2011 Division Previews: NFC North

NFL’s Most Athletically Gifted Tight End

NFC South

NFC West

1. Green Bay Packers (11-5) – I’m as big a Tom Brady fanatic there is, but Aaron Rodgers is the game’s best quarterback at this moment in time.  It helps he can make plays on the run when the pocket collapses, which often happens, behind a very average offensive line.  Still, during these throws on the move, he puts enough mustard behind the pigskin without losing his pinpoint accuracy.  His playoff run last season was extraordinary, one for the ages, aside from the second half of the NFC title game in Chicago.  Yet, Rodgers made the vaunted Steelers defense look like the Akron Zips in the Super Bowl.  Legendary status.  He was on a level few have ever reached before.  With Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson to zing the rock to, how can you contend with the Packers pass attack?  Oh, and the dynamic Jermichael Finley is returning from injury.  How is this fair?  Also, Ryan Grant will be back to share carries with James Starks in the ground department.  With firepower abundant on offense, it’s clear Dom Capers’ potent defense follows the same route as the high-octane offense.  Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Nick Collins all are threats to make a pick-six at any time during the course of a contest.  With Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji among the elite at their respective positions, should we have the Cheeseheads take on the AFC Pro Bowl squad in Hawaii, granted, they don’t have reservations for Indy come the first Sunday of February.

2. Chicago Bears (10-6) – Are we certain the Bears have offensive issues?  Or are all the pieces in place?  The offensive line remains the team’s biggest weakness, however, it looks much better than it did at this time last year.  Jay Cutler not tough enough?  I beg to differ.  Too inconsistent, throws way too many picks?  Only 16 last season, ten less from the previous campaign.  Consider this: Cutler was seventh-best in yards per pass attempt.  So, he stayed aggressive and took risks, capitalizing on the big play via the air.  He also improved his QB rating by almost eight points from his first run with the Bears.  While the team didn’t reward him with a prime-time addition at receiver, unless you really believe Roy Williams will be revived under former Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz, they did make it a point to upgrade the goal-line and red zone offense (second-worst scoring percentage among playoff teams) with Marion Barber.  Not a tall, red zone receiving target, but nonetheless, a powerful runner to help the goal-line woes.  Yet, if Devin Hester doesn’t make a significant jump as a receiver, how will the offense be able to compete with the likes of New Orleans, Green Bay, Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia?  Cutler’s No. 1 target, Johnny Knox, was fifth-best in real estate per haul, but only corralled 51 balls in ’10.  Explosive, but not enough touches.

So, where the does the true problem lie?  One word: Martz.  He can either be the reason why the offense transforms into one of the best or it suffers.  Correlation with his play-calling was apparent last season.  Just look at when Cutler threw the ball 39 or more times; the Bears lost on all three occasions.  A more balanced offense, as seen after the Bye week (7-2), could translate into an upright quarterback and more importantly, team success.

Defensively, things are simple to analyze compared to the other side of the ball.  The front-seven is going to be stout like always.  Even better in ’11, when you see how much improved the interior line looks penetrating off the ball.  The concern remains the same, as the secondary is decent at best.  Safety depth, mainly an unpredictable Major Wright starting at free safety, and a lack of premiere corners can be exposed.  In the end, a “bend but don’t break” approach masks the defense’s major deficiency.  However, can the Bears ultimately overcome Martz calling the shots with a suspect group protecting for Cutler?

3. Detroit Lions (7-9) – Simply put, the Lions will be unable to hurdle a shaky secondary and non-existent ground game.  Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson and an intimidating front four featuring Ndamukong Suh – you could make a case for the Motor City squad challenging for a Wild Card berth in the NFC because of the promising pass offense and pass rush.  But there’s too many hit-or-miss areas where I feel this team has a better chance of missing than hitting.  Can they execute in short-yardage situations?  Jahvid Best is the opposite of durable and so are his back-ups Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell.  Does this mean they will have to rely on tosses to Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew on third and short?  Sooner or later, the line will crumble and we’ve seen this story before with Stafford.  As much as I would to believe he’s going to stay healthy, is it possible in a pass-heavy system?  The loss of rookie running back Mikel Leshoure (233-pound bruiser) hurts more than you would imagine.  With that said, is the second major weakness on the team more demoralizing?  I’m afraid so.  The cornerbacks are all leftovers from other teams: Chris Houston (Falcons), Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald (Browns), Nathan Vasher (Bears), Alphonso Smith (Broncos), and Anthony Madison (Steelers).  It’s not a good thing that they all share one trait in common: underachievement.  At safety, Louis Delmas is a talent, but plays too reckless.  His defensive backfield partner is a converted corner (Amari Spievey), with not much experience at the strong safety spot.  In conclusion, the Lions are the NFC version of the Houston Texans – except they lack a superstar back and an encouraging pass defense makeover.  On top of that, they play in a much tougher division than Houston.  Call me crazy, but I would be shocked if the Lions reach .500 this season.

4. Minnesota Vikings (5-11) – In recent memory, both sides of the line proved mightily impressive.  The offensive line would open big holes for Adrian Peterson, while the defensive line dominated games with the Williams Wall and an exuberant Jared Allen.  No longer a strength (past their primes, except for Kevin Williams) on either side in the trenches, the Vikings look rather ordinary.  What once was considered a reason why they could control games, is now believed to be a reason why some games will consequently get out of control for them.  At least the concern under center has vanished, as the team went out with the oldest (Favre) and in with more old by upgrading the quarterback position with Donovan McNabb.  Still, will his arrival make the offense click?  Is it absurd to think McNabb’s lackluster Eagle receivers in the pre-T.O. era would trump his current crew of pass catchers?  Percy Harvin is an exceptional athlete with the ability to break a game wide open on any given Sunday, on any given play.  But who thinks he is going to stay healthy to factor as a difference-maker during a full 16-game season?  No sweat, Donovan.  Unproven Jackson State product Jaymar Johnson, Falcon castoff Michael Jenkins, and ex-Bears Bernard Berrian, Devin Aromashodu and Juaquin Iglesias will be enough to make Viking fans forget about Sidney Rice and the retired Randy Moss.  Alright, maybe Moss.  This all said, and I haven’t even touched on a dismal pass defense, where injuries always seem to plague this area of concern.  A vaunted pass rush could offset a bad defensive backfield, but can Fred Pagac lean on his front four the way the Lions are able to?  Hardly so.  How about the linebackers?  I wonder if Mike Singletary is a miracle worker?  At least Adrian Peterson has some practice in that realm, oh, wait, he’s just a running back.  Sadly, the only thing going for the Purple guys is #28, and possibly a reinvigorated signal caller – and that’s stretching it.

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