With the start of the NFL season fast approaching, we continue our look around the league division by division with a stop in the NFC North, where we have a pretty good idea which team will finish first and an even better idea which team will finish last, but the middle of the division is more interesting.
The cream of the division is, of course, the Green Bay Packers, who sported the best record in the regular season last year. As we chronicled earlier, the Packers were basically a non-factor in free agency. They do, however, return virtually every key player, and added much-needed reinforcements to the defensive front seven in the draft. The bigger question mark is the defensive backfield, which received a blow when Nick Collins proved unable to return from his neck injury and was released. That means more pressure on a player like Tramon Williams to have a bounce-back season and Charles Woodson to fend off the ravages of Father Time. Then again, the Pack managed to go 15-1 last season with one of the league's worst pass defenses. Defensive improvement is instead "just" the key to avoiding another disappointing playoff result like January's home loss to the Giants.
The Vikings appear poised to finish at the bottom of the division once again. Regardless of the status of Adrian Peterson and his apparently remarkably quick recovery from a late-season ACL injury, the team's overall talent level is not up to the rest of the division, or the rest of the league. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave will likely look to a conservative attack featuring newly-acquired tight end John Carlson to pair with second-year man Kyle Rudolph to help Christian Ponder improve in his sophomore campaign. Matt Kalil at left tackle will help Ponder, as Charlie Johnson moves inside to buttress an interior group that will have to replace Steve Hutchinson. On defense, the biggest question marks are again in the defensive backfield, where a pair of rookie from Notre Dame, first-round pick Harrison Smith and fifth-rounder Robert Blanton (a collegiate corner), are the likely starters at safety. The league's worst pass defense last year will also be looking for help from cornerback Chris Cook, returning from his off-field troubles.
The Chicago Bears looked for a while like they might be in a position to win the division for the second straight season if the Packers stumbled, but injuries first to Jay Cutler and then to Matt Forte crippled the offense to a point of near-complete nonfunctionality. They lost five in a row before winning the season finale against the Vikings to finish at .500. With Cutler healthy, Forte recovered as well and securely in the fold with a new contract plus Michael Bush to share the load, the offense should be where it was before the injuries. If the defense can maintain the fairly high level of play it's shown for most of Lovie Smith's tenure, the Bears should be where they were last year after ten games, in second place with a chance to take first, looking towards the postseason.
The Detroit Lions, meanwhile, will be looking to maintain their spot in the upper half of the division. The rare "breakout team" that actually broke out, another 10-6 season would probably be considered a success after a tumultuous offseason that has included (as of this writing) seven player arrests. The pass rush, hopefully one including franchise-tagged defensive end Cliff Avril and a better third year after a comparatively down second season from terrifying defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, will once again be counted on to assist a secondary that lost its best cornerback, Eric Wright, to free agency and couldn't add the playmaking safety they needed to complement Louis Delmas. The Lions added to their offensive early in the draft, both on the line with tackle Riley Reiff and at receiver with Ryan Broyles. That defense is probably at least another year away from genuine Super Bowl contention, but another second-place finish isn't out of the question.
The even-better news for the winner of the second-place battle, and perhaps even the third-place team as well, is the NFC North this year faces off against a fairly weak AFC South and a pretty weak NFC West. Combined with the two games against the Vikings, don't be surprised to see two and possibly even three teams with double-digit wins in the NFC North and perhaps both the Bears and Lions in the playoffs. The NFC's road to the Super Bowl will once again likely run through Lambeau Field, though.