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Teams that could rise and fall in 2011

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Though some members of the media spent Super Bowl week pointing to Aaron Rodgers’ four-hour wait in the 2005 NFL Draft green room, to Rodgers’ three-season-long wait on the bench behind that dude in the Wrangler jeans, or to Charles Woodson’s inspirational Super Bowl halftime speech, I’ll always consider the Green Bay Packers' 51-45, heart-crushing defeat at Arizona in the 2009 playoffs as the moment they started their journey to Super Bowl XLV.

In a game that saw Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner throw more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four), the Packers came back from a 21-point, second-half deficit to send the highest-scoring playoff game in NFL history into overtime. On a third-and-6 at the Green Bay 24 yard-line, though, Rodgers – playing in his first playoff game – was pressured into a fumble. Karlos Dansby returned it for a touchdown and, just like that, the Packers’ 2009 season was finished. NFL Films captured the moment gloriously, as their footage of coach Mike McCarthy’s reaction to the pick – an almost sudden collapse to his knees on the sideline – said it all.

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Though the Packers lost the playoff game that Sunday night in the desert, they departed Glendale, Ariz., leaving absolutely no doubt that they would be a team to be reckoned with in 2010. If the ’09 postseason was marked by Drew Brees entering the league’s upper echelon of quarterbacks, Rodgers breaking through and knocking hard on that door was at least one of the subplots. The momentum had begun. The ball was rolling. Thirteen months later, the Packers were Super Bowl champs.

Which teams have similar juice heading into the 2011 season? Assuming there even is a 2011 season, here are three I’m excited about, and three that I’m, well, not quite as juiced about:

Teams to like:

1. ATLANTA FALCONS: Led by third-year quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons went 13-3 in the regular season, won the loaded NFC South division and earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Alas, they ran into a Saturday night locomotive that was eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay and got blown out in their home building in the NFC divisional round. Sometimes, you need a setback to move forward. If that loss to the Cardinals had an impact on the Packers, Atlanta’s inability to compete with Green Bay in its own building should serve as motivation for the 2011 campaign.

Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the 2010 Sporting News Executive of the Year, signed long-term extensions on their deals last week, and the key offensive quartet of Ryan, Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White all will be back in 2011. Like Green Bay had last offseason, there’s stability throughout the organization and at most of the key positions on the field.

The Falcons pulled out six wins in the fourth quarter or in overtime in 2010, despite, quite frankly, a below-average defense. That defense was exploited by Rodgers and Co. in the playoff loss. Dimitroff and Smith will need to address to areas of need in the offseason — the pass rush (tied for 20th in sacks) and the pass defense (22nd).

Owner Arthur Blank is willing to open his wallet for top free-agent talent (see: Turner, Dunta Robinson), and there’s a rich draft class in April. The Falcons have had three consecutive winning seasons and have made the playoffs in two of those three years. Year Four could be when they finally break through and make a run at the Lombardi Trophy.

2. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: The Baby Bucs! Led by Raheem Morris, the youngest head coach in the league at just 34, the Buccaneers had the biggest single-season turnaround in franchise history in 2010, improving from 3-13 in ’09 to 10-6 last year. Most impressive was with whom and how they got there. Tampa Bay, the youngest team in the league from Week 8 on, was the first team in NFL history to start 10 rookies and win 10 or more games. Tampa Bay also finished the season on a hot streak, winning its final two games over eventual playoff contenders Seattle and New Orleans by double digits – without the services of veterans Aqib Talib, Davin Joseph, Quincy Black and Jeff Faine. Then there’s Josh Freeman. Oh, baby. In just his second year under center, Freeman tossed 25 touchdown passes and only six interceptions while demonstrating a cool under pressure rarely seen in a 22-year-old. The Bucs are young, hungry and talented. And they’re coached by perhaps the brightest young coach in the league. What’s not to love about this team?

The Bucs have the 20th pick in April’s draft and should look to pick up a pass-rushing defensive end. Despite getting tremendous production from rookie interior linemen Brian Price and Gerald McCoy and some good work out of second-year man Roy Miller, the pass rush was nonexistent from the defensive end spot. Stylez G. White led the team in sacks with only 4.5. Fortunately, this draft is heavy on pass rushers, and big-time college performers Ryan Kerrigan and Adrian Clayborn could be available at No. 20. GM Mark Dominik struck gold in the draft last year with late-round picks Mike Williams and Cody Grimm, and he also picked up running back LeGarrette Blount as an undrafted free agent. If he can do half as well this draft as he did in the last one, Tampa Bay could be the team to fear in that loaded NFC South.

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3. DETROIT LIONS: The Lions? Really? You bet. After starting out the season 2-10, the Lions won their final four games in 2010 to finish 6-10. Perhaps more impressive than the four-game winning streak was the fact that the Lions beat playoff-contending teams on the road in back-to-back games in December. Prior to a 23-20 win over Tampa Bay in Week 15, the Lions hadn’t won a road game since October 2007. Detroit starting running back Jahvid Best was just a freshman at Cal that season. Both Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett were still on that Golden Bears team.

