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NFC North 2013 Preview: Green Bay Packers Challengers Only Getting Better
It’s hard to argue against the NFC North being the toughest in the NFL. Three of its four teams had at least a 10-6 record in 2012. One team had a top five defense. Another had a 2,000-yard rusher while the caboose of the group featured the first wide receiver to break 1,900 yards in a season in history. Still, the Green Bay Packers managed to wriggle through it all to repeat as division champions. It wasn’t nearly as easy, and early signs say 2013 may be even harder. Can the Pack hang on to their crown?
Detroit Lions – Reggie Bush overshadowing improved defense
Fans practically cracked open a bottle of champagne when the news hit that the Detroit Lions were signing running back Reggie Bush in free agency. It’s true the team hasn’t been able to solve their rushing woes despite numerous attempts in the draft. The hope is that Bush, who averages over 1,200 total yards per season, is the solution. What a lot of people haven’t talked about, and should, is how improved the Lions defense is on paper since last season. They brought back safety Louis Delmas, a leader on the field, and paired him with former Texans standout Glover Quin to give them a reliable back end. Then they used the draft to add highly athletic defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and corner Darius Slay.
These additions could give Detroit something they haven’t had the past couple seasons, which is defensive stability. With the defensive tackle tandem of Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh leading the way there should not be as much pressure on Matthew Stafford and the offense. On the other hand, if they can’t improve on their 4-12 record from a year ago, head coach Jim Schwartz is likely out of job.
Minnesota Vikings – Jared Allen sees hopes resting on Christian Ponder
Trading Percy Harvin was a calculated gamble when the Minnesota Vikings began their off-season. They responded quickly with a flurry of acquisitions including Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings and three first round draft picks in defensive tackle Shariff Floyd, corner Xavier Rhodes and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. These talented players join a roster built to win immediately, given their wild card playoff berth last season. Whether it is enough depends on whom one talks to.
All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen believes the championship fate of the team doesn’t rest on the defense or rushing champion Adrian Peterson. To him it’s all on quarterback Christian Ponder. He does have a point. Late last season the Vikings capped their playoff march with an impressive showing by Ponder in a 37-34 upset of Green Bay. The very next week in a rematch between the two teams, Ponder did not play because of an injury. The Packers cruised to a 24-10 victory. Ponder must prove he can be more than just a game manager for Peterson like he was last year. He’ll have weapons to do it, but early signs hint he may not have the skills.
Chicago Bears – Jay Cutler is better armed, protected and coached
A sad series of key losses kept the Chicago Bears out of the playoffs last year despite a 10-6 record. This failure marked the fifth time in six seasons they had failed to reach January since their Super Bowl season. That is why GM Phil Emery made the momentous decision to fire respected head coach Lovie Smith. He believes in order to win the Bears must change philosophy, and it begins with getting the most out of quarterback Jay Cutler. That is the mission Emery set out on during the off-season.
He signed two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod and drafted guard Kyle Long to bolster a weak offensive line. He brought in talented dual-threat tight end Martellus Bennett to give the offense a threat in the middle of the field. Most importantly he hired Marc Trestman as the new head coach, an offensive innovator known for his ability to coach quarterbacks. Emery, intentionally or not, has removed any excuses Cutler has left to not play well. The 2013 season is a contract year for him. He must prove he is worth the money, or the Bears have made it clear they are ready to move on. Smart money though says the team has enough to help him complete the task.
Green Bay Packers – Aaron Rodgers hoping for help from Eddie Lacy
Not much has changed for the Green Bay Packers. They still have a terrific drafting system, a good coaching staff and front office. Oh, and there is Aaron Rodgers. Their championship aspirations remain alive and well with him. However, it is clear his well being has become a source of discontent. No quarterback was sacked or hit more in 2012 than Rodgers. Part of the problem was a tell the defenses knew about the offense. Everyone in the stadium saw Green Bay wasn't going to run except for the sake of running. No rusher on the roster mustered over 500 yards last season. As a result Rodgers tasted turf 51 times. Those numbers need to change. That is why GM Ted Thompson struck early and often in the draft for answers. He scooped up Alabama bruiser Eddie Lacy who hopes to become the feature back for a team that hasn't had one since Ahman Green. His success will tie directly into how the offense functions and how healthy Rodgers stays in 2013. Otherwise the assumptions of another easy division title are sorely mistaken.