NFC North: Top of the Map and Top of the League
In a league full of superstars and playmakers, there are a few teams that assemble the right core of talent to be highly successful.
In some cases these great teams belong to the same divisions, or sect of four teams that share geographic similarities. Teams in the same division play each other twice per season, and rivalries are often spawned through the intersection of regions in which their fans call home.
The winner of each division gets an automatic bid into the NFL Playoffs, and the rest are left to battle for two remaining Wild Card spots reserved for the teams with the best records that did not finish atop their respective divisions.
While each division is competitive in its own right there are a few which have risen above the rest due to the combination of consistent coaching, drafting and, above all, on-field performance between all of its teams.
Some of the best over the past decade include the NFC South (which had three teams with 10 wins in 2010), the AFC North (home to the dominant Steeler and Raven defenses) and the AFC South (whose four teams are all arguably in the top half of the NFL talent wise).
One division, though, has slowly crept up the list and can no longer be denied as one of the very best the NFL has to offer. That division is the NFC North.
For only the second time in the past 10 years one of the NFL's conference championship games featured two teams from the same division.
The NFC title game pitted the Chicago Bears versus the eventual Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers. These teams finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the NFC North with records of 11-5 and 10-6, respectively. With the defending champion Saints, high flying Eagles and upstart Falcons all vying for the title this accomplishment is truly worthy of some recognition.
This fact alone makes it hard to deny the North as one of the league’s premier divisions, but there are far more reasons to keep your eyes on the four teams from the coldest part of the country.
Let’s start at the top. The Green Bay Packers are the world champions following a thrilling victory over the powerful Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.
The most incredible part of their championship run is that they did it while missing several key elements from their squad. Pro Bowl caliber offensive weapons Ryan Grant (RB) and Jermichael Finley (TE) both missed an extended portion of the season that many predicted would be the best of both of their young careers.
Starting linebacker Nick Barnett was also absent from the roster, leaving the team with holes on both sides of the ball. Guess what, it didn’t matter.
The Pack showed a sense of determination greater than the individual players on the field. Plus they had a few guys left who are pretty decent in their own right. Their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, has undeniably reached elite status and can no longer be left out of anybody’s top 5 quarterback list across the entire league.
The Super Bowl MVP showed the ability to both run and throw at an exceptional level, fitting bullet passes into smaller windows than he could climb through if he were locked out of his house on a winter night in Green Bay.
Linebackers AJ Hawk and Clay Matthews made play after play, with Matthews forcing the fumble that essentially put the game out of reach for the Steelers.
Defending Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson somehow continues to perform at a level that younger, faster corners only wish they could reach.
However, none of this would work without the leadership provided by one of the most underrated coaches in the NFL, Mike McCarthy.
Taking all of these things into consideration it is easy to see how Green Bay made their run to the promise land. Don’t let anybody fool you; this year’s Champions are no fluke. The cheeseheads will remain a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.
Moving down the list we find the NFC Championship runner-up Chicago Bears.
The Bears won the regular season title in the NFC North, earning home field advantage in the playoffs along with a bye week in the tournament’s first round. This enabled them to reach the conference championship with just a single postseason win against the Cinderella story Seattle Seahawks.
Sure it only took one playoff victory, but make no mistake; they earned that privilege.
Up and down quarterback Jay Cutler was able to avoid the turnovers that have plagued him throughout his career and remained steady enough to lead the team to 11 regular season victories.
Halfback Matt Forte was a big reason for this as one of the top pass catching RBs in the NFL with 51 receptions. Finishing with over 1000 yards rushing to boot solidifies Forte as one of the top dual threat backs in the league today.
As solid as their offense is, the Bears' real strength is their menacing defense which held their opponents to 20 points or less in an astounding 13 of 16 regular season games in 2010. Their rush defense was ranked No. 2 in the NFL allowing just over 90 yards per game.
A large part of this success can be attributed to the monster they have positioned at defensive end, Julius Peppers. One of the most skilled defensive linemen in the league, Peppers shows a relentless drive play in and play out which earned him a team high eight sacks this season.
Veteran and future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher remains the heart of their stout linebacking core and still strikes fear into the heart of offenses on a weekly basis.
