Over the past couple of seasons, the Green Bay Packers have been a model of consistency—at least in the the NFC North. After a disappointing 6-10 record three seasons ago, the Packers have finished their campaigns 11-5, 10-6 and 15-1, respectively.
Despite having a 10-6 record two seasons ago, they managed to catch on fire at the right time and went all the way to the Super Bowl after defeating Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago, respectively. They ultimately faced off against the AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, where they came out on top, 31-25. Aaron Rodgers was named the MVP of the game and it seemed as though a dynasty was born.
After udder domination last season, in which Rodgers and Co. jumped out to a 13-0 record, they lost a surprising game to the Kansas City Chiefs, 19-14. That would be their only loss of the season, as they scored a franchise record 560 points, which amounts to exactly 35 points per contest. They also had a +201 point differential, good enough for third-most in franchise history, only behind the 1962 (+267) and 1996 (+246) teams. In case you didn't notice, the Packers took home the championship during both of those seasons.
Even though they had an amazing offense consisting of Rodgers, James Starks, Ryan Grant, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jermichael Finley, the defense did not compliment them whatsoever. To put it nicely, the Packers' defense was horrible. And that's a good way to put it. At the end of the 16-game regular season, Charles Woodson and Co. gave up the 19th most points in the NFL, and were dead last in the league in yards allowed. In 2009 and 2010, their defense ranked second and fifth in yards allowed, respectively.
Because of their lackluster defense and sub-par offensive play, the Packers were ousted in their first appearance of the postseason by the eventual Super Bowl Champions New York Giants, 37-20. There was no doubt that it was a disappointing end to the season, as many thought (including myself) that they would claim the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the second straight season.
Meanwhile, the Lions were having one of their best seasons in recent memory behind Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh. Also, the Bears looked as though that they would be challenging the Packers until quarterback Jay Cutler went down with a season-ending injury after the 10th game of the season. Coach Lovie Smith had to result to playing inexperienced Caleb Hanie as the team's main signal-caller; and the Bears eventually faded down the stretch, going 1-5 with Hanie and Josh McCown splitting duties as the starter.
Of course, it is very likely that the other team in the division, the Minnesota Vikings, will not factor into the 2012 season whatsoever. By the time the season ends, we will more than likely see the Vikings with a top-10 selection in the draft.
That leaves the 2012 NFC North Division crown to be fought amongst the Packers, Bears and the up-and-coming Lions.
During the offseason, there are two things to excite fans—the annual draft and free agency. For the Packers, they really didn't make any noise in free agency. The front office was able to sign center Jeff Saturday, who had spent his entire career with Peyton Manning and the Colts. Saturday is expected to enter the season as the Packers' anchor on the offensive line.
Other than Saturday, there wasn't much. Thus far, they have signed defensive lineman Philip Merling, who previously played for the Dolphins, and defensive tackle Daniel Muir, Saturday's teammate in Indianapolis. However, the Packers definitely made some noise in the draft.
With their first-round pick, they selected USC's Nick Perry, who can play both outside linebacker and defensive end. Perry could become a star in this league; especially when he's already on a defense that includes Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji. They also drafted Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy in the second round, who could help form a very big middle with Raji. Their other second-round pick, Vanderbilt defensive back Casey Hayward, is expected to fight for a starting spot in the defensive backfield.
Who will win the NFC North?
Personally, I really like what the Packers did in the draft; and if their young players develop correctly, their defense could return to form and dominate on that side of the ball.
The Lions, who were arguably the biggest surprise last season, finished the season 10-6 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Needless to say, Lions fans were ecstatic; and it seems as though the team has a very, very bright future in front of them.
Like the Packers, the Lions didn't make much noise in free agency. They decided not to re-sign Eric Wright, who ultimately landed in Tampa Bay. To replace Wright, the front office decided to acquire former Colts cornerback Jacob Lacey. Lacey is not a prototypical starter in the NFL, but he could flourish as the teams No. 3 cornerback. The team also re-signed two marquee players, defensive end Cliff Avril and linebacker Stephen Tulloch.
Avril was arguably one of the team's best defensive players last season, as he registered a team-high 11 sacks. He also led the team in forced fumbles, and tied for the team lead in fumble recoveries. Avril was also fortunate enough to return one of those fumbles for a touchdown, and also recorded the first interception of his career, which he also returned for a touchdown. The combination of Avril and Ndamukong Suh on the defensive line is one of the best in football; and since he and the team couldn't come up with a correct price, the Lions placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on him on March 5.
The Lions also had a fairly decent draft, as they selected Iowa tackle Riley Reiff with their first-round selection. Reiff is expected to eventually supplant Jeff Backus on the line, who will be entering his 12th year in the NFL this upcoming season. Reiff could also replace the team's other starter, Gosder Cherilus, if he struggles during the campaign.
With their second-round selection, they tabbed Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles. The former Sooner was an amazing receiver while attending Oklahoma, as he left Norman as the NCAA's all-time receptions leader with 349 career catches. He was able to translate that into 4,586 receiving yards, along with 45 receiving touchdowns. His best season came two years ago when he tallied 131 receptions for 1,622 yards, and 14 touchdowns—one of the best seasons in college history. Now headed to Detroit, Broyles joins a corps that already consists of Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Calvin Johnson—arguably the best receiver in the NFL. Broyles will likely see time as the team's slot receiver, a position he could dominate.
