The NFC North was one of the strongest divisions in the league last season. The Packers ran away with the division with a league-best record of 15-1. One of the biggest stories of the year was the resurgence of the Detroit Lions. Jim Schwartz's club went 10-6 and clinched the team's first playoff berth since 1999. The Chicago Bears had one of the toughest defenses in the league but derailed after Jay Cutler and Matt Forte were lost for the season. The Vikings lost their franchise player, Adrian Peterson, on Christmas Eve when he tore his ACL.
Can the Packers make enough improvements on defense to get back to the Super Bowl? Will the addition of Brandon Marshall give the Bears the weapon they need to make a playoff run? How will Detroit respond to the success of last season? Will Christian Ponder be good enough to lead the Vikings offense as Peterson recovers? My NFC North preview will answer these questions and more.
The Chicago Bears were looking like one of the strongest teams in the NFC on Week 10. Coming off their fourth straight win, the Bears were 7-3. Then Jay Cutler and Matt Forte were injured in a two week span. The Bears offense struggled and they dropped five straight games and missed the playoffs. Not only are Cutler and Forte healthy for the start of the 2012 season, Cutler will be reunited with his former teammate in Denver, Brandon Marshall.
The Bears' defense was in the middle of the pack in average yards and points allowed. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs anchored the Bears front seven. The Bears defense did not go through many changes, but the Bears did select outside linebacker/defensive end Shea McClellin, who they hope will add to an already ferocious pass rush.
Offense: The Bears' offense was running rather smoothly until Cutler and Forte went down. Caleb Hanie and Marion Barber failed to replace their star players and the Bears offense fell apart. In the games without Cutler and Forte, the most points the Bears scored in a game was 21.
For years the Bears could not find a number one wide receiver for their quarterbacks to connect with. Now the Bears have one of the top receivers in the game. The Bears acquired Brandon Marshall from Miami for essentially nothing. Marshall caught 81 balls for over 1,200 yards and six touchdowns, impressive numbers considering Chad Henne and Matt Moore were throwing to him. The Bears were not finished with improving their receiving group as they drafted South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery. In the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Jeffery caught 137 passes for over 2,200 yards and 17 touchdowns at South Carolina. He will start in Chicago as the number three option but I expect him to quickly become the number two receiver and have a very strong rookie campaign.
The one thing the Bears failed to address was their offensive line. Opponents sacked Chicago's quarterback 49 times last season, which was fifth in the league. The Bears will have their 2010 first round pick Gabe Carimi in the lineup but I don't expect him to save this offensive line. The Bears have major issues at the left tackle and right guard positions and I expect Cutler to be running for his life at points in the season.
Defense: Chicago's defense was one of the worst passing defenses but one of the best rushing defenses. The Bears gave up an average of 254 yards per game through the air but under 100 on the ground. The nasty tandem of Briggs and Urlacher led the team in tackles. Even with Julius Peppers the Bears only had 33 sacks last season (Peppers had 11 of those). Peppers, Israel Idonije, Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye accounted for 27 of the Bears' 33 sacks. The defense needs to get more players involved on the pass rush which is what they hope McClellin and Stephen Paea can provide.
The Bears' secondary will have to improve. Although the Bears caught 20 interceptions last season, they must be better at slowing down opposing passing attacks. Charles Tillman is a pro-bowl defensive back but the rest of the secondary has room for improvement. Look out for Major Wright, who had three interceptions a year ago, to become an impact player in the secondary.
Prediction: The Chicago Bears will be a very tough team in 2012. Cutler and Forte are healthy and Marshall and Jeffery will be great additions to the receiving group. The glaring issue of the Bears' offense is their offensive line. I don't trust them to adequately protect Cutler. They may slightly improve from last season, but not by much
The Bears' defense is very good but is aging a bit. Urlacher, Briggs, Tillman and Peppers are all in their thirties and could start to show a bit of regression. Urlacher's health is also a big concern. He got his knee scoped in the middle of August but I have a feeling there is a bigger issue than the Bears and Urlacher are making it out to be. If the Bears can improve its passing defense then this defense will be one of the strongest in the league.
The Bears' schedule is tough. They obviously play four games against the Packers and Lions but also have games against Dallas, Carolina, Houston and San Francisco. I expect the Bears offense to roll with Cutler's new weapons and lead the Bears to a 12-4 record.
The Detroit Lions were one of the great stories in the NFL last season. The Lions won 10 games and made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. The Lions got a full season out of Matthew Stafford, which resulted in the creation of one of the best quarterback and wide receiver combos in the league. Stafford and Johnson connected 96 times for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The Lions defense was not very good statistically. Detroit gave up an average of 367 yards per game which ranked 23rd in the league. Stephen Tulloch and Ndamukong Suh led one of the nastiest front sevens in football. Chris Houston emerged as an excellent cornerback, recording five interceptions last season.
