The NFC North is a nasty division. There’s more football history between its teams than any other division can boast, and they are still fighting their inherited rivalries to the bone to this day. It boasts the previous two league MVPs, as well as one of the most brutal defenses and maybe the most superhuman receiver the league has seen. In spite of all of these elements, the result has been the same the last three years: the Packers come out on top at the end.
If one thing is true in rivalries, it is that no one side stays up forever. 2012 saw the Vikings crawl from the bottom of the division and into the playoffs, while it saw the Lions and Bears both slide out of the playoff picture in years where it was foreseen they could dominate the league.
A year later, many of those same elements are in play, but there are new twists that bring each as close together as they have been in years. Can the Pack continue to impose its will, despite some crucial injuries that won’t heal this season, or can the Vikings continue to ride AD further into the promised land of February football? Or could the Bears offense get up to speed with its defense and close the gap? Or could the Lions do the opposite? At any rate, here is how the NFC North should shake out.
QB: Aaron Rodgers, RB: Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, WR: Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Randall Cobb, TE: Brandon Pettigrew, OT: Jermon Bushrod, Matt Kalil, OG: Josh Sitton, TJ Lang, C: Roberto Garza
DE: Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, DT/NT: Ndamukong Suh, Kevin Williams, OLB: Clay Matthews, Lance Briggs, MLB: AJ Hawk, EJ Henderson, CB: Charles Tillman, Tramon Williams, FS: Harrison Smith, SS: Major Wright
K: Robbie Gould, P: Tommy Masthay, KR: Randall Cobb, PR: Devin Hester
CHICAGO BEARS (10-6 in 2012)
The Good—Despite the rather unceremonious, sudden retirement of longtime face of the organization Brian Urlacher, the defense is still one of the most aggressive in the league. It finished in the top 10 in both fewest passing and rushing yards a year ago, and led the NFL in takeaways with 44. With Julius Peppers, Henry Melton and Lance Briggs fronting the attack, and one of the best cornerback duos in the game in Peanut Tillman and Tim Jennings supporting them, points won’t come easy in the Windy.
The Bad—Is the offensive line finally ready to give Jay Cutler a fighting chance? In his four years in Chicago, Cutler has been sacked 148 times and hasn’t played a full season in three years. The hits take their toll over time, and if new additions Jermon Bushrod and Kyle Long can’t provide some sort of relief for club’s oft underrated signal caller, the corner will continue to not be turned for the Chicago offense.
X-Factor—Jermon Bushrod: The revolving door of Bears offensive tackles has turned once again, and brings Bushrod in to hopefully be a much needed protector for Cutler. He brings a clear pedigree as a Pro Bowler the previous two seasons and a Super Bowl champion in 2010. If he can continue his premier ways as his new home’s anchor, he could be the unsung difference in the Chicago season.
Schedule— CIN (L), MIN (W), @PIT (L), @DET (W), NO (L), NYG (W), @WSH (L), @GB (L), DET (W), BAL (L), @STL (W), @MIN (W), DAL (W), @CLE (W), @PHI (W), GB
Prediction—The Bears are a team that COULD be as good as any in the NFC. They have the defense to create close games. But the same question as always remains: can the offense make the plays to turn those contests into victories? A rough schedule is in store, which features trips to Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Washington and Cleveland, all teams that are in same fringe class as the Bears. A return to the playoffs should be within their grasp, even if they just equal their win total from a year ago. 10-6
DETROIT LIONS (4-12 in 2012)
The Good—The offense continues to grow beyond Stafford-to-Megatron. On the heels of Calvin Johnson’s historically good 2012, the team went out and grabbed a much needed diverse backfield threat in Reggie Bush, who they hope can stabilize a position that has been endlessly in flux the last few seasons. Add in the emergence of wide receiver Ryan Broyles, and the Lions offense continues to quietly grow into a lot more than a one-trick pony.
The Bad—The defense is still way too little bend, and too much break. The addition of rookie Ezekial Ansah will add some diversity to the pass rush outside of Ndamukong Suh, but there are still plenty of underwhelming elements of the unit. Mainly, these include a porous secondary and an underwhelming linebacker group.
