NFC North-Minnesota Vikings
The NFC North might possibly break in three new starting quarterbacks this year depending upon the situation in Detroit. The Detroit Lions need to get the Matthew Stafford era under way quickly if they want to wash any of last year’s 0-16 taste out their mouths. It would only make sense to get Stafford in as soon as possible so the trio of him, running back Kevin Smith and miracle wideout Calvin Johnson can grow together. But the ineptitude of Detroit’s pass protection and defense stamps them with the rebuild label for ’09.
The Chicago Bears will break in Jay Cutler as the quarterback they’ve been waiting on for years but the Bears defense isn’t the stifling unit it used to be and the lack of a threat at wideout permits them from being taken seriously. But nevertheless, Chicago is still a competent team capable of contending. How much so will depend on the heroics of Cutler and the effectiveness of the defense.
You got to love the Green Bay Packers offense. Aaron Rodgers threw for over 4000 yards last year as a first-year starter and the Packers have gamebreaking talent at the wideout and running back positions. The convergence to a 3-4 defense is what gives them a question mark. Converting to the 3-4 is never an easy transition and in a league where strong defense is a must, Green Bay may be a season or two away from seriously challenging. With Rodgers at the helm, this is a team on the rise and will contend for many years.
That leaves us with the Minnesota Vikings, a ball club that won the division last year without the aide of the legendary Brett Favre. I’m not as high on Favre’s return as others but the name alone will prevent defenses from loading up the box for Adrian Peterson. Peterson has shown he can carry the team to respectability by himself and the defense remains tops in the division. The addition of Favre was just icing on the cake.
Homefield advantage in the playoffs is going to be critical to Minnesota’s Super Bowl aspirations because Favre’s arm may not allow him to carry the team in cold conditions on the road in January. If the Vikes can secure at least a first round bye and one home playoff game then a single game on the road shouldn’t be too much to ask.
AFC North-Pittsburgh Steelers
Right off the bat you can write off the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns. Cincinnati is improving but no one is going to respect their running game with a so-so offensive line and Cedric Benson as the starter which will allow defenses to tee off on the already fragile Carson Palmer. The Bengals defense will be much improved and it’s not out the realm to think Cincinatti will contend but they just don’t stack up against their bigger brothers. The Browns have a long way to go on the road back to respectability and at the time of this posting, they were still undecided on their starting quarterback.
This division is all about the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. The two juggernauts have taken turns winning the division seven times since the 2000 season. You have to say right now that the Ravens and Steelers are the two best teams in the AFC. Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl last year and Baltimore finished as the runner-up, losing to the eventual champs in the AFC Championship game.
Both clubs place an emphasis on the run game and field strong defensive units finishing first and second last season respectively. Both teams are fairly similar but the quarterback and wide receiver position is what separates them. The Steelers trout out a two-time Super Bowl champion at their quarterback position and two Super Bowl MVPs in the receiving corps.
Joe Flacco is a man on the rise but he’s not in Ben Roethlisberger’s class just yet. Baltimore knows they need to upgrade their wide receiver position and the expectations from senior receiver Derrick Mason will be heavy.
The NFL isn’t all about the run game and defense any more. Although both are essential for title contenders, defenses have to respect a team’s quarterback and receivers. While Flacco deserves some extra game preparation from opposing clubs, the team’s so-so wideouts won’t force many defensive coordinators into sleepless nights.
Pittsburgh isn’t known for their offense but Roethlisberger and company showed in last season’s playoff run that they deserve to be respected. Games against the San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals showcased Roethlisberger’s arm strength and playmaking ability. If their offensive line can take another step forward and running backs Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall remain healthy, the Steelers offense could be potent.
Pittsburgh will welcome the return of strong-footed punter Daniel Sepulveda—who was injured last season—and open arms to fresh-faced return man Stefan Logan, who was a preseason sensation. Both men will inject a significant boost to the Steelers special teams which came under fire last year. And a couple of new starters on defense have the potential to make last year’s unit even more lethal.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh grade out similarly but it’s the presence of Roethlisberger and his receivers that gives the Steelers the edge to win the division for a third straight season.