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NFL 2012 Season Preview: The NFC North

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The Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions are working on a running game, the Chicago Bears suddenly have a legitimate offense and the Minnesota Vikings are just hoping to improve.

Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears offense is going to light up the skies. No, really. The passing attack Bears fans envisioned when they traded for strong-armed Jay Cutler has finally emerged. Just about the time that they acquired Pro-Bowl MVP WR Brandon Marshall, a two-headed rushing attack and, oh yeah, an offensive line. Did I mention that Mike Martz got fired?

2011 wrap-up:
1. WR Johnny Knox has still not recovered from a brutal back injury. He will be out at least the first six weeks.
2. Robbie Gould is one of those wonderful kickers who has carried his team for ages, waiting for a quarterback.
3. The defensive secondary underwent a mid-season makeover in hopes of combating Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford.
4. On the recent NFL ESPN Sportscenter Special, Bill Parcells stated that Jay Cutler's injury affected the entire makeup of the 2011 playoffs.

2012 offseason:
1. Former Falcon and Pro-Bowler, Eric Weems has been added to Devin Hester in the return game.
2. As for that passing attack? 31-of-45 preseason first downs were through the air.
3. The Bears run defense is missing Brian Urlacher (out with a knee injury that will supposedly heal by the opener). The Giants rookie rusher David Wilson made the starting D look a bit silly.
4. RB Matt Forte finally received a new contract and seems completely healthy, while the team added starting-caliber runner Michael Bush from Oakland.
5. Rookie safety Brandon Hardin is now on IR after a neck injury.

Storylines:
1. Rookie WR Alshon Jeffery was considered a risk since he had a tendency to be a bit, um, fat. So far, so good as the young man showed up in shape and has become a useful new weapon in Cutler's expanding arsenal. He's No. 17 and built like Plaxico Burress. Jay can choose from two RBs who can catch, Hester, Marshall, Jeffery and Vanderbilt buddy, Earl Bennett.
2. There were no sacks of Mr. Cutler against the Giants this preseason. That's a really good sign. Watch the LT position, which has been a hotly contested spot this summer. It looks as if J'Marcus Webb is going to supplant Chris Williams. The team also welcomes back RT Gabe Carimi, who was showing "the right stuff" before ending up on IR.
3. The Bears didn't run the ball very well in the preseason. The party line is that they've been working on the passing game. Okay.
4. Generally, the selection of DE Shea McClellin in the 2012 draft was not applauded. McClellin has quieted critics somewhat, but we'll see what happens in "big boy" games.
5. This defense is loaded with stars -- old stars.

Like the Baltimore Ravens, the Bears need their offense to get up to speed before their defense heads to the retirement home.

Detroit Lions

Matthew Stafford may soon supplant Philip Rivers as the best quarterback nobody talks about. Of course, having Calvin Johnson as your top wideout doesn't hurt, but Stafford could probably launch a ball into orbit if he really tried.

2011 wrap-up:
1. Say what you will about head coach Jim Schwartz' likeability factor -- the Lions have gone from 0-16 in 2008 to the playoffs in 2011.
2. Unfortunately, three of the draft picks that became starters (DT Nick Fairley, RB Mikel Leshoure and WR Titus Young) can't seem to stay out of significant trouble. DT Ndamukong Suh is a huge talent with a reputation as a dirty player.
3. The Lions were infamously run-less in 2011. They re-signed Kevin Smith after Leshoure tore his Achilles. Keiland Williams came in occasionally for a big play and Jahvid Best is still recovering from a concussion received almost a year ago. The team does not even employ a fullback.
4. Detroit has two excellent tight ends. They're not Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez perhaps, but they help keep Stafford healthy and they can both catch a football. What more do you want?
5. Do I need to tell anyone what a fantastic kicker Jason Hanson is?

2012 offseason:
1. Leshoure made eyes roll by hurting his hamstring early in the offseason. However, he played in the third preseason game. He gained seven yards. He will be suspended for the first two games. Great.
2. WR Nate Burleson has not received nearly enough credit for his leadership on and off the field. The team drafted a ball-catcher in Ryan Broyles, who is set to make the roster.
3. Injuries are already taking a toll. CB Dwight "Bill" Bentley was getting fans all excited until he hurt his shoulder. DB Chris Houston and RB Smith hurt their ankles. Even Leshoure ended the third game with a wrap around his middle.
4. LT Jeff Backus has been able to return for 2012. That is a good thing, since rookie Riley Rieff isn't quite ready to protect Stafford's blind side.

