On Sunday the Detroit Lions will reveal their new-look team to the NFL world when they take on the Saints in the Superdome.
After a season of the league's first 0-16 record, the Lions will also be rewarded with games versus last year's Super Bowl teams—the Steelers and Cardinals as well as the Ravens and Skins. However it is their division matchups that will be the truer test of the Lions reconstruction.
No other division in the NFL has as much of a logjam in terms of who is the best of the best. According to Sports Illustrated, the Bears are favored to make it to Miami to be in the Super Bowl. Aaron Rogers of the Packers is one of the featured quarterbacks on the various covers of SI"s NFL preview.
Last but not least, the Vikings have signed the messiah of ESPN—Brett Favre—to be their quarterback. For the Lions to succeed this season, the road will have to make stops in Chicago, Green Bay, and Minnesota.
Chicago Bears—October 4 and January 3
The Chicago Bears have made waves during the offseason by trading for Jay Cutler to upgrade their quarterback position. His intensity on the field will make the offense have an intensity that the Bears have not had since they won Super Bowl XX.
His presence will be the main factor for the Lions defense to contend with. The receiving corp of the Bears does have holes as Devin Hester is still on the learning curve to become a pro level wide-out. Earl Bennett, however, is to be feared.
But the secret weapon for the Bears will be the tight end position with Greg Olsen, Desmond Clark and Kellen Davis. These three have the size to handle blocking assignments but are also mobile enough to force the Lions linebackers to have to handle them instead of trying to pressure Cutler.
The Bears defense will be frothing at their mouths to face the Lions. With rookie Matthew Stafford as the starting quarterback for the Lions, they will paint a giant target on him as their main focus. Their D-line which features Tommie Harris and Adewale Ogunleye has a new coach and his name is Rod Marinelli.
This fact is a concern as he coached most of the Lions offensive linemen. The only players that will be on the line Marinelli did not coach are the tight ends—Brandon Pettigrew and Will Heller.
However, the D-line is not only a concern as the Bears have linebackers Brian Urlacher (who looks like a Bear) and Lance Briggs to make Stafford wish he was still between the hedges in Athens. Stafford will have maintain poise to compete with the Monsters of the Midway. The Bears will do as much as they can to hit Stafford on every play so the Lions offensive front cannot collapse.
The game in Chicago is in October which is earlier enough that the legendary Chicago winter will not be a factor. The Lions home game against the Bears is their last regular season game which will also not have a weather factor like last season when the last game was in Green Bay to close out 0-16.
Green Bay Packers—October 18 and Thanksgiving Day
Whenever the Lions and Packers meet up, the games are grudge matches. The fan base of the Packers actually stretches into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Before the main reason the Packers gave the Lions fits was Brett Favre; However, Aaron Rogers has successfully assumed the mantle of replacing John Madden's adopted son.
Donald Driver and Greg Jennings are as good of a one-two WR punch in football. Along with the speed and savvy of running back Ryan Grant, the Packers are a Juggernaut if taken lightly. Larry Foote, Julian Peterson, and Ernie Sims will have their hands full matching wits with Rogers decision making.
The Lions secondary is upgraded but even if they can handle Driver and Jennings, Ryan Grant if he can get past the linebackers is nearly unstoppable.
The Lions offense will be challenged by the Packers' "D". The defensive line has a no-name quality that still gets the job done. However they have B.J Raji waiting in the wings who is big enough to line up as a tackle and has enough of a motor to line up as an end as well.
The linebackers, which feature Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk, have progressed to be a lethal combination that are on every play. The Packers secondary features one of the best cornerback tandems of Charles Woodson and Al Harris. The main key for the Lions against the Packers "D" is Stafford being laser-sight accurate to Calvin Johnson who can out jump Woodson and Harris.
The factor of one of the games being at Lambeau should not be a factor as the away game is in October which is before the tundra is frozen. The home game is the annual Thanksgiving game which hopefully be a classic as both teams will have their loyal fan bases in high numbers ready to make Ford Field roar.
Minnesota Vikings—September 20 and November 15
The Vikings have signed Brett Favre to be their quarterback, for now. One of the greatest quarterbacks ever has decided to make each season a tour stop for his retirement show. Favre is better than Sage Rosenfels and Tarvis Jackson combined but is his own worst enemy as he has a reputation as a gunslinger.
The Lions "D"'s best chance of making waves in these games is forcing the pocket to collapse so Favre plays "500." However, Favre is not the only player in purple. There is also Adrian Peterson, the best running back in football who will get plenty of plays to lessen the need for Favre to launch it.
He will force all 11 defensive players and their parents key on him the moment he moves a finger or he might break his single game rushing record twice this season. Chester Taylor will also get a few his plays his way when Peterson needs a break. The presence of rookie Percy Harvin is intriguing as he is a talented wideout.
However, he also lined up under center in the Wildcat formation during the Vikings preseason game against the Texans. The highlight of this play is not Harvin's mobility but instead Farve's $10,000 chop block on Eugene Wilson which could have ended Wilson's career. The Lions secondary will have to target Favre if he lines up as a WR to make sure he doesn't try to block.
The Lions offense is not going to have the easiest time with the Vikings defense line as it features the Williams Wall and the Tasmanian devil that is Jared Allen. Pat and Kevin Williams will smell rookie QB the moment they line up and will make sure they get to introduce themselves to Stafford.
Jared Allen hits anything that moves with a motor that doesn't stop. The running game featuring Kevin Smith will probably be neutralized because of this line so Stafford will put on a gun show to Calvin Johnson and the rest of the WR's before the pocket collapses.
The home opener for the Lions is against the Vikings. Hopefully enough of a Lions fan base shows up to make their presence a true 12th man. The factor when playing the Vikings at the Metrodome in November is the noise which cannot be ignored and will take days to get over.
The Lions will have their hands full taking Matthew Stafford and the new look Lions into battle against the NFC North. To say that any game could be a win either way is a worthy prediction as true the other teams are better on paper, but the Lions are as well.