2013 NFC North preview: Packers primed for another push

Jonathan Daniel

Green Bay is again the favorite to finish the season on top in the NFC North. However, all three of the other teams in the division could challenge the Packers if they can settle some pressing issues.

Three of the NFC North's teams sit next to the cold waters of the Great Lakes. The Mississippi River runs by the division's fourth team. These sacred waters once fed America's industrial might, so maybe there's something in the water that colors the NFC North -- the same gritty ethos that once built this country's cars, mined its iron, tubed its meats and loaded it all onto boats bound for the shiny, playful cities back East.

Football in the Midwest is a serious, urgent endeavor.

Three quarters of the NFC North -- Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota -- finished with at least 10 wins last season, the best showing of any division. Two of those teams made the playoffs. Both of those teams left the postseason on a sour note in one-sided losses.

The Packers sent the Vikings home on Wild Card weekend. Minnesota was forced to start quarterback-like person Joe Webb in place of slightly more quarterback-like person Christian Ponder. Green Bay grabbed a 17-3 lead at the half, made sure to limit Adrian Peterson and ran out the clock.

Mike McCarthy took his presumptive Super Bowl team to San Francisco the next week. Green Bay's defense had no answers for Colin Kaepernick, who ran for a record 181 yards and matched the great Aaron Rodgers with a pair of touchdown passes. The game played like a race between a horse and a Stutz Bearcat, except it never felt that close. This happened a year after the Giants ended the Packers' Super Bowl follow up with an easy win in the Divisional round.

Despite a run of hard luck in January, the NFC North could again send a pair of teams to the playoffs, for the fifth season in a row. How far any of those teams go this season hinges on overcoming serious structural issues.

The NFC North, from the most likely playoff contender to the least:

Green Bay Packers

For the third season in a row, Aaron Rodgers will start the season with a different left tackle. It was supposed to be Bryan Bulaga, but he tore his ACL at the beginning of August. The job now goes to rookie David Bakhtiari, a fourth-round pick. Rodgers is one of those quarterbacks capable of transcending mediocre line play. He also has a bona fide running game to balance the offense after the team stole Alabama running back Eddie Lacy out of the second round this year.

The bigger concern is on the other side of the ball. If the players can stay healthy, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has a deep front seven, headlined by Clay Matthews. A rebound year from Nick Perry and a solid debut from Datone Jones would add to the pass rush. Despite some obvious talent, last year's belly flop in the playoff still hurts.

The Packers open the season with a rematch in San Francisco, followed by a visit from RGIII. We'll know soon enough if they do have an answer for the read-option.

Chicago Bears

The 2012 Bears started hot with a 7-1 record. Then the schedule got harder, and Lovie Smith's team ended the year with a 3-5 run. In the end, the team's final 10-6 record wasn't enough for a Wild Card bid. Smith was out after nine seasons and one Super Bowl appearance. Offensive-minded CFL import Marc Trestman has to do what Smith never could: establish a functioning offense.

Jay Cutler's mechanics match his sneering sideline presence. Nevertheless, he puts up respectable numbers, and it's hard to separate his struggles from the poor supporting cast around him. Cutler threw more than 40 percent of his passes to Brandon Marshall. The maturation of Alshon Jeffrey, the addition of Martellus Bennett and an offensive game plan ready to take full advantage of Matt Forte should help Cutler. Chicago also added Jermon Bushrod at left tackle, which could be the team's most important move of all. This also happens to be a walk year for Cutler.

The defense is another year older, but still might be the most talented unit in the division. The defensive line is formidable with pillars like Henry Melton, Corey Wootton and Julius Peppers. Brian Urlacher retired after he came out on the losing end of a contract standoff with GM Phil Emery. Bruising Jon Bostic replaces him in the middle.

Minnesota Vikings

Seven players have topped 2,000 rushing yards in a single season. One of those was Adrian Peterson who carried the Vikings to a 10-6 record and helped them earn a Wild Card ticket to the postseason. Only one of the six previous players to reach that mark were able to crack 1,400 yards the next year (Barry Sanders with 1,491 in 1998). That puts a weighty load in quarterback Christian Ponder's barely effective arms.

Jared Allen is still the most recognizable player on the defense. He led the team with 12 sacks last season, a respectable total, but off the 22 he had in 2011. Sharrif Floyd, one of two first-round picks this year, may get an early chance to replace Kevin Williams if the veteran defensive tackle can't go in Week 1. The secondary is loaded with young talent, including first-round pick Xavier Rhodes at one of the corner spots and safety Harrison Smith, a first-rounder from last year. Will that be enough to overcome losing Antoine Winfield?

Detroit Lions

The hottest seat in the league right now arguably belongs to Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. After finally getting the franchise back to the playoffs in 2011, Schwartz's team flopped in its follow-up, winning four games and looking very much like the Lions of old.

Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley combined for more than a dozen sacks and 74 hits and hurries. Through a month of preseason play, the two of them look capable of causing even more damage for offensive lines and passers this year. That will help the outside pass-rush, headlined by first-round pick Ezekiel Ansah who replaces Cliff Avril. The defense will lean heavily on a big year from the offensive line to hide weaknesses among the linebackers and the secondary.

The offense has been Matthew StaffordCalvin Johnson and a random assortment of oft-injured and/or below average contributors. Preseason stats are easy to overlook, unless they look like Stafford's 49-percent completion rate. Criticism of his mechanics have been the most consistent part of Stafford's game recently. The addition of Reggie Bush might be just as important for adding a short-yardage target as it was to give the Lions a running game they been looking for.

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