Who will rise in 2011?


Healthy Romo will have team ready

Clayton By John Clayton

The easiest team to pick to go from losers in 2010 to winners in 2011 is the Dallas Cowboys. The star will once again be sparkling on the Cowboys' helmets.

That's not to say the Cowboys are a guaranteed playoff team. They still have to get past the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, but the stage is set for them to bounce back from a 6-10 season.

The key is the return of quarterback Tony Romo.

Romo missed 10 games last season, but he's still an elite quarterback. Despite a 1-5 start last season on a team that didn't run the ball enough and underachieved on defense, he's a 64 percent career thrower, averages an impressive 8 yards per attempt and will throw for 26 or more touchdowns during a full season. Elite quarterbacks rarely have back-to-back losing seasons, and at the age of 31, Romo's still in his prime.

What aids the Cowboys -- and all teams in the NFC East, for that matter -- is drawing four games against NFC West teams. Last season, the NFC West went 3-13 against the NFC South, helping three NFC South teams to winning records. After going 1-3 against the NFC North last season, the Cowboys figure to go at least 3-1 against the quarterback- and defense-challenged NFC West and have the potential to go 4-0.

Getting two or three additional interconference wins should set the Cowboys up for at least a nine- or 10-win season. They'll get three or four wins from divisional games. They'll pull a couple of wins out of their four games against AFC East foes.

Thanks to the NFC West, it's not out of the question for three teams in the NFC East to have 10 or more wins next season.

This team is still loaded. The Cowboys have firepower at wide receiver with Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, and have a dependable pass-catching tight end in Jason Witten. They are loaded at running back with Felix Jones, Marion Barber and Tashard Choice. Finally, they addressed their aging offensive line by drafting Tyron Smith at tackle and David Arkin at guard. Doug Free, who replaced Flozell Adams at left tackle, will be more seasoned in his second year at a starter.

There is no way the Cowboys will be as bad as they were on defense last season, when they gave up 27.3 points a game and never seemed to get into a rhythm. Rob Ryan has taken over at defensive coordinator and will fix the leakage.

It doesn't hurt that Romo has had good attendance from Cowboys players at offseason work during the lockout. The Cowboys are set for a nice comeback in 2011.

Rams narrowly missed last year

Sando By Mike Sando

Let us count the reasons the St. Louis Rams could break through after four consecutive losing seasons, and six without a playoff appearance.

The defense is already pretty good: The Rams allowed a respectable 328 points last season, 12th in the league and their lowest total since the 2003 team went 12-4. They collected 43 sacks, 18 more than the previous season and their highest total since 2001.

Chris Long quickly became one of the better defensive ends in the league after switching to the left side. Adding Robert Quinn in the draft's first round should only help. Using free agency to address holes at defensive tackle and outside linebacker might be smart.

Sam Bradford should only get better: The Rams believe in Bradford after the quarterback took command of the offense, showed off his obvious talent and played every offensive snap during his rookie season.

This offseason will challenge Bradford if the lockout prevents him from working closely with new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Bradford has met key challenges to this point, however. He put to rest concerns about durability and adjusting from a spread offense.

McDaniels' success with quarterbacks should continue. Bradford has all the necessary attributes.

The bar remains low in the NFC West: The Rams are the only team in the division with an established starting quarterback under contract for 2011. They were the most consistent team in the division on defense. After years of futility in the NFC West, the Rams beat every team in the division once last season and lost two other division games by a combined seven points.

They are headed in the right direction. The Rams went from one victory during coach Steve Spagnuolo's first season to seven in 2010, missing the playoffs only when they fell short at Seattle in Week 17. By then, they had pretty much run out of receivers, but they restocked in the draft and will be getting key contributors back from injuries.

It's tough picking anyone other than the Rams as the NFC West favorites at this point. Some of the other potential breakthrough teams -- Detroit and Tampa Bay come to mind -- face longer odds in their divisions, even if they continue to improve.