The defense, though still inconsistent, was greatly improved in 2010. Much of that, of course, had to do with the addition of 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh. An All-Pro in his first year on the team, Suh provided the necessary pass rush up front for the defense to defend the pass.

In 2011, a lot will be riding on the arm (shoulder, really) of franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford. Despite being referred to recently as a “china doll” by teammate Zack Follett, the oft-injured quarterback appears to have the support of his coach, his teammates and the local fan base. Stafford, though entering his third season in the league, is still just 23 and has a lot of good football in his future. And though he’s missed more games (19) than he’s played in (13) during his two-year career, he recently had successful Grade-3 shoulder surgery in Florida and is expected to be ready for the start of training camp. I was very high on Stafford as a quarterback coming out of Georgia, loved his toughness in a win over the Browns in 2009 and thought he looked good at the start of 2010. If Stafford can stay healthy, I think 2011 could be his – and the Lions’ – breakthrough year.

As for Follett, even with the “china doll” comment, he did manage one pro-Stafford zinger when asked about the line last week: “I have no doubt that he can play a whole season. He's a tough kid. I'll tell you right now, I'm glad we have Matthew Stafford instead of the Bears' quarterback (Jay Cutler), because he goes in and plays with separated shoulders and wins games."

Ah, poor Jay Cutler.

Three other teams to watch: San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams, Cleveland Browns

Teams to be worried about:

1. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Though Charlie Weis is leaving for another run at the college scene in Gainesville, Fla., the Chiefs promoted 33-year coaching veteran and offensive line coach Bill Muir to offensive coordinator. Muir has been with the Chiefs since 2009 and worked with Todd Haley starting in 1995 with the New York Jets. Weis may have been the master of the Chiefs offense in 2010, but Muir coached a line that played well above expectations. Jamaal Charles was arguably the most explosive offensive player in the league outside of Tom Brady, Matt Cassell shed a subpar 2009 and the defense came together. So there are some reasons for excitement, sure.

Haley and GM Scott Pioli, however, have more than just a bit of work to do this offseason. Tamba Hali, who led the AFC in sacks with 14.5 last season and added two more sacks in the playoff loss to Baltimore, will become an unrestricted free agent when (not if) a new collective bargaining agreement is in place. Other free agents include starters Brandon Carr, Shaun Smith, and Barry Richardson and 2010 breakout reserve Wallace Gilberry. Do Pioli and Haley bring back 37-year-old Casey Wiegmann? What about 33-year-old Brian Waters? Thomas Jones? Mike Vrabel?

The Chiefs were a wonderful story in 2010 and very well could be the favorites in the AFC West entering next season.

But they could also dip back to their 2007-09 ways.

2. TENNESSEE TITANS: Talk about a team in transition. After 17 seasons together, the Titans and Jeff Fisher parted ways. Owner Bud Adams promoted longtime offensive line coach Mike Munchak to head coach last week. Meanwhile, Vince Young is gone, defensive line coach Jim Washburn is now in Philadelphia, offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger was let go this week and there are questions all over the defense. Kerry Collins certainly isn’t the long-term answer at quarterback, and few Titans fans are jumping up and down over the Rusty Smith era.

So, quarterback is likely the way Tennessee will go with the eighth pick in April’s draft. A rookie quarterback, a rookie head coach and a first-time offensive line coach in Bruce Matthews? Both Jason Babin and Dave Ball – the team’s top two defensive linemen last season –are restricted free agents, as is top linebacker Stephen Tulloch.

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I know the 2008 Ravens and the 2008 Falcons overcame the rookie head coach/quarterback obstacle to reach the playoffs, but it’s not exactly a common occurrence in NFL history. With a slew of top defenders possibly playing elsewhere next season, there are just too many question marks to be confident about Tennessee next season.

Titans fans, it could be a long year.

3. OAKLAND RAIDERS: That was fun for a while there, wasn’t it, Raiders fans? That whole playoff contention thing? I hope you savored it while it lasted.

No one was higher on the Raiders heading into 2010 than me. Hell, I predicted they would win the AFC West in the preseason and rode that bandwagon all the way into late November before they lost to Miami at home. I loved the 2010 Raiders.

The 2011 Raiders? I’m not quite as optimistic.

I wasn’t kicking and screaming over the Tom Cable firing, and I think Hue Jackson actually will be a fine NFL coach. But there are glaring question marks on the field that I just can’t ignore. Is Jason Campbell or Bruce Gradkowski really going to lead this team to the playoffs? Can the Raiders re-sign their two best defensive players in Richard Seymour and Nnamdi Asomugha? What about John Henderson? Star tight end and go-to target Zach Miller is a restricted free agent this offseason, too. And, oh yeah, the Patriots own the Raiders’ first-round pick in April.

The Raiders caught lightning in a bottle in late October last season and broke an NFL-record streak of seven seasons of 11 losses or more.

I fear they could take a step back in 2011.

Three other teams that could slip: New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks

Tagged: Falcons, Bears, Lions, Packers, Titans, Chiefs, Raiders, Patriots, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Mike Vrabel, Stylez G White, Shaun Smith, Dave Ball, Aaron Rodgers, Mike Williams, Vince Young, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Rusty Smith, Mike Williams

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