Day 4 of breaking down the divisions leads us to the NFC North, the home of the Black and Blue division. The NFC North used to carry the label as the most physical division in the NFL, but I think you can safely give that title to the AFC North now. The NFC North has taken a turn from physical to wide open. This is now the league of the quarterback.
The Chicago Bears have been the poster for physical play throughout the history of the league. They have always based their play on physical defense and smash mouth running. Well times have changed. Today the Bears have a gun slinger for a quarterback and their defense has come back from the dead and is playing like champions again.
The Bears offense is headed by Jay Cutler. Cutler leads an attack that showcases very young wide receivers Devin Hester, Devin Aromishadu and Johnny Knox. They add to that group a savvy veteran in Roy Williams. Their run game evolves around all purpose third year running back Matt Forte but his holdout has opened the door for Marion Barber to do work. The tight end Greg Olsen was traded to Carolina so expect more 4 and 5 wide sets for Cutler since his favorite target is no longer in town.
Defensively the Bears are still led by Brian Urlacher. When healthy he is still amongst the best in the game but health remains an issue for him. The front seven is also solidified by solid play from the 90 million dollar man Julius Peppers. The defensive line should be able to put a little pressure on opposing quarterbacks with the help of Urlacher and Lance Briggs. The secondary remains the biggest question mark for the Bears defense but that will probably pick up with the quarterback now having less time to get the ball off to opposing receivers. Charles Tillman will lead that group to some form of prosperity. Special teams will be the key to the Bears success. They have the most exciting return man in the game on their team and he knows how to get in the zone.
Key players: Jay Cutler (QB), Matt Forte (RB), Devin Hester (WR), Brian Urlacher (LB), Julius Peppers (DE), Lance Briggs (LB), Charles Tillman (DB)
Projected Division finish: Second
The Detroit Lions are the team looking to gain the most ground this season. They are going to be led by third year quarterback Matt Stafford. Stafford will be helped out immensely by a vastly improved running back core with Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith in the backfield. The wide receivers are even going to be better this season. They still have Megatron (Calvin Johnson) and Bryant Johnson and added Contrevious Parks to the mix. The offensive line will be ok but could use some upgrades.
Defensively the Lions have gotten immensely better. The front seven is arguably the best complete unit on the team. Anchored by last year’s first round draft pick Ndamukong Suh, and this years first round pick Nick Fairley, running the ball up the middle should be non-existent. Last years free agent signing of Kyle Vanden Bosch to the defensive line proved to be valuable as well as he did a lot of good things in the pass rushing area. The secondary will be the question mark for the Lions as they should be better as opposing quarterbacks will have less time to hang in the pocket.
Key Players: Mathew Stafford (QB), Kevin Smith (RB), Calvin Johnson (WR), Ndamukong Suh (DT), Nick Fairley (DT), Kyle Vanden Bosch (DE), Dre Bly (CB)
Projected Finish: Third
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers bring the pain on defense and are a headache when facing their offense. The Packers have a potent offensive attack headed by Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has a plethora of weapons to work with. In the backfield he has a dynamic Ryan Grant and James Starks. Outside at wide receiver he has explosive players like Greg Jennings and the savvy veteran Donald Driver. The tight end position will be crowded with talent as well as Jermichael Finley and Donald Lee battle for time.
Defensively the Packers are steady up front. They will have to replace Cullen Jenkins who anchored their front four. The line backing core is headed by AJ Hawk. The loss of Nick Barnett will be felt as well. The Green Bay secondary is no slouch either. Veterans Al Harris and Will Blackmon team up with all everything Charles Woodson to keep things right in the secondary.
Key Returners: Aaron Rodgers (QB), Ryan Grant (RB), Greg Jennings (WR), Donald Driver (WR), Jermichael Finley (TE), AJ Hawk (LB), Charles Woodson (CB)
Projected Finish: First
The Minnesota Vikings are the most reviewed team every off-season since the addition of Donovan McNabb. The Vikings will start the season with Donovan at the helm and they will be explosive. The Vikings also employ the best running back in the game in Adrian Peterson. The wide receiver stable is one of the fastest in the division with B-Twice (Bernard Berrian) and the explosive Percy Harvin working the outside. They also have the most complete tight end in the league in Visanthe Shiancoe. The offensive line is one of if not the best in football today.
Defensively the Vikings front seven makes everything happen. Led by the Williams tandem Kevin and Pat make the middle almost irrelevant to opposing teams. Jared Allen will find life a little more difficult without Ray Edwards opposite of him. The line backers are not too shabby either. They are led by EJ Henderson if he’s healthy and Chad Greenway who makes play after play for that defense. The secondary is held down by corner back Antoine Winfield. He may be short in stature but he locks folk down.
Key Returners: Donovan Mcnabb (QB), Adrian Peterson (RB), Percy Harvin (WR), Visanthe Shiancoe (TE), Kevin Williams (DT), Pat Williams (DT), Antoine Winfield (CB)
Projected Finish: Third