NFC North preview: Packers & Lions & Bears, oh my!

NFC

Want to win the NFC North? Then you better have an exceptionally prolific offence.

Or at least have a dang good pass defence.

The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions are as dangerous at moving the ball through the air as any team in the league.

Neither could gain enough ground via rushing to fill a football in 2011, but they didn’t need to.

Matthew Stafford of Detroit became only the fourth QB in league history to amass 5,000 yards in a season. League MVP Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay probably would have hit that total if he hadn’t sat out the meaningless finale.
Rodgers and the Pack again are the team to beat.

With Stafford and wideout Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, the Lions again should be in the thick of the wildcard hunt.

So, too, should the Chicago Bears. Especially now that QB Jay Cutler has two actual living, breathing pass targets to throw to — in Brandon Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery.

The Minnesota Vikings still have a long way to go.

 

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GREEN BAY PACKERS
LAST SEASON: 15-1, division champ

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Starts and ends with that great offense, which led the NFL in ’11 by averaging 35 points per game. And they aim to make it better, head coach Mike McCarthy told me in March. “As we sit here, defences — particularly our divisional opponents — are studying (Rodgers) and our system, and we’ve got to be pro-active in how we attack the defences … We’re gonna change some … We (put in) 47 new things last year. And it will probably be that or even a little bit more this year.”

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: That porous, awful defence. It ranked dead last in the NFL in both total yards and passing yards allowed. And club already has cut the only off-season free-agent defensive pickup (DE Tony Hargrove), leaving rookie draft picks as the only new blood on D.

SNARKY QUESTION: What will McCarthy do this year to derail all the team’s momentum going into the playoffs?

PREDICTION: 11-5. A lot went right in close games for Pack to go 15-1 last year. They’ll still be good. Very good.

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DETROIT LIONS
LAST SEASON: 10-6, playoff wildcard

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: The Stafford-to-Megatron passing combo appears to be only heating up. The duo could dominate the league this year, and 2nd-year WR Titus Young appears ready to become another dangerous pass target … Stafford is entering only his fourth year, and he missed almost all of his second year with injury. Lots of room yet to rise before he hits his ceiling.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Same as the Packers — defence. True, in Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Cliff Avril, et al, the Lions at least have a formidable defensive line, perhaps the best in the conference outside of the NFC East and Frisco. But a new, likely just-as-putrid secondary will continually let them down … The notoriously undisciplined play by a handful of Lions, especially Suh.

SNARKY QUESTION: What will be higher — the number of disciplinary hearings with the commish, or in-season brushes with the law?

PREDICTION: 10-6. Offence likely will be even better, especially if an effective RB emerges. But the defence might be even worse.
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CHICAGO BEARS
LAST SEASON: 8-8, no playoffs

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: The last time the Bears had a potentially explosive WR was — was — was when?! In Marshall they finally have one. And he and Cutler were dynamite in Denver a few years ago. Reunited and it feels so good … If Jeffery can provide a legit 2nd WR option, the whole offence opens up … RB Matt Forte has $18M guaranteed reasons to be happy, and ex-Raider Michael Bush is a talented backup … Four free agents, plus 19th overall draft pick DE Shea McClellin, should help the D.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: OL still a big question mark. It can road-grade for Forte, but protecting Cutler remains an enormous issue. First-string Giants DL ate ‘em up the other night … If LB Brian Urlacher can’t recover from knee injury, hooboy.

SNARKY QUESTION: How long until Cutler gets clobbered one too many times, and Jason Campbell takes over at QB?

PREDICTION: 9-7. Team will go as far as the Cutler, Marshall and Jeffery triumvirate can take it.

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MINNESOTA VIKINGS
LAST SEASON: 3-13, no playoffs

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: First and foremost, the Vikings’ defence. It quietly led the NFL with 50 sacks last year. Led by DE Jared Allen (with 22 sacks!), DT Kevin Williams and DE Brian Robison, the Vikes aim to wreak even more havoc on QBs in ’12 … RB Adrian Peterson is ahead of schedule in his recovery from a blown-out knee, and might even start the opener … 2nd-year QB Christian Ponder has shown signs of improvement, and newly acquired WR Jerome Simpson looks like a dangerous go-to target.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Despite the addition of No. 4 overall draft pick Matt Kalil at OT, the OL is still a problem. Ponder cannot develop if he’s looking up at the wonky dome roof half the time … The D’s talent woes exposed whenever pass rush doesn’t get there.

SNARKY QUESTION: Who re-injures himself first, AP or WR Percy Harvin?

PREDICTION: 5-11. Allen and the DL will keep the team in more games, as Ponder and the offence improve. Just too far to go in a tough division.

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