With that in mind here's the first installment in my division by division look at American football at the professional level:
Part the First: AFC East (Same Old, Same Old)
Part the Second: AFC North (One of these teams is not like the others)
Part the Third: AFC South (The Changing of the Guard)
Part the Sixth: NFC North (Revised before even being published)
1. Green Bay Packers. It was not going to be this way initially. I had Minnesota winning the division and making a deep playoff run. But earlier, when Teddy Bridgewater's knee decided to disintegrate during a practice. That said, Green Bay is probably the best team in the division now by a long-shot. Yes, they still have Aaron Rodgers and yes, Eddie Lacy will probably be good and Jordy Nelson will be back, but head coach Mike McCarthy is a question for me, too risk-averse to really ever be a great coach but blessed with enough roster talent to really ever be exposed as a bad one. Randall Cobb is an outstanding WR2 and they might have the best backup running back in the league in one James Starks. They also have an experienced offensive line which does a moderately good job or keeping Rodger's jersey clean. Where I'm not sold with this team is defense. Clay Mathews is a great LB, and Julius Peppers is a great DL, but both (especially Peppers) are showing signs of age. In the defensive backfield I like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety, but I'm not entirely sold on the CB duo of Demarious Randall and Sam Shields. The remaining LB's are questions as well, as is the DL. Still, they should win the games they should, and have a pretty easy time of it in the division. That's enough to get them the top seed in the playoffs, which I think they'll squander.
2. Chicago Bears. Gone is Forte, but remaining is Jay Cutler. That and an improving defense should lead them to a wild card this year. Of course, there are questions. Can Jeremy Langford be a productive RB1? Is there a WR1 on the roster? Can a revamped O-line keep Cutler from getting banged up? Rookie Cody Whitehair (K-State) will be a key component in that question. But Chicago's playoff chances are going to ride on the shoulder's of Jay Cutler and a new (sort of) no-name defense that shows potential if all of the pieces fit into place. Head Coach John Fox has been to the playoffs before, and he knows how to build a team to get there. What he hasn't done is ever won the thing, and was fired from Denver the year prior to them winning. He has a solid roster put together in Chicago, but they are going to miss Charles Tillman, who was the physical and spiritual leader of this defense. Still the DB is not in horrible shape. Tracy Porter is a proven commodity at CB, and it appears that Kyle Fuller is going to be legitimate as well. Safety is a question mark with 2nd year players Harold Jones-Quartley and Adrian Amos teaming up to play the position. If the young infusion of talent works out, watch out, because this team could be better than I predicted.
3. Minnesota Vikings. The loss of Bridgewater will hurt, despite what some pundits are suggesting. Yes, the offense is driven by Adrian Peterson, and the Vikings still have WR's Diggs and Charles Johnson as outside threats and TE Kyle Rudolph over the middle, but someone has to get the ball to them and I'm not sold that Shaun Hill is the guy to do that. If he can't, and I don't think he will, then teams will stack the line and neutralize Peterson, stalling the offense. This team is not going to crater however, and could jump Chicago for a wild card berth, because they are still going to have one of the better defenses in the league under head coach Mike Zimmer's system. The Vikings defense is fast, mean and deep. They run 3-deep at some positions on the line and 2-deep at LB and DB. Not only can they rotate in, they can do so with little to no drop in production. This has the potential to be a Ravens/Bears quality defense. Which is why I still think the Vikings will be OK. The sky hasn't fallen, but they ARE going to miss Bridgewater in the huddle.
4. Detroit Lions. This went from a hot, young team on the rise to a dumpster fire in 2 years didn't it? Yes, they still have Matthew Stafford but it appears that he's not going to be the front line QB everyone had him pegged as. And yes, they still have Ameer Abdullah, but they don't have an experienced line for him to run behind. Gone is Calvin Johnson, and his playmaking ability, in is Anquan Boldin, who I love as a possession slot-guy, but not as the guy who has to replace Calvin Johnson at WR1. This leaves the job to either Golden Tate (meh) or Marvin Jones Jr. (meh) neither of whom have the game-breaking potential of a Johnson. The strongest unit on this team? Defensive line. They actually should be pretty good here although depth is a major concern. There is some depth at LB, the problem is the position is not exactly talented all-around. It's OK but nothing special like you would expect to see in a good 4-3 defense. How bad is the defensive backfield? Former Houston Texan (and opponent highlight reel catch generator) Glover Quinn is starting at free safety. Glover-freaking-Quinn. By far the weakest position on this team however is at head coach. Jim Caldwell has taken talented teams over at Indianapolis and now Detroit, and made them almost instantly worse. I think the Lions bottom out this year, fire Caldwell, and start the rebuilding process once again with a new man in charge. Sorry Detroit.