Aside from the many offensive and defensive weapons, the most dangerous athlete that the Bears possess is kick returner Devin Hester. Although Hester sees some time at WR his true talent shines when he catches a ball with 11 men sprinting at him from 65 yards away.
Which Team Will Win the NFC North in 2011?
He has earned such a ridiculous reputation as a returner that he rarely even sees a ball kicked his way these days, but when he does he is a threat to take it to the house every single time.
The Bears are a team that is somewhat undervalued by popular opinion, but to be honest it appears that they really couldn’t care less at this point. Can you blame them?
Moving right along we have the purple people eaters more commonly known as the Vikings. Following a disappointing 2010 campaign that ended 6-10, it is easy to forget that just one year ago the Vikes sat in the same spot as this year’s Bears as the NFC runner-up.
Had it not been for four turnovers in a forgettable championship game, the Vikings could have represented the conference in Super Bowl XLIV, instead of falling to the eventual champion New Orleans Saints.
In a year that will likely be remembered as Brett Favre’s final hoorah, the purple and gold stumbled and found themselves in a bit of a transition. The long awaited firing of Brad Childress opened the door for the relatively obscure Leslie Frazier to take the reins of the team, which rallied behind him to turn what could have been an embarrassing year into nothing more than motivation for 2011.
With arguably the best running back in the league in Adrian Peterson, they have a great foundation to rebuild their franchise and will likely not be down and out for long.
Talented young receiver Sidney Rice, who missed a good portion of 2010 with injury, is quickly emerging as one of the most solid receivers in the league and whoever they bring in at the QB spot (assuming they replace the inexperienced Joe Webb) will be lucky to land in a situation with such a skilled individual to throw the ball to.
The defense which was so dominant in 2009 is anchored by the exciting Jared Allen and is just a few pieces shy of returning to a high level. The future of the team rests in the hands of Frazier and the front office to make the necessary offseason moves, and do not be surprised if they are back to elite status sooner than later.
The last team of the bunch is one which has seen its share of downtime, yet is more prepared than most others to make the transition from flop to the top. This team is, of course, the Motor City’s own Detroit Lions.
While the team in Honolulu Blue has spent the better part of a decade as one of the worst franchises in the NFL, they have finally put together the personnel to turn things around, and not a moment too soon if you ask the fans who have seen draft picks wasted, talent squandered, and years lost while waiting for something positive to happen.
When you spend so much time at the bottom you are bound to add some key pieces in the Draft, and the Lions have done just that.
The No. 1 pick and oft injured Matthew Stafford has yet to play an injury free season but has shown signs of greatness in the time he has actually spent on the field.
Jahvid Best, the speedster out of California, showed a lot of promise in his rookie year of 2010 and is poised to break out of his shell moving forward.
Calvin “Megatron” Johnson has quietly turned into one of the top 5 receivers in the NFL, and is sure to improve once the position under center is finally solidified.
Perhaps the biggest addition of all, however, is the 2010 Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh. The behemoth of a defensive tackle proved to everyone that a rookie at his position can, in fact, be the catalyst to turn an entire defense around.
Suh burst onto the scene with 10 sacks in his rookie season, just .5 shy of Dana Stubblefield’s all time record for a rookie at the DT position. Suh has shown an inherent ability to beat the very best offensive linemen with a unique combination of size, strength, speed, and technique that has many comparing him to some of the all time greats after just one season.
In another critical addition, the team finally found a coach around whom its players can rally in the young Jim Schwartz who has brought just the right amount of toughness and discipline to an organization who had been lacking in both categories for so long.
After reading through the rest of this article it may be hard to believe, but within five years time Detroit could most definitely find itself atop this talented division.
It is hard to truly rank the divisions of the NFL as each possesses its own list of talented players and coaches, both young and old. However, taking this into account it is clear that the NFC North has just as much as, if not more, to offer than any other division across the league.
Home to the Super Bowl Champs, NFC Runners Up, and Defensive Rookie of the Year, the “Norse” is a powerful region which will undoubtedly see at least one of its teams advance into the depths of the NFL playoffs for many years to come.
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