The defending NFL champions are clearly the favorite in the division, but as Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers aim to repeat, a forgotten bunch looks to make a run of their own.
Many declare the NFC North as the best division in football this season. I’m hesitant to agree because of the overall lack of excellence at the quarterback position. Winning in the NFL without at a solid quarterback is nearly impossible. Still, the NFC North should claim at least one of the NFC’s Wildcard berths.
1. Green Bay Packers
Combine the best quarterback in football with one of the top defenses, and it makes sense to pick the Packers as NFC North champions. On the other hand, despite winning the Super Bowl, the Packers failed to win their division in 2010, so finishing atop the NFC North in 2011 is hardly a layup.
In my opinion, Green Bay is the best team in the NFC – as long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy. As spectacular as Green Bay’s offense was for most of 2010, it’s easy to forget they were without their starting running back (out for the season in week 1) and super-athletic tight end (missed last 11 games, not including postseason). Even without a major offseason addition, the Packers got better. That can’t be understated. Because offseason training programs and organized camps were a casualty of the labor lockout, offenses that return most of their nucleus will have a significant advantage early in the year. The same is true for defenses.
Furthermore, unlike recent NFL champions, the Packers have enormous upside. Clay Matthews hasn’t peaked. The return of Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley will aid an already dynamic offense. Most importantly, Rodgers will continue to get better. Other than a title hangover, little stands to slow the Green Bay Packers. And let’s be honest, is Aaron Rodgers a guy who’d suffer from a title hangover anyway?
DWC’s Take: Packers – Aaron Rogers finally made the Lambeau faithful forget about number 4. And I think the Packers finally proved to the rest of the NFL why drafting your next franchise quarterback while your current franchise quarterback runs the show is a great idea. The process of Rogers learning, studying, and slowly understanding the game has turned him into one of the elite. I believe this will be the season where he takes the reigns from Brady and Manning. Green Bay’s offense is too potent. They will score points in bunches. However, Losing Cullen Jenkins to the Eagles will be tough to overcome, especially given how much he freed up Clay Matthews. Even so, only the Eagles, Saints, and maybe Falcons will be able to keep up offensively with the Packers.
2. Minnesota Vikings
How quickly we forget a year ago the Vikings were a popular Super Bowl pick. What’s changed since then? Well, Minnesota fell flat on its face in 2010. The Brett Favre experiment took a turn for the worst, injuries kept key players out, and drama, coaching issues, and poor personnel decisions scuttled the team. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but most of those issues have since been addressed.
Similar to Green Bay, the Vikings return most of their 2010 nucleus heading into 2011. They hired a suitable coach that already knows and fits the locker room. They still have the best running back in the NFL. The defense, while suspect in the secondary, is still a top ten defense. Favre is gone. The team is relatively healthy. To top it all off, Minnesota welcomed a talented and motivated, albeit aging, quarterback to replace the ineffective Favre. Donovan McNabb and the Vikings are a perfect fit. Both needed one more chance to prove their worth. I don’t believe McNabb is finished yet. I’m quite certain this Viking team isn’t, either.
DWC’s Take: Bears – I have to be honest, I really don’t like Chicago. In fact, my dislike is slowly morphing into detest. I wish I could explain it, but I can’t. Maybe it’s because Julius Peppers left Carolina blue for the “historic” Chicago Bears. Maybe it’s because their quarterback whines about respect despite having done nothing to earn it. Maybe it’s their terrible field. Whatever it is, I really didn’t want to put Chicago here. I don’t believe Chicago will be in the playoffs. They will float around 8-8. Here’s why: Jay Cutler is far from consistent (or good for that matter). Roy Williams is out of shape, drops the ball in key moments, and hasn’t been relevant since his first two years in Detroit. Their defense isn’t what it was, and Julius Peppers has his money, so he is due for a down year considering that was his MO in Carolina. But seriously, I’m not bitter.
3. Detroit Lions
Everyone is in love with the Lions. I’m intrigued, too. However, it’s hard to look at their flaws and believe they’ll advance to the playoffs. We (NFL fans) do this every season. We find a team we declare ready to take the next step and shower them with undue praise. More often than not, the attention puts the kibosh on the team. Detroit is that team this year. The defensive line should be spectacular, especially as Ndamukong Suh continues to develop. Unfortunately, the rest of the defense isn’t as strong. The same disparity can be seen on the offense. Calvin Johnson is a fantastic receiver. If Matthew Stafford can remain healthy (a huge “if”), he and Johnson should give defenses fits. The running game is still a cause for concern, though, and contrary to popular belief, a solid running game is still necessary to win in the NFL. Had the Packers not been lucky with James Starks, we’d probably be talking about a different 2010 champion.
DWC’s Take: Lions – The “sexy” pick for many. Part of me can’t blame them. Matthew Stafford appears ready to roll, Calvin Johnson is at least the 3rd best receiver in the league, and Ndamukong Suh is an absolute terror. Even better, he isn’t afraid to get fined for ripping off a quarterback’s head or body-slamming a running back. If Nick Fairley can get healthy enough to play like he did in college, it will be very hard to win the battle for the line of scrimmage against Detroit. Unfortunately, the Lions need things to happen that aren’t very probable. Stafford has a recent history of injuries, (13 total games in 2 years), they still don’t have a stable RB to keep defenses honest, and the rest of their defense is unproven. While I would like nothing more than to vault the Lions over the Bears, I can’t because these Lions still need the Wizard’s magic touch.
4. Chicago Bears
I’m putting the Bears fourth because they play in a division with Aaron Rodgers and Calvin Johnson, in a conference with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, and Michael Vick, and have a secondary that is barely average. On top of that, the offense is bursting with questions. How will Jay Cutler respond to his embarrassing NFC Championship performance? Who do the Bears have at wide receiver, and why did they remove Johnny Knox as the number one option? When will Chicago realize they need a reliable ground game? Better yet, when will they realize Matt Forte’s rookie season was a fluke? There’s just too much I don’t like about the Bears to pick them over the rest of the NFC North.
DWC’s Take: Vikings – I have to make another confession, I’m a Donovan McNabb sympathizer. I think it’s because we played catch one time at a Kixx game. Most Eagle fans don’t appreciate him or are quick to forget where the team was before he and Andy Reid arrived. He deserved better than being shipped to Washington where “Mr. I am the best coach ever,” Mike Shanahan, hated him from the start. I hope Minnesota gives McNabb two years to prove himself. He’s in a West Coast system he knows, and Adrian Peterson will carry most of the load. Their receivers aren’t the greatest, but McNabb has a lot of experience working in such conditions. In all honesty, I think the Vikings could jump as high as number two in this division if McNabb can help out a defense that spent too much time on the field last season. It also doesn’t hurt that Brad Childress is never coming back. Go get ’em, Don!
For those keeping score, here are last season’s NFC North predictions (again, very embarrassing):
Me: MINN, GB, CHI, DET
DWC: GB, MINN, CHI, DET
Actual Results: CHI, GB, DET, MINN
Score: DWC: 1, Me: 1, Fail: 2