Today in our divisional spotlight is the NFC North. This division was one of the weakest in the NFL last year, but things may be looking up in 2009.
We start at the top of the division with the 2008 NFC North champs, the Minnesota Vikings. They have the groundwork set for a successful team; they've got an outstanding front four on defense, and as a result, they have a great run D, the best in the league.
They have one of the better offensive lines in football, anchored by left guard Steve Hutchinson; and of course they have the man that their offense runs through, the 2008 NFL rushing champion, Adrian Peterson.
But despite their strengths, the Vikings have some issues they need to address if they want to reach the next level. This starts first and foremost with the most important position on the field, the quarterback. Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte split time last season, with Jackson getting benched in Week Three, but returning to action as the starter in Week 15.
While he certainly played better in his second stint, he showed me nothing to convince me that he's ready to be a legitimate starting quarterback in the NFL. And then in their only playoff game, Jackson looked like a deer in the headlights against Jim Johnson's defense, posting a quarterback rating 45.4.
Combine the quarterback question with a very vulnerable secondary that allowed 3,449 passing yards last year, and the Vikings' outlook for 2009 is very much in limbo. They are certainly capable of repeating as division champs, but I give them 7 to 9 wins, finishing second or third.
Next on the list, we have the Chicago Bears. The Bears finished the season in a disappointing way, losing their final game of the season to miss the playoffs. Chicago's defensive situation all year long was very similar to Minnesota's.
Chicago had the league's fifth ranked rushing defense, while giving up 3,859 total yards through the air, giving the Bears the NFL's third worst passing defense.
The offensive situation, however, looks far more positive. Before Kyle Orton went down to injury in a Week Nine game against Detroit, he was playing like one of the league's elite passers.
He had come off of three straight games of 280+ yards through the air, and in the process, tossing five touchdown passes and no picks. He was never the same after coming back from that injury though, not throwing for over 250 yards in any game the rest of the season, and throwing eight INT's in one span of four games.
The offseason should be very beneficial to Orton though, and I expect to see him continue to develop into a fine quarterback. Part of the reason for his less than stellar performances down the stretch could also be attributed to injuries to his wide-outs, which limited production from Brandon Lloyd and Rashied Davis in particular.
Another bright spot was the surprise emergence of rookie running back Matt Forte. Expect him to be more comfortable in the offense next year, and for the Bears to handle his carries better. I give the Bears eight to 11 wins, likely 10, and a division title.
The Green Bay Packers are a little bit tougher to forecast. They finished in the middle of the pack in total defense, faring better against the pass finishing twelfth in the NFL in that category, as opposed to the run where they finished 26th.
It's hard to know what to expect from this defense next year. They have some good talent, and at times they showed promise to be a good unit, but were overall far too inconsistent to show me that they'll be anything better than mediocre next year.
As with the Bears, the Packer offensive situation shows much more promise than the defensive one. Aaron Rodgers showed that he is more than capable of being a starting quarterback in the NFL, and he really only had two bad games, against Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
Aside from those two games, Rodgers did not throw more than one pick in any single game, finishing the year with a passer rating of 93.8. Greg Jennings stepped up big time as a premiere wide receiver, and Donald Driver is a seasoned veteran who can still get it done.
The one question will be if Ryan Grant can rebound from a disappointing season and return to his 2007 form. All in all, I expect the Packers to certainly be better than last year, but they could just as easily fail to meet expectations again. Expect anywhere from six to 10 wins from the Pack, but I'd put them around eight or nine.
What can you say about the Detroit Lions? They have to be better than last year, right? There's pretty much nowhere to go but up for the Lions. They finished last in total defense as well as scoring defense. The defense should perform marginally better, but I still expect them to be in the bottom 10 in major defensive categories.
As far as the offensive end goes, things aren't much better. They were able to put up a decent amount of points in some games, and were even able to hang in those games in the fourth quarter, but the spurts of offense were too few and far between to give their fans any hint of optimism for next year.
The one glimmer of hope lies in Calvin Johnson, who could develop into the NFL's best receiver. My advice is to get the ball to C.J. early and often. I give Detroit two to four wins for next year.