This week, SI.com is rolling out previews for all eight NFL divisions. Today, we tackle the NFC North and AFC North, following up earlier breakdowns of the AFC East, NFC East, AFC South and NFC South. The AFC and NFC West conclude things Friday.
The NFC North has changed from the punishing, grind-it-out style of its NFC Central origins to the division of the quick strike. What division boasts better quarterbacks than Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford? The latest proof of the division's metamorphosis might have been Lovie Smith's hiring this offseason of coordinator Mike Martz to revive the dormant Bears offense. Martz wings it like few others, but it will be fascinating to see how his style plays at Soldier Field in December. Detroit also upgraded its offense during the offseason, gifting Stafford with receiver Nate Burleson, running back Jahvid Best and tight end Tony Scheffler. With Green Bay and Minnesota trading haymakers in recent years, the Bears and Lions understand that field goals and two-yard rushes won't get it done. Watch the NFC North closely this season. Everybody will be chucking it.
What the Packers do best: Throw the football.
Mike McCarthy says he has never given a quarterback the responsibility he has given Aaron Rodgers (take that Brett Favre!) and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. From the second half of the 2009 season to now, only Drew Brees has played at the kind of level that Rodgers has. McCarthy has allowed Rodgers to find his way as Green Bay's leader, to make his mistakes, to have his successes, and to have a strong voice in the Packers' offensive game plan. The result is a quarterback reaching the height of his powers -- a year ago Rodgers completed 64.7 percent of his throws, threw for 4,434 yards, 30 touchdowns and 7 interceptions -- and a passing offense that should finish the 2010 season as the best in the National Football League.
What the Packers need to improve: Consistency of offensive line.
It is remarkable that Rodgers has remained upright considering the punishment he has endured behind a shaky offensive line. Much like the Packers themselves, the line showed improvement as the 2009 season wore on, but Rodgers can't afford a beating in a division that now has Jared Allen, Julius Peppers and Ndamukong Suh rushing the quarterback. The Packers began the 2009 season with a 4-4 record for several reasons, including McCarthy's decision to open up the offense early to try to score quickly and take pressure off a defense learning Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. The offensive line gave up 51 sacks last season. That number needs to be cut in half this season.
Which Packer needs to step up: Cornerback Tramon Williams.
With cornerback Al Harris on the physically-unable-to-perform list, the Packers will need big contributions from Williams, who has seen time in Green Bay's base and nickel defense. Williams had a rough time in the Packers' 51-45 playoff loss to Arizona, but he will be given the opportunity to make amends this season in Harris's absence. Williams talked often last season about the many lessons he learned playing behind Harris and Charles Woodson, who had nine interceptions and was named the league's defensive player of the year. One of those lessons was about preparation. Williams will soon be putting it in use.
Predicted record: 12-4.
The Packers mostly avoided the free-agent market, a nod both to their penchant to build through the draft and their belief that the team is Super Bowl-ready right now. If Green Bay can overcome its Brett Favre complex (the Packers were swept last season) it should dominate the NFC North and beyond.
What the Vikings do best: Rush the quarterback.
The Vikings have the rare defensive front that is brilliant against both the pass and the run. With Jared Allen and Ray Edwards flying around the corner and Pat Williams and Kevin Williams stuffing the middle, the Vikings don't have to blitz unless they want to. Coaches league-wide say that creating pressure with only four linemen is a defense's Holy Grail. From that position of strength, a defense can often limit what a running back can do and what a quarterback can see. While much is made of Favre's importance to the Vikings, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier places much of the onus on his unit. With his front four, it's understandable.
What the Vikings need to improve: Consistency of secondary.
Because of injury and age, the Vikings secondary might need to play over its head in 2010. With cornerback Cedric Griffin recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in the NFC Championship, Antoine Winfield coming off a foot injury (and entering his 12th season) and projected starting right corner Chris Cook dealing with a torn meniscus, the Vikings can't afford too many slip ups in the secondary. Minnesota signed veteran Lito Sheppard (late of the Jets and the Eagles). If the Vikings secondary is slow to heal, he might have to play even more than the Vikings were hoping.
Which Vikings needs to step up: Running back Toby Gerhart.
With a nod to pass protection and Chester Taylor's departure to Chicago, the Vikings drafted Gerhart, a bruiser expected to spell Adrian Peterson and contribute to the good health of Favre. Gerhart, from Stanford, has a while to go to match Taylor's versatility out of the backfield and in the trenches, but he was one of the best players in the country last year (he finished runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting to Mark Ingram) and rushed for 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns. The Vikings traded up 11 spots to nab him with the 51st pick overall.
Predicted record: 9-7.
The Vikings were the story of the 2009 regular season, with Favre playing like he was 25. So much went right for the Vikings last season -- particularly Favre's health -- but it feels like a big ask for Minnesota to pull of the same magic in 2010. The schedule includes a killer October (at the Jets, Dallas, at the Packers and at the Patriots) that could wreck Minnesota's postseason plans.
What the Bears do best: Build linebackers.
