Green Bay Packers not unanimous choice but ...
The Packers have won the division in two consecutive years and made the playoffs in four consecutive years. There's no reason to believe that streak will change while Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews are in their primes. Three of the four Around The League writers picked the Packers to win the division, with Marc Sessler taking the Chicago Bears. Two of us have the Packers at 12-4, which would be good enough for a playoff bye.
Spoiler alert for our season preview: I have the Packers going to the Super Bowl. Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers are the best offensive coach-QB combination in the NFL until proven otherwise. Eddie Lacy adds a new dimension to the running game. But I like them to rebound as a team this season because of defensive improvement. The secondary has enviable depth at cornerback and safety. The defensive line is deeper than it has been during McCarthy's run, with a promising first-round draft pick in Datone Jones. A healthy Matthews changes this team; he still should have one or two Defensive Player of the Year-caliber seasons left in him.
Lot of love for Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman
I was the only writer to have the Bears under .500, with two of us putting Chicago at 10-6. Lovie Smith never had a top-20 offense during his long run in Chicago, and Trestman should change that. The right side of the offensive line looks improved, and Jay Cutler has his best quarterback tutor since Mike Shanahan in Denver. Along with Matt Forte, the pieces are in place to improve.
Chicago's defense has been so good for so long that it's taken for granted. New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has a lot of talent to play with, especially on the line. Nothing would surprise us with this team. The roster is good enough to make a playoff run, with an improvement in offense possibly countered by a decline in turnovers on defense. We like everything we hear from (and about) Trestman, but he's still an unknown.
Detroit Lions no longer are trendy
Detroit was a trendy team following its 2011 playoff appearance. Then a slew of arrests and a ridiculously unlucky 4-12 season cooled things. Many of the aspects that made the Lions a popular sleeper pick to begin with still are in place. Their vertical offense is very difficult to deal with. More importantly, their defensive tackle duo of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley should be the best in the entire league. Defensive ends (and linebackers) will look better just playing with Suh/Fairley.
There is not a lot separating a 4-12 team from a 10-6 playoff appearance. I was the only writer to put the Lions above .500, and Sessler was the only writer to put them back in the basement. The maturation of Matthew Stafford is the key. He's an average NFL starting quarterback who should be at the stage of his career where he pushes to another level.
Minnesota Vikings set up for a fall
The Vikings rode a historic season from Adrian Peterson and an improved defense to a 10-6 record last year. They are unlikely to repeat a 5-1 record in one-score games and need QB Christian Ponder to improve rapidly just to get to average.
It's hard to teach pocket presence, and Ponder hasn't displayed the trait as a pro. There are plenty of solid aspects to this Vikings team, but you need to be outstanding in all facets to make up for a lackluster passing game. We just don't trust Ponder, Greg Jennings, rookie wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and tight end Kyle Rudolph to cobble together enough production.
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