Writers from around Tribune Co. weigh in on the topic. Check back throughout the day for more responses, and feel free to leave a comment of your own.
Steve Svekis, South Florida Sun Sentinel
The San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys would be pretty safe selections, and the Detroit Lions have loads of young talent and will surge if they can keep Matthew Stafford on the field. However, accounting for all factors that can put a team into the postseason, the St. Louis Rams are the belle of the ball. Playing in a soft division that was won by a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks, the Rams have the most important position taken care of, with Sam Bradford at quarterback. They do need to build up their interior offensive line and keep an eye on running back Steven Jackson, who is approaching 2,000 career carries and saw his yards per carry drop to a career-worst 3.8 this season. Still, it would be surprising to see Bradford, with a year under his belt, not get this team well clear of the field in the NFC West.
Ken Murray, Baltimore Sun
Five new teams made the playoffs this season -- down from six the year before -- and there is no shortage of candidates for 2011, if there is a 2011 season. Perennials like the Cowboys, Giants and Chargers will contend. Several other teams just need a competent quarterback to get back, including the Dolphins, Titans, Cards and Vikings.
But the teams that intrigue me most are the Bucs, Rams, Texans and Raiders. The Bucs have a difficult path in the NFC South, but Josh Freeman could make the difference. The Rams have a clear shot in the NFC West if Sam Bradford improves. The Texans have a marvelous offense and the makings of a defense that could, potentially, challenge the Colts in their division.
But the team that should make the biggest jump in 2011 is the Raiders, who went 6-0 in the AFC West and somehow still lost the division. Hue Jackson has resurrected Jason Campbell. If he's the next coach, he'll push them over the top.
Dan Pompei, Chicago Tribune
You can make a strong case that the Bucs, Rams, Chargers or Cowboys are near playoff locks for next year, but don’t forget the Lions. I know. Ha, ha, ha. That’s funny. What’s not funny is that they won their last four games and officially finished as the hottest team in the NFC. The Lions won six games overall even though they started three quarterbacks and Matthew Stafford played in only three games. This is a young, improving team that should hit its stride next season, in Jim Schwartz’s third year on the job. They have one of the best defensive lines in the game and some dangerous skill position players on offense. If General Manager Martin Mayhew can plug a couple of holes in the lineup, the Lions are going to be a contender in 2011.
[Updated at 12:43 p.m.
Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times
Tampa Bay is a team whose arrow is clearly pointing up. OK, so they might not be the best team in the league, as Coach Raheem Morris said at the middle of the season. But they finished 10-6 and tied a franchise record by going 6-2 on the road. Josh Freeman broke a club record with a touchdown pass in 13 consecutive games, and LeGarrette Blount led all rookies in rushing with 1,007 yards. The thing I really like about the Buccaneers is the fact that they’ve had a lot of success, yet they’re very young. In fact, they’re the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to start at least 10 rookies and finish with a winning record. They have the potential to be good for a while.]
Photo: San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers prepares to throw down field. Credit: Ron Chenoy / U.S. Presswire