Here are my predictions for the NFC North!
1. Green Bay Packers (projected division winners) - Despite not winning the division last season, the Green Bay Packers went farther than the Minnesota Vikings did, even though the Vikings were official division champs. To many, that translated to the Packers being the de facto superior team in this division last season, which they have been now consistently since their Super Bowl championship season in 2010. Entering this upcoming season, this team once again looks like the class of this division. Remember, this team probably should have reached the Super Bowl just a little over a year and a half ago, and they still have a solid base of talent remaining. Green Bay started off the season last year like they were determined to follow up on their promise from the season before, racing off to a 6-0 start and wining each game convincingly. But then came a brutal stretch where they faced the eventual Super Bowl teams on the road in consecutive seasons, and the Packers lost both games, and never seemed to fully recover. Yet, they still had a 10-4 mark and were in the driver's seat, controlling their own destiny in terms of winning the division and possibly even earning the second seed and a playoff bye. Instead, they got crushed at Arizona, and lost to Minnesota, and had to settle for being a Wild Card road team. They recovered enough to beat Washington in that game, and then almost pulled off a revenge victory at Arizona, only to fall just short yet again. Still, the Pack look like a talented, experienced, and capable team, with perhaps the best quarterback in the league at the helm. If that is not good enough to recapture supremacy within this division, then I have no idea what is.
2. Minnesota Vikings (projected second place) - Last year, I started this section on the Minnesota Vikings by saying that "they are one of those teams that seem to always be in the revolving door of fortunes. Sometimes, they are able to get access into good fortune, and are one of the better teams in the NFC, if not the NFL. Then, there are other times when they are left out in the cold." I can hardly think of a team that seems to go from good to bad to good again as frequently as the Vikings seem to. And yet, when you think about their history, they never seem to reach either the pinnacle of success, or to scrape the very bottom in either case although there are some extreme situations with this franchise. They went to four Super Bowls, but failed to win a single one of them. They were 15-1 in 1998 and had a huge lead in the NFC Championship Game, but ended up losing. Minnesota was favored to beat the Giants in the NFC title game two years later, but instead lost, 41-0. They should have beaten the Saints in New Orleans back in the 2009 season, only to lose in overtime. There was one season where they started off 6-0, and somehow managed to miss the playoffs! And those were mostly good years! Usually, they seem to be within a game or two of .500 either way. Last year was much the same way, as they seemed like a solid challenge to Green Bay, before seemingly losing too frequently and almost handing the Packers the division title, before beating Green Bay in a winner take all showdown on the final weekend of the regular season. But then, they somehow found a way to lose a game that they really should have won against the Seahawks. This team just seems to never be either the very best or the very worst, although they sure have handed their fans some tremendous hope, which almost always is followed by even bigger heartbreak. This season, the Vikings likely will be tough again, yet will have a difficult time improving upon last season's 11-5 mark. Another second place finish and maybe, just maybe, a playoff berth.
3. Detroit Lions (projected third place) - Two years ago, the Lions had an upper echelon defense, and seemed ready to possibly make some noise in the playoffs. But they were cheated in a game at Dallas, and had to watch the Cowboys celebrate instead. Then, the team lost a lot of talent, and the results spoke for themselves. Detroit came right back to the middle of the pack last year, with neither their offense nor their defense standing out as particularly good nor particularly bad. They finished the season at 7-9, yet considering that they started the season off at 1-7, that was a pretty solid recovery. Their defense tightened up in a big way, and their offense, while not spectacular, had some truly solid games. Still, all of that did not allow them to break even, and unless they manage to avoid a similar early season swoon, the Lions would be lucky to avoid another losing season. This team is still rebuilding, and probably needs at least another year before they can seriously contend for the playoffs again.
2. Chicago Bears (projected last place team) - Oh, Chicago! They have a high profile team, and some proud history to live up to! Yet, this team has made an unfortunate habit of underachieving in recent seasons, and Jay Cutler has kind of been the face of that. Still John Fox is their head coach, and there is reason to believe that this franchise might be on the road to a real recovery now. After all, Fox has coached two different teams to the Super Bowl, and obviously hopes to lead the Bears back to the promised land. This is a hard team to predict, because they really have a shot at taking a leap and becoming competitive this season, with a relatively easy schedule. Yet, their opponents also have to consider this rebuilding team to be beatable, and there is good reason for that. Like the Detroit Lions, the Bears had neither and offense nor a defense that was particularly good nor particularly bad. Thus, their 6-10 mark and last place finish is certainly a disappointment. Still, this year, they can either have a repeat season like last year, or they can contend for a playoff spot, depending on how opportunistic this team is. Again, they have some very winnable games on their schedule, but they have to show much more consistency then they have shown in the last couple of seasons. For now, they have not shown a capacity to achieve this kind of a thing, which is why it is difficult to predict anything but a last place finish for this team, who unfortunately happens to be in a brutal division. It is hard to see them beating either the Vikings or the Packers, both of whom made the playoffs. But if the Bears win the games that they are supposed to win, and can create an upset or two - watch out!