Can the Packers Repeat? (NFC North Preview)

The NFC North is fast becoming one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL with the defending champions squeaking into the playoffs last year. The Packers ended last season with a 10-6 record and 6th in the NFC. The Packers had a rough time in the North as they were second in the division to the Bears and lost both games to the Detroit Lions. With all of that controversy the Packers still managed to make it into the wild card and win the Super Bowl. This year they hope to do the same with a little improvement on their regular season performance. The other teams in the North will have something to say about that as their oldest rivals, Chicago Bears, look to win the north again this year and make it to the Super Bowl. Meanwhile the Detroit Lions have made the biggest improvements after suffering for years at the bottom of the league. The only team that may have a disappointing season is the Minnesota Vikings but anything is possible in the NFC North Division.

Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears had a bit of a surprise season last year as many did not think they would be as strong as they were. Their defence carried them as they were one of the best defences in the league and was able to shut down almost every offence they faced. They won the NFC North and moved on to one of the best records in the NFC, only behind the Atlanta Falcons. They moved on to a strong showing in the playoffs and faced off against their longtime rivals in the NFC Championship Game. In this game came the big controversy as QB Jay Cutler left the game with an MCL injury that led many to believe that he was not tough enough for the Bears faithful. After Cutler left the game the Bears offence began to falter a little but also mounted a comeback against the Packers. The comeback fell short as the Packers got the best of their longtime foe and ended the Bears season. The Bears were very disappointed in the end of their season as they believed it could have been the year they won the Super Bowl again. This year they will look to pick up the pieces from last year and make another run at the Super Bowl.

This year the Bears have added a few key pieces to both sides that they hope will give them the firepower needed to make it to the Super Bowl. On offence the Bears added running back Marion Barber and wide receiver Roy Williams in an attempt to bolster their offence. The move for Roy Williams may be the most impactful as the Bears rarely have a wide receiver that can be a true #1 in the NFL and Williams has this potential. On defence the Bears added some help for Julius Peppers up front signing defensive end Vernon Gholston and Amobi Okoye in order to increase an already great defence. The one issue that the Bears did not really focus on in the shortened offseason was their offensive line that is possibly one of the worst in the NFL. They did not fix much but they hope that they can improve in order to give Cutler a chance to throw the ball. This year the Bears would like to make another run at the division title but if they cannot improve the offensive line they will not be able to do much on offence. The defence will carry the team again but it may not be enough with the talent in the North this year.

Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions are three years off of the worst season for any team in NFL history going without a win the entire season. This is the one record that no team wants but the Lions have it and they are looking to get away from the stigma of being the worst team in the NFL. Last year they made big steps towards earning more respect as they came out of the basement ending the season at 6-10 and in third place in the North. This may not seem too great but 2 years away from getting no wins having six is a big improvement. The biggest reason for the improvement last year was their first round draft pick Ndamukong Suh who made the Pro Bowl in his first year in the NFL. Suh also earned the Rookie of the Year award for his amazing first year performance. With the defence continuing to get better the offence was looking to improve as well but unfortunately their 2009 draft pick, Matthew Stafford, was hurt again preventing him from finishing a full season. The offence was also helped by yet another draft pick in running back Jahvid Best who had a good rookie season as the featured RB in the Lions offence. The Lions did not make the playoffs but they continue to add good young talent and with another year under the belt of some good players they hope to make a deep run this year.

This year the Lions made a lot of moves in the offseason but did not make many impact moves for free agents. The biggest move was their draft when they drafted Nick Fairley a highly touted defensive tackle from the NCAA National Champion Auburn Tigers. This makes a nightmare for opposing offensive lines, one of the weaknesses of the Chicago Bears, as they will have two big defensive tackles that will get some big pressure on opposing QBs. The issue with the defence has been the ability to stop the running game which has not been very good in the past. With a few good linebackers signed, no big names, they will look to improve this. On offence the Lions are poised to be explosive with a great young QB in Matthew Stafford and a great receiving corps that includes Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, and rookie Titus Young. Their running game looks to be better as well with Jahvid Best having another year under his belt. The biggest question for the Lions is whether or not Matthew Stafford will be able to play an entire season. If Stafford can survive without injury for 2011 the Lions are poised to make a big push towards the playoffs and a winning record for the first time since 2000.

