues that negatively affected the team. In his place, the Titans added solid veteran Matt Hasselbeck and talented rookie Jake Locker. Between those two players, the Titans should be okay at the quarterback position.
Tennessee also happens to have one of the most talented running backs in the league in Chris Johnson. Add in a possible breakout season from wide receiver Kenny Britt, and you have the makings of a solid offense.
The Titans may also be able to make a playoff push because the Indianapolis Colts, who won the AFC South last season, might be in store for a down season with the injury to Peyton Manning.
Considering the fact that are tied for the having the sixth easiest schedule in the NFL, and you have the makings of a possible playoff run in Tennessee.
After a strong showing in his rookie season, the St. Louis Rams seem to have found their quarterback of the future in Sam Bradford. Bradford threw for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns in an offense that lacked playmakers at the receiving positions.
However, Bradford's strong season allowed the Rams' young receivers to gain invaluable experience.
Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson were the leading receivers in St. Louis last season. If they can continue their development, and Bradford can have a season similar to how he played in 2010, then the Rams offense will be even better than it was a year ago.
Having a extremely talented running back in Steven Jackson also cannot be overlooked. Jackson rushed for 1,241 yards and six touchdowns.
The Rams also play in a NFC West division that is up for the taking as none of the teams are a perennial playoff contender. St. Louis also will have the fifth easiest schedule in the NFL in 2011.
The Rams could very well end up being the NFC West champions and get into the postseason.
Last season, the Baltimore Ravens went 12-4 and tied Pittsburgh for the best record in the AFC North. That division has pretty much been a battle between those two teams for the past couple of seasons. Look for more of the same in the AFC North this season.
The Ravens are a very talented team. Their offense is loaded with playmakers, from Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin, while their defense is no slouch with the likes of Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed.
With the second easiest schedule in the NFL and the easiest in the AFC North, this season might have the Ravens being alone on top of the division and being serious playoff contenders.
Last season, the San Diego Chargers finished second in the AFC West with a 7-9 record. They were playing without WR Vincent Jackson or a consistent running game. They also were without top tight end Antonio Gates for several games.
Needless to say, the injury bug bit San Diego hard in 2010.
When healthy, the Chargers are one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Quarterback Philip Rivers is one of the most underrated players in the NFL.
Take last season for example.
He threw for 4,710 yards and 30 touchdowns. Those are impressive numbers and he is hardly ever regarded as a top five quarterback. If Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates can stay healthy during the 2011 season, and the young running backs can improve this season, the Chargers will once again be a team to reckon with.
Although their offense is extremely talented, the San Diego defense might be even better. Last season, they were ranked first in opponent's passing yards allowed and fourth in opponent's rushing yards allowed.
Although their schedule is not the easiest one in the league, the Chargers should have no problem making the playoffs in 2011.
Last season, the Dallas Cowboys lost star quarterback Tony Romo to a broken collarbone. Although Jon Kitna filled in admirably, they just were not the same team after Romo went down. The Cowboys also went through a midseason coaching change and finished the season with a disappointing 6-10 record.
The Cowboys had big aspirations going into last season and fell short after they lost Tony Romo. They also had very disappointing production from the running back position in terms of scoring touchdowns. They just couldn't seem to get it together without Romo running the offense.
The good news for Cowboys fans is that Dallas looks to make a strong comeback in 2011.
Romo is healthy now, and they have a very strong receiving core with wideouts Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, and tight end Jason Witten. They also have the second easiest schedule in their division.
Although they play in the same division as the powerhouse Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas may just grab a playoff spot at the end of this season.
Last season, the New York Giants were a solid team across the board, not ranking lower than 10th in the league in rushing, passing, rushing defense and passing defense. That kind of consistency usually leads to a successful season and the Giants definitely had one with their 10-6 record.
The Giants are deep with talent on offense.
Last season, they had a 4,000-yard passer in Eli Manning, a 1,000-yard receiver in Hakeem Nicks and a 1,200-yard rusher in Ahmad Bradshaw. If those players can have similar stats in the 2011 season, then the Giants should be a contender in the NFC East.
The Giants do play in the same division as the powerful Eagles, but they also have the seventh easiest schedule in the NFL. That could go a long way towards the Giants claiming a playoff spot in the 2011 NFL season.
Any time you have Tom Brady as your quarterback, your team has a good chance at making the NFL playoffs. The juggernaut Patriots went 14-2 last season. With the ninth easiest schedule in the NFL, there is no reason New England can't have a season very similar to last year's in 2011.
