A bevy of smart player acquisitions and two strong coaching hires has set up the NFC North for a bounce-back season in 2014.
The division should re-assume its place among the NFL's strongest, with three teams possessing justifiable playoff potential and another looking like a legitimate dark horse. There's a case to be made for any ranking of the four teams, as the most logical predictions at this point in June can only be based on the general health of the quarterback position.
But the memories of a year ago still haunt this division.
Across the board and without prejudice, the NFC North suffered through enormous disappointments during the 2013 season.
The division entered the campaign with great expectations; first-round quarterbacks were to start in all four cities, and each of the four teams had won at least 10 games in a single season within the last two years. In 2012 alone, the Green Bay Packers (11-5), Minnesota Vikings (10-6) and Chicago Bears (10-6) all finished with double-digit wins. A year earlier, the Detroit Lions had won 10 games for the first time since 1995 while also qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 1999.
Predictably, many pegged the division as one of the NFL's best for the 2013 season. In fact, NFL.com ranked the NFC North second among the eight divisions, trailing only the NFC West.
The superpowers of the West lived up to their billing, with the Arizona Cardinals (10-6) and St. Louis Rams (7-9) combining to win 17 games and the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks both advancing to the NFC title game. Seattle would beat San Francisco and then go on to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Meanwhile, the assumed depth of the NFC North crumbled.
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*Lost to SF in NFC Wild Card Round
The Packers started 5-2 but fell apart once quarterback Aaron Rodgers fractured his collarbone in Week 9. Green Bay wouldn't taste victory for another month without Rodgers, and it eventually took the heroic return of Matt Flynn to salvage an 8-7-1 season—Green Bay's worst record in five years.
Yet eight wins and a tie was enough to win the disappointing division.
The Bears also started well, winning their first three games and five of their first eight. But Jay Cutler eventually went down with groin and ankle injuries, and the Bears run defense—thanks in part to a rash of absences on the defensive side—plummeted to the very bottom of the NFL.
Chicago would then lose five of its final eight, including back-to-back close-out games to finish the season. A win over either the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16 or the Packers at home in the season finale would have given the Bears the division crown.
The Lions still might have been the biggest disappointment of the bunch. By Week 10 (and with Rodgers and Cutler still on the mend), 6-3 Detroit had seized control of the division. The Lions were handed one of their best chances of the last two decades to capture the NFC North (formerly the NFC Central), but a 1-6 finish—complete with a number of late-game collapses—doomed Detroit. In fact, the Lions weren't even a factor in determining the champion by Week 17.
The Vikings had a "come back to earth" season after surprisingly making the playoffs in 2012. Christian Ponder's early struggles set off an embarrassing string of quarterback decisions, while the Vikings defense gave away more late leads than Greg Norman at a major. The result was a 1-7 start that all but eliminated Minnesota from the division race, despite the stumbles in Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit.
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Overall, the NFC North finished the 2013 season with a record of 28-34-2, third-worst in the NFL and ahead of only the NFC East (28-36) and the AFC South (24-40). The Packers were also the only division champ in 2013 with less than 10 wins, becoming the first team since the Denver Broncos in 2011 to win a division with just eight victories.
Green Bay was then bounced at home in the Wild Card Round of the postseason. It was the obvious ending to a sorry season.
While June in the NFL is a month for sometimes reckless optimism, it appears all four teams have made commendable efforts to ensure the failings of last season aren't repeated in 2014. The bite is back in the NFC North.
The Packers smartly brought back Flynn to re-stabilize the backup position.
On defense—an area that has mostly killed Green Bay during every season since 2010—general manager Ted Thompson signed Julius Peppers and drafted safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The hope is that Peppers, Thompson's first big free-agent signing since Charles Woodson, will revitalize a sometimes underwhelming pass rush, while Clinton-Dix, Thompson's first-ever first-round safety, should greatly improve one of Green Bay's poorest position groups.
Also, Davante Adams and Richard Rodgers were selected to ensure that Rodgers and the Packers' passing game remain a top group despite losses.
Which NFC North team had the best offseason?
