NFC North Team Wrap-ups

January, 6, 2010
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A team-by-team analysis of the division. The arrow indicates which direction each team is trending.

Minnesota Vikings

Final Power Ranking: 3

Biggest surprise: Against all odds and previous trends, Minnesota became a passing team. Coach Brad Childress prefers a power running approach, one honed during his time as the offensive coordinator at the University of Wisconsin, and he built one of the league’s best behind Adrian Peterson over the previous two seasons. The recruitment of quarterback Brett Favre was intended to provide a viable alternative when defenses ganged-up on Peterson. Instead, the Vikings proved they are better equipped to throw than force the run against defenses stacked to stop Peterson. All told, the Vikings threw 101 more passes in 2009 than they did last season -- an 18 percent increase. Their net yardage rose nearly 25 percent, and they threw as many touchdown passes (34) as they did in the 2007 and 2008 seasons combined.

Biggest disappointment: Play at both safety positions was invisible at its best and glaring at its worst. Veteran Madieu Williams, signed two years ago because of his alleged coverage ability, started all 16 games but failed to make a single interception. Along the way, he proved to be a poor tackler and broke up only four passes. Second-year player Tyrell Johnson, who the Vikings targeted last season as Darren Sharper’s eventual replacement, was average at best. It was no coincidence that he lost some playing time to rookie Jamarca Sanford at the end of the season.

Biggest need: A ball-hawking safety would help, but as odd as it sounds, the biggest organizational need is a long-term plan at quarterback. Favre turned 40 in October and is very much a year-to-year proposition. Childress remains supportive of backup Tarvaris Jackson, but the success of the 2009 offense was another indictment of Jackson’s previous ineffectiveness. Childress has never seemed comfortable with No. 3 quarterback Sage Rosenfels. If there were ever a time for the Vikings to draft their quarterback of the future, it’s now.

Team MVP: Brett Favre. As the Vikings hoped, he was the final piece in making them a Super Bowl contender. He was the difference between 10-6 and 12-4, and gives the Vikings a legitimate chance to push deep into the playoffs.

Best thing that never happened: Signing free-agent receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The Vikings targeted Houshmandzadeh at the start of free agency and were on the brink of signing him. Concerns about the pre-Favre quarterback situation prompted Houshmandzadeh to spurn their offer and join Seattle. Had he signed in Minnesota, however, one of the Vikings’ key players would never have emerged. They would have either stunted the development of third-year receiver Sidney Rice, who made the Pro Bowl with an 83-catch season, or might not have drafted slot receiver Percy Harvin. The NFL’s offensive rookie of the year, Harvin, made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner but also ranked second on the team with 60 receptions and 790 yards.


Green Bay Packers

Final Power Ranking: 6

Biggest surprise: The sudden pass-rushing prowess of rookie linebacker Clay Matthews. Packers general manager Ted Thompson thought highly enough of Matthews to trade back into the first round and select him with the No. 26 overall pick. Matthews had only 4.5 sacks as a senior at Southern California, and a series of spring and summer leg injuries suggested he would have a slow rookie season. But after being inserted into the starting lineup in the fourth game of the season, Matthews collected a team-high 10 sacks. By the end of the year, he couldn’t be blocked. Matthews finished third in the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award voting and should be a force for years to come.

Biggest disappointment: The Week 1 offensive line. Quite simply, the Packers are lucky that quarterback Aaron Rodgers survived the first half of the season. Rodgers might have held the ball too long on occasion, but for the most part he was under constant pressure from opposing defenses. Rodgers, in fact, took 37 sacks over the first eight games. The Packers took an unjustified risk in starting Allen Barbre at right tackle and didn’t have a good plan to replace left tackle Chad Clifton when he was sidelined by injuries. They deserve credit for finding a multi-pronged solution, including the return of right tackle Mark Tauscher, but that came only after they dug themselves a huge hole.

Biggest need: Depth behind tailback Ryan Grant would help, but the Packers need a long-term answer at both offensive tackle positions. Clifton and Tauscher will be free agents after the season. Rookie T.J. Lang could figure at one of the positions, but the Packers must address the other high in the 2010 draft.

Team MVP: Cornerback Charles Woodson. A favorite for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award, Woodson was at his best in Dom Capers’ attacking 3-4 scheme. He has retained his coverage skills at age 33, and he also proved to be the Packers’ best blitzer and all-around playmaker. His final tally was nine interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns, along with two sacks and four forced fumbles.

