After overachieving and nearly reaching the Super Bowl in 2007, the Green Bay Packers took a step back and limped to a disappointing 6-10 record last year. What will 2009 bring? A return to postseason glory or another dismal campaign?
Of course, the Packers chances of reaching the playoffs weigh heavily on the strength of their NFC North counterparts.
Parity will once again rule the NFC North, with at least three of the four teams having a legitimate chance of reaching the postseason (sorry Lions fans). The Packers, Bears, and Vikings will all battle for the divisional crown, but it looks like Chicago will be the team left standing.
Here's a breakdown of how each team will fare this season:
Chicago Bears (10-6)
Strengths: The Bears will possess an offense filled with youthful exuberance. While the Packers decided to make a statement through the draft, the Bears did it through the free-agent market.
Chicago pulled off a blockbuster deal in landing Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler in a trade with Denver. Then the Bears added protection for their young gunslinger by signing veteran tackle Orlando Pace.
Running back Matt Forte was a pleasant surprise last season and should improve this year. Cutler will have a steady target to throw to in tight end Greg Olsen. And how dangerous will the speedy Devin Hester be with the rifle-armed Cutler gunning passes to him down field? On special teams, kicker Robbie Gould's leg is reliable.
Weaknesses: The Bears' defense is aging, but they should be stable enough to hold opponents in check. Besides, the offense should put up enough points for them to win. Chicago still lacks a consistent threat at wide receiver.
The Bears will make the playoffs if... they can put up big numbers offensively and their defense doesn't crack too often.
The Bears will miss the playoffs if... Cutler, frustrated by not having a decent wideout to throw to, starts flinging passes into double coverage just to make something happen. Also, the pressure on him to succeed in a bigger market that is starving for a saviour at quarterback could be too overwhelming.
Minnesota Vikings (9-7)
Strengths: The Vikings possess two clear strengths: their defense and their running game.
Last season, Minnesota's D ranked first in stopping the run (76.9 yards per game) and sixth in total yards (292.4 ypg). The Vikings' dominant defensive line racked up 45 sacks, including 14 by defensive end Jared Allen.
Allen got off to a slow start last season, but finished strong. Pat and Kevin Williams anchored the interior line and should be feared this season. Middle linebacker Chad Greenway collected 115 tackles.
Offensively, there's no question who the Vikings are going to feed the ball to, third-year running back Adrian Peterson. Last season, the dynamic rusher out of Oklahoma accumulated 1,760 yards and 10 touchdowns. As a team, the Vikings finished fifth in rushing (146.1 ypg).
Weaknesses: The Vikings have a void at quarterback, and the worst kept secret in sports is the fact that they're trying to lure a certain 39-year-old future Hall of Famer out of his second retirement.
While he was with the Packers, I probably watched every game Brett Favre played so I certainly know how great he once was. But last season's topsy-turvy, one-and-done stint with the New York Jets proved that Favre's heyday has passed. I don't see him wearing purple this season, but even if he does, will the Vikings be that much better?
While they may not have a reliable QB this year, the Vikings did upgrade their receiving corp by drafting Florida play maker Percy Harvin. Last season, Minnesota spread the ball around consistently to four different receivers.
Bobby Wade led the Vikings with 53 receptions, but Bernard Berrian, Chester Taylor and Visanthe Shiancoe all grabbed more than 40 passes. But who's going to step up to become the No. 1 target?
The Vikings will make the playoffs if... Favre swoops in like Superman to save the franchise? No. Let's face it, the Vikings weren't one of the NFC's elite teams last year, but they did sneak into the playoffs.
If Peterson runs rough-shot over opposing defenses and Minnesota has a stable hand at quarterback, the offense will be decent. If the defense continues to improve, the Vikings should be in a comfortable position to make the playoffs.
The Vikings will miss the playoffs if... they have very little stability out of the quarterback position, forcing them to pump the ball to Peterson 40 times a game. He may be a bruising force at the dawn of the season, but Peterson will wear out fast if he approaches 400 carries.
