NFC North season preview

NFC NORTH

CHICAGO BEARS (11-5)

New faces: WR Roy Williams, RB Marion Barber, DL Vernon Gholston, WR Sam Hurd, DT Amobi Okoye, P Adam Podlesh, OL Chris Spencer, TE Matt Spaeth, OL Gabe Carimi.

Key losses: C Olin Kreutz, TE Greg Olsen, P Brad Maynard, DT Tommie Harris, S Danieal Manning.

Strengths: Defense. With Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, Bears have solid core. Return game still figures to be strength even with kickoffs moved to 35. Devin Hester remains threat any time he touches ball. Manning is gone, but Bears still deep on returns with Johnny Knox helping out.

Weaknesses: Offensive line. Even if six-time Pro Bowler Kreutz had re-signed, line would still be question mark. Bears allowed league-high 56 sacks, with Jay Cutler taking all but four. For now, Roberto Garza moves from RG to C, with newcomer Spencer a backup.

Expectations: For all OL problems line last year, Bears still reached NFC title game. The way Cutler was getting knocked around early made deep playoff run unlikely. Now? If line comes together, Bears will likely be in good shape. Help could come if Roy Williams rediscovers form that made him Pro Bowl receiver when Mike Martz was his offensive coordinator in Detroit.

GREEN BAY PACKERS (10-6)

New faces: OL Derek Sherrod, WR/RS Randall Cobb, RB/RS Alex Green.

Key losses: DE Cullen Jenkins, LG Daryn Colledge, LB Nick Barnett, LB Brandon Chillar, LB Brady Poppinga, RT Mark Tauscher.

Strengths: Super Bowl champs bring back majority of team. Offense, led by QB Aaron Rodgers, could be even more dangerous with TE Jermichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant returning from injuries. Defense fully comfortable with Dom Capers’ scheme.

Weaknesses: Packers have had some trouble with pass protection early in preseason as they look for replacement for Colledge at LG. Sherrod got first crack but veteran T.J. Lang could win job.

Expectations: Packers know it’s difficult for Super Bowl champions to repeat but believe they can. If complacency creeps in, Packers can remind themselves they barely made playoffs before dominant run to Super Bowl.

DETROIT LIONS (6-10)

New faces: LB Stephen Tulloch, LB Justin Durant, CB Eric Wright, DT Nick Fairley, WR Titus Young.

Key losses: LB Julian Peterson, DE Turk McBride, RB Kevin Smith.

Strengths: Defensive line. All-Pro Ndamukong Suh (2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year), Corey Williams, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril powerful enough last season to hide some of the team’s lackluster back seven. Solidat wide receiver with Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson.

Weaknesses: Secondary. Wright added, though he gave up many big plays in Cleveland and was slowed in training camp by groin injury. Same ailment, potentially nagging one, slowed other starting CB Chris Houston in August. S Louis Delmas makes big hits, but can’t seem to stay healthy. S Amari Spievey might’ve been replaced if team could’ve addressed all needs in shortened offseason.

Expectations: Respectability. Detroit hasn’t had winning record since 2000 and hasn’t made playoffs since 1999. If a lot goes well – particularly health at QB and CB – droughts could end. Lions had impressive end of 2010 season, beating Green Bay, Chicago and Tampa Bay while each was competing for playoff positioning, and Minnesota despite QB Matthew Stafford being injured (right shoulder). Stafford is back, seemingly healthy, after playing three games last season.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (6-10)

New faces: Coach Leslie Frazier, QB Donovan McNabb, QB Christian Ponder, WR Michael Jenkins, DT Remi Ayodele, TE Kyle Rudolph, LT Charlie Johnson.

Key losses: QB Brett Favre, DE Ray Edwards, LB Ben Leber, DT Pat Williams, WR Sidney Rice, LT Bryant McKinnie.

Strengths: Dynamic playmakers. With RB Adrian Peterson, WR Percy Harvin, DE Jared Allen and LB Chad Greenway, Vikings have talented group at skill positions. Kicking game solid with Ryan Longwell and punter Chris Kluwe.

Weaknesses: Age. CB Antoine Winfield, DT Kevin Williams, LG Steve Hutchinson and McNabb are in twilight of careers. OL is significant concern with departure of mainstay McKinnie, who showed up to training camp overweight, and uncertainty of RG Anthony Herrera, coming off reconstructive knee surgery. Johnson has had rough preseason in McKinnie’s place. McNabb has played 16 games only once in last seven years. Can line protect him and open holes for Peterson? Secondary also uncertain with CB Cedric Griffin coming off second torn ACL, one on each knee, in last two years. Unproven safeties Husain Abdullah, Jamarca Sanford, Tyrell Johnson, Mistral Raymond competing for two starting spots.

Expectations: Frazier and Vikings have fresh start without Favre and fired coach Brad Childress. Division should be tough, and winning record will be difficult.

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