As a whole, the NFC North has improved considerably. Both Chicago and Detroit have bolstered their defensive lines, Detroit has improved its offense, while Minnesota and Green Bay are making the tweaks they needed to make another strong playoff push.
Chicago Bears [Last season: 7-9, 3rd]
Chicago made a slew of moves this offseason to try and compete with the elites of the division in Minnesota and Green Bay, but unless their offense can start to compare with those two teams as well it may well be another tough year for the Bears.
At the center of the offense is Jay Cutler. A Pro Bowler at Denver but traded to Chicago for essentially Kyle Orton, Cutler struggled mightily in his first season with the team while Orton performed rather well in Denver. If Cutler struggles again this year it might have more to say about the ability of Lovie Smith to construct a working offense, though this year new offensive coordinator Mike Martz may be able to turn its fortunes around. Matt Forte had a disappointing 2009 as Bears running back while Johnny Knox had a surprise season and looks to continue his success this season. Devin Hester continues his transition from return man to receiver, and with nobody really behind him in the receiving crops he’ll have plenty of opportunities to make it work. Chester Taylor, obsoleted in Minnesota with Adrian Peterson in tow, will look to rebound with the Bears.
The big acquisition for the Bears was signing Julius Peppers from Carolina on the first day of free agency. Peppers alongside Tommie Harris hope to bring back a run defense that wasn’t that great last season. Brian Urlacher is trying to return following essentially being out all of 2009 with an injury, though he’s not even 100% right now. Lance Briggs also complements what should be a top-tier front seven should everyone remain healthy.
Chicago’s successes this year hinge on its offense. Mike Martz was able to make Jon Kitna a productive passer but Bear quarterbacks have historically been mediocre at best. A change toward the better will give the Bears the pieces they need for a division title run.
Detroit Lions [Last season: 2-14, 4th]
Ah yes, the Lions. 2-14 is a big step up from 0-16, a pain so great they didn’t want St. Louis to feel the same pain and as such was the only team the Rams beat last season. Matthew Stafford is now the full time starter in Detroit with Culpepper no longer in the fold, but he was injured for parts of last season. Will this season be much better?
When talking about the Lions, one can’t ignore the defense, which in 2008 was perhaps the worst defense in league history and in 2009 was hardly any better. A decent linebacking crew that consisted of Julian Peterson, Ernie Sims and Larry Foote has disbanded, with only Peterson still with the team. Conversely, the defensive line, which wasn’t that great last season, has been vastly improved with the signing of Kyle Vanden Bosch and the #2 overall pick Ndamukong Suh. Alas, the true reason this defense has been so terrible lies with its secondary, which allowed opposing QBs to have a QB rating of 107, the only defense in the league to have an opponent’s QB rating above 100. As you’d expect from that, the secondary also gave up the most passing yards and TDs last year while only doing better than the Rams in Raiders in Interceptions. Louis Delmas is the only bright spot in the secondary, doing rather well in his rookie season but other than him there is really nothing back there. The newly crafted defensive line will help create pressure to make things a bit easier but if they fail, this defense will likely get carved up again.
Which makes things all the more difficult for this Lions offense, a young offense still trying to really find an identity. Rob Sims was brought in to stabilize an offensive line that isn’t stable at all, while long time Lions Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola will try and prove that they aren’t as awful as they have appeared in recent years. Kevin Smith has recovered far faster than many expected but he has competition for the starting running back position with the dynamic Jahvid Best who is also returning from injury. Calvin Johnson is also now complemented by Nate Burleson and Bryant Johnson which will increase Stafford’s options. This looks to be a Lions offense capable of scoring points but with that shaky offensive line, its not going to be easy.
Coach Jim Schwartz was Tennessee’s defensive coordinator, and while he was excellent in that position, trying to improve what was the worst defense of all time into something competent in just two years would be perhaps too tall a challenge for anybody. Despite an improved defensive line, the Lions will get scored on often. They will likely be blown out often. This is nothing new, but hopefully for them it will occur less often and the team can hopefully get a few wins along the way.
Green Bay Packers [Last season: 11-5, 2nd (WC); lost to ARI in WC RD]
The Packers are being considered by some to reach the Super Bowl and with their explosive passing game and playmaking defense its hard to believe otherwise. Perhaps suffering some bad luck in the playoffs last year by having to face the surgical Kurt Warner while having their season end on a Rodgers turnover, the Packers look to rebound this year with a team that appears solid all around.
Green Bay’s defense was among the top of the league in many categories, including being the top run defense and catching more interceptions than any other team. Charles Woodson has been reborn in Green Bay and has become one of the league’s best cornerbacks during his stay with the team. Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, and B.J. Raji help Green Bay’s front seven stop any running threat while applying pressure to the opposing quarterback, forcing him to make bad throws. Those league-leading 30 interceptions don’t happen on their own, after all.
Aaron Rodgers has established himself as one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, helping Packer fans forget all about that Brett guy. Donald Driver and Greg Jennings seem to have glue for gloves with Rodgers under center, and Ryan Grant has shown to be a great running back at times last year. The weakness of the Packers lie with their offensive line, which allowed a league-leading 51 sacks last season. Aaron Rodgers can’t be an elite quarterback for very long under those conditions. Some new players have been brought in to remedy this, and if they can get it together, the Packers could really deal some damage and make a run for the NFC title.
Minnesota Vikings [Last season: 12-4, 1st; lost to NO in NFC CG]
The NFC Championship Game for the Vikings last winter was a bit embarrasing even though they were so close to winning it. Adrian Peterson has gained a reputation as a bit of a fumbler, fumbling twice in that game though the Vikings recovered both times. Brett Favre, who -gasp- is coming back this year, was his typical Brett Favre self by throwing an interception on what could’ve been the game-winning drive for the Vikings. Instead, the game remain tied and the Saints won in Overtime, with enough Viking griping to necessitate a change in OT rules.
For the most part, this Viking team is similar to the one from last season, which isn’t necessarily a good thing with the other teams in their division all improving considerably. With Chester Taylor gone, the Vikings drafted Toby Gerhart to help run the ball when Peterson needs some rest. Knowing full well of his fumbling problems, its hopeful that Peterson will learn take care of the ball and as a result, may end up having the best season of his short career thus far. Its a bit of a bold prediction, perhaps not too bold but it is also clear that Peterson can not continue to fumble at critical moments and still be an elite NFL running back.
Minnesota’s receiving corps have been injury riddled this preseason. Percy Harvin in particular has had a rough summer, with personal tragedy and migraines to go along with them. Sidney Rice is also out for around half of the season. To remedy this, the Vikings acquired Greg Camarillo from Miami; he and Bernard Berrian will need to step up while Rice and Harvin recover, and with Favre at the helm that shouldn’t be too hard, and I use “shouldn’t” liberally here. The two Williams still anchor the defensive line alongside Jared Allen; if a team wants to beat the Vikings they will have to do so over the air as running the ball will likely prove fruitless.
In what may be possibly the final year for now in Brett Favre’s extended career, the Vikings have to take this season as a Super Bowl or bust season. If they are unable to succeed in that goal, or perhaps regardless of that, the 2011 Minnesota Vikings may look a lot different than the 2010 Vikings. For Minnesota, the time to strike must be this year.
Division Prediction: I really do think the Packers can overtake the Vikings to take the division. The Vikings are mistake-prone and while the Packers are sack-prone, they should be the more potent team on offense. Minnesota will grab a wild card spot, while the Bears will likely hover around .500 this season. The Lions will win more than two games, likely four or five games, but some of their losses are just going to be ugly with that secondary of theirs.
1. Green Bay