Can the Lions Take the Next Step (2012 NFL Preview: NFC North)

The NFC North has quickly become one of the best divisions in the NFL with four teams that constantly challenge each other. A large reason for this is the fact that the NFC North is one of the most storied divisions in the league. These division rivalries run deep for decades of playing each other. With so much history behind these teams the prospect of any team winning the division causes outright anger among the other teams. Since becoming to the NFC North division in 2002, it was the NFC Central until that point, almost every team has won the title at least once. The only team that has yet to win the division is the Detroit Lions but they have come on very strong in the last few years. Last year was the Packers year as they went 15-1 to win the division for the first time since 2007. Meanwhile as the Packers were preparing for a Super Bowl run the rest of the division looked on and attempted to take the wild card spot by finishing second. Detroit took the wild card spot for their first playoff appearance in a long time. Usually patterns emerge in the divisions and if that were the case the Packers would be penned in as champions with the Lions taking another playoff spot. That is too simple for the North though as the 2012 season starts with uncertainty around much of the division. Can the Packers fix their defence or will they be forced to lean on the offence again? Was the playoff spot a fluke or are the Lions really that good? Are the problems on the Chicago line fixed and if so what is Jay Cutler capable of? Can Christian Ponder lead the Vikings to compete for the division? All of these questions will be answered but first the season must start as the North looks forward to yet another great season in one of the best divisions in the NFL.

 

Chicago Bears

 

 

 

 

The Chicago Bears have been one of the many teams that have found it hard to find a QB that can lead the team. Except for the Bears it has been a long road that stretches back to a time that has long been forgotten. It hasn’t been since 1958, when George Blanda last played, that the Bears have seen a Hall of Fame QB under centre. That includes Jim McMahon who won a Super Bowl with the team mainly thanks to the Bears defence. It has been that long since the Bears had a QB that they could rely on to provide consistent play under centre. In 2009 the Bears though they had found it when they traded a fifth round pick to the Denver Broncos in exchange for Jay Cutler. Since the 2009 season Cutler has been massively underwhelming as he has struggled to learn the offence and struggled to stay on his feet. A large reason has been the offensive line but the fact remains that the Bears are still trying to find that next QB. Last year was a clear sign that the Bears had not found their QB although it was less about Jay Cutler and more about the offensive line. With the worst line in the NFL the Bears could not keep their QB standing for most of the year. As a result the Bears could not keep up with their division rivals and ended the season with an 8-8 record. They were out of the playoffs once again in 2011 and had a lot to fix going into the offseason. As the offseason approached the Bears were looking to add some key pieces to their team in hopes that they could get back to 2006 when they made it to the Super Bowl. This season The Bears are hoping that the pieces that they did add will help them in their attempt to unseat their longtime rivals. The biggest question for the Bears this year is whether or not they have done enough because if they have they will be dangerous but if not they will struggle for another year.

The Bears have some major concerns on offence but the one thing that always seems to be steady is their defence. In 2012 the defence looks solid once again but they may be in trouble if the veteran defence begins to breakdown due to age. Brian Urlacher has been the most consistent player for the Bears since he began his career 13 seasons ago. Urlacher will be joined by the equally talented Lance Briggs to form a linebacking corps that will be depended on to provide pressure. On the defensive line the addition of Julius Peppers last year helped the pass rush but the double teams on Peppers limited him to 11 sacks. On the other side Israel Idonije has great potential but 5 sacks last season is not enough. Little has been done to correct the lack of defensive pressure and the addition of Shea McClellin will not be enough. Meanwhile the defensive backs, who are rarely involved in the rush, are still without a solid four starters. Charles Tillman is clearly the best DB they have but Tim Jennings, Major Wright, and Chris Conte are all question marks. The Bears will be looking to their defence for leadership this year but the age and lack of pressure may leave the Bears in the middle of the league. On offence there is a lot more to the problems than just Jay Cutler as the Bears have the worst line in the NFL and have had almost no weapons. The offensive line in 2012 will remain generally unchanged as the tackles are still major questions as Cutler may have another rough year. The biggest addition in the passing game will be Brandon Marshall who will finally provide Cutler with a strong receiving threat. In the backfield the Bears will be looking to Matt Forte once again as he has been a key to the offence in past years. Forte comes into the 2012 season not too happy about being tagged as a franchise player and if he lets the situation get to him he may slump. If that does happen Michael Bush will be there to provide some steadiness at the running back. On special teams the Bears have one of the most dangerous returners in the league in Devin Hester who will return to cause special teams coaches to lose sleep the night before they face him. The Bears will be looking to an aging defence and a slightly new offence but many of the problems that plagued them last year have not been fixed. The offence will be slightly better but it will not be enough for Chicago to challenge the rest of the division as they will remain out of the playoffs this year.

