Coming into this season the North features both a champion and a Super Bowl champion, simultaneously…and each side happens to be the division’s biggest rivals as well. The Packers bring back the Lombardi trophy to a brutal mix that has three teams awaiting them on much different tracks. The Bears are still a brutal defense that is looking for the right mix out of its creative offense. The Lions are one of the rawest up and coming teams in either conference, and is hoping this is the year it all comes together, finally. Minnesota is looking to rebound from controversy filled season behind the game’s premier running back and a veteran QB looking to restore the luster to his career.
Will there be another surprise coup to take the division title, yet in the end to see the underdog win out? If any division has the candidates to pull such a feat out, it’s the one below. Let’s see how that could take shape…
QB: Aaron Rodgers RB: Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte FB: John Kuhn WR: Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, Percy Harvin TE: JerMichael Finley OT: Chad Clifton, Bryan Bulaga OG: Steve Hutchinson, Josh Sitton C: Scott Wells
DE: Julius Peppers, Jared Allen DT: Ndamukong Suh, Kevin Williams OLB: Clay Matthews, Chad Greenway MLB: Brian Urlacher, AJ Hawk CB: Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams S: Nick Collins, Chris Harris
K: Robbie Gould P: Brent Maynard Returner: Devin Hester
CHICAGO BEARS (11-5 in 2010; Division Champs)
Offense: M. Forte-RB, J. Cutler-QB, D. Hester-WR, J. Knox-WR (C)
Defense: J. Peppers-DE, B. Urlacher-MLB, L. Briggs-OLB, C. Tillman-CB (A)
The Good: a few years of struggling along and trying to get the pieces right, the return of Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers headlined a renaissance of sorts for the Bears. They locked down the ground game (90.1 rush yards against per game, 2nd best in the NFL) and sent a hectic blitz that made life easier on their secondary than in many years. The good thing here: Nothing has changed out of this group. But….
The Bad: Both nothing and too little has changed here. If anybody is going to suffer based on the near elimination of kickoffs, it’s the Bears. They compensated for an often inconsistent offense (30th in total yards) by starting off with great position (or bypassing the offense totally for the endzone) with the track meet returns of Devin Hester and Johnny Knox. Now a largely unchanged offense will have to earn their chops on their own more often than not, not exactly welcomed news.
With kickoff chances decreased this year, finding creative ways to get Hester the ball must be a priority.
X-Factor-Marion Barber: After an offseason that featured some questionable moves and investments in advancing the offense, the acquisition of the former Cowboy road grinder was a smart move. The goal line juggernaut will provide relief for the often used Matt Forte and could be a foreshadowing of a plan to become a team dedicated to earning their keep on the ground.
Fearless Prediction: ATL (L), @NO (L), GB (W), CAR (W), @DET (L), MIN (W), @TB (W), @PHI (L), DET (W), SD (W), @OAK (W), KC (W), @DEN (L), SEA (W), @GB (L), @MIN
In The End: Defense wins championships, and it put the Bears on the verge of playing for one last season. However, losing their biggest advantage in special teams is going to force much more responsibility on Cutler and the offense to produce, which looks eerily similar to the same offense that stalled far too often a year ago. Record: 9-7
DETROIT LIONS (6-10 in 2010)
Offense: C. Johnson-WR, M. Stafford-QB, J. Best-RB, B. Pettigrew-TE (B+)
Defense: N. Suh-DT, C. Williams-DT, Cliff Avril-DE, K. Vanden Bosch-DE (C+)
The Good: A potent offense has slowly been being assembled in the D, and finally, it seems that it’s ready to come together. Calvin Johnson is no longer a one man show in the receiving game, with Brandon Pettigrew stepping up a year ago and Nate Burleson joining the show as well. The biggest step forward came from the defensive front, with Ndamukong Suh becoming one of the premier forces in the game from the moment he hit the field, giving the Lions a long-needed defensive impact player.
The Bad: They are still bad in the details. The secondary still is open like a flood gate, and they don’t reach the QB in time, they are potential victims of the big play downfield. Also, there still isn’t an absolute dependable option in the running game. Jahvid Best will once again be asked to shoulder the complete load, when he’s better suited to be an option over the feature.
Suh is a force in the middle of a promising Lions' defensive front & already could be the NFL's best defensive tackle.
X-Factor-Matt Stafford: How many years has this been the case? For as far along has the Lions have come, their reward from their “defeated” season in 2008 has only managed to make it to the field for 13 games in his first two years. The talent is clear, but whether his shoulder will be able to stay attached to his body long enough to show it for a whole season is up in the air. It’s the difference between the Lions continuing to be the NFC’s biggest “What If?” club, and actually cashing in on its potential.
