The black and blue division. These teams have mostly abandoned the 3 yards and a cloud of dust approach, favoring a more quarterback driven, fierce defense approach. Still, there’s a lot of top name talent running around up here. The turnover the last few years has been interesting as well. The 2009 NFC runner-up Vikings have plummeted while the Bears continually go up and down since their Superbowl appearance. The Packers have finally stepped into the limelight with their championship last season, and the Lions are a popular sleeper team this year.
Cole: Let’s face facts. If you have a good quarterback and strong running game, you’ll always been in contention. Cutler has his erratic moments, but for the most part, he’s a reliable quarterback and when he’s on he’s tough to beat. Ask the Packers. Forte continues to rack up 1000 yard seasons and has become a passing threat as well. They lack real talent at WR, but brought in Roy Williams who has experience in Mike Martz’s system. Hester and Knox return to feature a lot of speed, but inconsistent play. They shipped Olsen out because they couldn’t find a way to use him appropriately. Their line is still young and getting younger, as veteran Olin Kruetz has left for New Orleans. If the line struggles, this unit could struggle as well. On defense they have a lot of talented players, and a lot of under performers. Peppers is a stud. Brian Urlacher still brings a lot to the table in a Tampa 2 scheme, and Lance Briggs is one of the best outside 4-3 linebackers in the league. They brought in Amobi Okoye, who is still remarkably young, and Vernon Gholston. A draft pick was spent on Stephen Paea which should provide Rod Marinelli plenty of raw clay to mold into elite linemen.
Andy: The Bears are a real question mark as to how well they do this season. They can reach the playoffs again, but they also had a lot of chips fall their way last season, the most obvious example being Calvin Johnson’s non-TD catch. Cutler has turnover problems, but I think it’s more likely to see a 16-pick season like last year and not the disastrous 26-pick one of the year before. Matt Forte is not a great RB, but reliable and has very good hands out of the backfield. Losing Greg Olson would hurt if they used the TE more, but Martz does not. The WR corps is still very shaky, and losing Olin Kreutz might end up putting more hurt on Cutler than last year. On defense, Julius Peppers is a king at DE, but alot of the front 7 is starting to age. The secondary is acceptable, but not great. In a competitive NFC playoff race, I don’t see them having the same luck as last year, and I think they miss the playoffs.
Cole: This team was likely an 8-8 team with a healthy Matt Stafford last year, and could have potentially had a winning record. Stafford is a very impressive quarterback, but there’s a reason we call him Mr. Glass here at NFLAm. Pair him with Calvin Johnson and you have yourself a passing game. Pettigrew, Titus Young, and Burleson don’t hurt to throw in the mix. The Lions also went out to get a running back in Mikel Leshore, but he’s already been lost for the year. The biggest concerns are offensive line and defense. Their O-line has not improved significantly, and if they cannot keep Stafford clean they will likely fall into their old trends of losing. On defense, they have a wealth of defensive line depth, but lack real talent behind it. DeAndre Levy is serviceable, but there’s not linebackers to pair him with. Eric Wright was run out of Cleveland but has 1st round talent. He’s only a year or so away from just being another bust if he can’t turn it around in Detroit. Delmas is an up and coming safety, but he’s really the only threat on defense here.
Andy: It’s likely the Lions won’t have problems scoring this year. If Mr. Glass can stay healthy, he has plenty of options to throw to, and Calvin Johnson is still the unbelievable WR he’s always been. Jahvid Best can also have a breakout season, provided that he is able to stay healthy. If not, then the running game falls onto Jerome Harrison, a proposition I do not like. Bottom line, if Stafford can be kept upright and Best healthy, then this in my opinion can be a top 10 offense. The defense is the big worry. I like the defensive line, but am not sold on the LB corps, and the secondary, minus Louis Delmas, is a bunch of question marks that could surprise and do ok, or be pretty miserable (I’m betting on the latter). Despite the defensive issues, I see Detroit finally playing at a good level all season. Not playoff contenders, but with some defensive help, that could come soon.
Cole: The Vikings are still clinging to the hope that good quarterback play can return them to the playoffs. McNabb has a good track record (other than his time in Washington), and he has a history of turning players like Percy Harvin into fantasy football stars, but there may be too little to work with. Bernard Berrian might be back with the 1st team is how far they’ve regressed at WR. Adrian Peterson is still the best running back in the league, which is always nice to have backing you up, but McNabb is a throw first guy and that might not mesh with All Day’s plans. On defense they’re looking to replace “Fat” Pat Williams in the Williams wall, and Ray Edwards at defensive end. Their linebackers should stay good with Greenway and the Henderson Brothers. The real weakness for this team is the secondary, which they have yet to improve from their last playoff year. Their brief time with Madieu Williams at safety has ended, but Tyrell Johnson still lingers. Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin are still there, but both have old legs that tend to wear out as the year goes on.
Andy: On paper, this team is not bad, but there are so many question marks that I just do not like their chances this year. Adrian Peterson is an obvious monster and reliable, but they need a good passing game to keep 8 men out of the box. McNabb is undoubtedly an improvement over Joe Webb and T-Jack and should do better than last season since the Vikings system fits him better than Shanahan’s did, but I’m convinced we will not see the McNabb of Philadelphia, only a decent holder for this season until Ponder is ready to take the reins. Expect Percy Harvin to have his first 1000 yard season, but the WR corps behind him is a bunch of meh. Expect Shiancoe and rookie TE Kyle Rudolph to get a bunch of looks as McNabb’s safety valves. The defensive line might take a hit from last season, and we’ve seen the end of the Wiliams Wall. I like the LB corps if they can stay healthy, with Erin Henderson being a small question mark however. Antoine Winfield and Cedric Winfield are both good CBs (not great), but Winfield is getting old, and the depth behind them is just bad. I see them being competitive in games, but not for the playoffs. There’s a decent chance we will see Ponder start before the end of the season.
Green Bay Packers
Cole: Save the best for last. How about this for starters. The Packers have the best backup quarterback in the league in Matt Flynn. We all thought they’d wasted a 2nd round pick on Brian Brohm when Flynn beat him out in training camp, but we should’ve known when he almost took out the Patriots that he could play. This is a Superbowl team that returns almost entirely intact. The only real change is that they’re healthy now. Rodgers has stepped into the elite realm, and their weaker rushing attack feels like the Patriots attack – generally unnecessary. Tight end Jermichael Finley is back and should provide even more problems to opposing defenses. They do need to worry about their offensive line, which is frankly sub-par. Protecting Aaron Rodgers is the key to another title, but their preseason play has not shown an improvement from last year.
Andy: What is there really to say? They’re the Super Bowl champs, and almost the entire team is back from last season. Aaron Rodgers has all his WR options back, along with a healthy Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant (for now). If these two can stay healthy, the Packers offense can be even more scary than it was last season. Even their backup QB, Matt Flynn, looks to be a potentially very good QB (trade bait in a year or two, anyone?). The defense is not suffocating, but is very strong and does well to keep the leads the offense gives them. I just cannot see a way that they do not get the top spot in the NFC North this season.
Chicago: Andy & Cole – 8-8
Detroit: Andy – 8-8 / Cole – 7 – 9
Minnesota: Andy – 7-9 / Cole – 5 – 11
Green Bay: Andy – 12-4 / Cole – 13 – 3