A dark moment turns bright: After finishing 6-10 last season, coach Mike McCarthy retreated to Lambeau Field and went underground for nearly a week. When he emerged, McCarthy had decided to turn over much of his coaching staff. Out of that tumultuous time period came the decision to change defensive schemes and, ultimately, hire Capers. The end result was the NFL’s No. 2 defense, one that allowed the league’s fewest rushing yards (1,333) and created its highest total of turnovers (40).


Chicago Bears

Final power ranking: 22

Biggest surprise: That new quarterback Jay Cutler would turn into an interception machine. Cutler brought a gunslinging mentality from Denver, but never in his previous three seasons had he finished with more interceptions than touchdown passes. In his first 14 games with the Bears, however, Cutler threw 25 interceptions against 19 touchdowns. A late surge reversed that ratio, but it won’t hide the fact that Cutler personally submarined at least three losses -- at Green Bay, Atlanta and San Francisco -- with multiple interceptions. He threw a total of 11 in those games.

Biggest disappointment: Tailback Matt Forte. There were reports recently that Forte played most of the season with a sprained knee. That could explain the drop-off from his rookie season and especially his lack of power near the goal line. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Forte had the third-most goal-to-goal carries in the NFL this season (33). But he managed only three touchdowns on those carries, a ratio that ranked him No. 102 among all rushers who got a carry in that situation. How many more games would the Bears have won if they had converted more of those runs? Among other things, it would have left Cutler in fewer positions where he felt compelled to force a pass into the end zone.

Biggest need: The Bears need an enforcer on their defense, which has lost the intimidation factor it carried into the Super Bowl three years ago. That player could come at any position, but it’s most needed at safety. The Bears need someone who can put fear in receivers and influence quarterback decisions. That’s not necessarily a hallmark of the Tampa 2 defense coach Lovie Smith plans to continue using, but it could change the way the Bears are perceived by opposing offenses.

Team MVP: Only because it’s a required category: Linebacker Lance Briggs was the Bears’ lone Pro Bowler and their leading tackler. He was also a 15-game starter on a defense that played terribly for most of 2009.

In hindsight: The Bears executed only 50 percent of their goal to improve their quarterback play. They paid a premium price to get a young and potentially elite arm in Cutler. But they failed to follow through with appropriate integration. Cutler didn’t appear comfortable in a pocket scheme and, despite what anyone says, had mostly limited targets. None of his receivers required a double team, which made the offense easier for opponents to defend. The Bears will have to spend the offseason reformulating their plan around him.


Detroit Lions

Final power ranking: 31

Biggest surprise: We knew quarterback Matthew Stafford had an elite arm. It’s what rocketed him to the top of the draft charts at this time last year. But was there any way to know how much of a “gamer” he is? Opponents battered Stafford in several games this season, none more so than his now-legendary Nov. 22 victory over Cleveland. Every player on the Lions’ roster -- from the biggest offensive linemen to the smallest receiver -- knows how tough their leader is. When the Lions refused to rest his separated left shoulder, Stafford made two more starts with the help of painkilling medication before finally shutting it down. Stafford's greatest contribution would be spreading that determination to the rest of the roster.

Biggest disappointment: The Lions hired two respected defensive minds last winter in head coach Jim Schwartz and coordinator Gunther Cunningham. But ultimately their defense made only incremental improvement from last season’s 0-16 group. Opponents threw at will against Detroit, completing 68.1 percent of their passes for 35 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Personnel is thin at all defensive positions, but the Lions could have used more help from a scheme perspective.

Biggest need: Schwartz had a blunt answer when asked this week of his team’s biggest offseason need: “Improve the talent level of the team.” Let’s focus that goal on the defense, where depth is frighteningly thin. Entering the offseason, the Lions have three defensive players who seem locked in to start in 2010: Defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy and safety Louis Delmas. What do the Lions need? Starters at the other eight positions and depth behind everyone. That should about do it.

Team MVP: Safety Louis Delmas. Stafford would have been in the running if he had made it through the season. But time and again over 16 games, Delmas proved to be a player the Lions can build around. He demonstrated aggressive tackling, strong ball skills and an admirable competitive edge. Like many young safeties, he ventured into unsportsmanlike conduct territory a few times, and he needs to level off that portion of his game. But in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with having a feared player on a defense that has long been anything but.

In hindsight: We were among those who questioned the decision to draft tight end Brandon Pettigrew with the No. 20 overall pick, especially with offensive lineman Michael Oher and linebacker Rey Maualuga still available. No matter how good Pettigrew proved to be, is the tight end position more important than an offensive tackle or linebacker? The answer is no. The Lions still have tremendous needs at both positions. But we should say this much: Pettigrew proved not only a strong blocker, but also a dynamic part of the passing game before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He was a good tight end, but having one of those is generally a luxury.

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 9/4
Sunday, 9/7
Monday, 9/8