John Harbaugh returns one of the league's best defenses again in 2011. But is it likely his team will return to the postseason in 2011?
The 2011 NFL season is already underway. But with only two teams having strutted their stuff thus far, there's plenty of preseason speculation to go around yet.
The purpose of this slideshow is to look at two things: first, teams that have a shot to make it into the postseason. Every team on this list has a shot to make it to the postseason. Second, every team on this list has a manageable schedule that should make it easier to reach the playoffs.
Without further adieu, here are the five teams with the easiest road to the playoffs.
The season got off to a tough start as the Saints dropped their opener at Lambeau Field Thursday. But the Saints’ offense looks as good as ever, and while the defense struggled, it was just the season opener.
It was also against what should be a top-three offense this year.
With quarterback Drew Brees in a contract year, it wouldn’t be unrealistic for him to have one of the best seasons of his career. With rookie running back Mark Ingram as a wild-card player, the passing and running games could be stellar down in the bayou.
The AFC South, arguably football’s worst division without Peyton Manning quarterbacking the Colts for two-to-three months, and the NFC North, which could be really strong or really weak, are New Orleans’ scheduled non-conference opponents. This sets them up to make the playoffs for the third straight year.
Pittsburgh is the runner-up from the 2010 season and most of the same team is back in 2011. Unless serious injury berates the team or the aging concerns come to fruition, then this team is back and ready to pack a punch in 2011.
The schedule is extremely favorable as it features games against the NFC West and AFC South on top of battles against AFC North foes along with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs.
Only six games Pittsburgh plays in 2011 come against playoff teams (two are against the Baltimore Ravens and one is against the Seattle Seahawks, who finished 7-9 in 2010).
The defense is aging but should be one of the better units in the league again in 2011. The Steelers should be a Super Bowl favorite in the AFC.
The Ravens actively improved their offense during this short offseason.
They picked up running back Ricky Williams, wide receiver Lee Evans, and added left tackle Bryant McKinnie to the 22nd best offense last year. Evans is the only player that will for sure make a strong impact, but Williams will have something to prove, which could bode well for Baltimore. McKinnie showed up to Vikings camp 65 lbs. overweight, so he needs to get in shape before he can be any help.
The defense is as strong as ever, despite its age, and should rank among the top 10 in total defense for the ninth straight season.
On top of its talented roster, the Ravens benefit from a favorable schedule.
Baltimore draws the AFC South and NFC West for its non-divisional play on top of the New York Jets, San Diego Chargers and AFC North peers. The AFC South and NFC West are the two worst divisions in football—the order is up for debate.
Look for Baltimore to make much noise in 2011.
The last time the Patriots didn’t make the playoffs was when they went 11-5 in 2008. In the NFL if a team goes 11-5 it should make the playoffs; the Patriots just got unlucky that year.
But this is 2011. The Patriots bring back their elite quarterback Tom Brady as well as a solid offensive line to protect him. They brought in Chad Ochocinco to bring in a No. 1 receiver talent and the defense should be better than its 2010 form.
On top of all that, the Pats face six teams that were in the playoffs in 2010—including the Indianapolis Colts, who may be without quarterback Peyton Manning when the teams meet in Week 13.
They also play in the AFC East, which is an extremely top-heavy division between them and the New York Jets but is weak on the bottom with the Buffalo Bills (4-12 in 2010) and Miami Dolphins (7-9) rounding out the division.
The Pats are a serious Super Bowl contender entering 2011.
With all the talent returning from the roster of the 2011 Super Bowl, the Packers sit as one of the favorites to win the title of world champion again.
With Aaron Rodgers under center and arguably the best receiving core in football with a talented offensive line, this team is going places in 2011.
The defense, too, returns top tier players like outside linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, who ended up with just a shoulder bruise in Thursday’s 42-34 victory over New Orleans.
The Pack’s schedule isn’t terrible either. It’s better than it appears—only five games on the schedule, including two games with the Chicago Bears, are against playoff teams—but it also includes the New York Giants and Tampa bay Buccaneers, who had 10 wins in the 2010 season.
It should be another good year at Lambeau Field.