Preseason is all but over now and we have had a fair amount of information to assimilate with each team in the black and blue division. In doing so we might be so bold as to leap to conclusions that we should not, but hey, what else is an armchair quarterback to do? In the spirit of this I am going to spill my take on the NFC North and how the season may play out.
There is only one way to look at this team going into the year, they are the most recent champs in the NFL. Until dethroned they must be placed at the top of any pecking order. That is not to say that they will have the best regular season. However, they are the most likely of any NFC North team to make the playoffs and go deep into them.
The Packers had a shrewd draft and basically restocked the cupboard. Adding in depth players there are a few that may emerge and actually contribute as the season wears on. There is a proven track record here and there is no evidence to suggest that the Packers will have anything but a successful draft when it is all said and done.
The quarterback play of the Packers is top notch and while the amount of hits that Aaron Rogers is taking is of concern to Packers fans there is a silver lining. Matt Flynn has taken some serious steps with he on field experience last season and looks to be a capable backup ready to step in if called upon. Sure he is no Arron Rogers, but he is probably the most promising backup in the division.
The Packers running game will get an infusion this year with the return of Ryan Grant and solid cast of seemingly no names behind him. Mark my words, someone will emerge here before it is all said and done.
The Packers receiving corps keeps on going and going and going, like the energizer bunny. More promising youth has been added here and much like the running game, once you get past Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and Jermichael Finley there will be a whole supporting cast to burn teams 3rd, 4th, and 5th corners.
The offensive line does, and should concern the Packer faithful. While they have recently infused some much needed youth, there is still a lot of learning curve and development to go before the unit could be considered an asset rather than a liability. Expect Matt Flynn to get some more experience and development this year as there is more work to go on that line.
The defensive front seven for the Packers is still a quality group, but they will miss Cullen Jenkens. A player of his quality, and role in their defense on passing downs is going to be sorely missed. The scheme and talent elsewhere will help to mask his loss, but not completely negate it.
The defensive secondary for the Packers is not only one of the better ones in the league, but also one with a lot of youth as well. The glue for that back half, and even in some ways the front, is clearly Charles Woodson. As long as he is healthy and playing at or near 100% the Packers will still have a very respectable defense.
One of the most talked about and hyped teams in the league, the Lions have an extremely talented and young core group of players. As such the Lions are the proverbial up and comers that seem to interest a lot of fans and analysts nationwide. While many are taking the leap of faith on what they have seen already, the Lions have yet to put it out there on the field when it counts. One of the favorite dark horse picks of the league to make the playoffs no one is sleeping on the Lions this year.
The quarterback situation for the Lions centers around one question, one concern, one prayer. Can Matt "The Surgeon" Stafford stay healthy? I know that is a new nickname, but hey the girls seem to find him and his hair as dreamy as a soap opera doctor, and his on field performance has been akin to the precision of a neurosurgeon as he cuts apart opposing defenses this preseason. That being said the Lions backups are more the gritty tough out a win kind of players that are clearly 2nd tier at best quarterbacks in this league. Hence the hopes, prayers, and desires that Lions fans never have to find out how talented those backups actually are.
The Lions running game took a serious blow with the loss of Mikel Leshoure. However there has been a breath of new life in the form of Jerome Harrison. He will form up the depth along with others that will all contribute to help make the run game better than last year, even if not significantly so. A healthy Jahvid Best should help out matters there as well. With a wide open backfield and bottom of the depth chart it is even possible for the Lions to find a significant contributor somewhere after the 53 man roster is set.
The receiving corps for the Lions had some viable depth added this off season that will emerge to help make quite a difference down the stretch. While many may attribute this to Stafford, those with observant eyes and a good memory will realize that having a 3 and 4 receiver who can catch rather than drop is a significant contributor here as well.
The offensive line for the Lions is slightly improved in the running game and continues to be solid in pass protection. While many seem to point to some sort of correlation between this and Staffords health the truth of the matter for those in the know is that the previous injuries have been more bad luck than anything wrong with the pass protection.
The Lions defensive front seven are one of, if not the best, in the league. While many may not realize that yet, as the season goes on and the linebackers develop more chemistry with their linemen it will become more obvious. This front seven is going to be the beginning of a new top tier defense in the NFL. Packers, Steelers, Eagles, and Ravens you have company. (The Eagles defense will be like the Lions this year, developing chemistry and getting better as the season goes on.)
