NFL Preview 2012: Predicting the NFC North
The NFC North has to be in the conversation when you're talking about the toughest division in football.
The argument could be made that there were three playoff-caliber teams in the NFC North last season—the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions— before Jay Cutler's season-ending thumb injury.
Instead, the Lions and Packers advanced, and while they had quick exits, they were both built for long-term success heading into 2012.
On top of that, it seemed like every team in the division, (with the exception of the Minnesota Vikings), improved over the offseason, making this free-for-all even tougher.
Here's a look at which team could possibly come out of this steel cage deathmatch alive.
4) Minnesota Vikings
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When you talk about competitiveness in the NFC North, the one team that you leave out of the conversation is the Minnesota Vikings.
It's not that the Vikings don't have any talent. Jared Allen almost broke the single-season sack record by recording 22.0 in 2011. Percy Harvin became one of the most dynamic threats in the NFL after Christian Ponder took over for Donovan McNabb. Plus, they added stud tackle Matt Kalil in the draft.
The big question surrounding the Vikings is a cloud that hangs over their best player, Adrian Peterson.
Peterson tore his ACL and MCL on Christmas Eve against the Washington Redskins and has been rehabbing ever since he came off of the operating table.
While teammates have been impressed with Peterson's desire to get back on the field, Vikings coach Leslie Frasier stepped in front of Peterson and basically flashed the stop sign, as the team will slowly work Peterson back into the fold.
If the Vikings were contending for a playoff spot, this may be a different situation. However, the Vikings are not going to come close to playing in January this season, and it's best to take the last place finish and let Peterson get healthy before returning him to his 25 to 30- carry workload.
3) Detroit Lions
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Despite the lingering Madden Curse that has been bestowed upon Calvin Johnson, I feel that there will be other reasons for the Detroit Lions to take a step back in 2012.
The Lions have one of the most entertaining offenses in the league, as Matthew Stafford joined the elite 5,000-yards-in-a-season passing club, along with Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, in 2011.
Still, the Lions offense is mainly predicated around the pass in the rugged NFC North. As the Packers may have shown last year, there needs to be an effective ground game and a defense to make a long playoff run.
The rushing attack has been absent since Jahvid Best went out with a concussion after Week 7 last year. They'll still be without Best's services, since he has been placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list and will miss at least the first six games of the regular season.
That means the Lions will turn to Kevin Smith and Mikel LeShoure to try and add a ground game for this year's team. With LeShoure's suspension for the first two games of the regular season and Smith's injury-prone ways, it doesn't look good.
The defense has its problems as well, despite it being one of the most physical defensive lines in football.
The problem will be the back seven, as the secondary routinely gave up plays last season and ranked 22nd in the NFL in passing yards.
The Lions have the talent to take home the NFC North, but they won't get close without a legit running game and defense.
2) Chicago Bears
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David Terrell, Devin Hester, Roy Williams, Earl Bennett and Devin Aromashodu.
These are just some of the names that the Chicago Bears have used to give their quarterback a go-to receiver in recent history. Surprisingly, none of these guys have panned out.
With that, the Bears decided to stop messing around and trade for the league's best yards after catch receiver in Brandon Marshall.
The move seems to be a good one, despite Marshall's off the field problems, as the best years of his career were when he was catching passes from the Bears' current quarterback Jay Cutler in Denver.
The addition of Marshall gives the Bears another weapon to go with Matt Forte, who will now be in a tag team act with Michael Bush to provide a "thunder-and-lightning" approach to their ground attack.
The Bears defense also remains a strength even without their leader, Brian Urlacher, who is battling a knee injury that may limit him for the rest of his career.
Things could be looking up in Chicago, as they seem to have the best chance to dethrone the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.
1) Green Bay Packers
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The Green Bay Packers don't seem to have a weakness from August to January. However, once the temperatures dip below freezing, this team seems to fold like a tent.
Regardless, the Packers are clearly the best team in the division, not only for their tendency to get off to a fast start but also for the insane amount of talent that they possess.
The Packers will return Aaron Rodgers, and he'll have his usual cast of receivers to throw to who continue to get better each and every season.
The main cog in the passing attack is Jordy Nelson, who broke out in his third season by scoring 13 touchdowns in 2011. The second (Greg Jennings), third (Donald Driver) and fourth (Randall Cobb) options for Aaron Rodgers could also be considered as the best in the league.
The problem has been their rushing offense, but after finally getting sick of James Starks' inability to take the job, they signed Cedric Benson, who could thrive if he gets enough carries in the Packers' pass-heavy offense.
The Packers defense also is a problem, as it allowed the most passing yards in the NFL last season. It's a unit that could be a weakness again after cutting the cord with Nick Collins this past offseason or could flourish thanks to the addition of Nick Perry from USC.
In reality, the Packers are a lot like the Lions. However, the presence of Aaron Rodgers and that insane passing offense should lift the Packers over everyone else in the NFC North and back into the playoffs.