Storylines:
1. WR Stefan Logan has re-invented himself as a running back. After he suffered what looked like a terrible ankle injury, everyone was relieved that it turned out to be a sprain. Keep an eye on him since he brings so much versatility.
2. Starting Safety Louis Delmas is still out with a knee injury. The secondary went through a lot of changes in 2011 and they lost Eric Wright to free agency and David Perry to stupidity. This unit is the weakest point on the team (if you don't count that whole "can't run the ball" thing).
3. If Titus Young can stay out of fights, he could very well draw enough coverage so that there are only two DBs draped on Calvin Johnson as opposed to three. Not that it appears to matter, actually.
4. Fans should feel relieved that the pass protection has been adequate in August. Run Blocking? Not so much.

Green Bay Packers

The Green and Gold may not make it to 15-1 this season, but don't toss them off your Super Bowl picks list just yet.

2011 wrap-up:
1. Even with their defense in a slump and ranking only 27th in rushing yardage, the Pack won the division. Of course it helps when your quarterbacks throw 51 touchdown passes.
2. Aaron Rodgers is the reigning MVP. He completed 68.3 percent of his passes for almost 10 yards per pass and almost 310 yards per game. It's hard to see how he could possibly be much better.
3. Green Bay had a precipitous drop in "sackage" during the 2011 campaign. After finishing second in this category during their Super Bowl year, they deeply offended QBs only 29 times last year.

2012 offseason:
1. The Packers addressed their anemic running game by signing cast-off Bengal Cedric Benson. He should provide an immediate defensive challenge for opponents.
2. Green Bay is hoping that drafting Nick Perry will help them disrupt opposing QBs.
3. LB Desmond Bishop, of whom great things were expected, has been placed on IR.
4. Donald Driver is (for those of you who don't watch "Dancing with the Stars" and observe these things) in great shape. He leads the best WRing corps in the NFL.

Storylines:
1. Will Green Bay have a running game legitimate enough to force defenses to take their focus away from Aaron Rodgers?
2. The NFC North is vastly improved, but the "smart money" is still picking the Pack.
3. TE Jermichael Finley has promised to have a breakout year. It's about time.
4. All-Pro CB, Defensive MVP and Heisman-winner Charles Woodson will be 36 years old in October. He has decided that it's time to move to safety.
5. UFA OLB Dezman Moses may actually make the team after a marvelous preseason that included tackles, passes defended and a quarterback dump.
6. Backup QB Graham Harrell struggled all of August after a strong camp in July. Could there be a new clipboard man in Wisconsin?
7. Packers fans need to hope that the O-line can protect Mr. Rodgers a little more effectively in 2012. Former Peyton Manning Protector, Jeff Saturday, is the new Green Bay center.

Minnesota Vikings

No one expects much from the Minnesota Vikings in 2012 as QB Christian Ponder enters his second year and rushing star Adrian Peterson returns from a serious knee injury. While that's probably wise, Minnesota is positioned for one of those "out of nowhere" fan-pleasing performances. Hey, it could happen.

2011 wrap-up:
1. The secondary could not hold up against Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. Hard to win the NFC North that way.
2. You also cannot contend without keeping up in scoring. The Vikes averaged 21.2 points per game, which was only good enough for 19th place in the league.
3. The Vikings gave up over 28 points per game -- and that's how you get to be 3-13 with the fourth pick in the draft.
4. Ponder completed about 54 percent of his passes. He threw 13 touchdown passes -- and 13 interceptions. In other words, he was a rookie QB.
5. Who is a WR for Minnesota not named Percy Harvin! See? That's the problem.
6. The offensive line did not improve over the unit that allowed Brett Favre to get darn near killed in 2009.
7. Jared Allen has been one of the best pass rushers in the NFL for a while now. They have a couple of decent linebackers and one cornerback. That's not enough.

2012 offseason:
1. The team used the fourth overall pick on Day 1 LT starter Matt Kalil, younger brother of Carolina Panther Ryan Kalil.
2. The team brought in super-athletic Jerome Simpson to play WR opposite Harvin. This would be perfect, except that Simpson is suspended for the first few games. Rookie Jarius Wright, sophomore Stephen Burton and veteran Devin Aromashodu will try to fill in.
3. The team drafted Safety Harrison Smith, who is either a talent gem or an overrated bust-in-the-making, depending upon to whom one is listening.
4. Third-round CB Josh Robinson will also be called upon to elevate the secondary.

Storylines:
1. Can Ponder take a huge, historic step forward?
2. The O-line gave up 49 sacks last year. Ouch.
3. How good can Adrian Peterson possibly be after tearing both of those infamous knee ligaments on December 24th, 2011?
4. Can the team field a healthy secondary?
5. The Vikings probably do not have enough collective talent to compete in this suddenly dominant division.

It's probably a three-horse race in the NFC North and may come down to whichever team can run the ball in December.

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