 

Strength:
Defence
– It is an old team and it does lack pressure on the QB but the Bears defence is still solid and plays the old school style of football with Brian Urlacher leading the way as the Bears will need them to bend but not break to have s hot at the division

 

Weakness:
Offensive Line
– There is essentially no change in an offensive line that has allowed 105 sacks in the last two years as the 2012 season may be a rough one for Jay Cutler who may need to work on his mobility if he wants to stay off of the ground

 

Biggest Addition:
Brandon Marshall, WR (Free Agent, Mia)
– The Bears offence has struggled in the passing game as the line has been porous and the receiving corps has lacked a big play receiver but the addition of Marshall will finally provide that gamebreaker in the receiving corps

 

Biggest Loss:
Brandon Meriweather, S (Free Agent, Wsh)
– With the defensive backs lacking a number of solid starters the loss of Meriweather will remove a solid safety that could have helped the backs deal with the added pressure of having no pressure on opposing QBs

 

Detroit Lions

 

 

 

 

The Detroit Lions have been the joke of the NFC North for years but that all changed after the 2008 season. In 2008 the Lions went 0-16 as they finished with the worst season in NFL history. This season became one to forget but it also provided the Lions with a team that could be completely rebuilt to compete. After the 2008 season the Lions took Matthew Stafford with the first overall pick in the NFL draft as they started their rebuild. Slowly but surely the Lions began putting together the pieces they needed to become a competitive team. In 2011 the rebuild seemed to be on the verge of being done. With Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson leading the offence and Ndamukong Suh leading the defence the Lions were looking like a team to be feared. The 2011 season was not exactly what the Lion shad wanted though as they seemed to have everything they needed to win the division but couldn’t do it. It was largely thanks to the performance of the Green Bay Packers who went 15-1 all season. The Lions couldn’t match it but they did get second place and a wild card spot. It was their first trip to the playoffs since they made the wild card in 1999. The lack of playoff experience hurt them as they were beat in the wild card playoffs and sent back home to figure it out.  The Lions are a slowly building team built in the right way to be competitive for a long time. This year the Lions are looking to take yet another step towards their ultimate goal as they hope to win the division and win their first playoff game since 1991. It will be a tough road with some great teams in their way but the Lions have a trend working right now. From an 0-16 season to the 10-6 record of 2011 the Lions have been on the rise and in 2012 they are looking to continue that trend as they hope to become the next power in the North.

The Lions are clearly a sign of the new NFL with a passing offence that can challenge the best of the NFL. Led by Matt Stafford the Lions offence is one of the best in the NFL in terms of passing as Stafford leads the charge for young QBs. Stafford is also a little lucky as he has one of the biggest and strongest receivers in the NFL in Calvin Johnson. Johnson has emerged as one of the premier receivers in the NFL as he is able to use his size to get above defenders and be dominant. The one issue that the Lions do have on offence is their lack of balance in with very little running game to speak of. Last year the Lions were held back by injuries in the backfield when Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith were both injured. In 2012 the trend may continue with Best on the PUP list for at least week one and Smith hoping to stay healthy. On defence the Lions are really just hoping for more discipline form their biggest player. Last year Ndamukong Suh remained in the headlines all year but for all the wrong reasons as many considered him the dirtiest player in the NFL. They may not want to do much as Suh’s bad streak is what makes him such a good defensive lineman, as long as he doesn’t get suspended. Suh will lead the pressure from the front line along with Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch and the newly healthy Nick Fairly. The Line is the key to the Lions defence as they need to cause mistakes if the Lions hope to go back to the playoffs. The linebackers are all returning from a much better 2011 season as Stephen Tulloch will lead the group that includes Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy. The secondary is the one big issue for the Lions as they were exposed against the Packers and Saints in their last two games of 2011. The elder statesman of the defensive backs is Chris Houston, 6th year in the NFL who will look to lead a young group. Starting a rookie in Bill Bentley at the cornerback position does not bode too well for the 2012 season. In the special teams 42 years old Jason Hanson will still be kicking while Stefan Logan looks to adjust in the second year of the new kickoff rules. The Lions are still one of the best offences in the league and they will need that to carry them as the defence has some holes. The Lions will fight for a playoff spot but the goal of winning the division may take a bit of luck although they will be in the picture.

