In the span of just five months, a lot has changed in the NFC North without much noise. Most of the bang during downtime has been around the Detroit Lions' legal troubles, and of course the draft. But with minicamps underway, it’s 2012 season prediction time—that perfect opportunity to take a look at the Packers' three northern rivals.
Looking at the North from a distance, the landscape appears to be the same as it always was: a tough division made up of four very good quarterbacks, mixed in with some of the best running backs in the league.
The thing that makes this tough, though, is in large part thanks to the premier drafting of each team, and a few roster movements. That, and the fact that the Packers only really managed to blow out one of their North rivals, the Vikings, during the entire 2011 season.
Green Bay Packers at a Glimpse
Once upon a time, Packers fans would have hated being labeled as “the best.” Mike McCarthy seems to ignore it. But bottom line, the Packers' schedule is mildly amusing this season, looking past the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
Briefly, there may be a period this season where the Packers look lost. The hybrid Charles Woodson is somewhere between a corner and a safety—at least until the move eventually happens. Clay Matthews switches from left to right, and there are a bunch of talented rookies competing for playing time at competitive spots.
There are some consistency issues as well. Jermichael Finley’s only multiple-touchdown game came in Week 3 last year against Chicago, while the absence of Ryan Grant points the finger at James Starks this year, a player who only rushed for one touchdown in 13 games.
Donald Driver will probably have an even quieter year. Backup safety M.D. Jennings could find more playing time after practicing with starters this week. And Graham Harrell is your man if Aaron Rodgers is hurt.
Detroit Lions at a Glimpse
Legal complications and distractions aside (we’ll wait and see how that plays out), the Lions look forward to their second complete season with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson together.
After finishing 29th in rushing yards last year, the Lions' primary concern in camps during the break has been the running game. Jahvid Best will be back and healthy after being placed on IR with concussion symptoms last year, and the offensive line has received some attention in the draft.
Generally, protection, protection, protection has been at the forefront of Jim Schwartz’s mind, when the running game wasn’t. Stafford was sacked 36 times last year, and failed on 136 third down attempts. There was then the early exit in the playoffs, a near win over the Packers in Week 17 and recently a bunch of legal scrutiny surrounding Mikel Leshoure to make everything worse.
The Lions are still the best shot at stealing the Packers’ crown, though. Brighter expectations surround Green Bay’s defense this year, but there was still no answer for Johnson’s 244-yard total in both games last season.
The Lions have bolstered their offensive line, and the Packers will still be relying on 12th-year defensive lineman Ryan Pickett to command the line this season. Last year, if Stafford wasn’t playing well, the Lions turned into a marshmallow. This year, Detroit has a running game, and the Packers rush defense can be mediocre when it wants to be.
Chicago Bears at a Glimpse
The Bears have tried their best to have a quiet offseason, but Matt Forte doesn’t want to keep any happenings on the down low. Forte still seeks a long-term deal, Lovie Smith is on what some like to call a hot-seat and Jay Cutler returns from an injury-riddled season to find his offense still has some of the kinks he left them with in Week 11.
The Packers handled the Bears nicely last year, and they will get a firm taste of each other early this season in Week 2. Brian Urlacher has been open in the media recently, stating “the talent we have on this team is phenomenal,” and it’s hard to disagree after a busy offseason.
Last time they met, the Packers forced backup quarterback Josh McCown to throw two interceptions in Green Bay’s 35-21 victory at Lambeau. While McCown is no Cutler, Green Bay did surrender 121 rushing yards to Kahlil Bell, and Roy Williams also had 81 yards on the Packers' defense in the midst of a five-touchdown Aaron Rodgers freak show.
The Bears-Packers rivalry is always nail and tooth til the end, but the Bears bring in another weapon this year that could throw the Packers' defense into confusion.
Brandon Marshall looks to be Cutler’s new end zone pal, and it remains to be seen how the Packers cover him. Sending safety help on deep routes is option one. Option two is the double-team, something most will probably be in favor of in goal line situations—considering Marshall has posted six 1,000-plus-yard seasons.
It always comes down to Cutler when looking at Chicago’s chances. When healthy in 2010, he threw three interceptions against the Packers' defense. It’s always about pass rush when the Packers play the Bears.
Minnesota Vikings at a Glimpse
An ACL injury has basically destroyed everything in Minnesota, and even with Christian Ponder looking to hold onto his spot, Adrian Peterson now looks at a lengthy stint on the PUP list leading up to August.
Further down the list, Percy Harvin still nurses a shoulder injury that has kept him away from the practice field recently. The good news is he isn’t expected to miss much time, which helps Ponder a lot.
Like a lot of young quarterbacks, the Packers took advantage of Ponder last season when they could. Rushing the passer from the outside, forcing a pass and then allowing Woodson to do the rest was one particular error that caught Ponder off guard in Week 10.
It’s hard to say whether or not the Packers will see the same success defensively against the Vikings next season, but Minnesota should expect to see a much more improved Ponder if nothing else.
The Packers meet up with the Vikings in Week 13, so there's plenty of time to judge the Vikings for yourselves.
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