by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

1-DETROIT (10-6 in 2011; lost 45-28 at New Orleans in Wildcat Round)...Is this the year the Lions finally win the division? The last time that happened was with Barry Sanders back in 1993 when the division was still the NFL Central. Yes, Detroit has lots prove on many important football dimensions. The Lions, despite all their passing-game pulchritude, were a lowly 29th in rushing last season. And the Lions, despite their heavy pass rush, often failed in the clutch last season, requiring QB Matthew Stafford to hurl for more than 5000 yards in 2011 and for WR Calvin Jones (96 recs., 16 TDs) to engineer several “miracle” comebacks, which now will no longer be viewed as miracles, but as expected.

Detroit’s last two appearances of the 2011 season certainly give one pause for concern, as backup Matt Flynn tossed six TDP in Green Bay’s 45-41 win at Lambeau, and then the Lions gave up 626 yards to the Saints in Detroit’s first playoff game since 1999. Those performances can hardly be viewed as promising harbingers for the 2012 season. Especially after a slew of off-field transgressions that prompted commissioner Roger Goodell to meet with several Lions early in training camp.

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However, Detroit is a team coming into its maturity in 2012. And prevailing division champ Green Bay is a team with its own problems despite its sterling 15-1 record in 2011. Even if RB Jahvid Best (concussions) is unable to contribute much this season, the Lions offer the promise of a substantially-improved ground attack that could balance the offense, take lots of pressure off Stafford and the aerial game, and save lots of wear and tear on an improving defense with one of the top front fours in the league (Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and a group of active backups who rotate in).

The RB group of Mikel Leshoure (No. 2 pick in 2011, injured last year; suspended first two games this season), Keiland Williams, and perhaps Kevin Smith are big backs who will give Stafford & Co. the chance to put teams away. A healthy Best makes Detroit even better. Six draft picks were used on defense. Another pick was a high-risk/high-reward chance on Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles, as good as there was in college until a serious knee injury. Green Bay will have to be close to perfection again in order to edge these deeper, better-balanced Lions.

2-GREEN BAY (15-1 in regular season in 2011; lost 37-20 vs. N.Y. Giants in Divisional Round)...It can safely be said that Green Bay had one of the strangest seasons in recent NFL history in 2011. The Packers won their first 13 games and ended 15-1 in the regular season despite finishing last in pass defense and last in total defense. However, a causal factor in those terrible stats was the fact that QB Aaron Rodgers (45 TDs vs. only 6 ints.) was so good on his way to becoming MVP that Green Bay’s foes trailed early and stayed trailing in virtually every game all season long.

So the Packers could afford to be yardage-yielding ball hawkers on defense, leading the league in interceptions with 31 and tying for first in takeaways with 38. Rodgers’ nearly mistake-free play helped the men in green to a +24 turnover margin. But G.B.’s lack of a “proper” ground game eventually hurt the team in the playoffs, when Rodgers was the team’s leading rusher with 66 yards against the Giants in a four-turnover loss at Lambeau, with Rodgers, RB Ryan Grant, and FB John Kuhn fumbling away the pigskin.

Despite last season’s long run toward perfection, the Packer brain trust is fully aware of the team’s shortcomings on defense, as G.B. added some veteran defensive role players in free agency and then used the team’s first six draft picks for defenders, trading up several times to get a player well-suited to G.B.’s morphing 3-4 scheme. Thus, Southern Cal DE Nick Perry is being converted to an OLB to balance top pass rusher Clay Matthews on the other side after Matthews drew extra attentioin all season and the G.B. sack total fell to only 29. Meanwhile, 15-year vet DB Charles Wilson will see more time this season at safety and nickel, where his great instincts can be put to use even if he’s lost a half a step.

Still, consider this. Packer opponents had more first downs last season than the brilliant Green Bay offense! And the Packer defense allowed 73 plays of more than 20 yards. Unless Rodgers is all-universe again, it’s no big surprise if the Green and Gold get nudged by the Lions.

3-CHICAGO (8-8 in 2011)...Now that the Bears have added power WR Brandon Marshall, have finally inked do-everything back Matt Forte, and have lured hammering Michael Bush from the Raiders, many believe it’s Chicago that will be the team to knock off Green Bay. After all, it was the Bears who won the North just two seasons ago, as the Packers had to take the wildcard route to get to their Super Bowl championship.

Moreover, gone this year from the Windy City is offensive coordinator Mike Martz, whose precision pass-oriented attack always seemed better suited to indoor play rather than for the outdoor elements at Soldier Field. And Martz’ schemes, while often troubling to defensive backfields, often exhibited a major flaw--his QBs got beaten up while being exposed to some hellacious hits. Jay Cutler couldn’t finish the playoff game vs. the Packers two years ago, and he was felled after 10 games last season.

New offensive coordinator Mike Tice (elevated from OL coach) says that won’t be the case this season, with the Bears running with more frequency and purpose. But hold up you hand if you believe Tice has solved the team’s perpetually-lingering OL problems. And, on defense, Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers are starting to show their age. Less flippy football and a more-physical attack this season in the Second City. But no NFC North title, and a major fight just to gain a wildcard berth.

4-MINNESOTA (3-13 in 2011)...The easiest pick in the division is Minnesota for the cellar, even though the Vikes bottomed out last season and are now slowly climbing their way back up. All three NFC North foes are better set at QB than Minnesota with Christian Ponder, who has 10 starts under his belt. While Ponder has demonstrated impressive leadership and knowledge, there is lingering doubt surrounding key RB Adrian Peterson in his return from ACL surgery. Will Peterson still be a dominant force?

If the answer is “no,” the Vikes still appear far from having enough compensating offense to carry the load in an era when solid QBs pass for 4000-5000 yards. Minny is rebuilding its OL around top draft pick Matt Kalil at LT, while the WR corps is below today’s explosive standards. While the defense boasts power up front and the relentless rush of Jared Allen (22 sacks last season!), the secondary still has holes and not much depth. Leslie Frazier owns Super Bowl rings as a player and as an assistant coach. But it is not clear that he will be around long enough to survive the rebuilding still needed in the Twin Cities.


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