Offense: Stafford and Johnson pretty much explain the Lions offense. Stafford dropped back to pass 663 times, which was the most in the league. Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew also made great contributions as defenses focused on shutting down Johnson.
The Lions running game averaged about 95 yards per game last season, which was 29th in the league. Jahvid Best led the team with 390 yards but suffered a concussion and is now on the physically unable to perform list. The current starter is Kevin Smith, who is also injury prone. The Lions could go with a running back by committee system this season. It wouldn't surprise me if the Lions use up to five or six running backs during the course of the year.
Defense: The Lions defense was one of the nastiest defenses in the league. The Lions' defensive line is probably the best in the game. Suh, Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson and Kyle Vanden Bosch each recorded over four sacks last season. Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy led the team in tackles and each earned over 100 tackles.
The Lions gave up a lot of yardage but made up for it by recording 34 turnovers. Chris Houston led the secondary with five interceptions. The Lions will be without Eric Wright and Alphonso Smith in the secondary but do have Amari Spievey, who had three interceptions last season.
Prediction: The Lions are going to be a contender for the NFC North this season. If Stafford can stay healthy then the passing game will be one of the hardest to defend in the league. Calvin Johnson is the obvious star receiver, but don't forget about Burleson and Pettigrew. I also love Titus Young to emerge as a slot receiver. If the Lions could just find an actual running game then this offense would be unstoppable.
The Lions defense is fun to watch. They are nasty and don't care. They need to adjust without two of their starters from last year in the secondary but that front seven is incredibly talented. The defensive line is outstanding and don't forget about Nick Fairley, who could become another asset to the line.
The Lions have tough out of division games against San Francisco, Philadelphia, Houston and Atlanta. But this team is improving and will be fun to watch this season. I like Jim Schwartz's team to finish 11-5.
The Packers followed up their Super Bowl championship season with a 15-1 regular season, but the season ended tragically with an upset loss to the eventual champion Giants. Aaron Rodgers won the MVP award with 4,643 yards 45 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. Rodgers spread the ball like wildfire amongst his receivers, but Jordy Nelson stood out with over 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The downfall of the Packers was their defense. The Packers defense was statistically one of the worst in the NFL. Green Bay ranked dead last in the league with an average of 411.6 yards per game, yet the Packers only gave up about 22 points per game because of their 38 turnovers. Charles Woodson led the team with seven picks, but eight Packers had two or more interceptions last year.
Offense: The Green Bay offense was tremendous last season. Led by Rodgers the Pack led the league with an average of 35 points per game. Nelson, Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, James Jones and Donald Driver each had over 37 receptions, 445 yards and six touchdowns. Talk about spreading the wealth.
The Packers running game was not a good complement to its passing game. James Starks and Ryan Grant had almost identical seasons, neither of which were good. Grant is now a free-agent and it was assumed that Starks would be the starter until Green Bay signed Cedric Benson. Benson rushed for over one thousand yards with Cincinnati last season and could have a decent season with Green Bay.
Defense: The Green Bay offense and defense were statistically polar opposites. The Packers gave up the most yards in the league but tied for first in the NFC with 38 turnovers. Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji both had disappointing seasons. Matthews recorded only six sacks after a season in which he recorded 13.5. Desmond Bishop and Morgan Burnett both recorded over 100 tackles.
The Packers' biggest problem was in its secondary. Despite recording 31 interceptions, the Packers let up an average of 299.8 passing yards per game. If the Packers want to improve this stat they will need a good season out of cornerback Jarret Bush. The Packers also will need to improve a pass rush that got to the quarterback only 29 times last year.
Prediction: The Packers are still one of the best teams in the NFC. As long as Rodgers is healthy then this offense will fly down the field. The Packers have excellent depth at wide receiver and I think Cedric Benson is an upgrade over Starks and Grant. Look out for Randall Cobb to emerge and pass up Jones and an aging Driver to become the number three receiver. Mike McCarthy has some of the best offensive schemes in the league and will force teams to pick and choose who to key on.
The Packers defense was terrible last season. But hey, it can only get better right? First off, Matthews will bounce back from a disappointing season. Bishop and A.J. Hawk will play well and the secondary has to improve. Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson are very good defensive backs and the Packers' defense is very good at making plays. If the pass rush and coverage improves this defense will be back on track.
The Packers have a considerably weaker out of division schedule than the Bears and Lions, but do have games against San Francisco, Houston and a rematch with the Giants. Rodgers could win the MVP again and will lead Green Bay to a 13-3 season.