Fearless Prediction: @TB (W), KC (L), @MIN (L), @DAL (W), CHI (W), SF (W), ATL (L), @DEN (W), @CHI (L), CAR (W), GB (L), @NO (L), MIN (W), @OAK (W), SD (L), @GB (L)
In The End: It’s all coming together in Detroit, and they are much closer to getting over the hump than falling off it again. A full season of Stafford would keep them in the race in the North, but there too far off on defense overall to make the jump completely into the playoff scene this year. Record: 8-8
GREEN BAY PACKERS (10-6 in 2010; Super Bowl Champions)
Offense: A. Rodgers-QB, G. Jennings-WR, J. Finley-TE, C. Clifton-OT (A+)
Defense: C. Matthews-OLB, C. Woodson-CB, B.J. Raji-NT, N. Collins-S (B+)
The Good: Behind an amazing run from the last team in the playoffs to the last one standing, the Pack is now the elite of the NFL. However, what’s more is that they made it through the majority of the season at far less than full strength. Back-to-back 1,000 rusher Ryan Grant missed the entire season. JerMichael Finley’s season ended after five games. Injury ran along the offensive line. Now with everyone back and a team built up by the confidence on a Super Bowl can bring, Aaron Rodgers is at the helm of an even better offense than the one that already raised the Lombardi.
The Bad: The pass rush can’t be a one man show. For all that Clay Matthews does (13.5 sacks), he needs help from the defensive line as well, or even another linebacker. That doesn’t exist here, and after Cullen Jenkins bolted for Philadelphia, the situation became even bleaker. Returning Packers linemen combined for 11 sacks last year, with B.J. Raji accounting for just over six himself.
Rodgers pushed the Pack to the top of the NFL a year ago, and did so without his full offensive arsenal...which he now has back.
X- Factor-James Starks: After becoming the de facto starter at running back after Brandon Jackson, Grant’s first replacement, was sidelined by injury, Starks became a factor on his own merits. He took over 300 yards on the ground in the run to the Super Bowl, and is in position to at the very least split carries with the returning Grant in 2011. If last year’s finish is any indication of what could await, the job could very well be his by the end of the year.
Fearless Prediction: NO (W), @CAR (W), @CHI (L), DEN (W), @ATL (W), STL (W), @MIN (L), @SD (L), MIN (W), TB (L), @DET (W), @NYG (W), OAK (W), @KC (L), CHI (W), DET
In The End: Staying at the top is much harder than getting there, and while Rodgers can make something out of nothing better than any other quarterback in the game, they still return to a tough division. Look for there to be some bumps along the way, but the Champs will accomplish something they didn’t a year ago while becoming Super Bowl champs: winning the NFC North. Record: 11-5
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (6-10 in 2010)
Offense: A. Peterson-RB, P. Harvin-WR, D. McNabb-QB, V. Shiancoe-TE (B-)
Defense: K. Williams-DT, J. Allen-DE, R. Edwards-DE, C. Greenway-LB (B-)
The Good: There is easy room for improvement. Much of last year’s struggles came from a constant stream of controversy finding the team. From Brett Favre, to Randy Moss, to Brad Childress’ exit, nothing was ever steady. The offense has potential to be both steady and explosive, with Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin bringing the explosion, and Donovan McNabb searching for what could be a focused last chance. Consistency is what the Vikings need, and balance can be easily found.
The Bad: The line on both sides is crumbling. For several years, no team featured better linemen on both sides of the ball than the Vikes, but a mixture of age and underachieving has left both units as a concern headed into this year. Replacing Bryant McKinnie, Pat Williams and Ray Edwards individually is a tall task, but all three at once could be a major headache.
For a Vikings team in transition, Peterson will mean even more this season...if that's even possible.
X-Factor-Michael Jenkins: With the departure of Sidney Rice, the receiver group on the outside is terribly thin. Jenkins became the odd man out in Atlanta, but the Falcons trash could be the Vikes treasure. He provides a capable option that can stretch the field and create behind the defense, something that is desperately needed for defenses to not overload on Peterson and to open up Harvin underneath.
Fearless Prediction: @SD (L), TB (L), DET (W), @KC (W), ARI (L), @CHI (L), GB (L), @CAR (W), @GB (L), OAK (L), @ATL (L), DEN (W), @DET (L), NO (L), @WSH (W), CHI
In The End: This is a team that has to find its identity, but could get back on track simply by just have a more stable situation. But they have dropped a step behind the Bears and Packers, due have a vulnerable offensive line in a division that attacks the pocket as well as any. For this reason, they find their selves in its cellar for the second consecutive year. Record: 7-9
To see how right, wrong or in-between this all works out, and me living with it, follow me on Twitter at@CheapSeatFan and @STLSport360