The Lions secondary has legit starting caliber talent across the board now. However while the depth has been upgraded, there is still some concern there with the drop off in talent from starter to back up and even more so when you get near the bottom of the depth chart.
The wildcard of the division, no one really knows what the Vikings are. How much of the drop off last year was on Chili and Favre? How much of a lift will McNabb be? Will the Vikings age start to show? There seems to be many more questions with this team than answers. Those answers will come during the season and as such no one really knows who the Vikings are yet. All evidence of the preseason points to them being more competitive than people have given them credit for. In fact, while it may surprise some for them to challenge for a playoff spot, or even the division, it would not be a huge surprise for me to see this team prosper if all the cards fall right for them.
The Vikings quarterback play will be much improved this year. Donovan McNabb is a man on a mission and even if he is injured Christian Ponder is already capable of being a game manager even if he does make some rookie mistakes along the way. The overall talent on the roster this year is leaps and bounds better than what was given last year and we all know that no position is more important to a football team than the quarterback.
The running game of the Vikings is probably the best in the NFL. Neck and neck with the TItans, Texans, Ravens, and possibly Jauguars (if MJD can return to form). Adrian Peterson and Steve Hutchinson, enough said.
The receiving corps for the Vikings while not stellar, and certainly hurting over the loss of Sydney Rice, is far from being devout of talent. Percey Harvin will be a huge part of their offense as a runner and receiver. While bernard Berrian has been in the dog house the past year or so he is showing signs of life with McNabb at the helm. Couple that with how McNabb uses tight ends and you need look no further than Visanthe Shainco and Kyle Rudolph to realize that this group can do more damage than most think.
The Vikings offensive line may be solid in run blocking, but their pass protection is a concern and a big one. Expect to see McNabb playing hurt, as usual, in the end of the season or possibly even Christian Ponder taking snaps. If they can weather the storm early on they may perform better later in the season but I would not expect huge improvements.
Once the best front seven in the division and possibly the league age has taken its toll on the Vikings, along with the loss of Ray Edwards in free agency. Jarred Allen seems to be the only source of pass rush going into the season. Still a solid unit, there is actually more talent in the linebackers now than the linemen. There are a slew of young unknowns here and if one can emerge as the season goes on the Vikings may hold up better than expected.
The Vikings defensive secondary is aged and lacking depth. Antoine Winfield may show some of that age this year and while he will still be a very good player, he will not be a candidate for the all under rated team anymore. Perhaps more concerning is the need for more than one young player in the secondary to emerge this year in order for that secondary to hold up. This is where Vikings fans in the know are directing their prayers.
Everyone sold off the Bears last season and seems to continue to do so this year. The division winners of a year ago seem to have improved their roster yet they are still underdogs and get no love. It is hard to figure out if the Bears are lucky or good, if they lack talent or if people just don't like them. The real key to the bears last season was their blessed trinity on defense. Peppers, Urlacher, Briggs. If those guys stay healthy the Bears will continue to be the ugly ducklings of the division. Meaning that they will win ugly enough to be more of a thorn than people think.
The quarterback play on the Bears is what it is, there will be no surprises here. Jay Cutler will continue to be immensely talented, enough so to win some games on his own. He also will be enough of a gunslinger to make some throws he should not and lose some games on his own. He will still be a bit off personality wise and seem to be marching to the beat of a different drummer than most of the world. All the while Caleb Hanie will be sitting there as the gritty, try hard kid who is slowly winning team mates over. If he develops a bit more as a QB the crap will hit the fan in Chicago, but that is much later down the road than this season.
The Bears running backs are solid. Matt Forte will get his deal and continue to be under rated, even though he is the most likely person on the Bears offense to cause you a loss. The addition of Marion Barber is going to make this run game even better. Perhaps even just a smidgen below the top tier running games in the league. If their line ever gets better look out NFL.
The Bears receiving corps continues to be a mystery. Replacing Greg Olsen with Roy Williams is a clear downgrade. The reduction of targets and the role of better performing players than Roy with Johnny Knox and Devin Hester will also hurt this group in the long run. The longer Roy Williams remains on this team the closer the Bears will be to 6-10 or worse. The consummate loser, one has to wonder how long it will take the Bears to figure this out.
