2012 Division Preview: NFC North
Back when it was the NFC Central and Tampa Bay was a card-carrying member, this was known as the Black and Blue division because of its intense rivalries and physical play. It retained those characteristics after becoming a quartet 10 years ago, but green and gold have become the dominant colors.
Green Bay has matched the combined success of its three NFC North colleagues (Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota) since the league went to eight four-team divisions in 2002. The Packers have won five division championships, as many as the other three teams. They have gone to the playoffs seven times, the same number as the Bears, Lions and Vikings together. And, of course, the Pack is the only division team to win a Super Bowl championship (the Bears went to the big game after the 2006 season, but they lost to Peyton Manning and the Colts).
Conventional wisdom, while not always a perfect predictor for developments in the NFL, says the Packers should dominate the division again in 2012. Led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the league's MVP last season, Green Bay boasts an offense that scored 63 touchdowns and outscored its opponents by a whopping 201 points in 2011.
The Lions, who went to the playoffs last year for the first time since 1999, could contend for another berth in the postseason. The Bears should be better, especially if they can keep quarterback Jay Cutler healthy. The Vikings have one of the league's youngest rosters and are in regrouping mode coming off their worst season (3-13) in franchise history.
Green Bay's 560 points last season were the second most in NFL history (the Patriots scored 589 in '07). Rodgers has developed into one of the league's elite quarterbacks. He has thrown for 17,037 yards, the most by any quarterback in his first four years as a starter, and his 122.5 passer rating last season set an NFL record. (Brett Who?) The Packers have one of the most productive and deepest wide receiver groups, one that now features Jordy Nelson, who had a breakout season last year (68 catches, an 18.6-yard average and 15 touchdowns).
Given the team's mediocre ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks last season, it wasn't surprising to see general manager Ted Thompson load up on defense in the draft. The Pack took defensive players (two linemen, two linebackers and two defensive backs) with its first six picks. Even with outside linebacker Clay Matthews, one of the better rushers in the league, Green Bay produced only 29 sacks last year. The tepid pass rush put added pressure on the secondary and, consequently, the Packers allowed the most passing yards in league history. Coordinator Dom Capers is hoping rookies Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy, or someone else, can add pass rush pressure.
The secondary performed inconsistently last season. Now that Charles Woodson has moved to safety in the base 3-4 defense -- he will line up against the slot receiver in nickel and dime situations -- someone needs to emerge at his former cornerback spot, opposite Williams. So far, no one has. Davon House was the early favorite, but he dislocated his shoulder in the opening preseason game. Others vying for the spot are Jarrett Bush, Sam Shields -- both of whom were disappointing last season -- and rookie Casey Hayward. The Packers will face many dangerous receivers -- Detroit's Calvin Johnson (twice), Chicago's Brandon Marshall (twice), Houston's Andre Johnson, the Giants' Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, and the Saints' deep contingent -- so strong pass defense, especially at the corners, will be critical.
Just when it looked like the Packers were headed for a 16-0 record last year, which would have matched the Patriots' perfect regular season of 2007, they stubbed their toes in Kansas City and lost to the Chiefs. They finished 15-1, but that lofty mark was exposed in the playoffs, where they lost to the Giants at home. Even given Green Bay's defensive struggles, it's hard to imagine this team not being dominant again this season.
Just because the Bears play a lot of the Tampa 2 defense, don't be fooled into thinking they're a finesse defense. They are as physical as any other team in the league. If you doubt it, just watch Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher. Peppers remains one of the best all-around ends in the league, even though he is 32. Urlacher, who is 34 and coming back from knee surgery, had one of his best seasons in 2011. Although the Tampa 2 remains a big part of their scheme, the Bears played more aggressively last year, using more press coverage and a variety of blitzes. As a result, they were among the league leaders in takeaways (11 fumble recoveries, 20 interceptions).
Coach Lovie Smith, new offensive coordinator Mike Tice and the men up front may be sick of hearing it, but the O-line will be the team's weak link until proven otherwise. The funny thing is, the Bears didn't do much to change the landscape during the offseason; they didn't draft any offensive linemen and in free agency they added only Chilo Rachal, who had been disappointing in San Francisco. Although the entire line needs to raise its level of play, the spotlight is on left tackle, where J'Marcus Webb had 14 penalties last season. He needs to get better quickly because Chris Williams, a former first-round draft pick who can also play guard, is breathing down his neck.
This will be Cutler's seventh NFL season and his fourth as the starting quarterback in Chicago. If he's ever going to become one of the league's elite quarterbacks, the time is now. Tice's offense should be a much more comfortable fit for Cutler than the seven-step drop, long-developing pass plays he had to execute under former coordinator "Mad" Mike Martz. Plus he has been reunited with wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who was his most reliable receiver in Denver. Cutler has one of the strongest arms in the league and he appears to have recovered from the broken thumb that forced him to miss the final six games last season. Let's see what he's got.
