Thursday, September 3, 2009

NFC North Preview

Drama is back in the NFC North, which means one of two things: 1) Either Brett Favre decided to un-retire again, or 2) there's a horse race about to take place.
Actually, it's both. Favre is back, this time with Minnesota, and the Vikings, Packers and Chicago Bears are about to duke it out for first place.
They were supposed to square off last year, too, only Green Bay didn't cooperate. The Packers dropped seven of their last nine, leaving it to Minnesota and Chicago to settle the division, with the Vikings winning their first title in eight years.
The Packers are better now than they were in 2008, particularly on defense, and they should hang around for a photo finish with Minnesota. The Bears could be there, too, but I keep asking why we should believe in Jay Cutler when he never produced a winning season in Denver.
The only thing I am sure of is that Detroit is a lock for last. But let's at least hear it for the Lions. They get to discover what it's like to win football games again, and never underestimate life's little victories.

Green Bay Packers
Significant additions: DT B.J. Raji, LB Clay Matthews, C Duke Preston, S Anthony Smith.
Significant losses: DT Colin Cole, T Mark Tauscher.
Biggest offseason move: Hiring defensive coordinator Dom Capers away from New England. Capers will oversee the Packers' new 3-4 defense, and hooray for that. Something had to be done, and something was: In three preseason games under Capers the Packers already have 12 takeaways. Green Bay last year ranked 26th against the run and 20th overall. Worse, 11 times it allowed 20 or more points -- including its last six starts.
Will reach the playoffs if ... They can win the close calls. A year ago the Packers lost seven games by four or fewer points. The key element here is getting the running game to be more effective than the 17th-best attack that bogged down too often last year. That's a wake-up call for Ryan Grant and the offensive line.
Rookie to watch: Raji. Though he reported to work late, he looks like a perfect fit for the middle of Capers' new defense. Not only did he have four tackles last weekend, but he has been throwing around blockers as if they were cardboard cutouts.
Overview: The Pack is back. If Green Bay can keep Aaron Rodgers healthy, recreate the running game of two years ago and make defensive strides, it should win this thing. Rodgers is a franchise quarterback waiting to happen, but Grant needs to step up his game to where it was in the second half of 2007.

Minnesota Vikings
Significant additions: QB Brett Favre, WR Percy Harvin, T Phil Loadholt, QB Sage Rosenfels.
Significant losses: C Matt Birk, DB Michael Boulware, QB Gus Frerotte, T Marcus Johnson, S Darren Sharper.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Packers
2008 standings: 6-10

Pts Scored: 419
Pts Allowed: 380
Off. Yds/G: 351.1
Def. Yds/G: 334.3
2. Vikings
2008 standings: 10-6

Pts Scored: 379
Pts Allowed: 333
Off. Yds/G: 330.5
Def. Yds/G: 292.4
3. Bears
2008 standings: 9-7

Pts Scored: 375
Pts Allowed: 350
Off. Yds/G: 295.9
Def. Yds/G: 334.7
4. Lions
2008 standings: 0-16

Pts Scored: 268
Pts Allowed: 517
Off. Yds/G: 268.2
Def. Yds/G: 404.4
Biggest offseason move: Acquiring Favre. The Vikings wanted him a year ago but had to wait until the Jets let him walk. Coach Brad Childress wanted him badly, and he and Favre are joined at the hip. If Favre fails, Childress does too; if Favre succeeds, Childress gets an extension. The Vikings think Favre is perfect for their offense, but he's 40 and flopped down the stretch in 2008 -- losing four of his last five starts and throwing nine interceptions. Good luck, guys.
Will reach the playoffs if ... Favre doesn't fade in December. Look at the Vikings schedule: Their first five opponents were 19-61 a year ago. But that's when the speed bumps kick in, with Baltimore, Pittsburgh and the Packers appearing just before mid-season. Favre was 1-4 in his last five games last year, and it could happen again. Minnesota's last five games look like this: at Arizona, Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Chicago and the New York Giants. Uh-oh.
Rookie to watch: Harvin. The former University of Florida star is instant offense ... provided, of course, he stays healthy. He's a wide receiver who can line up as a running back or play quarterback in the Wildcat. He's quick. He's fast. He's yardage waiting to pile up. In short, he's the perfect complement to Adrian Peterson.
Overview: I liked the Vikings more before they acquired Favre, and here's why: Because you could sit down Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels and because each understood his role, which was as a supporting actor to Peterson. Favre plays second to no one, and I dare you to bench him. It's not going to happen. As one coach said, the problem with hiring decorated veterans like Favre is that they come in on their terms, not yours. Remember, Childress staked his future on Favre, so he goes up or down with No. 4.