 

Strength:
Passing Offence
– Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are one of the best connections in the NFL with Stafford’s arm and Johnsons size and both will be back to lead the Lions in 2012 and continue to dominate defences

 

Weakness:
Defensive Secondary
– The Lions defence has been slowly built throughout the last few years but the one issue they have yet to solve is the defensive backfield as the Lions have a number of very young and untested defensive backs to deal with the pass happy NFL

 

Biggest Addition:
Riley Reiff, T (Draft)
– The offensive line is good but taking Reiff in the draft just made it that much better as Stafford should feel comfortable in the pocket and running backs should have a number of hoels to go through

 

Biggest Loss:
Eric Wright, CB (Free Agent, TB)
– The defensive secondary is very young and the lone loss of the Lions defence form last year was one of the two more experienced members leaving the Lions with no replacement in the backfield

 

Green Bay Packers

 

 

 

 

The Green Bay Packers have been one of the best teams in the league over the past few years yet have not dominated the division. In the last four years the Packers have won the division once yet they still managed to win the Super Bowl in 2010. Last year was the first time since 2007 that the Packers have won the division and they took it into the playoffs where some big issues were exposed. The 2011 Packers was the best of every team in the NFL going 15-1 and winning the division. The regular season record was far from the true story of the 2011 Packers season. Throughout the season the Packers overpowering offence masked the fact that the Packers had one of the worst defences in the league. The Packers had one of the best defences in 2010 but 2011 everything fell apart. The strangest part about it was that nothing really happened to make it that way. The Packers did not lose any playmakers in the offseason or to injury as it just seemed the Dom Capers system was no longer confusing offences. Meanwhile the offence put up massive points but almost all were through the air. The Packers had no resemblance of a running game as Aaron Rodgers carried the team to a 15-1 record and into the playoffs. As the saying goes though defence wins championships and the fact that the defence was not what they once were ended the Packers hopes of a repeat Super Bowl. Losing in the divisional playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl Champions the New York Giants forced the Packers to go back to the drawing board on defence. The 2011 season was one of the best for the Packers but they consider it a disappointment as they could not put everything together. This year the Packers are back and have a lot of pressure on them with many considering them the best in the league just like they did in 2011. The Pack looked to fix their issues in the offseason as this year is Super Bowl or bust for the Packers.

The Packers are one of the teams that is leading the passing revolution in the NFL as they are led by defending NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. If he stays healthy like he did in 2011 he will have the best receiving corps in the NFL. They are a receiving corps with no big stars but any of them could be #1 receivers on another NFL team. Led by Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson the receiving corps will once again be good and very deep. The pass offence also concentrates on the tight ends and they have a deep corps of those too with Jermichael Finley and Tom Crabtree leading the charge. The Packers rush offence has been essentially forgotten with no big backs to help the team change-up the pace. This year the Packers are looking to change that as they signed Cedric Benson who will likely trade-off with Alex Green to provide some balance in the offence. On the defence the Packers had a lot of work to do in the offseason with the biggest challenge figuring out how they can correct their biggest issue, defensive pressure. This year the Packers tried to fix that starting up front with Anthony Hargrove but that failed when Hargrove was suspended for 8 games due to his involvement in the Saints Bounty Scandal. With that experiment gone the Packers move on to C.J. Wilson, Ryan Pickett, and will expect much more of B.J. Raji in order to get pressure up front. The defensive pressure will also get some help in the linebacking corps as Clay Matthews will no longer be the only one to provide pressure from the second level. Joining Matthews will be top draft pick nick Perry on the outside along with A.J. Hawk and D.J. Smith in the middle of the defence. The secondary was a microcosm of the defence last year as they allowed more passing yards than any team ever but saved a number of games with timely interceptions. With Nick Collins gone due to a serious neck injury in 2011 Charles Woodson has moved to the safety position alongside Morgan Burnett. Meanwhile the corners will need to fill the hole left by Woodson as Tramon Williams and Jarrett Bush will have a tough task filling his shoes. On special teams mason Crosby returns as a dependable kicker while Randall Cobb is emerging as a solid returner. The Packers are once again one of the best teams in the league but this year there are some major questions. If the defence can return to their 2010 performance the Packers could be back in the Super Bowl but if not they will be fighting for the division.

