NFC North Division (sneak preview)
The Green Bay Packers went 15-1 and pretty much dominated everyone they played during the regular season, but then ran into a buzz saw that was the New York Giants in the playoffs, and they were blown out, 37-20 to a shocked crowd at Lambeau Field.
Meanwhile in 2011, the Detroit Lions finally broke through and made the playoffs after finishing the regular season at 10-6. This just three years after going 0-16.
After jumping out to a 7-3 start, the Chicago Bears limped to a 8-8 finish after losing quarterback Jay Cutler (broken thumb) and then leading rusher Matt Forte' (sprained knee) to season ending injuries in a three week period.
The Minnesota Vikings suffered through a miserable season, going 3-13 while watching their young QB Christian Ponder go through growing pains. Throw in the fact that running back Adrian Peterson, their best player, missed time with a torn ACL, and there you go regarding the 2011 season for the Vikings.
It looks to be a three-team race in the division in 2012, with Green Bay the obvious favorite. Chicago and Detroit appear to be looming large once again and this division could see three teams make the playoffs. Minnesota has some work to do to get back into contention this season.
Here's a breakdown (in capsule form) of the NFC North for the upcoming season.
2011 Record: 8-8-0 (3rd Place)
Head Coach: Lovie Smith
Key Additions: WR Brandon Marshall; RB Michael Bush; QB Jason Campbell; WR-KR Eric Weems; LB Geno Hayes
Key Losses: RB Marion Barber
Offense: Quarterback Jay Cutler staying in one piece (Bears allowed 49 QB sacks in 2011) is the key to the offense. Getting Matt Forte' into the fold is important as well. He is still unsigned and the team needs him. If Cutler and Forte' are unavailable, the Bears did well to add RB Michael Bush and QB Jason Campbell as backups.
To bolster the air attack, they added WR Brandon Marshall, who enjoyed success with Cutler while they both played for Denver until 2008. The O-line has to do a better job of pass protecting, as they have allowed over 100 sacks in the last two seasons combined.
Defense: Age is creeping up on linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher as well as corner man Charles Tillman and DE Julius Peppers.
The team is looking for big things once again from this unit and they added first round pick Shea McClellin (DE) to bolster the front line. The secondary appeared vulnerable at times last season and pressure up front always helps as well.
Outlook: With a big play receiver in Marshall to go with a solid running attack, the Bears should put points on the board. The defense will have to maintain consistency this year as they allowed an unusual amount of high scoring at times last season.
Keeping Cutler and Forte' healthy is important and the Bears also have two excellent kick returners with veteran Devin Hester and newly signed free agent Eric Weems.
Look for the Bears to contend with Green Bay and Detroit in the division and barring injury to key players (on both sides of the ball) they may reach the post-season once again.
2011 Record: 10-6-0 (2nd Place)
Head Coach: Jim Schwartz
Key Additions: DE Everette Brown; CB Jacob Lacey
Key Losses: LB Bobby Carpenter; QB Drew Stanton; TE Will Heller; CB Eric Wright
Offense: With emerging star QB Matthew Stafford, the Lions are set to roar once again in 2012 as he put up huge numbers last year, throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns.
The main target is All-Pro WR Calvin Johnson, along with Nate Burleson, Titus Young and tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler.
Jahvid Best (often injured) will be the primary running back and the Lions will look to have Mikel Leshoure (out all of last season) as well to form a one-two punch for the running game.
Defense: The Lions can play well defensively, but they have to find the consistency to improve.
They forced 17 fumbles to go with 41 QB sacks and scored seven touchdowns during the regular season.
Ndamukong Suh needs a bounce back year after being hit with suspension and getting a bad reputation as a dirty player. Along with DT Nick Fairley, the Lions can be a force up front.
The secondary has to improve as they gave up too many big plays last season and they were also torched big time in the playoff loss to New Orleans.
Outlook: Making the playoffs for the first time in 12 years was huge. The Lions must improve against the pass on defense and continue to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks to achieve more success in 2012.
The offense will put up big numbers again and this team could very well make the playoffs once again.
2011 Record: 15-1-0 (1st Place)
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy
Key Additions: C Jeff Saturday; DT Daniel Muir; DE Anthony Hargrove
Key Losses: S Nick Collins; T Chad Clifton; QB Matt Flynn; C Scott Wells
Offense: Quarterback and league MVP Aaron Rodgers had a record setting year in 2011, passing for 4,643 yards with 45 TD passes and just six picks.
Rodgers has a plethora of receivers to choose from in Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver, Jermichael Finley and Andrew Quarless. Though the Packers still have not signed free agent running back Ryan Grant, the ground game is decent with James Starks in tow.
The line will be revamped as Chad Clifton and center Scott Wells left via free agency. The Packers did sign veteran Jeff Saturday to snap the ball.
Defense: This unit was shellacked last season and it really showed in the playoff loss to the Giants.
Green Bay simply gave up too much yardage and big passing plays in 2011 and that has got to improve if they want to get back to the Super Bowl.
Pressure up front will be the key as they had just 29 QB sacks a year ago. Look for rookies Nick Perry (LB) and Jerel Worthy (DE) to make an impact along with free agent signees Anthony Hargrove and Daniel Muir.
Outlook: Super Bowl or bust is the mantra for the Green Bay Packers and they know what it takes to win it all.
The defense has to improve because they cannot always outscore the opposition. Look for Rodgers and company to put up the big numbers on offense again.
One area of concern has to be a serious injury to Rodgers, because backup QB Matt Flynn is gone (to Seattle) in the free agent market and the Packers are going with an untested reserve this season.
However, this team should win the division again and make a deep playoff run that just might result in a second Super Bowl title in three years.
2011 Record: 3-13-0 (4th Place)
Head Coach: Leslie Frazier
Key Additions: TE John Carlson; WR Jerome Simpson; CB Chris Carr
Key Losses: G Steve Hutchinson; CB Cedric Griffin
Offense: Running back Adrian Peterson is coming off knee surgery and the team will hope to have him in the fold when camp opens up in August.
Other than that, things are just fine.
The Vikings have serious questions on offense without a true number one wide receiver.
Percy Harvin played very well last season, as he runs and catches the ball (he had over 1,200 yards from scrimmage last season) but the Vikings lack depth. They have Michael Jenkins and free agent signee Jerome Simpson in the mix.
Quarterback Christian Ponder got his chance last year after the team released veteran QB Donovan McNabb and will look to show more in 2012 after completing just 54 percent of his passes with 13 TD and 13 interceptions.
Defense: Jared Allen led the NFL with 22 QB sacks last season and he is the key up front for the Vikings defense, which started out pretty well, but faded out badly over the final ten games a year ago.
The run defense was fair but the pass defense was awful in the 2011 season and needs to improve with the likes of having to face Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler twice this season.
Outlook: Getting Peterson back healthy will be huge for Minnesota, along with improvement from second-year QB Ponder. The defense has to get better as well to keep the team in games.
Look for some improvement in the win-loss column, but there is no escaping the NFC North cellar this year.
Predicted order of finish for 2012- 1. Green Bay (12-4) 2. Chicago (11-5) 3. Detroit (9-7) 4. Minnesota (4-12)