August 25, 2006
NFL Preview: NFC North
Chicago: The lone bright spot in an otherwise sorry division, the Bears posted an 11-5 record behind the league's #1 ranked defense, which gave up just over 12 points per game. This team should again be the best in their division, but there are questions as to whether or not this is a Super Bowl-caliber team. Most of the other top teams in the NFC have improved, but the Bears stood pat and will likely start the same players they did last year, despite holes at wide reciever and tight end. The one unknown about the bears is how good Cedric Benson will be. Thomas Jones got most of the carries last year, but this year the sophmore Benson should see his share of playing time as well. Regardless of who is playing running back, the offense will have to perform better - in all five of the Bears' losses last year, they scored 10 points or less. Mushin Muhammed is a quality #1 reciever, but otherwise Rex Grossman has no other good options to throw to. I think this team played over its head last year, but they should still be the class of this division. They won't get a first-round bye in the playoffs, though, as they probably won't get more than 9 wins.
Detroit: The Lions have been beyond atrocious over the last few seasons; they're coming off a 5-11 season and enter the season with first-year coach Rod Marinelli in charge. But I think there is hope for the Lions in the immediate future. They had a sub-par defense last year, but this year they will switch to a Cover 2 defensive scheme. I won't get into all the details of a Cover 2 - I don't completely understand it myself - but the general rule is this: If you have good players, the Cover 2 will work very well (Chicago, Tampa Bay, and Indy used it last year, and all finished among the top ten defenses in the league), whereas if you don't have the right personell, your defense will break down (the Rams used it as well, and had the second-worst defense). From what I've read, the Lions have the right players to make the Cover 2 work, especially in the front seven. The other reason I think the Lions are due to improve is the fact that they brought in Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. You'll remember Martz was the OC for the 2000 Rams - the "Greatest Show on Turf", which featured probably the best offense of my lifetime - and won a championship there, before eventually being promoted to head coach and underachieving for a few years. But Martz may be the type of person who is better off not having to deal with both sides of the ball, and he could revamp the Lions' offensive attack. After drafting three wideouts with top-ten picks, the Lions have a plethora of good wide recievers. They brought in Jon Kitna, who is a decent quarterback who could become great in the right system. And they have Kevin Jones, who Martz will try to get the ball to both on the ground and in the air - kind of like he did with Marshall Faulk, except not quite as good. So, my point is: Don't sleep on the Lions this year. I don't think they'll make the playoffs, but they'll finish with a .500 record and an eye towards next year.
Green Bay: The Packers are coming off an extremely disappointing 4-12 campaign last year, and they hope to be much better next year. They suffered injuries to Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, the defense, and just about everyone else not named Brett Favre. This team will be better with people returning, but I still don't think they are good enough to be in playoff contention. Rookie linebacker A.J. Hawk will bring some excitement to the defensive side, but the fact is that Favre isn't getting any younger, and he doesn't exactly have an All-Star cast around him. The most exciting player of the preseason for the Packers has been second-round draft pick Greg Jennings, who may be poised for an Anquan Boldin-type breakout season this year with Favre throwing him the ball. And Aaron Rodgers will take over the quarterback reins if and when Favre eventually retires. But this is a team that needs to look towards 2007 and beyond, as I can't see them eclipsing 6-10 this year.
Minnesota: In case you didn't notice, the Vikings quietly posted a 9-7 record last year. I didn't know that. The Vikings are the third team in this division to have a new coach, with Brad Childress taking over (finally!) from Mike Tice. Brad Johnson will be quarterbacking (when did that become a verb?) the offense this year, and while Johnson is a solid QB, he is nothing spectacular. This team seems very average to me, as there are no gaping holes but no superstars either. They have tried to beef up their below-average defense, but I don't think they'll be evoking comparisons to the '86 Bears or the '00 Ravens anytime soon. Bottom line, this is a team with average talent across the board, and so logically I'll predict an 8-8 record.