We are marching toward the 2011 NFL season and the anticipation has gotten to many a football fan. We are no different. As we look forward to an exciting 2011, it’s hard to believe we are just 7 months removed from the most important NFC North game ever. The rumble for the NFC Championship Game between the Chicago Bears, and the Green Bay Packers. The NFC North, formerly the NFC Central, had it’s first NFL champion in 15 years and ironically both times it was the Green Bay Packers. So how much has changed?? Does this division still hold the NFC’s best two teams?? Did the Chicago Bears let a golden opportunity get away from them by not capitalizing in the 2010 NFC Championship Game?? Will Donovan McNabb solidify the Vikings and give them another chance to get to the Super Bowl as Favre did for them two years ago?? What about the Lions?? Have they made enough of the right moves to chase down their heated rivals in Chicago and Green Bay?? Huh, ….oh and what about the Lions??
Green Bay Packers 13-3*
Detroit Lions 11-5#
Chicago Bears 7-9
Minnesota Vikings 5-11
We were the first to speak of the champion Packers having won the Super Bowl with their second string. Aaron Rodgers ascended to the upper echelon of quarterbacks who are playing this game and at 28 has a ton of time left to become an all time great. Accurate, mobile, and fearless he stands to wrest the mantle of NFL’s best QB from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning with an excellent 2011. Think about it. Of the 3 Super Bowl seasons Tom Brady had the best statistically in 2004, where he threw for 3,690 yards 28TDs, and 14 interceptions. Last year despite missing 2 games with injury, Rodgers threw for 3,922 yards 28 TDs and only 11 interceptions for the Packers. That’s before we get into last year’s magnificent playoff run.
The Packer offense will see some transition with RB James Starks fighting it out with injured incumbent Ryan Grant returning. Jordy Nelson nearly broke Jerry Rice’s Super Bowl record for receiving yards so he will take some time away from aging Donald Driver. As for the defense, gone is longtime Packer Nick Barnett who was admirably replaced by new ILB starter Desmond Bishop. Clay Matthews has entered the realm of NFL super star. He is a complete defender and an excellent pass rusher with 10.5 sacks last year who is only going to get better in his 3rd year. The new safety tandem is Morgan Burnett and Nick Collins, with Atari Bigby having moved on to Seattle. The Packers young secondary is still anchored by All Pro Charles Woodson who has had a positive influence on the growth of fellow corners Tramon Williams and Sam Shields. All told, this secondary was responsible for 24 interceptions (2nd in the NFL) and should improve in 2011. No chance they are unseated as NFC North champion, they are just too well equipped.
Yet there is a storm brewing to Green Bay’s southeast. Dormant for more than an NFL decade, has been the moribund Detroit Lions. Draft busts of the Matt Millen regime behind them, his former Washinton Redskin teammate Martin Mayhew is putting together a championship caliber squad. One that will see great gains this year if Matthew Stafford can stay healthy. Its paramount he matures with his team onfield this season. The Lions also brought in Titus Young from Boise St. to give them another deep threat alongside Calvin Johnson.
There was a setback when they lost draft pick RB Mikel Leshoure, fomerly of Illinois, for the season. This team still has quick striking Jahvid Best out of the backfield and signed Jerome Harrison and Maurice Morris to pick up the slack. However it was the selection of DT Nick Fairley in the 1st round that sent shockwaves throughout the league. He is joining a Motown defensive line that had 44 sacks last year. Fairley should terrorize NFC North quarterbacks with Ndamokung Suh for years to come. He should be fully recovered and ready to roll when the regular season will get under way. After a four game winning streak to conclude last season, this team was bolstered by a solid beating handed to the Patriots in last week’s pre-season game. Never underestimate what it means for a team to learn how to win and see themselves as winners.
Now lets be fair… the new kickoff moving to the 35 yard line, was a bullshit move by rule makers to negate the special teams advantage the Chicago Bears have enjoyed with Devin Hester. The NFL’s greatest kick returner. It’s backlash for his turning close games into Bear victories over favored opponents. There is no other way to see it. There in lies the problem. It’s not a television show of who’s to be voted off of the island, it’s a sporting endeavor. The Bears play smashmouth, close to the vest football in cold weather and rely on stout defense and superior special teams. Last year they had improved play from the quarterback position as Cutler trimmed his interception totals and showed more command of the offense. Team brass finally brought in some help with the signing of Marion Barber and Roy E. Williams, fomerly of Dallas to help with the running game and the receiving corps. With the shortened off season, most teams will struggle to find their offensive rhythm early and the Bears could be one of those offenses. Yet they have drafted several young offensive linemen and should be ready to roll in 2012. Problem is they should have a few growing pains in ’11.
When will the Vikings learn to bite the bullet and develop a quarterback?? They have run retread after retread at this position and haven’t come up with a championship yet. There was magic in the first year with Favre, however reality set in once he was injured and Sage Rosenfels had been released. The Donovan McNabb experience should only be one year, unless he has an outstanding season. Which is the two fold problem. When do you take the reigns from an elder quarterback and take the lumps with a young and growing one?? From Sean Salisbury to Jim McMahon, to Warren Moon, to Randall Cunningham, to Jeff George…they’ve been doing this since 1992 at the expense of developing a young signal caller. The one exception was to allow Daunte Culpepper to develop and he gave the Vikings some great seasons. So if the season goes well, McNabb could retard Christian Ponder’s growth.
With McNabb, we see a quarterback going through the motions, not one with a chip on his shoulder to prove himself. That won’t bode well for the Vikings if they look to him for leadership. They have a strong running game in Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart yet are suspect at receiver. Right now the strength of this team would be to run the football and keep their aging defense off the field. If it doesn’t go well this year, be ready to move in another direction and build with your young quarterbacks. At this point we see a fading legend hanging on with a mediocre receiving corp and a defense that last year started to give up yards on the ground toward the end of the season. Donovan takes a look at the tapes of last year’s offensive line performance and the hits on Favre, he may audible to all rollouts. Add to that LT Bryant McKinnie (The U) gets cut for coming into camp out of shape?? Donovan could be in for a long year. As Donovan goes, so go the Vikings. A tough year indeed