The NFC North was expected to be a three-team race in 2012. The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions were both looking to return to the playoffs this season while the Chicago Bears were expected to challenge for the division title.
Following a dominant 23-10 victory over the Bears on Thursday night, the Packers have emerged as the class of the division early in the 2012 season.
Clay Matthews lead an impressive defensive showing for Green Bay. He had 3.5 sacks in the game and has already equaled his 2011 output of 6.0 sacks.
Green Bay has 11 sacks thus far, looking to improve on their dismal production of just 29 sacks last season. They had 31 interceptions last season, the first time a team has had more interceptions than sacks since the Cleveland Browns had 23 interceptions and just 17 sacks in 2008.
The Lions opened the season with a tight 27-23 home win against the St. Louis Rams. They needed a touchdown in the closing seconds of the game to secure the win.
Detroit has an opportunity to propel themselves to the top of the NFC North race this weekend. They travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers, who opened the season with a convincing 30-22 road win over the Packers.
While fans are accustomed to seeing the Packers win with a powerful offense, seeing them win with a stout defensive performance is something new. They showed a stifling pass defense and intercepted Jay Cutler four times in the win.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said via an Associated Press report that he'd rather have his team be known for its defense:
"We got kicked in the (rear end) four days ago, and we were motivated," McCarthy said.
"I thought Clay was off the charts, just with the energy and production that he brought," he added.
The Packers didn't need to press on offense against the Bears. Their next opportunity to get their offense rolling will come next Monday in Seattle.
However, they will likely again look to their defense to carry the team.
The Seahawks struggled to move the ball behind rookie quarterback Russell Wilson in Week 1. He was under constant pressure from the Arizona Cardinals front seven, and the Packers will likely look to follow that approach.
Seattle has a potent defense that plays better at home in front of their loud fans.
Chicago could also be leaning heavily on their defense in the coming weeks. Their offense revolves around Matt Forte, who left the game with an ankle injury and had x-rays taken in the locker room.
He wasn't able to return, and the Bears didn't offer an update following the game.
If the Bears know exactly what happened to Forte's ankle, they're not saying yet. No update following the game: rotoworld.com/player/nfl/468…—Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan), September 14, 2012
The Bears won't be the same team without Forte, and an extended absence could take Chicago out of playoff contention. Their upcoming schedule is favorable though, with the St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars comprising two of their opponents heading into their Week 6 bye.
But if the Packers are able to maintain their strong defensive play with a powerful offensive attack, the rest of the NFC North will be chasing them all season.