With a potential settlement to the NFL lockout looming, analyst Elliot Harrison takes a quick glance at where each division left off following last season. This is a look at the NFC North.
Where we left off: The Bears rode a very strong defense (fourth in the NFL in points allowed) to win the NFC North with an 11-5 record. Still, many analysts have them as potentially the third best team in the division because of an offense that couldn't get out of its own way (ranked 30th). Despite their shortcomings, the Bears managed to beat the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers at home in the regular season and came within a drive of tying them in the NFC Championship Game, with Caleb Hanie at quarterback no less.
Issues of concern: Jay Cutler, despite throwing 10 fewer interceptions in 2010 than 2009, is still inconsistent. His offensive line didn't give him much help, as Chicago gave up the most sacks in the league (56). More than that, the running game averaged only 3.9 yards per carry, a figure that must improve for this team to repeat as NFC North champions. The Bears also need better play from their starting secondary (Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman, free agent Danieal Manning, and Chris Harris).
Two things to hang your hat on, Bears fans:
1. Drafting Gabe Carimi instantly makes that offensive line better.
2. With a better offensive line, coordinator Mike Martz should get more out of running back Matt Forte, like he did with Marshall Faulk back in the day.
Where we left off: The Lions showed a lot of promise down the stretch in 2010, winning their last four games, including two over very strong teams in the Packers and Buccaneers. Much of that was attributable to the defense, which gave up only 15.7 points per game during that streak. Ndamukong Suh and the rest of the defensive line played well, and figure to only get stronger with the surprising selection of Nick Fairley in the first round.
Issues of concern: Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan must figure out a way to keep Matthew Stafford upright, or else Detroit's playoff hopes likely go down the drain. Equally important is Jahvid Best's recovery from twin turf toe injuries. Despite drafting Mikel Leshoure in the second round, this team needs an explosive Best in the backfield. No one is confident in the Lions' secondary, which certainly isn't terrible but could really benefit to keep free agent Chris Houston if they don't get Nnamdi Asomugha.
Two things to hang your hat on, Lions fans:
1. The front four could get as much push as any line in the NFL -- period.
2. Coach Jim Schwartz has done a great job. He took over a 0-16 team that, barring a catastrophe, now has 10-6 talent.
Green Bay Packers
Where we left off: Last we saw the Packers, they beat a very good Steelers team in the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers got most of the publicity, ranking third in the NFL with a 101.2 passer rating. But this team really won it all -- and overcame a ton of injuries -- because of Dom Capers' defense, which finished second overall in points allowed (15.0). By the way, everyone I've talked to thinks Jermichael Finley is the real deal. If he can stay healthy, watch out.
Issues of concern: Coach Mike McCarthy and his staff will have to go easy on guys in camp, anything to stop this team from having 16 players on injured reserve again. While running back James Starks looked impressive, there was a little too much anointing going on for a kid that's played three regular-season games. This team needs Ryan Grant to be healthy and effective to give the offense balance, although he might have to compete for his job.
Two things to hang your hat on, Packers fans:
1. Green Bay won the Super Bowl with practically the entire team on IR and Charles Woodson's arm in a sling. They'll easily hit 11 wins with a healthy club.
2. Capers is back. The Packers' defense was one of the most underreported stories of 2010.
Where we left off: The Vikings fell victim to the one thing they banked their hopes on: Strong play by older veterans. Brett Favre had 24 turnovers. Bernard Berrian got no separation. Jared Allen had one sack through the first seven weeks. The offensive tackles couldn't hold the edge, and so on. This team played poorly down the stretch, and it needs Leslie Frazier to have a solid plan in place for 2011.
Issues of concern: That plan begins with quarterback Christian Ponder, Minnesota's first-round draft choice who potentially will start immediately. Obviously, that's a concern for a team that wants to win now. So is Sidney Rice's free-agent status. So is the aging, inconsistent offensive line. The Vikings needed to hit offensive line earlier than the sixth round in April's draft. Some age is also creeping into the defense, namely Kevin Williams (30), Allen (29), E.J. Henderson (30) and Antoine Winfield (34).
Two things to hang your hat on, Vikings fans:
1. Ponder can't play much worse than Favre and Tarvaris Jackson did last season, when Vikings QBs had 31 turnovers.
2. For all the talk of Adrian Peterson's fumbling problems, the dude fumbled once in 319 touches.
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.