All eyes are on the quarterbacks in the NFC North. Tarvaris Jackson will have to be better than he was last year if the Minnesota Vikings are going to overtake the powerful Green Bay Packers, who will need a smooth transition from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers to stay powerful. With a good quarterback, the Chicago Bears might be on their way back to the playoffs.
The Detroit Lions will field a team, with Jon Kitna under center. Well, all eyes can't be everywhere, you know.
1. Minnesota Vikings (8-8, second place in 2007)
The Vikings have a great running game, thanks to a solid line and Adrian Peterson, and a dominant run defense. It's better to have a great passing game and a dominant pass defense, the NFL being a passing league and all, but running and stopping the run is a good way to stay in games, which is a good way to win games.
Half of the Vikings' games last year were decided by a touchdown or less. They went 3-5 in those games. Get a few bounces and turn that around to 5-3, and they make the playoffs.
The Vikes have endeavored to make the pass defense better by making the pass rush better with a trade for former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen. They also made coverage guy Madieu Williams one of the best-paid safeties in the league, but Williams hurt his neck in camp and will miss at least the first three games.
Bernard Berrian, late of the rival Chicago Bears, gives the Vikings a true threat at wide receiver, assuming the toe injury he incurred this month doesn't hamper him. But on offense, it all comes down to the quarterback, Jackson. A 25-year-old third-year man and second-year starter from Alabama State, Jackson remains a gifted athlete but a raw quarterback.
He has game-breaking talent, but he needn't be a game-breaker for the Vikings to win. He just has to improve his decision-making enough to not give away games. Peterson will do most of the rest. If Jackson can take a step forward and run the offense well, the Vikings will land right smack in the middle of the Super Bowl conversation. He hurt his knee in the second practice game but says he'll be fine for the Monday night opener -- at Green Bay.
2. Green Bay Packers (13-3, first place in 2007)
The Packers are a popular Super Bowl pick. And rightly so. They weren't a flukey 13-3 last year but a solid, deep, young team. Favre's unexpected revival was sort of the cherry on top. With just a solid NFL quarterback, the Packers might have gone 11-5 or 12-4. With worse luck on the injury front, they might have gone 9-7 or 8-8.
That bodes well for Favre's replacement, Rodgers, who doesn't figure to scale Favrian heights -- well, no one figures to -- but looks like he should be a solid NFL quarterback. If the Packers have a weakness, it'll be because they don't stay healthy or because Rodgers isn't up to snuff.
There's no particular reason to believe either will happen. I'm taking the Vikings over the Packers because I don't like to pick repeat winners.
3. Chicago Bears (7-9, tied for third in 2007)
The Bears are a great defense looking for an offense. Well, not exactly looking. Wishing for, is more like it. If they were looking for an offense they might have tried to go out and get some good players, like a quarterback for instance.
Contrary to the old saw about defenses winning championships, the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots have shown in recent years that a great offense and an adequate defense are at least as good a way to get to the Super Bowl as the opposite. The Bears did ride their defense to the conference championship in 2006.
The Bears are still trying to figure out if Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton should be their quarterback. That tells you all you need to know about them. The current thinking, for what it's worth: Orton.
4. Detroit Lions (7-9, tied for third in 2007)
New year, new offensive scheme, same old Lions.
Remember last year when the Lions started out 6-2? Yeah, that was pretty much a mirage.
In this final week of the preseason, the Lions signed running back Rudi Johnson, the former Cincinnati Bengal, and cut Tatum Bell. Johnson says Bell took Johnson's luggage on his way out of the locker room, sending his girlfriend back with the bags later without the contents. Bell denies it, saying a teammate had asked him to pick up a bag he'd left behind and Bell simply grabbed the wrong one.
Johnson said, "If anybody's got some Perry Ellis boxers for sale, you know where they came from."
Why am I telling you this? Because it's going to stand as the highlight of the Lions' season.
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