Brady threw for 3,900 yards and 36 touchdowns last season. Those kind of numbers can be enough for some teams to make it into the playoffs. Add in the fact that their leading rusher, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, scored 11 touchdowns on his own, and you have the makings of a very powerful offense.
With some improvement in passing defense, the Patriots will be an even tougher team to beat during the 2011 season.
Their only real competition in the division is the New York Jets and they happen to have the third most difficult schedule in the league. With all things considered, it seems that the Patriots' path to the playoffs is pretty clear of any potential hurdles.
The Atlanta Falcons finished last season first in the NFC South with a 13-3 record. They are returning all of their major offensive players and added talented rookie wide receiver Julio Jones in the draft.
All signs point towards the Falcons having another strong showing in the 2011 season.
Quarterback Matt Ryan has two very talented, proven players to throw the ball to in WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez. In fact, White caught 115 passes for over 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Gonzalez hauled in 70 receptions and scored six touchdowns.
Atlanta also has one of the top running backs in the league in Michael Turner who rushed for 1,371 yards and scored 12 touchdowns a year ago.
Needless to say, if everyone can stay healthy and Julio Jones can have a strong rookie season, the Falcons are looking at another successful season. They have the seventh easiest schedule in the NFL and have a great chance of making the playoffs again in 2011.
The Pittsburgh Steelers made it all the way to the Super Bowl last season. Although they ultimately lost to the Green Bay Packers, the Steelers had a strong season by going 12-4 in the AFC North.
Pittsburgh has a lot of talented players, and reached the Super Bowl even though QB Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of last season.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 1,273 yards and 10 touchdowns last year for the Steelers, and receiver Mike Wallace caught 60 passes for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Steelers also have the solid Hines Ward at receiver and the up-and-coming Emmanuel Sanders to catch the passes that Roethlisberger throws. Roethlisberger is also due to start every game which should help the Steelers a lot during the 2011 season.
Pittsburgh has the fourth easiest schedule in the NFL which should equate to a lot of wins once again. With such an easy schedule, a return to the Super Bowl, or at least the playoffs seems likely once again for the Steelers.
The defending Super Bowl champion Packers finished last season with a 10-6 record. Although far from the best record in the NFL, Green Bay's talented group of players was able to lead their team to the championship.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the main player behind the Packers' success. Not only did he pass for 3,922 yards and 28 touchdowns, but he also rushed for 356 yards and four touchdowns. He even missed some time with a concussion.
Green Bay also enjoyed a lot of success without talented starting running back Ryan Grant who went down with an injury early in the season and was out for the year.
Rodgers' talent level is high enough that he should post similar stats to last season. If Ryan Grant can stay healthy and be the running back that he is capable of being, then the Packers have a good shot at improving their record from last season, and make the playoffs once again.
Their schedule is the 10th easiest schedule in the NFL. While that is around the middle of the pack as far as schedule strength is concerned, the Packers are talented enough to make the playoffs again in 2011.
On paper, the Philadelphia Eagles look like the team to beat in the 2011 NFL season. Their main offensive weapon is dual-threat quarterback Michael Vick who, a season ago, accounted for 30 total touchdowns.
He threw for 3,018 yards and 21 touchdowns, while also running for 656 yards and nine touchdowns. Although he can't be expected to surpass those numbers in 2011, he can be expected to come close.
Besides Vick, the Eagles also have deep talent at the running back and wide receiver positions. DeSean Jackson led all Eagles receivers with 1,056 yards. He also had six touchdowns. WR Jeremy Maclin surpassed Jackson in touchdowns with 10 and was close behind him in yards with 964.
Running back LeSean McCoy also had a very impressive season with 1,080 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Keep in mind that he lost carries due to Vick's ability to run.
The Eagles also had one of the best offseasons in the NFL.
They added WR Steve Smith, QB Vince Young and RB Ronnie Brown. Although none of those players is expected to post dazzling numbers, they do add to the depth on the Eagles roster, and all should contribute in some way.
However, the Eagles best acquisition in the offseason was cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Considered to be the best available cornerback, Asomugha will be joining the extremely talented Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in Philadelphia's backfield.
Needless to say, opposing quarterbacks will have a tough time when playing the Eagles this season.
With the talent that they have and the ninth easiest schedule in the NFL, the Eagles' path to the playoffs looks very easy indeed.