X-Factor—Joique Bell: He made the most of his first sniff of NFL action in his second year, running for 414 yards on 82 carries, good for a five yard per carry average. Now a year later, he’ll be counted on for a larger contribution, which could include a heavy amount of work in the red zone.
Schedule— MIN (W), @ARI (L), @WSH (L), CHI (L), @GB (L), @CLE (W), CIN (L), DAL (L), @CHI (L), @PIT (L), TB (W), GB (W), @PHI (W), BAL (L), NYG (L), @MIN (L)
Prediction—After what they showed in 2011, and still featuring a constantly exciting offense, the Lions are a team that always seems on the surface a bit better than they really are. They’ll have more ways to strike on offense, but still lack any consistent way to stop anyone from returning fire. It is a year at the fork in the road of progress in Detroit, and more likely than not its more like last year than the one before. 5-11
GREEN BAY PACKERS (11-5 in 2012)
The Good—Aaron Rodgers is still alive and breathing, which means that the Packers will be a problem. He’s thrown 84 touchdowns over the past two seasons against only 14 interceptions, while completing over 67% of his attempts. Despite the loss of Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, Rodgers is in the type of rare zone where anything he touches profits (ex—14 James Jones TDs and 954 yards from Randall Cobb in breakout 2012 efforts).
The Bad—Can the offensive line hold itself together in front of Rodgers? Starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga is out for the year with a torn ACL, and right tackle Derek Sherrod still has not returned from a broken leg that cost him the entire 2012 season. That leaves the pass-heavy offense with a rookie 4th round pick in David Bakhtiari watching the back of the most valuable QB in the NFL.
X-Factor—Eddie Lacy: He runs with bad intentions, and looks to be a sure thing in the effort to make the Packer attack more than a one (Rodgers) dimensional attack. The Packers have gone 43 games since they had a 100 yard rusher; Lacy ran for over 130 yards four times as a junior at Alabama a year ago.
Schedule—@SF (L), WSH (W), @CIN (W), DET (W), @BAL (L), CLE (W), @MIN (L), CHI (W), PHI (W), @NYG (L), MIN (W), @DET (L), ATL (W), @DAL (W), PIT (W), @CHI (L)
Prediction—The offense is growing and the defense is steady. Yet with all of those things considered, the injuries along the line are concerning, as is the inexperience in the backfield. They should win the division for a third straight year, due to how persistent the offense is alone, but it could prove to be a rough road if their youth doesn’t learn on the fly, quickly. 10-6
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (10-6 in 2012)
The Good—Minnesota only has the best running back since Barry Sanders in his absolute, untouched prime. Adrian Peterson’s near run into the NFL record book last season bulldozed the Vikings into the playoff picture, seemingly on his own. Overall, the offense should be more dynamic with additions of Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, and with the box loaded in anticipation of Peterson, each could find plenty of space to work with.
The Bad—For all of the weapons now at hand, will they be able to utilize them fully? And beyond that, can they hang in if they fall too far behind. Christian Ponder didn’t do enough in his second year to keep the team from bringing in Matt Cassel from the Chiefs to enter the picture. There is no team that can become a regular factor in the playoff picture for long with inconsistent QB play.
X-Factor—Cordarrelle Patterson: The Vikings maneuvered their way into the first round three times this Spring, and with the final selection they took a blazing receiver that could step directly into Percy Harvin’s now departed playmaking shoes. He’s raw (one season of Division I football), but also has a surplus of raw skill (4.33 40) and the shake to use them (700 receiving/300 rushing/700 return yards/10 TDs for Tennessee last year).
Schedule—@DET (L), @CHI (L), CLE (W), PIT (W), CAR (W), @NYG (W), GB (W), @DAL (L), WSH (W), @SEA (L), @GB (L), CHI (L), @BAL (L), PHI (W), @CIN (L), DET
Prediction—The offense has potential, but it is depending on a few very circumstantial elements to survive: another once-in-a-career season from Peterson, growth from Ponder at QB, Jennings staying healthy and the young receivers picking up the game in a hurry. It is an offense that threw for the second fewest yards a year ago, while giving up the 24th most. A return to reality is likely this season, and a slight step back happens. 7-9
For more on the quickly upcoming NFL season in real-time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan