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NFC North: Things to consider

08/28/2012 02:03 EDT | Updated 10/27/2012 05:12 EDT
The fifth of an eight-part series on the league's divisions, to perhaps help you decide to which teams and players to back in the upcoming season.

The NFC North teams will battle with those from AFC South and NFC West. There's a whole lot of rebuilding and struggling teams in those two latter divisions, it sure looks like a decent proposition that at least two playoff teams will come from the North.

You have to have a bit of sympathy for fans of the Vikings. You can think quarterback Christian Ponder has some kind of bright future, but in the here and now he's a six-foot-two sapling in a division that boasts three fully developed gunslingers, a trio that no other division can match quite frankly.

Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler combined last year to throw for exactly 12,000 yards and for 99 touchdowns. And that's with Cutler having missed six games and Rodgers sitting out the last game, during which backup Matt Flynn threw for 440 yards.

Had Chicago's reserves behind Cutler not been so woeful, the CHI-DET-GB passing totals would have been around 14,000 and 115-120, respectively.

That would have surpassed the awesome collective work of Drew Brees (who had a record-breaking year), Matt Ryan and Cam Newton of the NFC South, a division whose teams amassed more rushing yards than the North's.

Who woulda thunk it? The division that used to most typify the NFL's image of bone-rattling defence, was the most pass-happy grouping in the league last year.

Statistics below refer to 2011 regular season games unless otherwise noted.End of season trend includes playoff games. Close games refer to games decided by seven or less points.

Chicago Bears

- Average wins, past 5 years: 8.4

- 2011 record: 8-8

- Record in close games: 4-3

- Avg. loss margin: 11.4 points

- Avg. win margin: 12.9 points

- Games with 20 or more points scored: 9

- Games with 20 or less allowed: 8

- End of season trend: 1-5

Good vibes: Jay Cutler can make the throws and had magnificent chemistry with new Bears WR Brandon Marshall when both were in Denver … Signed the capable Michael Bush to help complement impressive workhorse RB Matt Forte … Got rid of GM Jerry Angelo, who made some strange moves and statements … Got rid of OC Mike Martz, who had grown too quirky and stubborn over the years by most accounts … Found capable backup QB in Jason Campbell after the Caleb Hanie disaster … Figure to make better use of TE position as catching option … They still have dangerous Devin Hester.

Caution signs: Been said before and it is again: Core defensive guys aren't that young … Brian Urlacher had an offseason scope …They gave up a lot of pass yards and get relatively few sacks from linebackers and secondary … You just never know when Marshall will have an outburst or off-field issue … A bit strange that coach of the OL (which has struggled big time) was promoted to offensive coordinator (Mike Tice) … Passing option Johnny Knox on PUP list with serious back injury … Not so great in the penalty differential … Play three of last four on road.

Who knows: If you look at Chicago's schedule, it's not onerous in terms of overall opponent winning percentage, but it seems like they never go more than two or three games without facing a presumed strong team (For e.g., Game 2: @GB, Game 4: @DAL, Game 6: DET, Game 9: HOU, Game 10: @SF). The question is whether that will keep them sharp throughout the season and prevent them from overlooking the "easier" looking games, or whether it will grind them down.

Detroit Lions

- Average wins, past 5 years: 7

- 2011 record: 10-6

- Record in close games: 5-3

- Avg. loss margin: 15.4 points

- Avg. win margin: 11.2 points

- Games with 20 or more points scored: 11

- Games with 20 or less allowed: 6

- End of season trend: 4-1

Good vibes: Matt Stafford stayed healthy to light it up, and a preseason injury scare last week was to his non-throwing hand … Calvin Johnson probably considered best WR in game by most, and he opens up space for his teammates … Led by Ndamukong Suh, defence plays with nasty streak … Stafford dropped back a ton last year, and OL didn't let him down in terms of protection … Strong on both sides of the ball in the red zone in 2011 …They get back RB Mikel Leshoure, who missed all of his rookie year with torn Achilles.

Caution signs: Maybe they think they can reach the playoffs again with a lacking ground game, but it seems to be tempting fate … On that note, running backs Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith already dinged …Seem a bit dependent on each side of the ball's superstar: If Johnson or Suh go down for any significant length, this looks like a team that will struggle to get back to playoffs … Probably nothing serious but Johnson currently dealing with finger injury … Play four of first six games and six of first 10 on the road … Bye week comes after just four games … Gave up many yards and took many penalties.

Who knows: You'd figure Detroit won't get too comfortable off the whiff of last year given the way the defence was utterly exposed in second half against New Orleans in playoffs …Can one or more of Leshoure, Keiland Williams and Joicque Bell help address the severe imbalance of their offensive attack?

Green Bay Packers

- Average wins, past 5 years: 7

- 2011 record: 15-1

- Record in close games: 5-1

- Avg. loss margin: 5 points

- Avg. win margin: 13.7 points

- Games with 20 or more points scored: 15

- Games with 20 or less allowed: 7

- End of season trend: 2-2

Good vibes: Aaron Rodgers had maybe the best statistical season of any quarterback ever, with 45 TDs and just six INT's … Massive array of receiving options … Receiver/returner Randall Cobb only figures to get better … There's big issues on defence but can't say they didn't address them; first seven draft picks were on that side of ball … Picked up guys who've won Super Bowls — Jeff Saturday and Anthony Hargrove.

Caution signs: Gave up most passing yards in NFL history … Running game is merely serviceable … We've seen Dom Capers-led units fade on him over the years before … Schedule is a chore: Open with home games four days apart vs. SF, CHI, play a total of five night games, have three consecutive road games in October (albeit against so-so teams and not over long distances), and also have two consecutive road games in November against tough foes (@DET, @NYG) … Departed Matt Flynn was great when needed as backup QB, can Graham Harrell be as well? … Lost centre Scott Wells, arguably in his prime, and replaced with 37-year-old Saturday … Hargrove a good acquisition, but must serve an 8-game Bountygate suspension.

Who knows: The Packers could very well finish three or four wins poorer than last season but be the better for it down the stretch and into the playoffs. Specifically, with offensive powers the 49ers, Bears and Saints on tap in the first month, the defence shouldn't be expected to make a huge leap forward right away. But over the course of the season as the Packers play some less imposing foes, it will be interesting to see how the addition of several drafted rookies and veteran signings on defence will cohere around the likes of Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji.

Minnesota Vikings

- Average wins, past 5 years: 7.8

- 2011 record: 3-13

- Record in close games: 2-9

- Avg. loss margin: 11 points

- Avg. win margin: 11.3 points

- Games with 20 or more points scored: 10

- Games with 20 or less allowed: 2

- End of season trend: 1-7

Good vibes: The fact they played 11 close games suggests they may not be that far off from respectability … Adrian Peterson says he'll ready for Week 1 … Jerome Simpson and John Carlson seem like good pickups for the pass attack, which was quite lacking … Backup RB Toby Gerhart stepped it up last year …Backup QB Joe Webb an interesting multi-faceted option … Jared Allen still at the top of his game … Strong against the run and were actually a decent red zone team on both sides of ball …Had 10 draft picks and used them diversely … Their two extra games are winnable: @WAS, TB … Starting season with JAX, @IND as good as they could have hoped for … Didn't make massive coaching staff changes, giving some stability.

Caution signs: Secondary got gashed last year … First serious injury for Peterson, no way of knowing what he'll be like coming back … QB Ponder still very much a question mark in terms of potential … Simpson will have to sit 3 games due to substance abuse suspension … No stars at linebacker …Have to play total of six games against really strong division mates … On that note, consecutive road games starting Nov. 25 vs. CHI, GB.

Who knows: The season will be about how Ponder progresses (or not), how Peterson responds to his serious knee injury, and whether more playmakers not named Allen can be found on defence.

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