Can you imagine if Peterson's too banged up to play in a pivotal game toward the end of the season? That could spell doom for the Vikings.
Green Bay Packers (9-7)
Strengths: When I first glanced at the Packers' 2009 schedule, I thought 8-8 would be a stretch. That was before last month's draft. The Packers aren't going to run away with the NFC North crown, but they improved their postseason chances slightly by selecting young talent to help forge their new 3-4 defensive scheme.
Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji and USC outside linebacker Clay Matthews III should provide immediate assistance to a unit that severely underachieved last season.
Offensively, QB Aaron Rodgers (4,038 yards, 28 TDs, 13 INTs) did a solid job last season. And on an offense stacked with talented receivers, there's no doubt Rodgers will improve this season.
Wide receiver Greg Jennings has emerged as the Packers' most explosive player, and old-reliable Donald Driver had another 1,000-yard season last year and really hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. Rookies Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finley contributed as the season progressed.
Weaknesses: Famously conservative general manager Ted Thompson decided to once again keep his piggy bank intact. Thompson's biggest offseason acquisition was acquiring defensive guru Dom Capers to install the 3-4 defense.
Last year, Green Bay's D allowed more than 334 yards per game and ranked a dreadful 26th in stopping the run. Defensive end Aaron Kampman led the team with just 9.5 sacks.
Capers should elevate the Packers' D, but it may take some time for the players to learn his system. Raji and Matthews look to be studs, but will they struggle as rookies? Offensively, the Packers have concerns on their O-line.
Also, running back Ryan Grant needs to show consistency throughout an entire season.
The Packers will make the playoffs if... the offense can continue to produce. Last season, the Packers ranked in the top 10 in three major offensive categories. At times, this offense is as lethal as they come. If the line can protect Rodgers, the young signal caller should shred defenses with his talented receiving corp.
The Packers will miss the playoffs if... the defense falls flat adjusting to the 3-4 scheme. Also, Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins' holdout could extend into the season. Special teams is also a concern.
Kicker Mason Crosby is one of the best in the league, but besides him, the Packers have a lot of holes to fill. Will they find a decent punter? Will someone step up as a reliable return specialist?
Detroit Lions (4-12)
Strengths: The Lions couldn't even crack the win column last year, so four wins would certainly be a step in the right direction. The organization has done just about everything possible to wash away the filthy residue left behind from last season's team.
Detroit hired a new GM (Martin Mayhew), a new head coach (Jim Schwartz), and even ditched its old tame logo for a meaner, more aggressive style.
This offseason, the Lions started rebuilding through the draft by selecting Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford as the first overall pick.
With veteran Daunte Culpepper in the mix, Stafford won't start right away, but should win over the gig by midseason. He's got a good attitude and a rocket arm, well-suited for throwing bombs to explosive wideout Calvin Johnson.
The Lions also picked up Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew, a 6'5", 263-pound tight end with soft hands and solid blocking skills. After almost reaching the 1,000-yard plateau last year, running back Kevin Smith should progress nicely this season.
Weaknesses: Offensively, the Lions now have some exciting young talent. However, defensively the Lions will have to mesh several new players together. At the draft, Detroit did address their defense somewhat by selecting safety Louis Delmas and linebacker DeAndre Levy.
The Lions hit the free-agent market and signed DT Grady Jackson, CB Phillip Buchanon and LB Larry Foote. They also traded DT Cory Redding to Seattle for LB Julian Peterson.
Detroit's offensive line looks to be somewhat weak, which could halt the development of Stafford and keep Smith grounded.
The Lions will make the playoffs if... a miracle happens? Realistically, Detroit's chances of earning a postseason berth are very slim.
Even in a league where parity has become the norm and a franchise's fortunes can improve rapidly (consider last season's Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons), the Lions simply don't have enough in place right now to challenge the Bears, Vikings or Packers.
But it looks like the organization is beginning to make the right moves to slowly turn things around.