In the five seasons since they played in Super Bowl XLI, the Bears have had only two winning records and one playoff appearance. That lukewarm performance finally caught up with general manager Jerry Angelo, who was dismissed in the offseason, but it's still reflecting on Smith, whose job could be in jeopardy if Chicago misses the postseason again. Over the last two seasons, the Bears are 18-10 when Cutler is healthy. If the line can keep Cutler upright, running back Matt Forte can stay healthy and the defense does its part, a wild-card spot is attainable.
Calvin Johnson, aka "Megatron," is Matthew Stafford's dream target and every defensive back's nightmare. He is a vertical threat who has the speed to outrun most defenders and the strength to outfight them for the ball. At 6-foot-5, he is a big target who can get high for jump balls, which makes him a big-time target in the red zone. Last season, he had 96 receptions for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns (only New England tight end Rob Gronkowski caught more TD passes), and he snatched game-winning passes against Dallas and Oakland.
Inconsistency in the secondary hurt the Lions down the stretch last season. Part of that was due to the loss of free safety Louis Delmas, who missed the final five games with a knee injury. But even with Delmas on the field, the Lions need to be much better at cornerback. Chris Houston is the one dependable starter at corner; he had a team-leading five interceptions last season. Right now, the competition for the other starting corner spot is a two-man race between former Colt Jacob Lacey and rookie Bill Bentley, a third-round pick from Louisiana-Lafayette. One thing Bentley has going for him is speed: He ran a 4.37 40 at the Combine. Whoever loses the battle likely will be the nickel corner.
A Detroit back hasn't rushed for 1,000 yards since 2004, when Kevin Jones carried for 1,133 yards, and they haven't had a consistently dominant runner this century. Their top three backs last year -- Jahvid Best, Kevin Smith and Maurice Morris -- rushed for 390, 356 and 316 yards respectively. Durability and availability have been big problems. Best, a first-round pick in 2010, suffered a series of concussions early last season and has not been cleared to return to the field. Smith tore his ACL in '09 and had a thumb injury in '10. Mikel Leshoure, a second-round pick last season, missed the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon and only recently has started practicing (he will also miss the first two games of the season to suspension). Stafford and the passing game can't go it alone on offense. They're going to need some ground support.
After 11 consecutive seasons of frustration, including that ignominious 0-16 record just four years ago, Detroit finally gave its fans something to crow about last season, when the Lions ended their long playoff drought. General manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz have done what their predecessors could not: make the Lions relevant again. Returning to the postseason again in 2012 will be challenging, however. In addition to two games against both the Packers and the Bears, the Lions will face Houston and Atlanta at home, and San Francisco and Philadelphia on the road.
The Vikings had 50 sacks last season, tying the Eagles for the most in the league. Right end Jared Allen set a team record with 22 sacks, just missing the NFL single-season mark of 22.5 set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Allen, who also has made a niche as a run stopper, wasn't the only Vikings lineman quarterbacks saw invading their pockets last year. Left end Brian Robison (eight sacks) and tackle Kevin Williams (five) also made their presence felt. The Vikings don't blitz a lot, feeling that they can bring the pressure with just four pass rushers.
What was a mediocre group coming into the season was weakened even more when veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield was forced to miss 11 games because of injuries. But that was no excuse for the Vikings giving up 4,019 passing yards and a league-high 34 TD passes. The personnel has turned over in the secondary. Chris Cook is expected to start opposite Winfield at cornerback and second-round rookie Harrison Smith could replace Jamarca Sanford at strong safety -- possibly as soon as the season opener.
Brett Favre 2.0 didn't work out as expected. Bringing in a declining Donovan McNabb last year was a big mistake. Now the Vikings have handed the reins of their offense to Ponder, a first-round pick last year. The Ponder era actually began last season, when he started the final 10 games in the wake of the McNabb mess. The former Florida State star played relatively well, although he admitted his performance (four turnovers) in a December loss to Detroit rattled his confidence. During the offseason, Ponder worked to improve his pass drops and his decision-making, and he looked more poised in training camp.
It's hard to imagine that the Vikings would take a step backward after last year's debacle, but they might be only marginally better in 2012. Ponder hasn't played a full season's schedule, rookie Matt Kalil will be the starter at left tackle and there's youth and inexperience at other positions. This is a rebuilding team. One thing for Minnesota fans to look forward to is a new stadium, which will be ready by 2016. Hopefully it won't take that long for the Vikings to become playoff contenders again.