2006 NFC North Preview

Heading into 2006, the NFC North looks to be a wide-open race. Perennial doormat Detroit has more talent than it has in years; Minnesota looks solid; Green Bay won three straight division titles before a disastrous 2005; and defending champion Chicago is coming off an eleven-win season. The division as a whole may be better than people think, and it says here that Green Bay will send Brett Favre into retirement with yet another NFC North title.

(2005 Regular Season Records in Parentheses)

Green Bay Packers (4-12)

It was a nightmare season a year ago for the Packers, who after a decade of playoff contention simply fell apart in 2005. Brett Favre’s final season should be a significant improvement, though this team is not yet ready for a Super Bowl run.

Favre’s recent declaration that the 2006 Packers are “the most talented team I’ve been part of” received some media ridicule, but may not be far from the truth. Lost in last season’s debacle was a defense that finished 7th in the NFL in yards allowed; in the off-season, the Packers upgraded that unit with veterans Charles Woodson, Marquand Manuel, and Ryan Pickett, along with first-round draft pick A.J. Hawk. Defensively, the Packers have the potential to be a top-five unit this season.

A solid defense and the return of Ahman Green from injury will take the pressure off of Favre, who led the NFL with 29 interceptions a year ago. Favre, always a gambler, simply took too many chances while behind a year ago. The Packers will be in more close games this season, which will make Favre play safer, and smarter.

Despite the trade of WR Javon Walker to Denver, the Packers still have weapons on offense. Donald Driver has established himself as a bona fide number one wide receiver, and Bubba Franks is an excellent pass-catching tight end. The offensive line has two rookies but is talented, and Green, Najeh Davenport and Samkon Gado should give them at least a decent running attack. If the Packers can avoid the devastating injuries that plagued them a year ago, they could be the top team in a division that is deep but lacks a truly great team.

The one blessing of last year’s four-win season was a fourth-place schedule this year. Only three of the Packers’ ten games outside their division are against teams with winning records in 2005. A late-season four-game stretch includes home games against the Jets, Lions, and Vikings sandwiched around a trip to San Francisco; if the Packers can stay even through the season’s first half, they will be well-positioned to take the division, and extend Favre’s career at least one more game.

2005 Prediction: 10-6, NFC North Champions, Wild Card loss

Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

For the past few years, the Vikings perennially have been considered a contender for the NFC North division, only to fall short in the regular season. Now, with Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss in the AFC, and last year’s “Love Boat” incident finally behind them, Minnesota creeps quietly and carefully into 2006.

This team still has talent; the addition of former Seahawk Steve Hutchinson at left guard to holdover LT Bryant McKinnie gives the Vikings a dominating left side of the offensive line – the same formula Seattle used to propel Shaun Alexander to NFL rushing titles and scoring records. QB Brad Johnson is a solid, consistent game manager, with weapons on the outside in Marcus Robinson, Koren Robinson, and speedster Troy Williamson. If Chester Taylor and Mewelde Moore can provide a decent running game, the Vikings offense will be solid, if not explosive.

Defensively, the Vikings are underrated. Though they lack impact players, they have a veteran secondary led by FS Darren Sharper, and a fast, effective linebacker corps helmed by MLB Napoleon Harris. The defensive line won’t lead the NFL in sacks, but defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams (no relation) can stuff the run and free the speedy linebackers to make plays. While the Vikings aren’t a Super Bowl favorite, they should be a solid team.

A tough opening schedule – a trip to Washington, followed by visits from Carolina and Chicago – could trip them up, but if they can get to their Week 6 bye at 3-2, or even 2-3, Minnesota should contend for the NFC North crown. The lack of a major impact player, though, will keep them just short of the promised land.

2006 Prediction: 9-7

Chicago Bears (11-5)

Last year’s biggest surprise returns ten starters from a defense that led the NFL in points allowed (12.5 per game) and carried a struggling offense to the NFC North title and the NFL playoffs. Led by Brian Urlacher, the Bears’ defense, barring a rash of injuries, should remain in the NFL’s upper echelon, though a slightly tougher schedule means that last year’s mid-season talk of record-setting will likely die down in 2006.

As it was in 2005, the Bears’ offense is their biggest question mark. Can Rex Grossman finally stay healthy, and establish himself as an NFL quarterback? Can Thomas Jones and second-year player Cedric Benson co-exist, and give Grossman a solid running game? Can they find a wide receiver to compliment aging Muhsin Muhammad? The Bears’ offense finished 29th in yards and 26th in points scored last season; if they can improve even a few notches, this defense can carry them a long way.

But that seems unlikely. Grossman has had his chances; even in the rare times he has stayed healthy, he has not impressed. Backup Brian Griese has been inconsistent throughout his NFL career. The Panthers demolished the Bears in the playoffs last season; with a year to prepare for this defense, NFL coaches will catch up a bit. The Chicago defense will slow down just enough for the Bears to lose their NFC North title.

2006 Prediction: 8-8

Detroit Lions (5-11)

There’s plenty of pre-season coverage of the Lions; with a new quarterback (Jon Kitna), new coach (Rod Marinelli), and a new offensive coordinator (former Rams head coach Mike Martz), there’s hope for a fan base that has struggled through the misery of five straight seasons with double-digit losses.

That hope will have to wait until at least 2007, however. Fernando Bryant and Terrence Holt upgrade the secondary, and Kitna is a definite improvement over Joey Harrington, but otherwise, this is the same Lions team that struggled a year ago. Young wideouts Charles Rogers and Mike Williams have been benched early, the offensive and defensive lines remain essentially unchanged, and the defense still lacks speed and impact players in its front seven. The addition of Martz and Kitna, and the return to health of RB Kevin Jones, who looked like a star in the second half of 2004, should help. But the Lions have too many holes to contend for an NFC North title this season.

The Lions weren’t helped by the schedule makers; they open against Seattle, at Chicago, and home for Green Bay, followed by trips to St. Louis and Minnesota. It gets easier in the second half, and the Lions will be improved, but it’s doubtful they can surprise the league – and their fans – this season.

2006 Prediction: 6-10

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