While the rest of the league seems to be taking steps to improve its teams, the same cannot be said for the NFC North, which seems to be as one-sided as it was in 2005. The Bears should not only repeat this season but also do it in style and with considerable distance between them and the other teams. In reality the fight isn’t really fair; Green Bay is a team in turmoil, for even Brett Favre
is contemplating a move elsewhere and Steve Mariucci had to leave his home city in the middle of a rebuilding campaign. So Chicago will reign supreme in the NFC North
and only Minnesota stands in the way, albeit from a safe distance.
Green Bay 6-10
CHICAGO (11-5, 1st, NFC North)
Quarterback Rex Grossman returns from injury to lead a grossly underrated attack which has big-play capability though it still likes to do things on the ground. To that end look to Adrian Peterson and Thomas Jones in a two-pronged set designed much like the Denver Broncos, with Jason McKie providing the beef at fullback. At receiver Muhsin Muhammad returns, however the other side provides a big hole though Bernard Berrian (246 yards in 2005) will try to do his best to shore it up. And tight end Desmond Clark is there during play-action and can score if needed. The O-line is healthy though it is thin at all positions in terms of depth.
Adewale Ogunleye (10 sacks in 2005) leads a spitfire bunch that was looking forward to another great year and they may well have it, though they already have three injuries in the D-line and the season has barely started. Brian Urlacher is lurking at middle linebacker, though so his athleticism could counterbalance the offsetting bad news. And when you have a hard hitter like Charles Tillman and a thief like Nathan Vasher (8 interceptions in 2005) things tend to go well for you, that is, if you can avoid the injury bug.
Robbie Gould is average as a kicker and Brad Maynard is an NFL veteran punter. And Rashied Davis is about average, too, in terms of kick and punt returns.
Chicago is never going to be a team that hits you with gaudy stats, but they always seem to be in the thick of things and nobody wants to play these guys when everything is on the line. They are in a weak division and play a schedule filled with only one playoff team (Seattle) in the first nine weeks of the season. For that reason alone, pencil the Bears in for another great season, even with a few injuries.
PREDICTION: 13-3, 1st NFC North
MINNESOTA (9-7, 2nd, NFC North)
This just in: Your man has left the building and he’s taken all of your offense. What do you do? When Daunte Culpepper left Minnesota for the warmer climes of Miami he took a very important piece of the Vikings playbook with him, the ability to improvise. And now Minnesota is embroiled in a quarterback dilemma: Do you go with Brad Johnson, who has led the Vikings back to manna before, or do you favor Brooks Bollinger, the prospect who learned his craft over yonder in Madison? The Vikes have a third option, too, in Mike McMahon, but asking any of them to replace Daunte is like asking a rookie to do the job of Deion Sanders, in two sports. And running back is like a game of Clue, too. Who knows who will be the starter come week eight. Travis Taylor, Marcus Robinson and Troy Williamson head a deep cast of receivers so there is hope in the Twin Cities, after all. And keep an eye on Jermaine Wiggins, who quietly had almost 600 yards receiving in 2005. The O-line looks healthy, too. If the Bears start losing shockers and the Vikes find an offense, there could be some surprises.
The Williams (Pat and Kevin) comprise the middle of the Vikings front four, but after that it gets dicey. The same problem will confound Minnesota at linebacker, where only one player (E.J. Henderson) managed to get through more than half the season healthy. The secondary is by far the strongest of the units, but even it is fighting injuries and Fred Smoot may not be available (ribs) to open the season.
Ryan Longwell comes over from the frozen tundra of Lambeau to lengthen his career and hit a few 50-plus kicks indoors. Chris Kluwe returns and can boom the ball as evidenced by his 44 yards punting average. Troy Williamson enters year two as the kick return specialist.
Minnesota is loaded at quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line. But they are so banged up at running back that the only way for success will be in the air, unless someone steps up. The defense is also riddled with injuries. A wicked schedule featuring three playoff teams in the first seven weeks will be a momentum-killer, even for a seasoned playoff team like Minnesota. Coach Brad Childress, a veteran offensive coordinator must wait another year to work his magic in the Twin Cities.
PREDICTION: 8-8, 2nd NFC North
GREEN BAY (4-12, 4th, NFC North)
Is it time for Brett to hang up the cleats and sip Heinekens in the hazy din of the Louisiana moonlight? I think so, and so do others who think rebuilding time should start and Aaron Rodgers should get the nod. Running back Ahman Green fought through injury to play in only five games in 2005 and even Javon Walker split, leaving one to believe the Magic Carpet Ride for No. 4 is O-VER. Leave now while you still have dignity and your offensive line can somewhat protect you, though your left and right guard are brand new.
Kabeer Ghaja-Biamila leads a talented crew that is eschewing injury and seems to be setting a cornerstone for the rebuilding phase set to start in 2007. A.J. Hawk is the new generation of linebacker in Green Bay, a ferocious tackler with keen smarts. And Charles Woodson and Al Harris make up a solid veteran core of defensive backfield men.
Losing Ryan Longwell spelled the end of an era and in will come Dave Rayner, an unproven commodity. Punter is still up in the air, with two players fighting for that spot in Jon Ryan and B.J. Sander. And Sam Gado and Charles Woodson will handle the punt and kick returns.
The Packers could still get trade value for Favre and word is he’s talking about moving. If the Packers were able to move Favre and pick up something valuable in return, such as the receiver they need now that Walker’s gone, they would be in playoff contention, mainly because the NFC North is so weak. There is no letup in the Packers schedule, either, which is why they will be third in 2006.
PREDICTION: 6-10, 3rd NFC North
DETROIT (5-11, 3rd, NFC North)
The only thing that can characterize Detroit in 2004 and Detroit now is a thorough housecleaning. Gone are offensive guru Steve Mariucci, QB Joey Harrington, WR Charles Rogers and a host of other players. In their place are journeyman Jon Kitna, a quarterback who hasn’t played more than four games since 2003, Josh McCown, a benchwarmer in Arizona and head coach Rod Marinelli, a taskmaster who wasted no time in clearing out most of the talent on offense and replacing it with guys who want to come to work. Marinelli is a career defensive coordinator so it will take time to see if it works. But the Lions still have some excitement with the Williams tandem (Roy and Mike) at wide receiver and the O-line is basically healthy.
The defensive line is not flashy but they come to work. Same goes for the linebackers. And Kenoy Kennedy and Dre Bly comprise a nice defensive backfield that will need some luck coming its way.
Jason Hanson is back for his 16th season, all in the Motor City. Punter Nick Harris is back too and so is Eddie Drummond, one of the best return men in the NFL three years running.
The housecleaning killed everyone but the cat, the canary and Jason Hanson. It’s obvious that the route this team chose was one of rebuilding. And a nasty schedule will all but assure the Lions of a place far below the Bears.
PREDICTION: 4-12, 4th NFC North