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Five to watch: Bold Bucs lead way, won't back down


Telling most general managers or coaches that you're picking their team to make the playoffs usually warrants this type of response:

Please don't.

So when I told Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik that I was picking his non-playoff team from 2010 to be a playoff team in 2011, I was surprised at his response.

The Bucs hope to have Gerald McCoy for a full season in 2011, but he could use some help on the outside. (Getty Images)  
The Bucs hope to have Gerald McCoy for a full season in 2011, but he could use some help on the outside. (Getty Images)  
"Yeah," he said. "That's good to hear."

Wait just a second. Here's a GM embracing expectations, rather than shying away from them?

"Isn't winning what it's all about?" Dominik said. "Why not talk about it? We don't back away from that talk."

In Dominik and coach Raheem Morris, who also never backs down from the expectations and has a tendency to speak in a braggadocio way that lets you know he is every bit the Jersey kid, the Bucs have two men leading their revival who aren't afraid of dealing with the expectations.

It is a swagger that their young players seem to feed off of, one that helped them to a 10-6 record last season and one that will help put them in the playoffs next season.

The Buccaneers were loaded with youngsters last season. They finished the year with a road victory against the Saints with a team that included 18 first-year players on the 53-man roster.

But the key going forward is the quarterback. Josh Freeman is a future star and some might say already a top-10 quarterback. Debatable? Look at his numbers. He threw 25 touchdown passes and six interceptions. That TD-interception ratio was better than every other starting quarterback in the league except New England's Tom Brady (36-4).

"Josh gives us the comfort of knowing we have the guy who we can build this team around," Dominik said.

If there is one glaring hole on the Tampa Bay roster, it's defensive end. They drafted two defensive tackles in the first two rounds of the draft last April, but both Gerald McCoy and Brian Price ended their seasons on injured reserve. They should be the anchors inside for years, but outside pressure remains a problem.

The good news for the Bucs is there are some good pass rushers in this draft and they will probably address it early, likely in the first round.

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Tampa Bay had to wait for the outcome of two late games on the final Sunday to see if it got into the playoffs last season. At the time, Morris said he wasn't going to pay attention to those games, but instead would relish his team's upset of the Saints that day.

"Next time," he said. "We just have to take care of the things we have to take care of to get there so we don't have to worry about anybody else."

That time will come in 2011. The Bucs top my list of non-playoff teams from 2010 that will make it in 2011.

But they just might be the only one excited about it.

We know that each year there is always turnover in playoff teams, so here are four others to watch.

New York Giants

The Giants, like the Bucs, finished 10-6 last season. That just missed the playoffs, putting into question the job status of coach Tom Coughlin. He's back for another year -- the right move -- but his job likely rests on the Giants making the playoffs.

The Giants still have a lot of talent, but turnovers killed them in 2010. They gave it away 42 times, the most of any team in the league. If they just cut that number down by a third, they're probably in the playoffs.

It's hard to imagine they will come close to that number in 2011. If they can overcome the turnovers, they have an offense and a defense that finished last season ranked in the top 10. That shows they have the ability.

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders were one of my playoff picks last season, and they finished 8-8. They had some really good moments, but they also had some really bad ones.

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That's what you get with a young team. The Raiders also made a coaching change in the offseason that I think will help. Hue Jackson helped liven up the offense when he took over last season as offensive coordinator, and I think he'll help the entire team take a step forward as the coach.

When you talk to league scouts, they rave about the Raiders' overall team speed. If they can get some better quarterback play -- I know, a big issue -- they will be a playoff team.

I think Jackson helps get Jason Campbell to play better and the Raiders will use that speed like Al Davis likes.

Like the Giants, they have to improve their turnover ratio. They were minus-2 in 2010. I think Jackson cleans that up.

St. Louis Rams

They missed the playoffs last season when they lost their season finale at Seattle. But the Rams were much improved.

The addition of Sam Bradford at quarterback really helped stabilize the offense. This season he will do even more. But they have to get him a speed weapon outside. He was throwing to too many average receivers last season.

The Rams were 31st in yards per play, which is way too low. As Bradford grows, so will that number.

The defense finished 19th in the league, a big step up from the previous season, but it has to get into the low teens next season. They have some young players like defensive end Chris Long and linebacker James Laurinaitis to build around.

This team's playoff chances will rest on how much Bradford grows. I see the talent to be a star and I think the addition of new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will help him.

Dallas Cowboys

Yeah, really going out on a limb here. Hey, this was a 6-10 team last season.

I really liked the way Jason Garrett instilled discipline in this team after taking over, leading them to a 5-3 second half after the 1-7 start. The discipline showed on game days. That's why he earned the job.

There is still talent on the roster. The key will be how well Tony Romo returns from his clavicle injury. If he's healthy, they will be fine on offense. They do need to upgrade the offensive line.

The defense, which is now run by Rob Ryan, a coach I respect greatly, will be where the big improvement is made. Anthony Spencer, a disappointment last season, will bounce back with a big season under Ryan. That will give the Cowboys two good pass rushers in Spencer and DeMarcus Ware.

The secondary played poorly in 2010, but Ryan should help get that unit playing better. They also could use early picks to fix the back end. Let's not forget that this was a chic Super Bowl pick before the 2010 season. Now that Garrett is running things, I think they start to look like it again.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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