Five things to know and my 2012 all-division team:
Aaron Rodgers leads the league in passer rating (106.2) despite two of his top receivers missing significant time with injuries.
Division MVP: If your definition of this award is the player who has the most impact on his team's winning percentage, then our MVP is Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. If your MVP is the player who had the best season, then it's Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson. I lean toward the first definition, so Rodgers is the choice. He was the one elite constant in an injury-ravaged season that limited most of the team's top players. Rodgers has helped cover for 24 missed games by defensive back Charles Woodson, linebacker Clay Matthews and receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson. Along the way, he helped receiver Randall Cobb approach stardom and fed 13 touchdown passes to former No. 4 receiver James Jones -- and he still is leading the NFL in passer rating (106.2). Rodgers might not have matched his 2011 MVP performance, but he was the most important player on the division's top team. Peterson has had a career year by all accounts, but he has actually been more productive in the Vikings' wins than their losses. Quarterback Christian Ponder's play has been more closely tied to the Vikings' winning percentage. Honorable mention: Lions receiver Calvin Johnson overcame a midseason spate of injuries to himself and most of his fellow receivers to set the NFL record for receiving yards in a season. Johnson has 1,892 yards and can become the NFL's most productive receiver on a per-game basis in a season with 104 yards Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
Biggest disappointment: The Detroit Lions brought back 21 of 22 starters from last season's 10-6 team and assumed their young nucleus would continue to improve. Instead, the Lions stumbled to a mistake-filled abomination of a year that will lead to a difficult offseason. Among the issues: They have effected a 23-point swing in their takeaway/giveaway ratio from 2011. Opponents have 10 touchdown returns via special teams, fumbles and interceptions. The Lions have committed a division-high 118 penalties. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has taken a step back, especially in his drop from 41 to 17 touchdown passes, and has an untenable $20.3 million salary-cap charge for 2013 that will have to be adjusted. Meanwhile, most of the Lions' defensive starters -- including both outside linebackers and their entire secondary -- are eligible for free agency after the season.
Draft help: By intent or chance, the Packers demonstrated this year that it's possible to draft for need and get immediate help despite annual warnings from football gurus that the approach is short-sighted. Disappointed with the performance of their 2011 defense, the Packers used their first six draft picks on defensive players. Five of them have been significant contributors. First-round linebacker Nick Perry had two sacks in six games before suffering knee and wrist injuries. Cornerback Casey Hayward has been one of the NFL's better cornerbacks, producing six interceptions and 26 pass breakups. Safety Jerron McMillian is a part of the nickel rotation, and defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels have combined for 4.5 sacks. The Packers have also gotten a productive season from undrafted rookie linebacker Dezman Moses, who has four sacks. In all, the Packers rank No. 10 in the NFL in total defense (329.6 yards per game allowed) and No. 7 in scoring defense (19.9 points per game allowed). Their goal of injecting youth and energy has been accomplished.
Ponder's future:At his best, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has been efficient this season. At his worst, he has played like a career backup. But there are a number of factors suggesting Ponder will be back in 2013 as the Vikings' unquestioned starter. One is his recent upswing, which includes a 96.9 Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) in Week 15 and a 78.5 QBR in Week 16. Both were top-10 performances in the league during the respective weeks. Another is the relatively poor class of quarterbacks in the 2013 draft along with a limited set of options in free agency. This week, coach Leslie Frazier told ESPN 1500 this week, "I don't know any scenario that's going to come up to say, 'You know what? We need to be looking for a replacement for Christian in the offseason.'" Ponder is a good leader and has proved an explosive scrambler at times, ranking fourth among NFL quarterbacks with four rushes of at least 20 yards. But given the quarterbacks in Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago, it's difficult to project Ponder as anything more than the fourth-best quarterback in this division for the foreseeable future.
Whither Bears? The Chicago Bears opened the season with Super Bowl hopes and roared to a 7-1 start. Their 2-5 record since then has brought them to an organizational crossroads. They could still qualify for the playoffs, and perhaps they will make a run once they get there. But that wouldn't erase the issues that have arisen, most notably an aging defense that might lose middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, a pending free agent who has slowed noticeably at age 34. Meanwhile, the Bears' offense became a two-man team between quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall. They got almost no production from the rest of their pass-catchers -- Marshall has 72 more receptions than their second-most productive player -- and tailback Matt Forte was slowed by injuries. Forte had 12 runs of at least 20 yards in 2011 but has managed only six this season in about the same number of carries. Finally, the Bears slogged through a third consecutive season with a patchwork offensive line that still has more questions than answers. Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Bears will have to address those issues in order to be a more consistent team in 2013.
A few notes on the 2012 All-NFC North team below:
As I did for the midseason team, I chose three receivers and deleted the fullback position. Vikings fullback Jerome Felton had a great season at his position, and there is no doubt he had a big impact on Peterson's performance. But through 15 weeks, Felton has played about 38 percent of the Vikings' offensive snaps. We have more flexibility with these teams than, say, Pro Bowl voters do. So I decided to take advantage and use the spot on someone who has been closer to a full-time player.
This division is so deep at receiver that good players fell short despite the extra spot. The Lions' Johnson and the Bears' Marshall were obvious choices, and for the third position I chose the Packers' Cobb. I know how many touchdown passes Jones caught, but on the whole, Cobb has been the Packers' best receiver. Not only does he lead the team with 80 receptions for 954 yards along with 8 touchdowns, but he has also caught an NFL-high 78.4 percent of the passes Rodgers threw him according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). Cobb has been an exceptional open-field runner, piling up nearly half of his yards after the catch and forcing opponents to miss 15 tackles according to PFF.
I considered dropping the tight end position as well so that I could add Jones and give us four receivers. But Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph has had a recognition-worthy season. Rudolph has more touchdown receptions (nine) than all NFL tight ends except the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski. He has a higher percentage of his team's total receiving touchdowns (60) than any other NFL player, the fourth-highest percentage in the past 20 NFL seasons. His other numbers (51 receptions for 473 yards) are less impressive, but you have to put them in context of the Vikings' passing offense, which ranks No. 32 in the NFL in terms of yards. Rudolph has actually accounted for a higher percentage of the Vikings' yardage (18.7) than Gronkowski (17.2).
My original team had four defensive tackles, with Nick Fairley (Lions) and B.J. Raji (Packers) joining Henry Melton (Bears) and Ndamukong Suh (Lions). I thought that quartet represented the best four defensive linemen in the division for much of this season, even though none of them play defensive end. But late surges from veteran ends Jared Allen (Vikings) and Julius Peppers (Bears) made me rethink the decision. Peppers now has 11.5 sacks and Allen has 11. It's tough to leave players off an all-division team if they have double-digit sack totals. There are only 15 players in the league with 10 or more sacks at the moment.
Once again, I eliminated a safety spot to give us extra room for an exceptional crop of cornerbacks. The Bears' Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman were no-brainers, and that still left the Packers' Hayward competing with teammate Tramon Williams and the Vikings' Antoine Winfield. I chose Hayward because of how consistently he has turned away challenges from the opposition. He was an obvious target as a rookie, but he responded with the NFL's fifth-most interceptions and third-most pass breakups.
Finally, here are links to All-NFC North teams in previous seasons: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008.