Shutdown Corner - NFL

32 keys to the NFL’s 2011 season (Part I)

(See Part II here)

32. The good and bad of new beginnings. It's probably hard to be excited for a season in which Alex Smith is your starting quarterback. But Jim Harbaugh is an extremely capable coach, and when the losses start to mount for the San Francisco 49ers, try to remember that better days are ahead.

31. The Cincinnati Bengals physically arriving at the stadium each week. Because I think that's about the best they can hope for in 2011.

30. Hoping that the quarterback isn't the most important thing. The Seattle Seahawks upgraded in a bunch of ways, including adding Sidney Rice(notes). But Tarvaris Jackson(notes) is their starting quarterback, and I just don't know what a team is supposed to do with that.

29. Hoping the quarterback is the most important thing. When Derek Anderson(notes), John Skelton(notes) and Max Hall(notes) are taking your quarterback snaps, and your team isn't a complete embarrassment, you might be pretty good. If you can add even a mediocre quarterback, who knows, and Kevin Kolb(notes) should be at least that for the Arizona Cardinals.

28. Embracing the idea of "rebuilding." The Denver Broncos need to start from scratch, at least defensively, and new head coach John Fox is a guy who can do that and rebuild with fundamentals. Kyle Orton(notes), despite maybe being the team's best offensive player, still has to fight off some weird fictional quarterback controversy.

27. Giving Cam Newton the tools to succeed. With a 42.1 percent preseason completion percentage, it's hard not to imagine Cam Newton having some really, really rough games for the Carolina Panthers. I just hope he makes enough plays to keep his confidence up and turn into the superstar he can be.

26. Chris Johnson proving to be worth the frustration of his offseason holdout. There's no doubt that Johnson's a great, great running back, but the Tennessee Titans would've been an under .500 team without him, and they still will be with him.

25. The ability of the Oakland Raiders to overcome personnel losses. They made a lot of positive steps last year, but then they lost Nnamdi Asomugha(notes), Robert Gallery(notes), Zach Miller and more. That hurts, and it'll make 2011 an uphill climb for the Oakland Raiders.

24. Trusting that Mike Shanahan might still know what he's doing. All great teams in NFL history have one thing in common: None of them had John Beck(notes) as their opening day starter. At least the Washington Redskins have taken that step.

23. Rising above expectations. Given the personnel losses they've suffered and Donovan McNabb's(notes) performance in Washington last year, no one expects a whole lot from the Minnesota Vikings. Their division has gotten better and they probably haven't.

22. Reggie Bush(notes) becoming a featured, every-down back. Despite five years in the league, there's been virtually no indication that he can, but the Miami Dolphins are going to try it anyway.

21. The ability of the Cleveland Browns to grow and build. I love what they're doing in Cleveland, but in that division, and with an all-new coaching staff and schemes, they're still not ready to challenge Pittsburgh or Baltimore for AFC North supremacy.

20. The Buffalo Bills' ability to block someone, anyone. I like the Bills more than most people do, but unless the offensive line improves in a hurry, it's hard to see them rising above "Hey, that team was harder to beat than we thought" status.

19. Being in a small pond. The St. Louis Rams are definitely still growing, and everyone rightfully loves Sam Bradford(notes). I still don't know if they're a playoff team in any other division, but the NFC West's been proving for years that bad divisions are a part of football. Take advantage if you can.

18. Continued growth, even when things get harder. Being as good as they were in 2010 probably won't earn the Kansas City Chiefs a division title in 2011. They'll have to find a way to get better under a new offensive coordinator.

17. Defense being enough to carry a team. I don't know what's supposed to make me think the Chicago Bears are going to be better this year. Roy Williams? I expect the defense to still swarm, but the offensive line might be just as bad as it was last year. The ceiling and the floor seem pretty close together for the Bears.

(See Part II here)

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