This was one of the strongest divisions last season, but not because of the Detroit Lions, as they underachieved. The Minnesota Vikings came out of nowhere to grab a wild-card spot, taking advantage of a Chicago Bears squad that fell apart down the stretch. The Green Bay Packers remain the class, though, with the best quarterback in the league at the helm.
Green Bay Packers
– Odds to win NFC North: 2/3
For the second year in a row, the Pack suffered an early playoff exit at the hands of the eventual NFC champs. In the offseason, Green Bay lost Greg Jennings to the rival Vikings and released Charles Woodson. Rookie RB Eddie Lacy and DE Datone Jones joined via the draft and should help improve two crucial areas — running game and pass rush. The Packers open the season in San Francisco, where last season ended. They also play the Atlanta Falcons in addition to a tough crossover with the AFC North.
Aaron Rodgers will always make the Packers division favorites, and an improved running game will only improve one of the game’s top offenses, but a 12+ win season may be hard to come by with that slate.
– Odds to win NFC North: 7/2
The Bears lost five of six games in 2012 after a 7-1 start, and they missed the playoffs despite a 10-6 record, costing Lovie Smith his job. Enter Marc Trestman, a brand new staff and newcomers OLT Jermon Bushrod, OLG Matt Slauson and TE Martellus Bennett to try and get the most out of Jay Cutler and a Bears offense that consistently disappointed. On defense, Mel Tucker takes over the unit, which still has stars Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman after the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer Brian Urlacher.
The Bears have the easiest schedule in the division, and four of their final six games come against teams that did not make the playoffs in 2012. If Trestman can get Cutler and the offense to the level it needs to be, watch out for Chicago.
– Odds to win NFC North: 6/1
The worst and most disappointing team in the NFC North in 2012, the Lions closed the season on an eight-game losing streak. Their reward — the second-most difficult schedule in 2013, which includes games in Pittsburgh, Washington, in addition to tough divisional games. The offense will look a bit different with Riley Reiff at left tackle and former Dolphin Reggie Bush taking over at running back. No. 5 overall pick Ziggy Ansah joins the vaunted D-line, along with ex-Seahawk Jason Jones. The combination of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson leads this team, with Megatron becoming one of the most unstoppable receivers in the game. He needs help on offense, though, and Bush should bring that.
The schedule is tough, but this Lions team is just two years removed from a playoff appearance and with a ferocious defensive front and an improved secondary with rookie Darius Slay and former Texan Glover Quin, the Lions will be a difficult out each Sunday.
– Odds to win NFC North: 6/1
When the Vikings had a 6-6 record heading into a four-game stretch against the Bears, Rams, Texans and Packers, they had pretty much been written off. Instead, behind the astounding running of Adrian Peterson, Minnesota went 4-0 to end the season and make the playoffs. Without Christian Ponder, the Vikings fell 24-10 in the playoffs to Green Bay, but loaded up in the draft to prove that 2012 wasn’t a fluke. With three first-round picks, GM Rick Spielman added WR Corderrelle Patterson, CB Xavier Rhodes and DT Sharrif Floyd. Peterson, the league MVP, returns to run behind a solid O-line. With improvements in the secondary, the defense can get where it needs to be.
The Vikings have a tough schedule with games in Baltimore, Cincinnati and Seattle. Their success relies heavily on Ponder. If he can keep defenses from stuffing the box to stop AP, count the Vikings as a serious dark horse to challenge for the division crown.