 

Strength:
Passing Offence
– Aaron Rodgers is one of the top QBs in the league and with a receiving corps that reads almost like an all-star roster there is no reason that the Packers shouldn’t be one of the best offences in the league again this year

 

Weakness:
Run Offence
– The defence could be a weakness but an off-year is not enough to put them down the real issue for the Packers is their run defence as they continue to try to find someone who can help them change-up the pace, Cedric Benson could be that person

 

Biggest Addition:
Jeff Saturday, C (Free Agent, Ind)
– The offensive line for the Packers is young and protecting Rodgers has become a priority with no backup so the Packers added one of the best centres in the league as Saturday should provide leadership and some confidence for Rodgers

 

Biggest Loss:
Nick Collins, S (Free Agent)
– Last year Nick Collins did not play all too much with a severe neck injury ending his season and in the offseason the Packers made a tough decision releasing Collins who was likely not going to play as he may never recover from his injury leaving a big hole at the safety position

 

Minnesota Vikings

 

 

 

 

 

The Minnesota Vikings are one of the few teams in the NFL that can have such good players yet never seem to be able to put it all together. They are a team that seems to have it partly figured out yet it still never works. It is a team that many could say is hurt by their management making poor decisions and having a little bit of bad luck. The Vikings always seem to have some controversy in the last few years providing distractions for years in Minnesota. The latest controversy for the Vikings was the rumours of a move after the Vikings ownership began fighting for a new stadium. After the stadium collapsed under a heavy snowfall the Vikings attempted to get a new home and petitioned the city to get this new stadium. After a lengthy battle the Vikings finally got what they wanted as plans for a new stadium have begun. That hasn’t been the only issue though as the signing of Brett Favre added to a number of tumultuous seasons. Add that to the Donovan McNabb era and the seemingly never-ending coaching questions around Brad Childress and Leslie Frazier along with the Vikings Boat Scandal the last few years have been tough for the Vikes. Last year was no different as the Vikings lost their best player in Adrian Peterson while McNabb could not do anything forcing the Vikings to look to Christian Ponder. The Viking struggled again as the uncertainty around the QB and really the franchise as a whole hurt the Vikings chances. Finishing the season with a 3-13 record at the bottom of the division the Vikings were out of the playoffs once again. The Vikings are looking for more stability in 2012 as they attempt to get back on track after winning the division in 2008 and 2009. The Vikings are hoping that the issues of the past are behind them and that they can move on and begin to build towards the ultimate goal of eventually making a Super Bowl.

The Vikings go into 2012 looking for that stability but the truth is it might be hard to find with their best player still a question. Adrian Peterson went down early in the 2011 season and immediately the offence suffered. The Vikings did not have a passing game to speak of and Toby Gerhart could not provide the explosiveness in the running game. This year the Vikings may be without Peterson again as he has claimed to be coming back in week 1 but there is still no guarantee. If Peterson cannot make it Gerhart will again take over with a slightly different style than Peterson and less explosiveness than Peterson. Even if Peterson can comeback the question will be if he can return from a knee injury to be the running back he used to be. Meanwhile the Vikings are hoping that being a starting QB from week 1 will help Christian Ponder to bring the passing game to the 21st century. He may have to depend on the tight ends to get his passing yardage though as Percy Harvin is the only real wide threat. Meanwhile John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph should provide a good tight end tandem for Ponder. The offence should be better but the return of Peterson is the key to the Vikings hopes this season. On defence the Vikings depend on their line to cause mistakes and this year will be no different. Jared Allen returns to lead the front four that includes Brian Robinson, Letroy Guion, and Kevin Williams. The linebacking corps is a mix of good and bad as Chad Greenway, Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson all have their strengths but are all one-dimensional players. The biggest concern for the Vikings is the secondary as there are really no breakout stars that can really change a game. Chris Cook will be the main focus of the secondary but if he gets in trouble again he may not play the full season. The defence is great up front but the further back you go the worse it gets as the secondary will struggle against some very good passing games in the division. On special teams the Vikes are looking to a rookie kicker in Blair Walsh and their return game will suffer with Percy Harvin being too valuable to send out that often. The Vikings are hoping to move on from controversy but that doesn’t change the fact they have a number of big questions. The Vikings may be a little better than last year but they will not be out of the basement this year as they will have another tough season.

 

Strength:
Defensive Pressure
– Jared Allen leads the front four that is known for getting great pressure on the opposing team as they look to force mistakes and be the true force of a struggling Vikings defence as they will be the key to the Vikings defence

 

Weakness:
Receiving Corps
– Percy Harvin is the only real big playmaker with the tight ends as question marks and the rest of the receiving corps lacking any true second threat as Christian Ponder will struggle to find a group of receivers to really challenge defences

 

Biggest Addition:
Matt Kalil, T (Draft)
– The Vikings are improving slowly and one of their biggest improvements will be on the offensive line as Matt Kalil will provide a solid left tackle that will be able to keep Ponder standing as the offence is worked out

 

Biggest Loss:
Visanthe Shiancoe, TE (Free Agent)
– Despite having John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph Shiancoe was a solid player and a dependable target with the speed and size to provide Ponder with a great threat and his absence will provide more questions about the passing game

 

Prediction:
1. Green Bay Packers
2. Detroit Lions
3. Chicago Bears
4. Minnesota Vikings

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