September 13th starts it off. January 3rd ends it.
What is it?
The 2009 Chicago Bears NFC North crown. During the next four months, the Bears will show the NFL who the cream of the crop is in the NFC North.
To win this division, the Bears will rely on their two cornerstone beliefs: defense and the running game.
Never mind the addition of Jay Cutler. He's great. But this offense is an organized, slow, methodical attack that looks to wear down opposing defenses on the ground.
There will be an attack through the air, and Cutler will get his yards, no doubt, but the running game will keep the Bears offense on the field—and their aging defense off it.
Matt Forte looks the part of a ten-year veteran in the league, but is in his early 20s. He will be leaned on heavily in his second season, and he has the tools to deliver for the Bears.
While Forte and friends have the ability to grind up opponents, the Bears defense needs to find themselves and recapture the 2006 form that saw them reach the Super Bowl.
For the most part, it's the same group of players from the 2006 unit. Pro Bowlers Tommie Harris, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Nathan Vasher are still here, as is Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye, Charles Tillman, and Danieal Manning.
How far the Bears go in 2009 will depend on the defense, period.
If the defense can return to their dominant ways of a few years ago, and the running game remains strong, this team will go places.
They will go to the playoffs as the NFC North champions. The division is solid, but the Bears are the best.
The Packers run defense is bad
In 2008, the Packers run defense ranked 26th out of 32 NFL teams. The defenses behind the Packers? The Broncos, Browns, Rams, Chiefs, Raiders, and Lions. All of those teams were terrible, to say the least. For the Packers to be grouped in with those sad teams makes me think that they can not be division champs.
With Adrian Peterson, Kevin Smith, and the aforementioned Matt Forte on the schedule a total of six times, this unit has a lot of work to do.
I don't think they're up to the challenge.
Also, I am not encouraged by the Packers run offense, which ranked 17th last year in the NFL. Ranking No. 17 is not half bad, but it's not the type of production you expect to see from a team contending to win their division.
Granted, Ryan Grant was bruised and battered, so that unit could improve greatly this year.
But until I see it, I'm writing them down for a seven or eight win season.
The Vikings have a 39-year-old at quarterback
Did you hear? Brett Favre is back. The Vikings have it all now, right?
Not so fast. Brett "on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again, maybe-I-will-maybe-I-won't" Favre is hardly the elite quarterback he once was and will not be the addition the Vikings need to win this division.
Favre showed signs of slowing down last year with the Jets, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio (22 TD, 22 INT) left a lot to be desired. Favre's tenure as a Jet has me concerned.
Consider this: the 2008 Jets got a career-year out of a 30-year-old running back (Thomas Jones), had two upper-level wide receivers on their offense (Jerricho Cotchery and Laveranues Coles), and had a good offensive line (headlined by the offseason signing of guard Alan Faneca, along with Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson) and still missed the playoffs.
What does that tell you about the impact of Brett Favre? Could it be that his "impact" last year was a negative one?
Do you really feel comfortable, Vikings fans, with handing over the offense to Brett Favre? Keep in mind Lovie Smith is 6-2 against Favre in his tenure as Bears head coach.
Is Favre going to make a difference for the Vikings?
They have a superstar running back and a top-five rush defense, two ingredients a division champion will normally have.
But I'll take my chances with Favre on the Vikings. The Bears won't be intimidated by him in the least bit, and may even be licking their chops at the prospect of playing the old man two more times this season.
The Vikings look like a team capable of nine or ten wins. I like the Bears over them, however.
The Lions are bad
You don't go 0-16 by accident. Tom Petty once said, "even the losers...get lucky some time...".
He wasn't talking about last year's Lions. They were bad on all levels and I don't really feel they deserve much more of my writing.
So, I am not going to give them anything else.
Take that Lions fans.
That's the three "other" NFC North teams. All three have flaws, and all three will struggle at times this year to find consistency.
The Bears are not perfect, but they will win this division with 11 wins.
Their running attack will keep them in every game, and their defense will win them most.
Jay Cutler will make his first playoff appearance as an NFL quarterback, and the Bears young core of Cutler, Forte, and Greg Olsen will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come in the NFC.
2009 is the year of the Bear.
Mark it down. The Bears will be NFC North champs.