The Minnesota Vikings are this year's NFL darlings and reasonably so.
The team barely missed the playoffs a year ago, revamped an already impressive defense, and, oh yeah, they have some guy named Adrian Peterson.
Many experts are picking the Vikings to run away with the NFC North this year, and some have them going further. Sports Illustrated's recent "NFL Preview" actually predicted that the Vikings would finish the season 13-3, as the No. 1 seed in the NFC Playoffs (losing in the NFC Championship game).
Of course, many experts who pick the Vikings do so solely on the fact that they finished second in the division a year ago and the team that finished ahead of them happened to get rid of the best quarterback in NFL history during the offseason. That being the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre.
This season is undoubtedly the most unpredictable in the NFC North's history. Pundits have the Packers finishing anywhere from 11-5 to 6-10, depending on the play of new starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But nearly everyone predicts the Vikings to have a successful season; picking them to finish anywhere from 13-3 to 9-7.
After all, the Vikings were an 8-8 team a year ago and improved themselves in several positions. They paid a steep price, but nonetheless added NFL sack leader Jared Allen to their defensive line. Likewise, they signed former Chicago Bear Bernard Berrian to give quarterback Tarvaris Jackson the deep threat he has been lacking over the years.
Allen will be an immediate help to a line that is already strong up front. Gigantic tackles Kevin and Pat Williams have been reeking havoc up the middle for several years for the Vikings, all but putting a stop to the opposition's running games. However, the team has lacked a pass rush at the same time.
The Williams' would make teams one-dimensional against the Vikings, but with no pass rush, teams were still able to have success through the air. Allen should help solve that problem.
While Allen helps a big defensive problem for the Vikings, Berrian does the same for the offense. Jackson has a monster arm, but he has had problems hitting receivers down field.
A deep threat such as Berrian should help with that, as Berrian averaged 14.6 yards per catch last season with the Bears while also playing for mediocre quarterbacks.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, with all the positives the team has added, there are still several glaring weaknesses that could be exploited. While Allen will help the pass defense with his rushing abilities, the coverage is still spotty.
Time after time last season, the Vikings' pass defense was exploited. As good as cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin can be at one-on-one coverage, the zones that Brad Childress runs were exploited in 2007.
If quarterbacks get time to throw against this defense, and, let's face it, Allen can't get to the quarterback EVERY time, they will find their receivers in an uncovered zone, just like they did last year.
The team signed safety Madieu Williams in the offseason, with the hope of shoring up that coverage. However, Williams will miss the first six weeks of the season, leaving untested rookie Tyrell Johnson back their with the aging Darren Sharper. Sharper is still solid overall and makes big plays at times, but at the same time he's not the Pro Bowler he was years ago.
Much of the problems in their pass coverage lay within their linebackers. E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway are exciting, young, emerging 'backers with an abundance of potential; however, both are incredibly spotty in pass coverage, and defenses will exploit that as well.
Much like the defense, the improved offense has question marks as well. Jackson has taken strides over the years, including this preseason, and he also has the deep threat he needs in Berrian. But it still remains to be seen if Jackson can lead this offense. Berrian has the skills to get open down field, but if Jackson can't hit him, it will all go for naught.
Also, don't underestimate the loss of offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, who is suspended for the first four games of the season. McKinnie and guard Steve Hutchinson are a brick wall on the line, and with McKinnie out, the team may struggle for those first four games in their blocking.
On to the Packers.
Everyone has an opinion on Rodgers. Did the Packers make the right decision? Will he prove critics wrong? Can he handle the pressure? Will he stay healthy?
All reasonable questions. However, IF Rodgers can play reasonably well, the Packers are still a top-notch team in the NFC, and IF Rodgers struggles or gets injured, the Packers are still not dead.
Even with Favre gone, the Packers still return 20 of 22 starters from last year's 13-3 team. Rodgers has arguable the best receiving corps in the NFC in Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and emerging tight end Donald Lee. Additionally, the Packers have depth at running back with Ryan Grant returning for his second season and second-year back Brandon Jackson back and healthy.
The offensive line is still anchored by tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, and the success they had in 2007 should be duplicated this season, giving Rodgers an abundance of time in the pocket.
The Packers' defense is still underrated and should be a top-five unit in 2008. It's true that cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson are getting up in age, but both still had Pro Bowl-type years in 2007. Even if they fall off a bit while getting a year older, they should still be significantly better then most of the NFC.
Even with the age of their corners, the Packers still have emerging stars in seemingly every unit. Nick Collins and Atari Bigby both had breakout season last year at safety, and A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett are quietly becoming one of the top linebacker duos in the NFC.
The defensive line, led by Aaron Kampman, returns every player except defensive tackle Corey Williams, who was traded to Cleveland in the offseason. The team replaced him with Johnny Jolly, who got significant playing time in 2007.
The fact that remains is that while the Packers are perhaps not a 13-3 team, like they were with Favre, they still have a ton of talent on the team. And let's face it, the quarterback doesn't always make the team, just ask Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson. Rodgers understands that and will play within the offense, and if he does that, he will be successful.
Many people are also picking the Bears to reemerge this season. This is completely ridiculous. While it's true that the Bears' defense still has the potential to be one of the top units in the NFL while healthy, the offense will be one of the worst in the entire NFL. The two receivers the Bears will start opening night (Devin Hester and Brandon Lloyd), would not even be considered as third receivers on many teams.
Couple that with an offensive line that saw virtually no significant upgrades (they drafted Chris Williams out of Vanderbilt, however, he will miss the first six weeks), and will have the duty of protecting a rookie running back, as well as the mediocre Kyle Orton.
The Lions, however, are more promising than most critics are giving them credit for. Yes, Matt Millen is still a joke to be running the team, but the rebuilding process has begun. They still have a number of weapons on offense, with the solid, yet wacky, Jon Kitna throwing to Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson.
However, the Lions are still a few years and a number of defensive players away from having an impact in the North.
Overall, it's clear that the Vikings are the trendy pick this year. And while many teams are shying away from the Packers due to Favre's departure, they're still the team to beat.
Packers - 11-5
Vikings - 8-8
Lions - 5-11
Bears - 5-11
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