The offensive line is an area that promises to disappoint Bears fans this year. The chances of Mike Tice performing another miracle are slim this year. While Gabe Carimi was a solid move in the long term, he is a band aid on a gushing wound. Rookie offensive linemen rarely make a pro bowl caliber impact and even should he do that it will not be enough. The loss of Olin Kreutz will be felt and Bears fans are going to be very bitter watching him play in the post season.
The defensive front seven of the Bears will have to carry this team if they are to over achieve again. One of the most talented defensive ends in the game, Julius Peppers, along with one of the best line backing corps must stay healthy if the Bears are to have a chance.
The Bears secondary should miss Daniel Manning, but the Bears corners look surprisingly good. Perhaps it is scheme, perhaps the talent is just greater than given credit for but this group seems to fight and scrap enough to get done what they need to get done, barely.
When I look at it all and try to figure out how this division will play out it is pretty much a crap shoot. I am far more likely to be wrong than right. However I am willing to walk out on that limb and throw some guesstimates out there.
The Packers and Lions are the class of the division. They just have more complete teams and more talent along with solid coaching to work with. Who finishes one and two I do not know, but I am fairly confident that it will be these two teams on the top of the division when it is all said and done.
That being said I do not feel that there is a huge separation between any team in this division, nor most teams in the league for that matter. In a lot of ways the final standings depend as much on circumstance and luck as anything else.
The Vikings I see as a lot more solid than people give them credit for. Better QB play will go a long way for them this year, however there are holes appearing on that defense in too many places for me to put much faith in them making the playoffs or challenging for the Division. They may think they are reloading, but I think they are rebuilding.
The Bears seemed to have the perfect storm of good luck last year and I am not the only one to think that they over achieved. I see big issues on the offense in the passing game along with age on defense as things that will haunt them this year.
So I am going to call it as I see it, Lions, Packers, Vikings, then Bears in the NFC North. I could see those teams rising or dropping one spot in the standings. Yes, this means that I really do see the Lions as finishing one or two this year, and I know the Packers are the champs, but that has a lot more to do with a good post season run than the actual strength of their team compared to the rest of their division. They barely made the dance, and their offense won it for them. While I expect them to make the playoffs and sure possibly even winning the division, I could also see them not making it this year too. They will have the target on their backs, and they will be the prey rather than the hunter this season. Only former champs know what it is like to go through that and how much it wears you down as the year goes on.
The Vikings have been able to almost tread water with their roster. But the losses of Edwards and Rice hurt badly, enough so that they will not overcome the crumbling of the Williams wall with the improved quarterback play this season. While they still have good management and they will pull off the rebuild faster than most think, they are still a step behind the Lions and Packers if you ask me. Not to mention that the Vikings shaky long passing game will likely come back to haunt them as it is hard to come from behind running the ball. While McNabb has the arm and tools in Percey Harvin and Bernard Berrian to get it done sometimes, it is not exactly top notch long ball game. McNabb will throw picks, and Berrian will drop passes. Take some consolation Vikings fans that you are close than people think and that you will show some improvement this year despite some heart breaking departures in free agency.
The Bears have serious concerns. They have had the same management in place for a while and there is a pattern. Horrible picks on the offensive line for one, though Mike Tice seems to be helping there the damage done cannot be undone in one season. Add to that the mad professor nature to Mike Martz. Replacing Greg Olsen with Roy Williams is definitely a move that is madness. Along with the treatment of Olin Kreutz and Chester Taylor that locker room is going to start falling apart on the offensive side of the ball. It happens to every Martz team. What else would you expect from a guy who tells a HoF quarterback (Kurt Warner) how terrible he is every day. The real sad part of it is that a good guy in Lovie Smith, and a good defense is going to pay the price for it. Because some of those guys on the defense don't have much gas left in the tank, by they time all of this plays out they are not likely to be the dominant players they are today. Getting back to the management of the Bears and the pattern, up one year down the next, up last year down this year. The consolation for Bears fans is this, next year should be an up year. The only question is how far down the slide is and just exactly what will be considered up.