NFC North preview
Packers, Lions and Bears set to do battle in star-studded division
By Alex Williams. Last Updated: 05/09/12 10:36am
The NFC North is set to be one of the NFL's toughest divisions in 2012, with three of the four teams having legitimate ambitions of winning the Super Bowl.
The Green Bay Packers were the favourites to go all the way at the start of last year's play-offs but suffered a shocking defeat to the New York Giants.
The Detroit Lions' rebuilding process came to fruition with a first play-off appearance in 12 years and Jim Schwartz's side will hope to take the final step and turn their exciting potential in the finished article this year.
The Chicago Bears were blighted by injury problems last season and are now targeting a deep post-season run, while the Minnesota Vikings are likely to find it tough in a stacked division.
Green Bay Packers(15-1)
Star Man: Aaron Rodgers
With MVP-winner Aaron Rodgers pulling the strings, the Packers finished the 2011 regular season with the best record in the NFL but were stunned by the Giants in their first play-off contest.
They will begin this season with their sights firmly set on the Super Bowl again and Rodgers will be central to their chances. Another season in the same vein as last year could end the argument over who is the best quarterback in the league.
Receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson along with tight end Jermichael Finley provide Rodgers with more than adequate weapons on offence. There are still question marks over the defence, however, and a stop unit that ranked dead last in the NFL last season must improve this time around.
Detroit Lions (10-6)
Star Man: Calvin Johnson
Fearless drafting has transformed the Lions from the laughing stock of the NFL into one of the most exciting teams in the league, with Detroit hoping to complete the transformation into proven winners this season.
Matthew Stafford was one of three quarterbacks to throw for 5,000 yards in 2011 thanks in no small part to the heroics of Calvin Johnson, who is now considered by most to be the best receiver in the NFL.
The Stafford-Johnson tandem should again be the Lions' major strength this year while a fearsome defensive line including Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril is once again set to wreak havoc. If the Lions can stay disciplined and relatively injury-free, they should challenge for the play-offs once again.
Chicago Bears (8-8)
Star Man: Julius Peppers
The Bears' defence will again be their main calling card in 2012 but a shrewd acquisition on the other side of the ball could turn them into well-rounded team that can compete with the best.
Receiver Brandon Marshall, who showed such great chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler at the Denver Broncos, was acquired via a trade with Miami and could immediately become the Bears' most potent skill-position player.
But the defence, led by veteran Brian Urlacher and containing the likes of Julius Peppers and Lance Briggs, is the main attraction in Chicago. After injuries derailed last season following a promising start, the Bears will hope this is the year they can make another run at the Lombardi Trophy.
Minnesota Vikings (3-13)
Star Man: Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson has been the cornerstone of the Vikings' offence for five years but heads into this season barely recovered from a severe knee injury.
But even if Peterson is back to his best early in the campaign, it is tough to see him doing enough damage to make up for the apparent shortcomings of the rest of the offence.
Christian Ponder faces a crucial second year behind centre in which he will hope to prove he has what it takes to make it in the professional ranks. New left tackle Matt Kalil, selected third overall in the draft, should help his cause. Defensive end Jared Allen is the star on a defence that will have to be almost perfect if the Vikings are to have a shot of the play-offs.