Competitive NFC North Could Be More Entertaining This Season

Kent McDillContributor IMay 7, 2009

HOUSTON - DECEMBER 28:  Alex Brown #96 of the Chicago Bears reacts to a video ruling negating a fumble recovery with his teammates during the second half against the Houston Texans at the Reliant Stadium December 28, 2008 in Houston, Texas.  The Bears lost 31-24, failing to make the playoffs.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The Chicago Bears are no longer the dominant team in the NFC North.

The Minnesota Vikings won the division last year, and they still have the division's best individual offensive talent in Adrian Peterson. They also are hinting at acquiring Bears' nemesis quarterback Brett Favre, who is hinting at another comeback.

So the question is how far do the Bears have to jump to get back on top in the division.

The Vikings finished 10-6, the Bears were 9-7. They were nearly identical in terms of points scored and points allowed. They were both 4-2 in the division, 6-2 at home.

They are close.

The Bears are hoping they closed the gap with an upgrade at two positions, quarterback with the acquisition of Jay Cutler and offensive line with the pickup of Orlando Pace. Free agency otherwise added little other than depth at positions such as defensive back and wide receiver, and the draft is obviously a complete uncertainty in the first season.

So the goal for the Bears is to do better in head-to-head competition with the division rivals.

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The Bears did the expected by beating the winless Detroit Lions twice, and they split two games against the Vikings and Green Bay Packers. Again, an indication of how close and competitive the division was.

The Bears hope the addition of Cutler will help open up the running attack for Rookie of the Year Matt Forte, and will hopefully keep the team's aging defense off the field more than it was in 2008.

If the Vikings upgrade at quarterback (assuming you believe Favre today is an upgrade over Tavaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels), then they could become a real offensive powerhouse. Their first round draft pick, Percy Harvins, could join with Bernard Berrian to create a strong two wideout attack, opening up even more holes for Peterson, the league's best young running back.

The Green Bay Packers were also 4-2 in the division, although they finished 6-10 overall and slipped out of the division title conversation. The continued growth of Aaron Rodgers will help, but there will be too much attention placed on the Favre situation in Minnesota to be healthy for the Packers, who really want to move on.

With all the talk going on about the three offenses, the division could hinge on which team makes the most improvement on defense, and that won't be known until game time.

The Vikings had the best defense last season, giving up just over 20 points per game, while the Bears were a point a game worse and the Packers were three points per game off the mark.

The Packers may benefit from having two first round draft picks, using both of them on defense. They got defensive tackle B.J. Raji from Boston College with the ninth pick and  linebacker Clay Matthews out of USC with the 26th pick.

Both the Bears and the Packers made improving their defense a priority, and proved it by hiring big-name defensive coordinators. The Bears brought in Rod Marinelli after his failure as a head coach in Detroit, and the Packers called upon former NFL head coach Dom Capers to upgrade the defense. 

Then there are the Detroit Lions, who have Matthew Stafford to compete with retread Daunte Culpepper for the starting job. New coach Jim Schwartz has one advantage, in that his team can only go up from 0-16.

The addition of Cutler to the Bears, the possibility of Favre going to the Vikings, and the obvious competitiveness of the division between the top three could make the NFC North the most entertaining division in the conference this season.

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