Is there a position and a team more closely linked than linebackers and the Chicago Bears? From Bill George to Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Brian Urlacher, linebackers in Chicago are revered, and the Bears still turn out one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL. With Urlacher coming off a wrist injury that cost him 15 of 16 games last season, the Bears hope that some sustained health will finally visit a defense that has all of the pieces to be great.
Linebacker Lance Briggs has been named to five straight Pro Bowls, just the fourth linebacker in franchise history to do so (George, Butkus, Singletary) and he's led the Bears in tackles in each of the last two seasons. The addition of Julius Peppers along the defensive line -- helping to knock pulling offensive lineman to the ground -- should only increase the opportunity for the Bears linebackers to make plays.
What the Bears need to improve: Protect Jay Cutler.
Cutler didn't help himself by forcing passes into tight spots in 2009, but the Bears offensive line didn't do him any favors either. The Bears brought in O-line coach Mike Tice during the offseason to help shore up the team's biggest weakness -- the question is, does Tice have enough time and enough good players to do it. While the Bears have several moving parts along the line, left tackle Chris Williams, a first-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2008, is the most important key to Cutler's protection. Longtime center Olin Kreutz had offseason Achilles tendon surgery and should improve after spending most of 2009 in subpar health.
The biggest challenge for the line of scrimmage will be holding sturdy in a Mike Martz offense that demands so much out of an offensive line. Martz's old Rams didn't score points because of its skill players alone. They had a firm, physical line that was up to the rigors of pass-blocking. Chicago's crew will have to prove it can do the same.
Which Bear needs to step up: Wide receiver Devin Aromashodu.
While the "other" Devin (Hester) gets most of the pub in Chicago, Devin Aromashodu is more of a prototypical wide receiver. At 6-2 and 201 pounds, Aromashodu has the length to become a dependable player in Chicago's retooled offense. Though he has started just three games in five NFL seasons, Aromashodu offered a few glimpses of his potential at the end of 2009. Over the second half of last season, he caught 24 passes for 298 yards and four touchdowns and found himself as one of Cutler's favorite targets. While Hester, Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox have more seasoning, Aromashodu's upside should not be overlooked.
Predicted record: 8-8.
The Bears were big players in the free-agent sweepstakes, grabbing Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna, among others, to end a slide of three years without the postseason. So many things have to go right in Chicago -- Martz and Cutler have to click, Urlacher has to stay on the field, Peppers has to live up to his huge contract. With Green Bay and Minnesota as clear-cut favorites, the Bears have an uphill slog.
What the Lions do best: Rush the quarterback.
If Ndamukong Suh's treating Jake Delhomme's head like a bottle cap is any indication, the Lions are going to offer a beastly defensive front.
Just as Jim Schwartz used to do in Tennessee, where he was Jeff Fisher's longtime defensive coordinator, the Lions have put together a strong, attacking front four with Suh starring as a latter-day Albert Haynesworth. (The happy, effective Albert, of course). To Schwartz, read-and-react defenses are for other teams. He is all about attacking, attacking and then attacking some more. With Kyle Vanden Bosch -- the former Titan - reprising his role as enforcer along the edge, the Lions' front four will do everything in its power to shrink the pocket, keep opposing running backs contained, and keep quarterbacks' heads on a swivel -- either by their own power or Suh's.
What the Lions needs to improve: Turnover differential.
Detroit was ranked 32nd (last) in the all-important turnover differential, finishing 2009 at an unsightly -18. Part of that was due to rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford finding his way in the league (he threw 20 interceptions), but the Lions need more help from the secondary in creating turnovers.
Detroit got rid of its starting cornerbacks from 2009 and traded for Chris Houston (Atlanta), signed free agent Jonathan Wade and drafted Amari Spievey (University of Iowa) in the third round. It's a hodgepodge of players and systems that will have to learn on the fly. Safety Louis Delmas, in his second year, will be leaned on heavily to make sure things coalesce in the secondary.
Which Lion needs to step up: Wide receiver Nate Burleson.
This is a familiar role for Nate Burleson -- starting alongside a dynamic, rangy wide receiver. In Minnesota, it was Randy Moss. In Detroit, it's Calvin Johnson. The Lions made Burleson a huge priority in free agency, signing the veteran to a five-year, $25 million deal on the first day the market opened. If Burleson can be a threat, opponents will have to think twice about the double and triple teams that weekly flow to Johnson's side of the field. Burleson likened the Detroit Lions situation to that of the New Orleans Saints post-Katrina -- a team playing in an economically-depressed region that eventually became a part of a city's healing. The Lions have a ways to go to become the newest version of the 2009 Saints. But if Burleson contributes, the road might be a shorter, happier journey.
Predicted record: 6-10.
A four-game improvement from 2009 sounds right for a team that begins with three of its first four games on the road (at Chicago, at Minnesota, at Green Bay). The first home game? The Eagles in Week 2. The league didn't do the Lions any favors by loading them up with tough roadies to start, but Schwartz won't make any excuses. The year will be a better one, but the playoffs remain a couple of years away.