I'm very anxious to see how this division is going to play out. The Vikings have a new look, the Lions are as good as they've been in 20 years, and then we have the defending NFC runner-ups and the Super Bowl Champions. This should be an exciting division as these teams jockey for position throughout the season. Let's see where they rank coming into the season.
4. Minnesota Vikings - I really like the pieces that the Vikings have in place...to be competitive. But not to finish well in this particular division. This division is pretty stacked. I don't believe the records will be that far apart from top to bottom. The success of this team is going to be on the shoulders of Donovan McNabb. If he can still be competitive in this league, he needs to prove it this year. He will have the luxury of having the best all around running back in the NFL in Adrian Peterson. Even when he has an off year, he's good for 1100 yards and 10 TD's, so look for him to put up big numbers, especially in a contract year. There's a solid core of receivers but I don't see a true number one that sticks out. Percy Harvin has not played a full season since he's been in the league. They lost Sydney Rice in free agency, but did bring in Michael Jenkins, who's listed as the number three right now behind Harvin and Bernard Berrian. Berrian wants to play a bigger role in the offense this year, but he's aging and doesn't have the same explosiveness and break away speed he had a few years ago. Greg Camarillo rounds out the receivers for the Vikes. There will be plenty of balls to go around, but it will be intriguing to see which one of these guys steps up as McNabb's go-to-guy. My vote; Kyle Rudolph from Notre Dame. This guy was a beast in college and I look for him to step up and have a decent rookie season for the Vikings and McNabb. Defensively, the Vikings will miss Ray Edwards who left via free agency. They still have Jared Allen and a solid group of linebackers behind him, but they are getting up there in age, as is the secondary with Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield anchoring the group. The Vikings have a very difficult schedule this season. McNabb is no stranger to the west coast offense, so he should pick up on things quickly. There's too much power in this division though, and I see the Vikings finishing 7-9.
3. Chicago Bears - Having the Bears ranked here is going to make a lot of people upset, but there is a method to my madness. Last year the Bears had three guys that could return kicks better than anyone in the league. They still have two of those guys (Devin Hester and Johnny Knox), but the rule change added this season has kickers kicking off from the 35 yard line now instead of the 30. This is going to take away the Bears best offensive weapon. Instead of starting from the better side of the 40 every drive, Jay Cutler is going to have to go 80 yards most drives, and I'm not real confident in his ability to do that. He's a decent QB, but not great for the system Mike Martz has in Chicago. This is one of those situations that goes back to the argument of what coaches should do. Run your offense to the strength of your players, or make them adjust to your system. Cutler plays best on the run, rolling outside of the pocket, but that's not the offense that Martz likes to run. He pulls his lineman quite often as well, but the problem is the offensive line is big and slow, so they struggle doing this on a consistent basis. This could contribute to Cutler being sacked so many times last year, along with his knack for holding the ball entirely too long. And let's face facts; Cutler does not have a number one receiver to throw to. In fact, they shipped off his best target in Greg Olsen to Carolina. I love Kellen Davis from Michigan State, but he's inexperienced and more of a blocking tight end, as is Matt Spaeth. Hester is a tremendous athlete, but really can't run a route and create separation. Roy Williams may lose his starting job because he showed up out of shape. Matt Forte is one of my favorite players. I love how he plays, and in a year where he wants a new deal, I expect him to shine. He was responsible for over 60% of the Bears offense a year ago, and I don't expect that to change much. Marion Barber will add power at the goal line for the Bears. On defense, they are solid. One of the best units in the league year after year, they've looked impressive in the preseason as well. They will keep this team in any game week after week. I just don't see enough offense to make them a playoff team this year. They have three tough games right out of the gate with the Falcons, Saints, and Packers all in September, so they could very well be 0-3 before they know it. I see them finishing 8-8.
2. Detroit Lions - Finally the Lions will have a winning season. There is an "if" attached to this. Stafford has to stay healthy. I'm putting them above the Bears on the theory that Matthew Stafford will play the whole season for the first time in his career. Shaun Hill is great at managing games for this team in Stafford's absence, but if Stafford is healthy this team will do amazing things this year. He's looked incredibly sharp in the preseason. I'm really high on his abilities, and if healthy, look for him to put up numbers like the elite quarterbacks in the league. Calvin Johnson will be his main guy, who is capable of 1500 yards and 13 TD's if he gets enough looks. Nate Burleson has proven to be a solid number two, and Brandon Pettigrew should be a decent tight end in this league if he stays healthy. There's a theme with this team "if he stays healthy". They are plagued with injuries year after year and so far it's no different this year. They already lost their rookie RB for the season. Big rookie defensive lineman Nick Fairley has been in a walking boot most of the preseason. I don't know if it's bad luck or the way this team prepares in practice, but they just can't seem to stay healthy. If they can, they will be a force in the North. Jahvid Best is coming slowly off of multiple injuries, so they should have him at 100% by week one of the regular season. Defensively, they were solid last year and will be even better this year, especially up front. They have arguably the best front four in the league with Avril, Suh, Vanden Bosh, and Cory Williams. Just ask Tom Brady and the Patriots. They also have a lot of depth on the line, so they can rotate in fresh guys to get after opposing QB's. A healthy Lions team will finish 9-7. If they cannot stay healthy, look for another "yeah but..." season.
1. Green Bay Packers - I have the Packers at number one here, but I'm not in love with them as much as everyone else seems to be. Aaron Rodgers does seem to be the real deal, as he's picked up where he left off in the playoffs a year ago, looking very good in the preseason. I think before it's all said and done, he will make people in Green Bay say "Brett who?" That's how good Rodgers is. Last year this team was plagued with injuries, but were able to overcome them and win the Super Bowl. They only made the playoffs because of a bad call in the Buccaneers game, that the official later recognized he had blown the call, but the Packers took advantage of the opportunity and had one of the most dominating post seasons we've seen. Rodgers has a lot of weapons on offense. Ryan Grant is back from injury, and will share carries with James Starks. Greg Jennings is one of the best receivers in the game. He's not the physical specimen that Andre Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald are, but he is a fluid route runner and always seems to create separation and is explosive once he has the ball in his hands. Donald Driver is one of the greatest Green Bay Packer receivers in franchise history, and still looks like a 25 year old on the field. Jordy Nelson and James Jones are great targets off the bench, and they will have a healthy JerMichael Finley at TE. Defensively, you'd be hard pressed to find a better all around unit in the NFL than the Pack. Clay Matthews is a solid linebacker, getting better each year. Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson may be the best corner tandom in the NFC, not the guys in Philly. The safeties are solid as well with Nick Collins and Morgan Burnett. B.J Rahji is an absolute beast in the middle, making it difficult to run up the middle against this unit. All around, the Packers are a solid group and may be the best team in the NFC. In a competitive black and blue division, look for them to take their nicks and suffer injuries at key positions again as the season goes on. I have Green Bay winning 11 games this year, but they will play a lot of close games with a tough schedule facing them.