NFC North: 2009 Preview

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NFC North: 2009 Preview
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

A division that finished with three of the bottom eight teams in the NFC last year typically has nowhere to go but up—a hypothesis that especially holds true for the Detroit Lions

The biggest offseason splash was made by the Chicago Bears, but the most significant offseason moves may have been produced by the Green Bay Packers.

The Minnesota Vikings made a few minor tweaks that should help them, and the Lions…well, your guess is as good as mine.

While difficult to do a divisional preview in May, barring any major injuries, here is how the NFC “Norris” will stack up:

 

 

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (2008: 10-6, 2009 prediction: 11-5)

Significant Acquisitions: Sage Rosenfels, Percy Harvin (draft)

I am not convinced that Rosenfels is a significant upgrade over Tarvaris Jackson. 

Over his career, he has turned the ball over a lot, and while more accurate than Jackson, actually rated over 20 points lower last year. 

If you don’t have a dependable quarterback, you better have playmakers, and the Vikings have them on both offense and defense.

Bernard Berrian averaged over 20 yards per catch last year to go along with seven touchdowns, and along with newcomer Percy Harvin, should be able to stretch the field. 

Of course, every conversation of the Vikings Offense should begin and end with Adrian Peterson. He is going to give you five yards a carry and 10 touchdowns, and when he gets tired, Chester Taylor comes in and you don’t lose too much. 

I wonder how much the loss of Matt Birk will affect their offensive line.

On defense, you simply cannot run up the middle on the Williams’ “brothers” and when you throw instead, you may just have Jared Allen staring down at you while on your back. Antoine Winfield is one of the best corners in the game, and Chad Greenway is a tackling machine at linebacker.

The bottom line here is that the Vikings have enough playmakers to put up some points, even if it won’t be a prolific offense. 

Harvin will also give the return game a big boost. Defensively, they are very tough, and early games against the Browns, Lions, and 49ers should get them off to a quick start.

 

GREEN BAY PACKERS (2008: 6-10, 2009 prediction: 9-7)

Significant Acquisitions: B.J. Raji (draft), Clay Matthews, Jr. (draft)

Aaron Rodgers can play. 

When you throw for over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns with no running game to back it up, you are an official gunslinger. 

How bad was the Packer’s running game last year? 

Ryan Grant had five games where he averaged under three yards per carry, and eight where he averaged less than four. However, offense was not the problem for the Packers as they averaged over 26 points per game.

They simply couldn’t stop anybody. 

Enter B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews, Jr.

The Packers were 26th against the run last year, giving up over 130 yards rushing per game. They lost Nick Barnett, their best linebacker, in Week Nine last year and never recovered.  He’s back, along with A.J. Hawk (86 tackles) and rookie Clay Matthews Jr. to help stop the bleeding. 

Along the line, B.J. Raji’s 337 pound frame should help clog the middle, and help Aaron Kampman get back to the 12-15 sack mark, since he won’t have to worry about the run as much.   

We know that this team can score with weapons like Greg Jennings and Donald Driver.  Stopping teams will be their key, which will be helped by early non-division games against the Bengals, Rams, and Browns.

 

CHICAGO BEARS (2008: 9-7, 2009 prediction: 7-9)

Significant Acquisitions: Jay Cutler, Orlando Pace, Juaquin Iglesias (draft)

The Bears made the most important acquisition in the history of their franchise this offseason.

Unfortunately, the rest of the team got worse.

Jay Cutler will give the Bears a chance to win every game this year and will make plays Chicago fans haven’t seen since the days of Sid Luckman. Matt Forte is a solid running back, and Greg Olsen is a playmaking tight end.

Orlando Pace was an enormous improvement over John St. Clair, provided he can stay on the field. 

Despite all those improvements, the Bears areas of regression and ineptitude still remain. They still don’t have a viable wide receiver to actually catch Cutler’s passes and the loss of John Tate to retirement leaves a giant hole in their offensive line. 

Devin Hester is at best a third weapon and there will be no reason not to double cover Greg Olsen on every play. 

Having said that, I think the Bears offense will be more prolific than in years past, mostly due to Cutler’s ability to improvise, and Matt Forte’s pass catching prowess.

Where the problems really start to accumulate is on the defensive end for the Bears.  This once proud group is getting old fast. 

They ranked 21st against the pass, and 24th against the run last year, hardly statistics of a capable defense. Their leader, Brian Urlacher had the least amount of tackles he’s ever had in a full season (93), partly due to the inability of Tommie Harris to keep blockers off of him, and partly due to a withering body (neck, back). 

Nathan Vasher is a shell of his former self, Mike Brown is gone, and their safeties are average and slow at best. Their one ray of hope in the defensive backfield, Charles Tillman, has to play too physical and has started to wear down.

While the Bears finally have the quarterback to build around, there are far too many weaknesses to fill for this season to be a success.

The Bears will lose a lot of games 35-28.

Early games at Lambeu field and home against the Steelers might get them off to a rocky start.

 

DETROIT LIONS (2008: 0-16, 2009 prediction: 3-13)

Significant Acquisitions: Matthew Stafford (draft), Larry Foote, Julian Peterson

Take a team that can’t score, can’t stop anyone from scoring, and you get a nice, tidy, 0-16 record. 

At least they were consistent. 

Armed with a new coach, a new quarterback, and a new logo, the Lions have some reason to believe they can get in the win column this year. 

They have some pieces on offense with Calvin Johnson and Kevin Smith, and rookie Brandon Pettigrew should help. While it wasn’t clear that Stafford was even the best quarterback in the draft, much less the No. 1 overall pick, he should be an improvement or the corps that threw 19 interceptions last year.

Defensively, Ernie Sims gets some help from Larry Foote and Julian Peterson in the linebacking crew.

Grady Jackson was signed to clog up the middle of the league’s worst rush defense last year (over 170 yards per game), and they picked up cornerback Louis Delmas in the second round of this year’s draft to help the porous pass defense.

Improvement? Yes? 

Still woefully bad? 

I think so. 

However, there will be games where Calvin Johnson gets loose, and Kevin Smith breaks a few. There will still be some 41-0 debacles, but they will steal a few 28-21 games this year. 

I predict they beat the Rams, Browns, and Bengals this year. 

 

OVERALL

I don’t see any Super Bowl contenders in this division, as currently constructed. 

If the Bears can find a playmaker and their defense resurrects itself, they could be a surprise with Cutler at the helm. 

If the Packers’ rookies don’t play well, their defense could be in for another rough ride, and if Matthew Stafford morphs into Matt Ryan, they may sneak into the five win range. 

Other than that, I think the Vikings are clearly the class of this division and should be able to win it with 10 wins.

 

 

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