2011 NFL Predictions: 5 Young, Exciting Teams with Playoff Potential

Marc RothContributor IIAugust 4, 2011

2011 NFL Predictions: 5 Young, Exciting Teams with Playoff Potential

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    The 2010 season showed us that young players and rookies can have major impacts on teams.

    Some of the past decade's worst teams seemed to finally turn it around last year with competitive play, new coaches and great draft picks.

    Now they're ready to win.

    Here's why five refreshed and revived teams can make the playoffs this year.

5. St. Louis Rams

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    Key Players: QB Sam Bradford, RB Steven Jackson, WR Mike Sims-Walker, CB Al Harris, DE Robert Quinn

    2010 Issues: Last year, the Rams drafted a great quarterback, but they didn't give him anyone to throw to. They lacked receivers, had trouble with the pass rush and were in the middle of the pack in pass yards allowed per game.

    Improvements: The Rams are hoping to improve their pass game with the acquisition of Sims-Walker and the drafting of rookie TE Lance Kendricks. Steven Jackson should have another solid season, adding to the offensive production. On the other side of the field, Al Harris will add to the pass defense.

    Drafting Robert Quinn was also a great move, as he is looked at as the best-drafted pass-rushing defensive end—and he missed his entire junior season for lying to NCAA investigators.

    Key Games: Eagles (Week 1), Ravens (Week 3), Packers (Week 6), Saints (Week 8), Steelers (Week 16)

    Why They Can Make the Playoffs: The Rams can pull out on top of the NFC West this year by being the most all-around solid team. Seattle's fate lies in Tarvaris Jackson's hands, the 49ers haven't changed and cut Nate Clements, and the Cardinals have a new quarterback and lost DRC on defense.

    Look for the boys from The Lou to turn heads this season.

4. Detroit Lions

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    Key Players: DT Ndamukong Suh, QB Matthew Stafford, WR Calvin Johnson, DT Nick Fairley, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch

    2010 Issues: Two words—Stafford's shoulder. Stafford was injured in the season opener last year. He came back on October 31st against the Redskins and threw four touchdowns. In the next week, he re-injured his shoulder, ending his season.

    They managed to actually rank ninth in total passing yards, despite rotating between Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton. The defense was ranked 21st in total yards allowed per game with 343.6. The defense also allowed 1,999 rushing yards—24th overall.

    Improvements: Stafford has been nursed back to good health, the Lions have signed linebackers Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant, cornerbacks Eric Wright and Maurice Leggett, and have a new wrecking force on the line with Suh and Vanden Bosch: Nick Fairley.

    It's said that he's going to miss a large portion of training camp, but he'll be back in time for the preseason.

    Key Games: Bucs (Week 1), Chiefs (Week 2), Bears (Weeks 5 and 10), Falcons (Week 7), Packers (Week 12 and 17), Saints (Week 13)

    Why They Can Make the Playoffs: There is no doubt the Lions have a difficult schedule. However, if their defense holds up and with Stafford healthy, the Lions have a chance at the NFC Wild Card.

    If they can beat the Bears once, it can level the playing field in the NFC North.

    This team has turned around since going 0-16 in 2008 and 2-14 in 2009.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Key Players: QB Josh Freeman, RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Mike Williams, TE Kellen Winslow, LB Quincy Black, DE Adrian Clayborn

    2010 Issues: Tied for 30th with the Jaguars in total sacks last year, the Bucs were not doing much to quarterbacks. They also ranked 21st in combined tackles. It's evident that their defensive line and linebackers were weak last year. Like the Chiefs, Freeman didn't have many targets—just Williams and Winslow.

    Improvements: Josh Freeman was great last year. With a weak receiving core, he still managed to throw for 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions, giving him a QB rating of 95.9.

    Re-signing OT Jeremy Trueblood was big for them—they ranked 10th in sacks allowed with 30. Locking in Quincy Black and drafting Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers is huge—literally—for this defense as it looks to take down more quarterbacks and make more tackles. Blount should have another exciting year.