The Bears couldn't be expected to fix a broken defense in one offseason, but general manager Phil Emery certainly gave it his best effort. At the very least, the unit will be improved.
The defensive line was transformed from a major weakness to a potential major strength by adding defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. First-rounder Kyle Fuller and fourth-rounder Brock Vereen bring much-needed youth and athleticism to the secondary, and the Bears seem to now have a better grasp of how to mix and match their linebacker group. Shea McClellin, a former first-round pick, will now play a more natural role at linebacker, where he could finally jump-start his career.
The Bears stuck with the status quo on offense, and who could blame them? In year one under Marc Trestman, Chicago scored almost four touchdowns a game. If Cutler stays healthy, the Bears will have no problems scoring points.
After a 1-6 finish, the Lions had few options other than to can Jim Schwartz. In his place, Detroit found Schwartz's personality opposite in the calm and collected Jim Caldwell, who once coached the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl title. The hire could be a perfect one for the occasionally rambunctious and undisciplined Lions.
On offense, Detroit brought in Joe Lombardi to incorporate the New Orleans Saints' playbook and then went out and found Matthew Stafford two dangerous receiving threats in Golden Tate and Eric Ebron. Tate, a sticky-handed receiver with top run-after-the-catch ability, should complement Calvin Johnson well. Ebron has the kind of rare skill set needed to be featured in the Jimmy Graham role. If Stafford recovers, so will the Lions.
The Detroit defense has question marks at cornerback. But second-round pick Kyle Van Noy was a nice fit as an attacking 4-3 linebacker, and veteran pickup James Ihedigbo should provide much-needed stability in the back end.
The Vikings likely improved as much as any team in football.
With his no-nonsense attitude, Mike Zimmer was an ideal match for Minnesota, especially once he teamed up with offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Zimmer knows defense as well as any coach in the NFL, while Turner has over 20 years of experience running offenses.
Who will win the NFC North in 2014?
General manager Rick Spielman then provided his two new coaches with personnel improvements.
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and defensive tackle Linval Joseph were both strong finds in free agency. Munnerlyn played like Antoine Winfield 2.0 in Carolina, while Joseph arrived in Minnesota as one of the NFL's more underrated interior lineman. Each is a massive upgrade over what the Vikings put on the field at their respective positions in 2013.
The draft brought more help, in the form of attacking linebacker Anthony Barr and potential franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the first round. So much of today's game revolves around rushing the quarterback on defense and strong quarterback play on offense, and the Vikings feel like they might have solved each problem in just one night.
Add in the second-year jumps expected out of Datone Jones (GB), David Bakhtiari (GB), Micah Hyde (GB), Jon Bostic (CHI), Marquess Wilson (CHI), Ziggy Ansah (DET), Darius Slay (DET), Devin Taylor (DET), Xavier Rhodes (MIN), Cordarrelle Patterson (MIN) and Sharrif Floyd (MIN), and a comeback season in the NFC North feels like a given.
Of course, health at the quarterback position—maybe the most important part of the entire equation—must also return. The Packers can't lose Rodgers for eight games and expect to win the division again. The Bears are unlikely to get the same kind of magic from their backup quarterbacks for a second straight season. The Vikings can't play musical chairs at quarterback and realistically compete.
But if the quarterbacks do stay injury-free, there's no telling how compelling the division could be in 2014.
The Packers remain the slight front-runner, for no other reason than the fact that Rodgers represents the division's best quarterback. The Vikings are the favorite to finish last, again, for no reason outside the team's current uncertainty at quarterback.
However, no top-to-bottom finish would be all that shocking, save for maybe the Vikings winning the division and the Packers sinking to the cellar. The Bears and Lions are each more than capable of dethroning Green Bay for the crown, and the Vikings shouldn't and won't be viewed as a pushover. Remember, Minnesota was just a few bounces here and there last season away from a winning record, and both the coaching staff and roster appear considerably improved for 2014.
The overall result should be a division that is captivating for its depth and competitiveness—and not because a series of calamities keeps the standings tight.
After a season of disappointment demanded change, the NFC North is back from the dead and ready to provide one of the NFL's best division races in 2014.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.