The Minnesota Vikings struggled to find much on offense outside of Adrian Peterson. Donovan McNabb began the season as the starter but rookie Christian Ponder was the starter by Week 17. Peterson went down in Week 13 with a torn ACL.
The Vikings defense was below average last season. They gave up an average of 358 yards per game and let up about 28 points per game. The Vikings do have defensive end Jared Allen, who led the league with 22 sacks.
Offense: The Vikings offense was pretty mediocre last season. They averaged about 21 points per game and outside of Peterson there wasn't much firepower. Christian Ponder played in 11 games for Minnesota and threw for over 1,800 yards. Percy Harvin managed to stay healthy all season and caught 87 passes for 967 yards and six touchdowns. I expect this season to be a breakout year for Harvin and if he can stay healthy he can possibly get over one thousand yards and eight touchdowns.
The biggest question for the Vikings offense is whether Adrian Peterson can get back to form after his knee injury. He has surprised his doctors by his speedy recovery and his inspired work-ethic. If Peterson can get back to form then Minnesota's offense is much better. If not, Toby Gerhart will get the starting duties. Gerhart filled in nicely for Peterson with 531 yards and is not a bad player by any means.
Defense: The Vikings defense was not very good last season. The Vikings gave up about 358 yards per game and over 28 points per game. Chad Greenway led the team with 154 tackles but they will not have their second leading tackler, E.J. Henderson.
Minnesota had one of the best defensive lines in the league, however. Led by Allen the Vikings were the 5th best team in the league in sacks. Allen had 22 of these sacks, but defensive end Brian Robison added eight sacks and defensive tackle Kevin Williams recorded five sacks.
The Vikings were in the lower half of the NFC in turnovers and forced a league low eight interceptions. Antoine Winfield and Jamarca Sanford led the secondary that allowed over 250 yards per game through the air. Winfield is going into his 15th year and only had one interception last season. The Vikings are hoping that second round pick Harrison Smith can provide an impact in the secondary.
Prediction: The VIkings' season will ride on Adrian Peterson. Peterson could play in Week 1 and the Vikings are hoping that he gets back to form as early in the season as possible. I think it will be gradual. Peterson will not let this injury ruin his career and although I don't think we will ever see the same AP, he will still be pretty darn good.
It will be a big season for Christian Ponder. Ponder will have to prove that he can be a starting quarterback and will have decent options to throw to. Harvin will have a great year and Jerome Simpson and Michael Jenkins are solid second and third options. The Vikings also addressed a big need at offensive tackle by taking Matt Kalil with the fourth pick.
The defense has some room for improvement. They have the pass rush with Allen, Williams and Robison. Greenway is a very underrated linebacker and if Jasper Brinkley can return from his hip surgery and make an impact the Vikings will have a pretty tough front seven. The secondary needs to force more interceptions and I think Sanford will have a nice season for Minnesota.
In the end the Vikings have too many holes to compete in what could be the toughest division in the NFL. They have Peterson and Harvin, but that is about it. If Ponder can develop quickly then this team may have a chance at the playoffs. I don't see Ponder developing much right away and I have Minnesota going 5-11, two more wins than last year.
Here is how I see the NFC North finishing.
1. Green Bay Packers 13-3
2. Chicago Bears 12-4
3. Detroit Lions 11-5
4. Minnesota Vikings 5-11
The Packers will win this division again because their offense is just too good to completely shut down. A bad game for Aaron Rodgers is 250 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers offense is a nightmare defensively because of all the options they have. The defense can't get much worse and I expect Matthews and Raji to rebound from disappointing seasons.
The Bears now have a pretty nice offense. The addition of Marshall will give the Bears an actual target (no, Devin Hester running a go-route does not count as a target). Forte is healthy and won't have to carry the load like he has had to in the past. I think Jay Cutler will have the best season of his career and as long as his offensive line does not get him killed he should be great.
The Lions are going to be a very scary team this year. They are young and only getting better. If Kevin Smith or Mikel Leshoure or Keiland Williams can give Stafford some help in the running game then this offense could be one of the best in the league. Megatron is a threat on every play and I like Burleson and Pettigrew as a supporting cast. Titus Young will have a great year out of the slot and will get plenty of targets. The Lions defense is nasty and if it can cut down the yardage it will be an excellent defense.
Minnesota is going to struggle in this division. I think the main goal of this season is to have a healthy and productive Adrian Peterson. Ponder has to prove that he can be a solid starting quarterback and will have some decent weapons to play with. Jared Allen is one of the best at bringing down the quarterback and if the secondary can generate more interceptions then this defense isn't too bad.
The NFC North will be the strongest division in the NFC, but in the end I like Green Bay to prevail in a tight race.