I will take a brief look at the prospects for the other three NFC North teams and how each may impact the Vikings' chances of repeating as division champions in 2009.
Let's be realistic here, the Lions will not be going winless again in 2009. New head coach Jim Schwartz and a re-tooled coaching staff that will include former Vikings' offensive coordinator Scott Linehan should lead the Motor City Kitties (the NFL version) to at least a few more wins this coming season.
Among the notable offseason player acquisitions for Detroit are first-round draft picks quarterback Matt Stafford and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Via free agency or trade, the Lions' front office also added linebacker Julian Peterson, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, wide receivers Bryant Johnson and Ronald Curry, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and offensive tackle Ephraim Salaam.
The Lions played the Vikings tough in both matchups in 2008, and an improved team could be even tougher to get a victory against for Minnesota. But I don't think Detroit will be a major factor in the division, and my prediction for the Lions is a step in the right direction and four or five wins in 2009.
Green Bay Packers
After all of the offseason Brett Favre drama leading up to the 2008 season, the reason for the Packers' 6-10 record was not quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He played well for the most part, and the Packers' offense ranked in the top ten of the league in yards (351) and points (26.2) per game.
The problem for Green Bay last season was the defense, which ranked 20th in the league (334.3 yards per game) overall and 26th against the run (131.6 yards per game). Enter former NFL head coach and defensive coordinator Dom Capers as Green Bay's new defensive coordinator. Capers will install a 3-4 defense and has a very solid history of building good defenses during his NFL tenure, which includes stops in Jacksonville, Carolina, New Orleans and Pittsburgh as a head coach or defensive coordinator.
The Packers used their two first-round draft picks on defensive talent, which seems well suited to the 3-4 defense. Defensive tackle B.J. Raji (ninth overall) has the size (337 pounds) to play nose tackle, while linebacker Clay Matthews (26th overall) has the all-around skills that could allow him to play OLB effectively in the Packers' new defense.
I think Green Bay will be the biggest threat to the Vikings in 2009, and I think 9-10 wins is certainly a possibility if their defense improves.
Cutler should have a positive impact on the Bears' offense, and he gives them the talented quarterback they've lacked for seemingly decades. The receiving talent around him doesn't look to be the same caliber that he had in Denver, but Devin Hester is a dynamic big-play threat that Cutler should put to good use. Long-time St. Louis Rams' offensive tackle Orlando Pace was also brought in via free agency after being released by the Rams and should act as a mentor to 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams.
The biggest key for the Bears, as it always seems to be, will be the defense. Chicago ranked 30th in the league last season against the pass (241.2 yards per game), which led to a 21st overall ranking defensively (334.7 yards per game). Linebacker Brian Urlacher and other key members of the defense have battled injuries in recent years and aren't getting any younger.
I think the Bears will take a slight step back in the NFC North this season, and I predict six or seven wins for them in 2009 unless the defense finds the fountain of youth.
I think the Vikings will again win the NFC North in 2009, with somewhere between 10 and 13 wins. The Packers and Lions are likely to improve while I think the Bears may take a small step back this coming season. I think the Vikings will only have to match or perhaps slightly improve on their 2008 season to make their second straight trip to the postseason as NFC North champions.