Chicago Bears
Significant additions: QB Jay Cutler, T Orlando Pace, LB Pisa Tinoisamoa, S Josh Bullocks, T Frank Omiyale, T Kevin Shaffer.
Significant losses: QB Kyle Orton, S Mike Brown, WR Marty Booker, QB Rex Grossman, WR Brandon Lloyd, T Fred Miller, T John St. Clair, T John Tait.
Biggest offseason move: Acquiring Cutler. The Bears haven't had a franchise quarterback since the Punky QB (Jim McMahon), and that was over two decades ago. But now they have Cutler, and there hasn't been an arm like this in Chicago since the days of Mark Prior. Cutler was lights-out in his last two preseason games, and that's good. But I'd be careful: It's preseason. GM Jerry Angelo believes Cutler puts the Bears over the top, and maybe he's right. But Cutler also is 17-20 and never won more than eight games in a season. Will reach the playoffs if ... Their defense comes around. For all the angst about Kyle Orton a year ago, it wasn’t the offense that crumbled; it was the Bears’ defense. It ranked 21st overall and 30th against the pass. The good news: That defense also produced an NFC-best 32 takeaways.
Rookie to watch: S Al Afalava. The sixth-round pick out of Oregon State was the hit of training camp and a starter in the Bears' first three preseason games. He is a sure tackler with good instincts and a lock to make a significant contribution to this year's team.
Overview: The Bears are gambling on offense. They have the franchise quarterback to go with the franchise running back, Matt Forte. Only one problem: Where's the franchise wide receiver? There isn't one, and Chicago is hoping it can get by with Greg Olsen, Devin Hester and Earl Bennett as Cutler's primary targets. My only question: What happens when the wind starts blowing in November and December?

Detroit Lions
Significant additions: QB Matthew Stafford, CB Philip Buchanon, CB Anthony Henry, DT Grady Jackson, RB Maurice Morris, LB Julian Peterson, LB Cody Spencer, WR Bryant Johnson, DB Eric King, TE Will Heller.
Significant losses: CB Leigh Bodden, T George Foster, QB Jon Kitna, LB Paris Lenon, WR Shaun McDonald, G Edwin Mulitalo, QB Dan Orlovsky, DE Cory Redding, S Dwight Smith, TE Dan Campbell, WR Mike Furrey.
Biggest offseason move: Drafting Stafford. The Lions haven't had a franchise quarterback for decades. Honest. The last time a quarterback from Detroit was named to the Pro Bowl was 1972 when Greg Landry was chosen. Not it's Stafford's opportunity to do what Joey Harrington could not seven years ago -- namely, convince the Lions he'll be around for years.
Will reach the playoffs if ... Elephants can fly. It’s not going to happen, people; not this year.
Rookie to watch: Stafford, because he plays the most important position. Don't expect Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco performances from the guy. It takes time. It also takes a supporting cast. Let the guy grab some oxygen, people.
Overview: The Lions will be better because they can't be worse. Win one, and they're improved. Win five or six, and Jim Schwartz is a Coach of the Year candidate. Schwartz was a smart hire, but he isn't a miracle worker. He has to undo eight years of horrible football, bad decisions and rotten drafts, and that's not going to happen overnight. Look for the Lions to start coming around the second half of the season.

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