Without a doubt, the Green Bay Packers are the favorites to win—really, to retain—the NFC North title.
It won't be easy—this division has closed in terms of ability and talent. Young challengers have appeared in the form of the Lions and Bears (young being a relative and hyperbole-filled term) who can and will compete for that top spot.
The division got better as a whole, so remaining the best is nowhere near assured, but there are some things the Packers can—nay, must do—to keep the division.
Win Divisional Games
Let's start with the obvious. They have to win the head-to-head matchups.
Not just for the tiebreakers, either. The Packers will need as many of these games as they can get.
The division has become a closer race—the Lions are for real and the Bears will make trouble. Even the Vikings could be an issue, though not in terms of competing for the title.
The Packers can't take any wins within the division for granted, because every loss brings the rest of the wolfpack that much closer.
Dominate Out-of-Division Games
Again, a bit obvious, but it must be said.
As with the divisional games, it's vital that they come away with multiple wins here, because many of these teams will also be facing the rest of the NFC North.
The Packers will want every edge.
Get Pressure on the Quarterback
Quite simply, the division is too good to skate by on a powerful offense. The defense needs to step up, and it starts with the pass rush, which was virtually nonexistent last year.
Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy, I'm looking at you. Not to put undue pressure on rookies, but the only way Clay Matthews is going to be the best Clay Matthews he can be is if one of you (or both) take some attention away from him.
It will also help BJ Raji, AJ Hawk and anyone else on the front seven.
If the Packers cannot get pressure on Jay Cutler or Matt Stafford and give them all day to throw, they are making things harder on themselves and endangering that division crown.
Now, I know Packers fans are saying, "Hey, we had no pass rush last year and hammered the division," and you're right—you didn't have a rush and you did win out.
But don't depend on that, because what we saw last year in the two losses the Packers suffered was when the defense isn't doing its job, all it takes is an off-game by the offense and you can lose.
It's not a blueprint for beating the Packers, because too many things change game to game. There is no blueprint.
However, it's a ding in the armor, and if the Packers stumble on defense and find themselves unable to pass rush—well, it's an opening to exploit as well.
Now that we've ditched the generalities, let's get specific. Here's what the Packers need to do when facing each of the other three teams in the division.
As I said up front, the Vikings seem like easy prey, but they won't be. The have an underrated front seven and an improved offensive line. They will also have Adrian Peterson back by the time they face the Packers for the first time in Week 13.
They also have two potentially big stumbling blocks.
Christian Ponder wasn't as bad as some believe last season, but he had a real hard time not getting skittish under pressure. Of course, the Packers didn't actually bring pressure for most of 2011.
As much as Ponder is saying all the right things about staying cool under pressure and trusting his offensive line, hit him hard enough early and you will definitely see him regress. He's still young and a bit raw. He also has a few unknown quantities on his offensive line and players in new positions.
Pressure him and get in his face early, and you'll see him fall back on old habits, which your secondary can take advantage of.
On the defensive side of things, the weakness is the secondary, something which matches up perfectly with the offensive strength of the Packers. It won't be too hard to test the secondary early and beat it—assuming, of course, that the offensive line can withstand the pressure from the Vikings front seven.
Of the three, the Vikings are the team that should be the easiest task, but they also have the feel of a trap. The Packers cannot take them lightly.
The Packers swept the Bears in 2011, but this is a much different team, at least offensively.
What will the Mike Tice Bears look like? Will the simplified offensive line blocking and the new additions of Michael Bush, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery spark an offensive explosion?
It's safe to assume they will, if just to make sure you plan for them. It's going to be a tougher game than either of last year's (especially given the second game lacked Jay Cutler) but in some ways, the key remains pressuring Cutler.
Left tackle will likely be the focal point of pressure for the Packers, especially in the first meeting during Week 2. At that point, whether it's Chris Williams or J'Marcus Webb, this offensive line will still be getting it's feet wet—those two in particular.
The defense will want to attack that spot as often as they can. If they can get whomever is playing left tackle to fold, they'll be able to get a hand on Cutler, and the more you can do that, the better the chance he makes an error.
Now, not having a seven-step drop will help Cutler to begin with, no doubt about it. However, an effective pass rush can still get at him and limit his effectiveness.
That line needs to be tested early and often.
The Lions have some similar offensive line issues to the Bears, just not at quite so vital a position. That said, it's not the thing that the Packers defense has to focus on.
The wide receivers are. They have to deal with not only Calvin Johnson, but also Titus Young and Nate Burleson as well as Brandon Pettigrew at tight end.
I always get hate mail when I say this, but the Lions offense is the most explosive in the division. Certainly, it's as deadly as the Packers at the every least—I think you have to acknowledge that, even if you won't give me the first.
The Packers secondary wasn't nearly as bad as they appeared in 2011, but there are questions, most notably at safety. Expect the Lions to attack the secondary often. They are going to have to step it up to counter the many options Matt Stafford has.
If they can shut the offense down, the Packers will win both games, because the Lions defense, as formidable as it can be, won't be able to shut down the Packers offense.
There are a billion factors at play in the quest to retain the divisional crown—some we know and some unforeseen. If the packers can take care of the above business, though, they remain the favorite to command the NFC North for another year.
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