The NFC North is home to the defending Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers, who defeated the Chicago Bears, another NFC North team, in the NFC Championship game to get a chance to face the Steelers in the Super Bowl. It has quickly become one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, and this year will be no different.
Last year, the Chicago Bears finished on top of the division with an 11-5 regular season record. They made their way to the NFC Championship game, where they lost by one touchdown to the division rival Packers, who finished the regular season with a 10-6 record, winning a spot in the playoffs as a Wild Card team. The Detroit Lions finished in third place with a 6-10 record and, bringing up the rear, were the Minnesota Vikings, who also finished with a 6-10 record.
This division is going to be one of the toughest in the league in 2011.
1. Green Bay Packers (2010 Record: 10-6)
I get really frustrated when I'm asked to predict the 2011 record for the Green Bay Packers. I spend too much time agonizing over each game preview and now you want to know about 16 games? Coach told me to take it one game at a time! The Packers schedule isn't too bad with only one bad bunching of games at the end of November when they play the Lions on Thanksgiving. Outside of their division, they play the AFC West and NFC South this season, which includes some pretty good teams, but also the two worst team of 2010. Some of their road games look tough, but the Packers should be knows as the best road warriors in the NFL after they had to win in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago during the playoffs. I can see how they can win all 16 games this season, but reality sets in and they're bound to lose some close ones. I think 11-5 is more realistic.
What I Think:
The Packers have a unique problem, and really, it's not a problem at all. They have solid starters at pretty much every position on the field, except for at the running back position. It's not like they have a shortage of talent. In fact, they have the opposite. Right now, Ryan Grant is on top of the depth chart, but right behind him is James Starks. Either one of these guys could carry the load. They have too much talent. On the other side of the ball, the Packers are bringing back 10 of the 11 starters that finished the 2010 regular season with the fifth best defense in the league. They're going to be tough to beat.
Record Prediction: 11-5 -- Division Winners
2. Chicago Bears (2010 Record: 11-5)
11-5. Throughout their history, the Chicago Bears have been known as a defensive team, and there's no reason 2011 will be any different. Led by veterans Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers, with a healthy dose of the youthful Cory Wootton, Henry Melton, Stephen Paea and Major Wright, expect this unit to once again lead the team into the postseason. The question is... How far will the Bears go in the playoffs? That will largely depend on the production of the offense. Jay Cutler enters his third year with the team, and a productive offseason produced a slimmer QB, whose footwork offensive coordinator Mike Martz praised once the lockout ended. The team also addressed a huge need on the offensive line by drafting one of the top OTs of the 2011 class in Gabe Carimi. If the offense can blossom, expect the Bears to surprise some folks this season.
What I Think:
Yes, the Bears are good. No, the Bears aren't as good as the Packers. In the NFC North, the Bears are the second most complete team but they just aren't talented enough to knock the Packers off their throne. While Aaron Rodgers is familiar with all of his weapons, Jay Cutler will have to get used to his new No. 1 wide receiver, Roy Williams, a Dallas Cowboys reject. I fully expect Cutler to be on a different page, or at least a different paragraph, than his receivers at first, but they'll get used to each other. If Matt Forte can help carry the load, the offense will move the ball down the field, if not, they could struggle. Of course, as usual, the Bears defense will be tough to score on.
Record Prediction: 10-6 -- Wild Card
3. Detroit Lions (2010 Record -- 6-10)
Some people are still skeptical that the Lions will ever get this winning thing figured out on a consistent basis, but I am not one of them. With all of the talent the Lions have assembled in the last few years and with the team finally learning how to win at the end of 2010, I believe 2011 will be a year to remember for Lions fans (for good reasons unlike the past). Not only do I have the Lions reaching the .500 plateau for the first time in a decade, but I have them going 10-6 and making a run at the playoffs. This is all contingent on Stafford staying healthy, of course, but even he goes down the Lions showed last year they can win games with other quarterbacks. I don't foresee 10 wins without stafford, but I think the Lions would still have a shot at going .500.
What I Think:
The Lions are no longer the team that we all made fun of. This might be one of the most improved teams in the NFL. As long as Matthew Stafford can stay healthy, which means his offensive line has to protect him, the Lions offense can be deadly. Stafford has a huge arm and receivers that can go up and get the ball, including Calvin Johnson, one of the most talented receivers in the league. On defense, it's hard to ignore first-round pick Nick Fairley's name next to Ndamukong Suh's on the depth chart. When Fairley gets healthy, the two could be a nightmare for opposing offenses. The team's secondary isn't necessarily very strong, but if a quarterback is running for his life on every play, it doesn't really matter, right? I expect a good season from the Lions -- that is if Stafford can stay healthy.
Record Prediction: 9-7
4. Minnesota Vikings (2010 Record: 6-10)
9-7.... because there's no way that the 2011 season could possibly be worse than the 2010 season. There's no Favre drama this year, and I highly doubt that the Vikings will lead the NFL in interceptions again in 2011 like they did in 2010. Also, one would imagine that the odds of the Metrodome roof collapsing again and causing the Vikings to play two home games on the road are relatively small. The Vikings still have plenty of talent on their roster, and with a new offense that will focus more on a power rushing attack and less zone blocking for the offensive line, the Vikings are centainly a team that could sneak under the radar for most of the season.
What I Think:
Until rookie quarterback Christian Ponder is ready to lead the Vikings' offense, the team is stuck with Donovan McNabb, and yes, I mean stuck. McNabb just isn't the quarterback he used to be and I doubt he's going to find much success as the Vikings' new signal caller -- which means the Vikings won't have much success either. Yes, they have Adrian Peterson, one of the best, if not the best, running backs in the NFL, but if a team can't move the ball through the air, stopping the run game becomes pretty easy. There were too many changes in too short of an offseason for this team to find much success in 2011.
Record Prediction: 6-10