With their remaining selections, the Lions also selected Louisiana-Lafayette cornerback Dwight Bentley, Temple outside linebacker Tahir Whitehead and Broyles' teammates at Oklahoma, linebackers Travis Lewis and Ronnell Lewis. These four players could help the Lions this upcoming season if they all survive the final cut.
The Lions' offense is undoubtedly one of the most explosive in the NFL, not just the NFC. Quarterback Matthew Stafford was on fire last season, as he accumulated 5,038 passing yards and 41 touchdowns. With running backs Jahvid Best (possibly) and Mikel LeShoure coming back healthy, the Lions' run game should be much better, as LeShoure missed the entire year after being selected in the second-round of the draft. Kevin Smith surprised the NFL world last season. After the Lions signed him, and he immediately came in and rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns in his second game of the year. Since he did a phenomenal job, the front office felt that he was worth re-signing, so it appears that he, LeShoure and possibly Best could form a potent trio.
Additionally, their receiving corps is led by this year's Madden cover athlete, Johnson, and tight end Brandon Pettigrew; who had a phenomenal season in 2011. With a stout defense, there's no doubt that the Lions should remain in contention for the division crown this year.
The final team in the division, the Chicago Bears, faltered down the stretch after signal-caller Jay Cutler went down with an injury. Their mediocre play at the end of the year behind Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown knocked them out of playoff contention; and they finished the year 8-8.
Chicago's receiving corps has always been puzzling. They have not had a legitimate No. 1 receiver since perhaps Willie Gault roamed the field. Since 1990, Wendell Davis (3x), Tom Waddle, Jeff Graham (2x), Curtis Conway, Ricky Proehl, Bobby Engram, Marcus Robinson (2x), Marty Booker (3x), David Terrell, Muhsin Muhammad (2x), Bernard Berrian, Devin Hester (2x) and Johnny Knox (2x) have led the team in receiving yards in a single season.
Still with no true No. 1 threat, the Bears went out this offseason and acquired receiver Brandon Marshall from the Dolphins in exchange for two third-round picks. With the deal, Marshall is now re-united with Jay Cutler. Both athletes played together in Denver from 2006-08, where Marshall registered 102 and 104 catches in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Now on the same team again, the Bears' offense seems to be headed in the right direction.
The Bears' front office decided to add even more firepower to the roster, as they drafted South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery with the 45th overall selection. Jeffery has been one of the best receivers in the NCAA, especially in 2010 when he caught 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns.
The Bears now seem to have a legitimate receiving corps that features Marshall, Jeffery, Hester, an injured Knox, Earl Bennett, Dane Sanzenbacher and return ace Eric Weems.
Chicago also seemed to make a decently-sized splash in free agency, as they were able to sign quarterback Jason Campbell to serve as Cutler's backup in case last season repeats itself.They also decided to sever ties with Marion Barber (who then suddenly retired), and replaced him with former Raider Michael Bush, who had the best season of his career in 2011.
Additionally, they lured offensive guard Chilo Rachal away from San Francisco. Rachal is the only offensive lineman the Bears have acquired thus far, even though it is one of their biggest needs. Rachal could contend for a starting job if he does well in training camp and in the preseason.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bears selected Boise State outside linebacker Shea McClellin with their first-round selection. Forming a combination with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs (who they also re-signed), the Bears seem to have a very good linebacking corps that should strike fear into their opponents' running attacks. The Bears also re-signed defensive lineman Israel Idonije, safety Craig Steltz and cornerback Tim Jennings, who had the best season of his career in 2011.
Sticking to free agency, the front office also signed linebacker Geno Hayes from Tampa Bay, who is expected to add much needed depth at the linebacker position. Cornerbacks Kelvin Hayden and Jonathan Wilhite also signed with the Bears, solidifying depth at the cornerback position. Hayden and Wilhite will now be a part of a corps that features No. 1 starter Charles Tillman, D.J. Moore and rookies Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy.
Unfortunately for Chicago, they were practically forced to add multiple cornerbacks this offseason after losing Zackary Bowman (Minnesota) and Pro Bowl Special Teams ace Corey Graham (Baltimore). The team also neglected to re-sign safety Brandon Meriweather, who landed in Washington. Regardless, the Bears' front office have done more good than bad thus far, and their 2012 season looks very bright with a potent offense and a stellar defense (now, they just need to come to terms on Matt Forte, who could hold out in hopes of striking a long-term deal).
The NFC North, like it seems to be every year, is going to be competitive and one of the most exciting and intriguing divisions in football this season. The Packers are definitely going to have a hard time maintaining their crown; especially if their defense plays like it did last season.
The Bears added more firepower to their offense, and Detroit will have one of the best offensive attacks in football again this year; especially with LeShoure returning from an injury, and with the acquisition of Broyles via the draft. Minnesota will likely be the division's cellar-dweller this season, but they may also surprise some this upcoming year.
Ultimately, I firmly believe that the Packers will win the division for the second straight season. Detroit and Chicago will definitely put up a valiant effort, but it's the Packers' division to lose. At the end of the 16-game regular season, I'm going to go ahead and predict that all three teams will make the playoffs and at least one of them will represent the division in the conference championship game, and possibly the Super Bowl.
There's no doubt that the NFC North will be very exciting to watch.