The NFC North has been sort of like that Family Guy character for awhile now. Know Meg Griffin, the self-conscious nerd who desperately wants to fit in with the crowd? Well, the NFC North hasn't been cool since the 2001 season, when it had three teams with above-.500 records.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of them, and that was so long ago, they're not even part of it any more. The division had one Super Bowl champion in the last 23 years.
But through the wonders of the draft, the NFC North may be recognized as one of the more competitive divisions in the league before long. In addition to the Bears, the Packers and Vikings appear to be capable of eight-or-more eight victories. Even the Lions will be better if only because they can't get worse.
What it means for the Bears is, the division may not offer as many freebies as in recent years. Here's what they'll be up against next season:
Lions: Say this much for them—these are not cowardly Lions at least. "We will definitely make the playoffs this season.” feature back Kevin Smith promised on his Web site the other day.
First, the Lions may want to win a game, any game, something they failed to do last season. This could be the year. The team expanded its talent base in the draft, in which it had three of the first 33 selections.
At the No. 1 pick, the Lions rolled the dice on quarterback Matthew Stafford, who arrives with the expectations of a $78-million contract. Would it have been wiser to trade down in the order in return for multiple picks?
Talent evaluators are divided on Stafford as a future star, but at least he addresses a chronic need and wants to be there.
The second selection was controversial as well. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew was the best player available at his position, but many considered linebacker Rey Maualuga to be an ideal fit for new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and his group.
The Bears will face a revamped pass defense that ranked 27th in the league and totaled all of one interception last season. Free-agent newcomer Phillip Buchanon will start at right cornerback, while second-round draft pick Louis Delmas is expected to take over the strong safety position.
Delmas has played to rave reviews in minicamp and already has drawn comparisons to Dale Carter, the former Pro Bowl cornerback. The front office also did well to sign linebacker Larry Foote, a former Steeler with Super Bowl experience.
Bottom line: The Lions haven't won a playoff game in 18 years, and it may be awhile before they win another one. Still, the Bears shouldn't take these guys lightly, because they have made improvements at both sides of the ball.
Packers: General manager Ted Thompson wasted no time to beef up the defense, which ranked 26th against the run and 20th overall last season. In round one, tackle B.J. Raji was drafted to anchor the line in a newly adopted 3-4 alignment. Then Thompson made an bold move to get linebacker Clay Matthews in the same round.
The secondary is as solid as any in the conference, what with Pro Bowlers Nick Collins, Al Harris, and Charles Woodson in place. Whether or not there will be enough heat on the passer is another question entirely. Other than linebacker Aaron Kampman, there is no established pass-rusher to speak of here.
In wideouts Donald Driver and Greg Jennings and feature back Ryan Grant, the offense has plenty of talent at the skill positions. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a year of experience as a starter, something that he didn't have at this time last year. He won't have to answer questions about Brett Favre nearly as often, either.
If there's a problem spot, then it's offensive tackle. Converted tight end Tony Moll may be better suited to play guard, while 32-year-old veteran Chad Clifton has seen better days. Rookies T.J. Lang and Jamon Meredith could be tested sooner than later.
Bottom line: Is it premature to call the season-opener against the Packers at Soldier Field a crucial one? Heck, no. The division race has the potential to be a two-team affair from start to finish.
Vikings: Paging Fran Tarkenton! Paging Joe Kapp! Paging Touchdown Tommy Kramer...!
Paging Brett Favre?!
If the Vikings had an established quarterback—sorry, Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels, but you don't qualify at the moment—then they would rate as the division favorites. Enter Favre, he of the 22-10 record against the Bears in his career.
The Vikings say they have interest in Favre, and ever since the Packers pushed him out of town, Favre has wanted them. The question isn't whether the 39-year-old can play at a reasonably high level.
Remember, last season Brett and the Jets got off to an 8-3 start amid talk that they could be the best team in the conference. Rather, the question is whether a torn biceps tendon that may require major surgery will allow him to be effective again.
Otherwise, this team has a lot of the pieces necessary to be a serious playoff contender. Feature back Adrian Peterson is Gale Sayers all over again.
If rookie Percy Harvin causes as much trouble on the field as he has off of it, then he'll give the offense another gamebreaker to complement Bernard Berrian at wide receiver. The o-line is solid except at right tackle, an area that was addressed with the selection of Phil Loadholt in round two of the draft.
At the other side of the ball, tackles Pat and Kevin Williams stuff the run as well as any tandem around. Sackmaster Jared Allen has a non-stop motor off the edge. For years, cornerback Antoine Winfield has been one of the most underrated defenders in the league.
Bottom line: Any mention of the F-word makes Bears fans shake in their sneakers. Chill, Chicago. It's a good bet that, even if Favre is able to come back one more time, he won't be around at the finish.
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