2010 Division Preview: NFC North
If Packers offensive line can protect Aaron Rodgers, look out
Vikings need Toby Gerhart to be capable backup to Adrian Peterson
Protecting the football is priority No. 1 for the Lions this season
This week, SI.com is rolling out previews for all eight NFL divisions. Today, we tackle the NFC North and AFC North, following up earlier breakdowns of the AFC East, NFC East, AFC South and NFC South. The AFC and NFC West conclude things Friday.
The NFC North has changed from the punishing, grind-it-out style of its NFC Central origins to the division of the quick strike. What division boasts better quarterbacks than Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford? The latest proof of the division's metamorphosis might have been Lovie Smith's hiring this offseason of coordinator Mike Martz to revive the dormant Bears offense. Martz wings it like few others, but it will be fascinating to see how his style plays at Soldier Field in December. Detroit also upgraded its offense during the offseason, gifting Stafford with receiver Nate Burleson, running back Jahvid Best and tight end Tony Scheffler. With Green Bay and Minnesota trading haymakers in recent years, the Bears and Lions understand that field goals and two-yard rushes won't get it done. Watch the NFC North closely this season. Everybody will be chucking it.
What the Packers do best: Throw the football.
Mike McCarthy says he has never given a quarterback the responsibility he has given Aaron Rodgers (take that Brett Favre!) and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. From the second half of the 2009 season to now, only Drew Brees has played at the kind of level that Rodgers has. McCarthy has allowed Rodgers to find his way as Green Bay's leader, to make his mistakes, to have his successes, and to have a strong voice in the Packers' offensive game plan. The result is a quarterback reaching the height of his powers -- a year ago Rodgers completed 64.7 percent of his throws, threw for 4,434 yards, 30 touchdowns and 7 interceptions -- and a passing offense that should finish the 2010 season as the best in the National Football League.
What the Packers need to improve: Consistency of offensive line.
It is remarkable that Rodgers has remained upright considering the punishment he has endured behind a shaky offensive line. Much like the Packers themselves, the line showed improvement as the 2009 season wore on, but Rodgers can't afford a beating in a division that now has Jared Allen, Julius Peppers and Ndamukong Suh rushing the quarterback. The Packers began the 2009 season with a 4-4 record for several reasons, including McCarthy's decision to open up the offense early to try to score quickly and take pressure off a defense learning Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. The offensive line gave up 51 sacks last season. That number needs to be cut in half this season.
Which Packer needs to step up: Cornerback Tramon Williams.
With cornerback Al Harris on the physically-unable-to-perform list, the Packers will need big contributions from Williams, who has seen time in Green Bay's base and nickel defense. Williams had a rough time in the Packers' 51-45 playoff loss to Arizona, but he will be given the opportunity to make amends this season in Harris's absence. Williams talked often last season about the many lessons he learned playing behind Harris and Charles Woodson, who had nine interceptions and was named the league's defensive player of the year. One of those lessons was about preparation. Williams will soon be putting it in use.
Predicted record: 12-4.
The Packers mostly avoided the free-agent market, a nod both to their penchant to build through the draft and their belief that the team is Super Bowl-ready right now. If Green Bay can overcome its Brett Favre complex (the Packers were swept last season) it should dominate the NFC North and beyond.
What the Vikings do best: Rush the quarterback.
The Vikings have the rare defensive front that is brilliant against both the pass and the run. With Jared Allen and Ray Edwards flying around the corner and Pat Williams and Kevin Williams stuffing the middle, the Vikings don't have to blitz unless they want to. Coaches league-wide say that creating pressure with only four linemen is a defense's Holy Grail. From that position of strength, a defense can often limit what a running back can do and what a quarterback can see. While much is made of Favre's importance to the Vikings, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier places much of the onus on his unit. With his front four, it's understandable.
What the Vikings need to improve: Consistency of secondary.
Because of injury and age, the Vikings secondary might need to play over its head in 2010. With cornerback Cedric Griffin recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in the NFC Championship, Antoine Winfield coming off a foot injury (and entering his 12th season) and projected starting right corner Chris Cook dealing with a torn meniscus, the Vikings can't afford too many slip ups in the secondary. Minnesota signed veteran Lito Sheppard (late of the Jets and the Eagles). If the Vikings secondary is slow to heal, he might have to play even more than the Vikings were hoping.
Which Vikings needs to step up: Running back Toby Gerhart.
With a nod to pass protection and Chester Taylor's departure to Chicago, the Vikings drafted Gerhart, a bruiser expected to spell Adrian Peterson and contribute to the good health of Favre. Gerhart, from Stanford, has a while to go to match Taylor's versatility out of the backfield and in the trenches, but he was one of the best players in the country last year (he finished runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting to Mark Ingram) and rushed for 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns. The Vikings traded up 11 spots to nab him with the 51st pick overall.
Predicted record: 9-7.
The Vikings were the story of the 2009 regular season, with Favre playing like he was 25. So much went right for the Vikings last season -- particularly Favre's health -- but it feels like a big ask for Minnesota to pull of the same magic in 2010. The schedule includes a killer October (at the Jets, Dallas, at the Packers and at the Patriots) that could wreck Minnesota's postseason plans.