Green Bay Packers

The Green Bay Packers won their 4th Super Bowl in 2010 and their record 13th league championship. The Packers were Super Bowl favorites last year before the season but that changed quickly when they began to suffer key injuries. On offence they lost their starting RB, Ryan Grant, their emerging TE, Jermichael Finley, and their starting RT, Mark Tauscher. On defence they lost linebackers Nick Barnett and Brady Poppinga while also losing rookie standout safety Morgan Burnett and defensive end Cullen Jenkins. These injuries gave the Packers a number of new faces on both sides of the ball but the depth created by Ted Thompson held up. With all of these injuries the Packers leaned on Aaron Rodgers and their defence to get to the last wild card spot. Aaron Rodgers quickly became one of the top QBs in the league throughout his performance in the playoffs and the defence proved their worth. They moved on to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV and kept it close with a bad third quarter. After a big play by Clay Matthews in the beginning of the 4th quarter the Packers seemed to take the momentum for good. With the win the Packers earned their 4th Super Bowl title and did it with many of their players on the sideline, including two major contributors out in the Super Bowl. This year the Packers will look to repeat and get over the Super Bowl Hangover that many teams seem to have and they may just have a shot.

The Packers have made very little changes as they did not sign any big name free agents and essentially resigned some of their own free agents. Their draft was again a move for the future as they took offensive tackle Derek Sherrod to fill in spaces that may be left later with some of their team getting older. This is not a big concern as the main change for the Packers will be  that they will get many of these injured players back returning 14 players to the roster. Some have left including Cullen Jenkins and Nick Barnett but Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley will be back to give the offence even more weapons. This will be the key to the Packers as they will concentrate on their passing game with an improved running game to take the pressure off. There is no question that the Packers will never become a running team but having Ryan Grant back and pairing him with the playoff standout in James Starks may add another aspect to the offence that the Packers desperately need. On defence not much has changed and that is not a bad thing as Charles Woodson returns as an essential team leader along with Pro Bowl Linebacker Clay Matthews. The biggest challenge will be replacing Cullen Jenkins at the defensive end which will fall on to the lap of Mike Neal. There may be some changes but most of those players played last year anyway so essentially the Packers have the same team. The Packers won the Super Bowl with 14 injuries and having these players back will add more to a great team. Even though there is a Super Bowl hangover it is hard to bet against the Packers to go back to win the conference this year and even to make it back again to the Super Bowl.

Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have had a few up and down seasons when Brett Favre decided to return from retirement and make his debut in Minnesota. In 2009 Favre began his first season with the Vikings and had the best season in his career that led the Vikings to the NFC Conference Championships. They lost this game to the eventual Super Bowl Champions the New Orleans Saints but Favre decided to return one more year. In 2010 the Vikings were not what they used to be as they started the season with 2 wins in the first 8 weeks that eventually led to the firing of their head coach. Then Brett Favre went down and missed the first game of his career leading to Tavaris Jackson taking over the offence. This did not bode well for the Vikings as they ended the season with a 6-10 record and at the bottom of the NFC North. Along with this the beginning of a campaign for a new stadium was bolstered when their stadium collapsed after a major snow fall. This forced the Vikings to play two weeks of home games in other fields. This began the rumours of the Vikings leaving if they did not get another stadium. It was just another distraction in the turbulent Vikings season. The distractions may have been an issue but either way the Vikings went from first place in the North to last place in the North in what ended up being a terrible season that then ripped apart the team and the faith in the team. This year they will try to make up for the bad season last year as they have made changes in hopes to improve the team.

The Vikings will have a generally new coach as last year’s interim coach Leslie Frazier will take over for good. He will also have a new QB as Tavaris Jackson has left to play for the Seattle Seahawks and the draft provided the team with a new young QB in Christian Ponder. Ponder may not have the position however as the Vikings will take a chance on another veteran QB as they got Donovan McNabb to lead their offence this year. This may not be a solution but it is a way to build in the future as Ponder will have a veteran presence to let him transition to the starting role in the future. The receiving corps is also in trouble with Sidney Rice leaving a big hole to fill for the #1 receiver. The Offence will return to the running game that they went away from with Brett Favre but with a questionable passing game Adrian Peterson will again become the feature of the offence. Peterson is more than capable of leading this offence and being one of the best rushers in the league but reducing the offence to one dimension may not be the best thing. The defence has not been a strength for the Vikings but it has been good enough unfortunately the biggest aspect of their defence, literally, has left as DT Pat Williams will not return. Along with the absence of Pat Williams the front four will suffer more as defensive end Ray Edwards has also left and defensive tackle Kevin Williams will be suspended to start the season.  Their strength on defence has always been their front four and with a depleted squad this year they will not be as strong. The Vikings have not made enough improvements to say that they will be any better than last year. They may be going into a rebuilding phase that may even keep them out of the playoffs for years to come.

 

Prediction:

1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)

2. Detroit Lions (10-6)

3. Chicago Bears (9-7)

4. Minnesota Vikings (6-10)

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