The sixth of eight divisional looks ahead at the upcoming NFL season.
CHICAGO BEARS (8-8, 3rd in NFC North, in 2011)
The good: A team that's struggled to find elite skill-position talent since Walter Payton retired suddenly has lots of it. Michael Bush is one of the best backups to one of the best starters, Matt Forte, in the league at running back. And Brandon Marshall is the No. 1 receiver the Bears haven't had in my, yours or George Halas' lifetime. ... QB Jay Cutler might finally put up the kind of numbers that have been long expected of him with these new toys. I don't think he gets enough credit for the high level at which he was playing before getting hurt last season. ... It's an aging defense, but there aren't too many teams that have a DE like Julius Peppers and LBs like Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs in their front seven.
The bad: Cutler's ability to stay upright for 16 games, and Forte's ability to pile up yards, can't be certainties with this offensive line in front of them. Other than C Roberto Garza, there are big question marks around every starter. ... CB Charles Tillman has looked old in the preseason, meaning the Bears' one sure thing in the secondary may not be so sure. Safety, where Major Wright and Chris Conte are likely to start, could make this an average defense. ... Finding a No. 2 target behind Marshall could be problematic. TE Kellen Davis has disappointed in the past, and of Earl Bennett, Alshon Jeffery and Devin Hester, none is what you'd call an established No. 2 receiver.
The verdict: It's been a while since I would have used the words "average defense" to describe the Bears. And it's probably been forever since they had the kind of offense that could make them a playoff team anyway. The finish: 11-5, 2nd in NFC North
DETROIT LIONS (10-6, 2nd in NFC North, in 2011)
The good: I'm not sure anyone would even argue for Larry Fitzgerald anymore when the subject of the top receiver in the NFL comes up. Calvin Johnson is coming off a 1,681-yard, 16-touchdown season, and it feels like he could still get better. ... Say what you will about DT Ndamukong Suh, but he's both one of the best interior defensive line talents in the league and a part of a fearsome front four that also includes DEs Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch. ... Matthew Stafford might only be the third-best quarterback in a division that also includes Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, but he sure looked like a keeper last season.
The bad: Chris Houston and Alphonso Smith are slated to be the starting cornerbacks in a secondary that again should challenge for the title of worst in the NFL. If the line isn't getting to opposing QBs with regularity, the Lions are in big trouble. ... The Lions will need Reilly Reiff to be the real deal, or their offensive line will again be a problem. The other guys that have been traditionally solid for them (LT Jeff Backus, C Dominic Raiola) are getting up there in years. ... The skill-position talent beyond Johnson (Kevin Smith, along with — when they're healthy and eligible — Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure at running back; WRs Nate Burleson and Titus Young) leave a lot to be desired.
The verdict: The strides Detroit made last season were very real. Even in what should be a loaded division — I think it's the best one in the league — expect the Lions to be right in the mix for a playoff spot. The finish: 10-6, 3rd in NFC North
GREEN BAY PACKERS (15-1, 1st in NFC North, in 2011)
The good: Aaron Rodgers' playoff dud against the Giants showed me only that he's human. On the heels of a 45-touchdown season in which he completed 68.3 percent of his passes, he's still the first guy in the NFL I'd take to build my team around. ... The success of this passing game certainly isn't all due to Rodgers. Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver and James Jones make up one of the deepest and very best receiving corps around. TE Jermichael Finley is also a talent, albeit a drop-prone one. ... First-round pick Nick Perry rushing the passer on the opposite side of Clay Matthews might be just what the doctor ordered for a defense that was pretty bad in 2011.
The bad: More than a week away from the opener, and injuries are already decimating the Packers. Maybe they're not worried about DT B.J. Raji's ankle, but LB Desmond Bishop is probably gone for the year, and he's been far from alone in needing treatment. ... The time was probably right for Charles Woodson to move to safety, but it leaves the Packers much thinner at cornerback. Tramon Williams, fresh off an injury-plagued 2011, and Jarrett Bush will probably start. ... Between a crumbly offensive line (really, the Packers thought a 37-year-old Jeff Saturday would be an upgrade?) and a lack of talent at running back, this could again be among the league's least productive rushing attacks.
The verdict: The injuries are too plentiful and the division is too loaded for me to believe the Packers can win 15 games again. With that said, their defense should be better, if only by default, and they're going to be dominant as long as Rodgers is on the field. The finish: 12-4, 1st in NFC North
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (3-13, 4th in NFC North, in 2011)
The good: Jared Allen's coming off a 22-sack season. He is obviously an elite pass rusher, and Brian Robison isn't a terrible second defensive end on the other side. Plus, the Vikings still have half the Williams Wall in Kevin inside. It's a very good front four. ... Speaking of eye-popping statistics, LB Chad Greenway has made TWO HUNDRED AND NINETY-NINE tackles in the past two seasons. Some of that's system and opportunity in a bad defense, but he's still a bright spot. ... I don't know that the Adrian Peterson of old will be there this season, if ever again, but the possibility that he will gives this offense a flicker of hope.
The bad: It's smart to build your going-nowhere team around Christian Ponder and hope for the best, but boy, it's hard to envision good things behind a quarterback coming off a season in which he completed 54.3 percent of his passes and had a 13-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio. ... One of the receivers Yahoo projects to start for the Vikings is named Stephen Burton. Stephen Burton has two career receptions for 38 yards. I'm going to go ahead and say Ponder doesn't have the best receivers in the league to work with. ... Any hopes the Vikings have of being a team whose defense can carry them to being competitive are probably erased by a brutal secondary. Chris Cook, Antoine Winfield, Mistral Raymond and company going up against the Packers, the Bears and Calvin Johnson doesn't seem fair.
The verdict: Put the Vikings in the AFC South and I'd pick them to win five or six games, with the caveat that they could finish at .500 if Ponder is significantly improved. Here, there's just very little hope of them sniffing the postseason. The finish: 2-14, 4th in NFC North