There are three very good teams and one not so good team in the NFC North. The Packers, Lions and Bears were a combined 35-15 and as long as Jay Cutler can say healthy, all three could make the playoffs in 2012. The Packers must improve on defence, the Bears must get results from Brandon Marshall and the Lions need to focus on football and stay out of trouble both on and off the field. I think the best QB in football resides in the division and that's Aaron Rodgers, but the others are close behind.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: The Packers won 15 times last year, and they did that even though the defence gave up more yards in the air than any defence in NFL history. Now to be fair, you have to realize that in many games the Packers jumped out to such dominate leads that teams had no choice but to pass the ball constantly. But it is also clear after watching Detroit light them up in the last game, and the Giants doing the same in the divisional playoff game, that improving the pass defence was the top priority here in 2012.
The Packers have two tough home games to start the season; against San Francisco and their physical style of play, and just four days later against the improved Bears, who play their opener at home against a weak Colts team and should be riding high. If Green bay can go 2-0 they will be well on their way again.
An excellent indicator of an organization's health is continued success in free agency. Teams that sign a lot of free agents do not believe in their existing personnel. They do not think they have the players to win, so they seek others. Teams that sign very few free agent do believe in the present roster and feel the current players will master the system that is being coached and taught. That is Green Bay. Only Anthony Hargrove (to help the pass rush) and Jeff Saturday (to replace Scott Wells on the offensive line) were signed this off-season. That is an indication of the team's confidence that its problems can be fixed with the pieces already present, and that kind of continuity is a winning formula.
When Green Bay won its last Super Bowl, they had only 10 regular season wins. After 15 wins last season, they fell in the playoffs to the Giants. If the Packers make the playoffs, and they should, they will remember 2011. This is still a first place team to me, with the potential to go far.
CHICAGO BEARS: I always tell people when the questions of money and football are discussed, the starters on NFL teams are always paid significantly more than back-ups because they are significantly better football players. Often the drop-off in ability is extreme, with Player A on top of his game, and Player B still developing as a back-up. That bit the Bears last season. Without their high-paid starters, they were not able to effectively compete in what may be football's toughest division, the NFC North. After a 7-3 start, the Bears lost five in a row with no Jay Cutler and no Matt Forte.
The Bears have since made good free agency moves to bring in some insurance on the two star players, with Michael Bush at RB and Jason Chambell at QB. Bears fans are hoping they don't play much, but if they have to play, they should be able to keep the Bears competitive.
I have two key thoughts about the Bears. First, can Brandon Marshall make an impact over 16 games and stay calm emotionally? Second, is Gabe Carimi the answer at offensive tackle? A number one pick from two years ago, the Bears need Carimi to emerge as a dominate pass blocker to handle the pass rush skills of Jared Allen in Minnesota, Kyle Vanden Bosch in Detroit, and Clay Matthews in Green Bay. Remember, Cutler is a pass rush aware QB, so protection is a top issue.
The window is closing on Chicago. Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are all one year older, and this could be "the year." The problems is that the Packers are in the same division, so I see the Bears finishing second.
DETRIOT LIONS: The Detroit lions had a very good year last year, not just in winning 10 games,but in how they won those games with key personnel. Matthew Stafford is for real as a QB. After two injury-plagued seasons, last year he played in all 16 games and became only the fourth QB in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards. He joined a class that includes Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, so that is impressive - and Stafford is only 23 years old.
I was really impressed during the playoff game against New Orleans on January 7 when the Lions prevailed 45 to 28. You could not tell the difference between Stafford and Brees. Detroit did not have the defence to compete for a championship, but with the ball they were the equal to the NFL's No. 1 team on that day. Of the six loses endured by Detroit last year, five were against playoff teams and one was against the Bears in Chicago when they still had Jay Cutler at QB.
And they have Calvin Johnson signed up for years to come. At 6'5" and 235 lbs., Johnson is the most physically intimidating receiver to play in a long time. He's like Terrell Owens with maturity and a better attitude. One on one, maybe only Larry Fitzgerald can compare.
The other major strength on the team is at defensive line. Detroit has eight defensive linemen that could be starters on other teams. That's an unmatched level of depth anywhere in the NFL. Run defence, pass defence, scoring defence and overall defence are all problems, but the pass rush and creating turnovers (+11) are not.
Trying to pick between Detroit and Chicago is a coin flip. The noise in the Ford Field Dome is good for a win or two on its own, but the Bears have Matt Forte, and the Lions have … well, we don't know yet. But if the Lions can stay clean in terms of on field injuries and off field idiocy, they could be a surprise team like the Arizona Cardinals that reached the Super Bowl a few years go. But, I will say with trepidation, they will finish third in the NFC North.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: The key question with the Vikings is simple - is this really a bad team or just a bunch of good players playing badly? Every team that finished last has to ask that question. The good news in Minnesota is that last year they lost nine games by seven points or less. That's an amazing number of one-touchdown games and the ultimate Vikings fan would say the team could have been11-5 instead of 3-13. It's just not that simple. Christian Ponder is still an unknown element at quarterback after the Vikings finished 28th in passing offense. Adrian Peterson's health is another unknown. Even if he is back by mid-season, it usually take two years two years to regain explosive ability after an ACL injury. Without him, there is no 1,000 yard runner on the team, with apologies to Toby Gerhart. And Percy Harvin is an unknown due to migraine headaches. Last year they had no 1,000 yard rusher, no 1,000 yard receiver, and Ponder finished with under 2,000 yards passing.
With another 3-13 season, Leslie Frazier may be the only change considered as you can't fire all the players.
It would be tough to be a veteran Vikings football player. Antoine Winfield with 13 years, Kevin Williams with nine years, or Jared Allen with eight. There has been a lot of losing and they know the AFC North, with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, is a tough division. Chances of them ever getting to the Super Bowl in the next few years before they retire are, well, let's say unlikely. The Viking are definitely re-building, and rebuilding teams generally finish fourth. That's where I see the Vikings at the end of the season.