2012 Division Preview: NFC North
After struggling last season, the Packers still can't find a No. 2 CB to depend on
The change in offensive coordinators should help Jay Cutler reach his potential
Someone needs to step up in running game to help balance the Lions' offense
Back when it was the NFC Central and Tampa Bay was a card-carrying member, this was known as the Black and Blue division because of its intense rivalries and physical play. It retained those characteristics after becoming a quartet 10 years ago, but green and gold have become the dominant colors.
Green Bay has matched the combined success of its three NFC North colleagues (Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota) since the league went to eight four-team divisions in 2002. The Packers have won five division championships, as many as the other three teams. They have gone to the playoffs seven times, the same number as the Bears, Lions and Vikings together. And, of course, the Pack is the only division team to win a Super Bowl championship (the Bears went to the big game after the 2006 season, but they lost to Peyton Manning and the Colts).
Conventional wisdom, while not always a perfect predictor for developments in the NFL, says the Packers should dominate the division again in 2012. Led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the league's MVP last season, Green Bay boasts an offense that scored 63 touchdowns and outscored its opponents by a whopping 201 points in 2011.
The Lions, who went to the playoffs last year for the first time since 1999, could contend for another berth in the postseason. The Bears should be better, especially if they can keep quarterback Jay Cutler healthy. The Vikings have one of the league's youngest rosters and are in regrouping mode coming off their worst season (3-13) in franchise history.
What the Packers do best: Light up the scoreboard.
Green Bay's 560 points last season were the second most in NFL history (the Patriots scored 589 in '07). Rodgers has developed into one of the league's elite quarterbacks. He has thrown for 17,037 yards, the most by any quarterback in his first four years as a starter, and his 122.5 passer rating last season set an NFL record. (Brett Who?) The Packers have one of the most productive and deepest wide receiver groups, one that now features Jordy Nelson, who had a breakout season last year (68 catches, an 18.6-yard average and 15 touchdowns).
What the Packers need to improve: Their pass rush.
Given the team's mediocre ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks last season, it wasn't surprising to see general manager Ted Thompson load up on defense in the draft. The Pack took defensive players (two linemen, two linebackers and two defensive backs) with its first six picks. Even with outside linebacker Clay Matthews, one of the better rushers in the league, Green Bay produced only 29 sacks last year. The tepid pass rush put added pressure on the secondary and, consequently, the Packers allowed the most passing yards in league history. Coordinator Dom Capers is hoping rookies Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy, or someone else, can add pass rush pressure.
Which Packer needs to step up: Tramon Williams, cornerback -- and whoever pairs up with him.
The secondary performed inconsistently last season. Now that Charles Woodson has moved to safety in the base 3-4 defense -- he will line up against the slot receiver in nickel and dime situations -- someone needs to emerge at his former cornerback spot, opposite Williams. So far, no one has. Davon House was the early favorite, but he dislocated his shoulder in the opening preseason game. Others vying for the spot are Jarrett Bush, Sam Shields -- both of whom were disappointing last season -- and rookie Casey Hayward. The Packers will face many dangerous receivers -- Detroit's Calvin Johnson (twice), Chicago's Brandon Marshall (twice), Houston's Andre Johnson, the Giants' Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, and the Saints' deep contingent -- so strong pass defense, especially at the corners, will be critical.
Predicted record: 12-4.
Just when it looked like the Packers were headed for a 16-0 record last year, which would have matched the Patriots' perfect regular season of 2007, they stubbed their toes in Kansas City and lost to the Chiefs. They finished 15-1, but that lofty mark was exposed in the playoffs, where they lost to the Giants at home. Even given Green Bay's defensive struggles, it's hard to imagine this team not being dominant again this season.
What the Bears do best: Bring it on defense.
Just because the Bears play a lot of the Tampa 2 defense, don't be fooled into thinking they're a finesse defense. They are as physical as any other team in the league. If you doubt it, just watch Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher. Peppers remains one of the best all-around ends in the league, even though he is 32. Urlacher, who is 34 and coming back from knee surgery, had one of his best seasons in 2011. Although the Tampa 2 remains a big part of their scheme, the Bears played more aggressively last year, using more press coverage and a variety of blitzes. As a result, they were among the league leaders in takeaways (11 fumble recoveries, 20 interceptions).
What the Bears need to improve: Their offensive line play.
Coach Lovie Smith, new offensive coordinator Mike Tice and the men up front may be sick of hearing it, but the O-line will be the team's weak link until proven otherwise. The funny thing is, the Bears didn't do much to change the landscape during the offseason; they didn't draft any offensive linemen and in free agency they added only Chilo Rachal, who had been disappointing in San Francisco. Although the entire line needs to raise its level of play, the spotlight is on left tackle, where J'Marcus Webb had 14 penalties last season. He needs to get better quickly because Chris Williams, a former first-round draft pick who can also play guard, is breathing down his neck.
Which Bear needs to step up: Jay Cutler, quarterback.
This will be Cutler's seventh NFL season and his fourth as the starting quarterback in Chicago. If he's ever going to become one of the league's elite quarterbacks, the time is now. Tice's offense should be a much more comfortable fit for Cutler than the seven-step drop, long-developing pass plays he had to execute under former coordinator "Mad" Mike Martz. Plus he has been reunited with wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who was his most reliable receiver in Denver. Cutler has one of the strongest arms in the league and he appears to have recovered from the broken thumb that forced him to miss the final six games last season. Let's see what he's got.
Predicted finish: 10-6
In the five seasons since they played in Super Bowl XLI, the Bears have had only two winning records and one playoff appearance. That lukewarm performance finally caught up with general manager Jerry Angelo, who was dismissed in the offseason, but it's still reflecting on Smith, whose job could be in jeopardy if Chicago misses the postseason again. Over the last two seasons, the Bears are 18-10 when Cutler is healthy. If the line can keep Cutler upright, running back Matt Forte can stay healthy and the defense does its part, a wild-card spot is attainable.