First thing that comes to mind when pondering the NFC North: Quarterbacks. Passing at a premium. Too easy. Each offensive unit fortified with a prolific aerial attack. Understatement. All four participants own a gunslinger unafraid to take chances down field. Undoubtedly. These signal callers are not lacking confidence, unwaveringly they fling the pigskin with ease, unfazed, willing they thread the needle at any given moment. Excitement. They are intense leaders who make life difficult for the opposing team’s head coach, as well as their own from time to time. Greatest strength, greatest weakness. You know the story. Football is fun when your watching these guys. Knack to make the most impossible look routine, yet the simple made out to be rocket science. You get the picture.
Caretakers, not a chance, risk takers, that’s more like it. Now we’re talking. No matter what the down, score, or situation, they will not back down from a challenge. They want the ball in their hands, especially when the game’s on the line. They will take the blame, but also want the credit for the win. Their style of play is flamboyant. Yet, you’re either going to hate ’em or love ’em. No question about it. Take the bad with the good, the good with the bad. They wouldn’t want it any other way. So on my behalf, let me introduce you to the wild, wild NFC North: Where you not only live, but die through the air. You have not only been welcomed, but warned —these QB’s love to play with fire. Stafford, Favre, Rodgers, Cutler -this is not your father’s NFC Central.
Minnesota (14-2) – Your NFC runner-up kicks off 2010 in the Superdome against the team who sent them home last January. Only 2 losses? Following a bye week, the month of October is ridiculous – @NYJ (Monday Night), vs. Dallas, @Green Bay (Sunday Night), @New England. Oh, and by the way, all scheduled to be prime time events. 14-2? Well, they did not lose in front of the home crowd last year. Secondary is improved with Chris Cook and Lito Sheppard. Adrian has a new friend, a running mate to spare him some wear and tear in Toby Gerhart. Sindey Rice and Percy Harvin are both a year more experienced.
Offensively, they are tough to contain considering what’s at #4’s disposal -can they really outdo 2009’s output? He has four worthwhile targets and the league’s most punishing rusher. On top of that, a more than average line to protect him. It’s the most talent he’s ever had around him. You can continue about the endless possibilities on offense all you want, but the one thing that remains and could prove again to be their Achilles heel -Turnovers. Something has to be done. Defensively, you begin and end with the best front four in all of football. Its consistent pass rush creating havoc on opposing QB’s makes life easier for the back seven, which is quite talented as well. Putting all the pieces in the puzzle together, there’s not another team in football I would count on more to reserve a February date in Dallas than the Minnesota Vikings.
Green Bay (8-8) – All the talent in the world. It begs to question: Can they get to the next level with the squad they have? Can you win the close game with such a sputtering defense? An ugly, grind it out battle with a finesse offensive attack? The playoff game against Arizona showed me they do have the resilience to come back and fight from behind. I was already a big-time believer in Rodgers, but after that game I came away even more impressed as I ever could be. The kid is a gamer. He lost the game, however, I came away with this sense that he has what it takes to be a winner in the postseason. Granted, he did miss out on a potential game-winner to Greg Jennings, and he lost the ball on the play which sent his team home for the winter; which turned out to be a reminder he’s not an elite level status QB— just yet.
With that being said, Rodgers will be the main reason if Green Bay advances past the 1st round, yet, if they don’t, I think the defense will be more than part to blame. Rodgers is ready, but is the rest of the team? Reigning NFL defensive player of the year Charles Woodson and Pro Bowler Clay Matthews are two of the best at their respective positions, but outside of them who can you trust? Nick Collins will give you the big play and the inside combo of Hawk and Barnett is solid. Will this be enough? In all of their losses they surrendered 30 or more points. How is that when they were the best in stopping the run and fifth stopping the pass? Inconsistency. Plus, they only beat two “full” (Arizona game doesn’t count) teams that finished with a winning record in ’09. Too much talent to be hovering around .500, but I just don’t like the way the defense finishes games. Can they get over the hump and shut the door when given the opportunity in 2010? They are leaving too much to be desired.
Detroit (7-9) – Don’t be surprised if they finish ahead of Green Bay. 8-8, 9-7 is not out of the reach for these Lions. One of the most improved teams in the off-season. You add a high-quality RB, a big-time caliber defensive lineman, and a skilled cornerback via the Draft -things are looking rather promising in the Motor City. Add that to a bonafide #2 receiver next to Calvin Johnson, a gritty veteran DE, a legit starting left guard, a gifted receiving TE -and you can see why I have this squad on the up and up. Lions fans are actually looking forward to attending Ford Field this season!
Stafford-Best-Johnson. A trio that will have you buzzing by year’s end. A top 10 offense. Imagine if the defense could pick up the pace! Play makers (Delmas, Peterson) are there, but still you see some holes that need to be filled, or at least covered in order for this team to become complete and balanced enough to hang with the big boys. Yet, when you have an offense like they do, things can turn around in a hurry. The talent is in, the coaching staff is in place, now it’s time to see if these young bloods have what it takes to compete in the NFC North!
Chicago (4-12) – 34-24. The final outcome of many Bears contests in 2010. Too many questions concerning offensive line, secondary, and overall health on defense will plague this unit from becoming a true factor in the division. Mike Martz will surely help revamp the passing game, but how will it all come to fruition considering there will be seven-step drops? Timing and precision will emphasized, but will it come together with an inexperienced receiving group and shaky line play? Will the defense gets its rest? Which Matt Forte will we see? Too much going against the Windy City’s beloved for me to believe they can achieve a .500 record.
Something has to be said for the patch-up job they think will do wonders and perform miracles in all-world DE Julius Peppers. Will he instantly make this defense better and healthy? He better, considered the contract they give him. You can’t count on Tommie Harris, Charles Tillman, and Brian Urlacher anymore, can you? You shouldn’t. Safety position is still a concern, the defensive line is based on quickness rather than strength, which will not bode well for stopping the run, and the team just cannot get off the field on third downs playing Cover 2. Physical style cornerbacks should me playing man coverage, not zone. Why weren’t there any adjustments made to the system and schemes on defense? Oh, did I mention Jay Cutler loves to give the other team the ball in the red zone? Windy City Flyer, where art thou in the return game? Don’t be fooled if there’s a major overhaul of coaching staff and roster in 2011. Long-time coming.