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The countdown is on for the NFL. We are closing in on the preseason and it's time to start predicting where teams are going to finish this season.
While I'm waiting for Madden '11 to come out, why not look through each division in the NFL and see where teams are, how they did this past off-season, and where they are going to finish next season.
Let's start with the NFC North, home of my beloved Chicago Bears.
Chicago Bears: 7-9 last season
The Chicago Bears were big players throughout free agency. Without a draft pick in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft, the Bears were forced to improve their team by finding proven veterans.
They did so in a big way, bringing in Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna.
Last season, the biggest issue was Jay Cutler, for whom the Bears mortgaged their future. After trading away multiple draft picks and Kyle Orton, the Bears got back 27 touchdowns and 26 interceptions.
The Bears are going to need Cutler to bounce back in a big way, and although I don't expect him to make another Pro Bowl, I do think that he is going to be able to cut down on the turnovers.
Who will win the NFC North?
Although the offensive line isn't anything to write home about, they are going to be improved thanks to some stability at the left tackle position. Chris Williams was shown to be a sturdy LT late last season.
The wide receiver position should also be slightly improved this season as well. There were more than a few interceptions that were caused by receivers breaking out of their routes early or miscommunication with Cutler. Those should be cut down this season.
Adding Chester Taylor to the backfield should also help the running game, which was abysmal last season. Matt Forte was hit like a ton of bricks by the sophomore slump last season, but all accounts are that he is in shape and playing well.
With an improved offensive line and help from Taylor, he should be able to get back to the form that made him a star as a rookie.
As for the defense, a big issue last season was inconsistency from the safety position. There was no stability as multiple players tried and failed at each safety position.
The Bears hope to fix this by adding former Bear Chris Harris through free agency and former University of Florida standout Major Wright through the draft.
They also shook up the defensive line, adding All-Pro Julius Peppers and not re-signing Alex Brown, and Adewale Ogunleye. There will be competition between Mark Anderson, Israel Idonije, and Corey Wootten.
Peppers will hope to give more openings to Tommie Harris, who is coming into Training Camp without injury for the first time in a few years, and hopes to stay that way and return to the dominant player he was a few years ago.
Brian Urlacher and Pisa Tinoisamoa are also returning after spending last season injured and will hope to add some more stability to a linebacker corps that was riddled by injuries.
With all of these players returning from injury and brought in through free agency, the Bears are hoping to return to being the Monsters of the Midway.
My Prediction -- 9-7, 2nd or 3rd in NFC North (depending on Brett Favre)
Detroit Lions: 2-14 last season
The Detroit Lions were able to add two wins onto their win total from the season before, but when you go 0-16, that isn't saying too much.
They are hoping, however, that their young players can begin to make big strides and bring this team into the playoffs.
Matthew Stafford is heading into his second season and hoping that he can get a lot more help from the offensive line, instead of spending most of the season on his back.
He will get some help from an outstanding group of wide receivers, headed by one of the best in the NFL, Calvin Johnson.
The addition of veteran Nate Burleson will help take some of the heat of Johnson, who teams were able to put extra defenders on every play.
The Lions are also hoping to stabilize their running game by adding rookie Jahvid Best with the 30th pick in the draft. He will likely be splitting time with Kevin Jones, who had 747 yards last season.
The Lions weren't able to fix their biggest issue, however, which is the offensive line. Stafford spent a lot of last season on his back, and they will need to get improvements out of the players they have if they want him to stay healthy.
Defensively, they were able to help a big problem in their defensive line. They picked up Kyle Vanden Bosch to help with the pass rush and drafted Nebraska product Ndamukong Suh with the second pick in the draft.
They were 32nd against the pass last season and need some pressure to help out their corners. They also used a third-round pick on cornerback Amari Spievey, who should see some playing time.
The two starters at the cornerback position will likely be Chris Houston and Eric King, not exactly the best duo in the NFL, and they won't strike much fear in opposing wide outs.
The linebacker positions also do not seem like much on paper. Landon Johnson will likely be a full-time starter for the first time in his seven-year career, and DeAndre Levy is entering his second season in the NFL.
Julian Peterson, however, does have a wealth of experience and should be able to help along their younger linebackers.
The Lions are young and hungry, but don't expect them to be making huge leaps this season, as they still have a lot of holes on both sides of the ball.
My Prediction -- 4-12, 4th in NFC North (No matter what Favre does)
Green Bay Packers -- 11-5 last season
The Packers are the sexy pick for the NFC North this season. With stars all over and a stud defense, it's hard not to like this team (which sucks for us Bears fans).
At the quarterback position, Aaron Rodgers is cementing himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, despite his inconsistent offensive line.
The Packers chopped away at their offensive line troubles by picking Bryan Bulaga in the first round of the draft, who many people were expecting to be taken much earlier.
Ryan Grant is a proven running back, going for over 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. With an improved offensive line, expect those numbers to improve slightly.
Greg Jennings and Donald Driver head a deep wide receiver corps that gives Rodgers plenty of options through the air.
Defensively, the Packers are looking to move BJ Raji into the starting lineup and move Ryan Pickett into one of the defensive end spots.
Nick Barnett, Clay Mathews, and A.J. Hawk anchor a linebacker corps that is scary good, as any player can cause troubles for the opposing offense.
Charles Woodson was a turnover waiting to happen last season, intercepting nine passes and forcing four fumbles. Al Harris is still a force on the opposite side of the field despite his drop off in play the past few years.
Atari Bigby and Nick Collins were also ball hawks last season from the safety positions, combining for 10 interceptions last season.
The Packers are outstanding on both sides of the ball and will be tough to beat next season for any team. Expect them to go deep in the playoffs and challenge for a title.
My prediction -- 13-3, 1st in NFC North
Minnesota Vikings: 12-4 last season
The Vikings are a team that hinges on the decision of one player, Brett Favre. What he does will be the deciding factor on whether or not they go deep in the playoffs.
If Favre does leave as he has indicated yesterday, there will be a battle between Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels for the starting job. Either way, the Vikings fans seemingly lose this one.
Adrian Peterson doesn't really need any introduction, as he will hope to rebound from a slump throughout the end of the last season, going eight straight games with fewer than 100 yards and averaging below four yards per carry in all but one game during that span.
Without Chester Taylor, Peterson will have to carry more of the load and he will have to find a way to cut down on the costly fumbles, which hurt the Vikings more than once last season.
The offensive line will likely be good as always, although age may become an issue as three of the five offensive linemen are over 30.
Sidney Rice broke out last season thanks to the addition of Favre, and Bernard Berrian also had a good season. Percy Harvin will also be a factor as he enters his second year.
Not much changed for the Vikings defensively, their defensive line still consists of the Williams brothers, (not actually brothers) Jared Allen and Ray Edwards.
The defense was noticeably worse without E.J. Henderson in the middle, and having him healthy for the whole season will be a big help to the linebacker corps.
Antoine Winfield has been aging throughout the last few seasons, and at 33, he has lost a step or two. Cedric Griffin was good last season, and they hope he can help make up for the declining Winfield.
Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams form a solid duo at the safety positions, but couldn't force many turnovers, as they combined for just one interception and no forced fumbles.
The Vikings are a team that will be good without Brett Favre, but need him to be there if they want to have a chance to win the Super Bowl.
My Prediction -- 11-5 with Favre, 8-8 without, 2nd or 3rd in NFC North
I'm Joe W.
Joe also writes for The Chicago Perspective at http://www.theperspective.yardbarker.com/