By Nick Wagoner
With the 2010 season wrapped up, all eyes now turn to what’s to come in 2011.
After a 7-9 year in which the Rams narrowly missed the NFC West Division title, they will no spend their offseason looking to make the changes and corrections necessary to take the next step.
While there is a lot of time between now and the 2011 season, it’s never too early to look at what lies ahead on the Rams’ schedule for next year.
Because of the NFL’s scheduling rotation, the Rams will play all members of the NFC East and AFC North Divisions in addition to the usual home and home series within the NFC West. Additionally, the Rams will meet their division doppelganger within the NFC for the North and South divisions.
On paper, at least, it appears the Rams will face one of the league’s most daunting schedules in 2011. Of course, a lot changes from year to year so teams expected to be major challenges might struggle and teams expected to be ripe for the picking could be greatly improved.
Seattle Seahawks (7-9, NFC West champions) – In their first season under coach Pete Carroll, the Seahawks survived a rash of injuries and found a way to win the NFC West and make it into the playoffs. There, Seattle pulled off an upset of New Orleans in the first round before falling to Chicago. The Rams and Seahawks split their two meetings in 2010 with Seattle claiming the division crown in the season’s final game.
San Francisco 49ers (6-10, third place in 2010) – The 49ers stumbled to 6-10 in 2010 despite big expectations that it would be their turn to take the division. Coach Mike Singletary was relieved of his duties after a late season loss to the Rams, with whom the Niners also split. Jim Harbaugh takes over for Singletary and will be tasked with the job of bringing San Francisco back to prominence.
Arizona Cardinals (5-9, fourth place in 2010) – The defending NFC West champions fell to the bottom of the division following the retirement of Kurt Warner. Like the rest of the West, the Rams split with Arizona, winning in Glendale but dropping the season opener in St. Louis. The Cardinals still have plenty of talent but must answer questions at quarterback in the offseason.
Home Opponents (NFC East, AFC North, NFC South Second Place)
Philadelphia Eagles (10-6, first place in 2010) – With Michael Vick taking over the reins at quarterback, the Eagles became one of the league’s most explosive and exciting teams in 2010. Vick and his cadre of dangerous weapons figure to be one of the Rams’ most difficult home challenges in 2011.
Washington Redskins (6-10, fourth place in 2010) – The Rams will host the Redskins for the second year in a row in St. Louis. They beat the Skins for their first win in 2010. Washington is led by coach Mike Shanahan, who will likely be looking for his next quarterback during the 2011 season after going with Donovan McNabb last year.
Cincinnati Bengals (4-12, fourth place in 2010) – The Bengals stumbled from the top of their division in 2009 to the bottom in 2010 amidst a plethora of injuries and struggles on both sides of the ball. Coach Marvin Lewis was retained and is expected to spend the offseason looking to revamp the roster.
Baltimore Ravens (12-4, second place in 2010) – As always, Baltimore was one of the league’s most physically dominant teams in 2010, earning a playoff berth and winning a game before falling to Super Bowl-bound Pittsburgh in the Divisional Round. Led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the Ravens still boast one of the league’s most dynamic defenses and talented young offensive players like quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice.
New Orleans (11-5, second place in 2010) – The Saints were unable to defend their Super Bowl title, coming up short against the Seahawks in the wild card round. But New Orleans still has one of the league’s most dangerous offenses, highlighted by quarterback Drew Brees and a variety of talented receivers. New Orleans beat the Rams at the Superdome late in the 2010 season.
Away Opponents (NFC East, AFC North, NFC North Second Place)
Dallas Cowboys (NFC East, 6-10, third place in 2010) – The Cowboys didn’t meet heavy expectations for 2011 after injuries took their toll early. Coach Wade Phillips was relieved of duties and replaced by offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Garrett did enough to earn the job permanently and will lead Dallas into the future as the Rams prepare for their first visit to the new stadium in Dallas.
New York Giants (NFC East, 10-6, second place in 2010) – Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo’s former team fell just short of the playoffs despite winning 10 games in 2010, mostly because of turnover problems. But the nucleus remains in place and the Giants figure to be in the mix again as Spagnuolo makes his first visit to his old stomping grounds and New York’s new stadium in 2011.
Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC North, 12-4, first place in 2010) – The Super Bowl-bound Steelers remain the standard for excellence in the NFL with a dominant defense and a powerful offense. Coach Mike Tomlin has a relatively young team that figures to be a major challenge for the foreseeable future.
Cleveland Browns (AFC North, 5-11, third place in 2010) – The Browns were unable to get it turned around in 2010 despite the efforts of breakout star RB Peyton Hillis. That led to Eric Mangini losing his job as head coach. Mike Holmgren replaced Mangini with Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who will square off against Spagnuolo in his first season in Cleveland’s program.
Green Bay Packers (NFC North, 10-6, second place in 2010) – Yet another Super Bowl-bound team will provide the Rams a major challenge at historic Lambeau Field in 2011. The Packers have one of the league’s best defenses, led by linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. and a high wire offense led by QB Aaron Rodgers.