NFL 2009 – NFC North preview
The NFC North was typically hard fought in 2008 with Adrian Peterson's tough tackling Minnesota Vikings eventually progressing but it was the Detroit Lions who caught the eye, achieving perfection with a disastrous 0-16 record - the first in NFL history.
At Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers began the season with a new general about town after Brett Favre ended his time in Wisconsin firstly for retirement and then for one last pay check in New York. Little did Packers fans know their iconic quarterback would return this year in an attempt to eliminate the club that made him.
Despite the lack of a real dominating force, the North was always competitive last season and it looks the same this time too as the Bears, Packers and, perhaps even the Lions, aim to snatch Favre's last shot at glory away.
Chicago Bears - 15/8
Even though they were edged out of the play-offs on the final game day last year, things in Chicago were slightly better than could have been expected from their ageing roster. Kyle Orton was what you'd expect, steady but lacking that little bit of class while second round draft pick Matt Forte was a revelation in his first year out of Tulane.
This year though, genuine excitement is in the air for the first time since their Super Bowl run in 2006 and all because the big arm of Jay Cutler jumped on board. The former Bronco may not have been the biggest off-season quarterback story in the NFC North but he should prove to be the most important if he can slot into a reasonable offence. Forte will be hoping a Cutler's presence opens up more space to run into while big things could be on the way from Devin Hester.
If Bears fans were getting carried away with anticipation then they could easily be set-up for a fall if last year's defence returns. A lack of a pass rush was embarrassing at times as the defence looked overmatched against the aerial attack every single week. It could be even worse for Urlacher and co this year now free safety Mike Brown has left the franchise.
Prediction: 3rd too weak defensively
Detroit Lions - 16/1
There seems little point in summarising the Lions' 2008 past the point of saying they were horrendous. At least they were able to see Calvin Johnson transform from a good rookie into a superstar, and their management had a whole year to contemplate who to choose as the first overall draft pick.
It may be early days and based on pre-season matches but the acquisition of former University of Georgia QB Matt Stafford looks like a step in the right direction. Lovie Smith has seen enough of the youngster to make him his starter so hopefully for Lions fans he'll manage Matt Ryan type rookie numbers. Johnson offers Stafford a great and reliable target and Aaron Brown has also shown a lot of potential over the summer.
The real problem last season though wasn't the offence; it was one of the worst defensive units ever seen in the NFL. Jim Schwartz's time as Tennessee's defensive co-ordinator will be vital and in Julius Petersen and Larry Foote he has a couple of weapons that will help create a pass rush. They're not going to mould into the Pittsburgh Steelers overnight but they just can't possibly be as bad as last year.
Prediction: 4th but they should win at least three or four
Green Bay Packers - 15/8
2008 was always likely to be tricky for the Packers once Brett Favre announced his retirement but, despite a seven game losing streak at the end of the season, a sense of optimism remains around Lambeau Field. This time around they've been handed a far more generous schedule and had another year to gel meaning the pre-season hype may be justified.
Offensively the Packers were very strong last year and, since little has changed on that side of things, they will be at least equally as good this time. Aaron Rodgers learned from the best and it showed as he more than adequately filled Favre's massive boots finishing the year, his first full one in the NFL, with a 93 plus rating and over 4,000 yards. Fair enough Mike McCarthy's team is set up for the pass but it was still a decent showing. Ryan Grant benefitted from the space Rodgers' created and he looks primed to do it again.
The area of more importance and the reason they fizzled out so quickly last year is the defence. To address the problem lineman BJ Raji was drafted as the ninth overall pick and linebacker Clay Matthews also arrived in the first round. A change in defensive systems has been brought in and is designed to put more pressure on the quarterback but this relies on Aaron Kampman getting support from the line.
Prediction: 1st if the defensive changes work as planned
Minnesota Vikings - 13/8
Brett Favre's arrival to the HHH was the result of another horror showing at quarterback from a combination of Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte. With a defence comparable to the very best in the NFL it was all a little bit messy for the Vikings last year as they scraped through to the play-offs mainly due to a lack of class in the NFC North. With the Bears and Packers having strengthened in the off-season, Brad Childress knows the importance of an improved aerial offence, but has he got it?
Favre's acquisition certainly made all the headlines but it's important to remember that he's not once what he was. The way the Jets tailed off last season should have set warning lights off somewhere - I'm just hoping Minnesota's desperation to get shut of Jackson doesn't cost them. If Favre can manage one more season though then you can expect big numbers from rookie receiver Percy Harvin. And it's just a given that Adrian Peterson will inspire a well above average rush.
Trying to establish a run against the Vikings once again proved impossible in 2008 and they're up to their usual tricks this year. The two Williams' in the line are so tough to hold off and Jared Allen gives offensive linemen a headache every time they're facing him. If they can slightly improve against the pass then they could easily boast the best defence in the NFC.
Prediction: 2nd Favre failed with the Jets and could lose out here to the Packers