    Key Games: Lions (Week 1), Falcons (Weeks 3 and 17), Colts (Week 4), Saints (Weeks 6 and 9), Bears (Week 7), Texans (Week 10), Packers (Week 11)

    Why They Can Make the Playoffs: This schedule is brutal. However, if the Bucs can take one away from the Falcons and Saints, things can get heated.

    Whether the Bucs make the playoffs or not can potentially be decided in Week 17 when they go to Atlanta to play the Falcons. The Wild Card could be a toss-up in the NFC South.

    Raheem Morris was just short of winning Coach of the Year. Let's see if he can do it again.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Key Players: WR Dwayne Bowe, QB Matt Cassel, RB Jamaal Charles, S Eric Berry, CB Brandon Flowers

    2010 Issues: There weren't many. Their rush defense was average. Pass defense, average. However, they were 30th in the league in passing. Cassel was throwing to Dwayne Bowe—turned out great—but no one else. They still managed to rank 10th in touchdowns and wound up at 10-6.

    Improvements: Kansas City saw their main problem and they went out to fix it. The Chiefs acquired WR Steve Breaston and drafted WR Jonathan Baldwin out of Pittsburgh in the first round.

    More targets for Cassel equals more offensive production—he now has weapons. The defensive tandem of Flowers and Carr will keep on getting better. The Chiefs also picked up DT Kelly Gregg to help the line.

    Key Games: Lions (Week 2), Chargers (Weeks 3 and 8), Colts (Week 5), Pats (Week 11), Steelers (Week 12), Bears (Week 13), Jets (Week 14), Packers (Week 15)

    Why They Can Make the Playoffs: It's going to come down to the Chiefs and the Chargers in the AFC West. This team that's been assembled for 2011 looks promising.

    The Chiefs have a rough stretch from Week 11 to Week 15. Winning one of those games will be a challenge, but the Chargers have to play some tough teams, too. KC should be able to beat the Chargers, putting them on top of the AFC West for the second straight year.

    New team on top of the AFC West? No more San Diego domination? The days of LT and Shawne Merriman are gone and they just aren't as powerful as they used to be.

1. Houston Texans

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    Key Players: WR Andre Johnson, RB Arian Foster, QB Matt Schaub, DE Mario Williams, CB Jonathan Joseph

    2010 Issues: Stopping the pass. In 2010, the Texans ranked dead-last in pass yards allowed per game with 267.5. They were also in the bottom tier for sacks with 30. They also tied the Cowboys for the most receiving touchdowns allowed—33. Offensive production was no issue.

    Improvements: The Texans went out and got Jonathan Joseph, an excellent cornerback from the Bengals. They also drafted cornerback Brandon Harris out of the University of Miami to help with the problem.

    JJ Watt was drafted to join forces with Mario Williams on the d-line, creating a solid foundation. The offense has pretty much stayed the same, and it's still excellent. Schaub, Foster, and Johnson are some of the NFL's elite, so the Texans should have no problem putting up points. They also went out and grabbed Wade Phillips to coordinate the defense.

    Key Games: Colts (Weeks 1 and 16), Saints (Week 3), Steelers (Week 4), Ravens (Week 6), Bucs (Week 10), Falcons (Week 13)

    Why They Can Make the Playoffs: The Texans and Colts are the best in the South. With Peyton Manning coming off neck surgery, he may miss part of training camp, potentially weakening the Colts.

    The beginning of the season is key for the Texans—that's when they have their toughest games. With a much more solid defensive team than last year, and a great offense, the Texans can pull ahead of the Colts and win the AFC South.

    Despite their major defensive struggles, Arian Foster led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns, Matt Schaub ranked fourth among QBs in passing yards with 4,370, and Andre Johnson was good for another 1,000-yard receiving season. They look promising.