The Pro Football Notebook

August 12, 2010 6:53 AM

NFC North Preview

PackersVikings.jpgOver the years different rivalries elevate to the title of "Hottest Rivalry In Sports." Miami and Florida State held it in college football during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Yankees and Red Sox had it in the immediate aftermath of the 2003-04 seasons. I would argue that one of the underreported aspects of the Brett Favre saga (as difficult as it is to believe that anything could be underreported in this situation) is that the Packers-Vikings is no longer a mere grudge match for folks along the northern borders of the Mississippi River, but is instead the latest Hottest Rivalry In Sports. That's why Favre simply has to return. With him, this division is one of the greatest stories going. Without him it's boring. Let's look at the four teams in what, regardless of the circumstances, always has the most cohesive geographic rivalries in the NFL...

MINNESOTA: I'm working off the presumption that Favre will be back. Last year it was assumed that even with Number Four, this would still be Adrian Peterson's offense. It wasn't. The Vikings are a pass offense, with Sidney Rice being the lead target and Percy Harvin a rising star. Bernard Berrian needs to step up and produce more out of the #3 receiver slot. The Vikes drafted well at running back and Toby Gerhart will be a good replacement for Chester Taylor in backing up Peterson. The tight ends are well-balanced, with Visanthe Shiancoe being a decent receiver, and Jim Kleinsasser a solid run blocker. The offensive line is good enough, given the weapons surrounding them, but it's not dominant. John Sullivan is not a physically imposing center (though I'll never really bad-mouth a guy with as Irish a name as that). The pass blocking is pretty good, but the Vikes aren't going to blast anyone off the ball.

Defensively this team is built on the ends, with Jared Allen and Ray Edwards being a devastating 1-2 punch at collapsing pockets. The interior is also a strength, with Pat Williams & Kevin Williams being effective run-stoppers and drawing double teams. The linebacking corps is tough right behind them. Had middle linebacker E.J. Henderson not been hurt in December, the Vikings might well have won the Super Bowl. Ben Leber can rush the passer, and Chad Greenway is solid in coverage. There's no other way to say it, but that this front seven is just very good. It's the secondary that could be a trouble spot. Free safety Madieu Williams provides good run support, but is shaky in coverage. That's fine if you're in the Big Ten, but not when your main competition is Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tony Romo. On the corners, Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin are health risks.

GREEN BAY: Whether Aaron Rodgers gets a chance to go deep into the playoffs depends in large part of how long some key vets can keep contributing. It starts with both tackles, where Chad Clifton and Steve Tauscher have to stay healthy if Rodgers is to stay upright. Veteran receiver Donald Driver has to continue to be tough in the slot and to cut down on the drops. Ryan Grant has to bounce back and have a better year running the ball than he did last year. The pieces are there, but they didn't always click in unison last season.

When the Packer defense was last seen, it was getting torn to shreds by Kurt Warner in the playoffs, a 51-45 overtime loss in which the total points scored doubled the Vegas over/under line. That shouldn't obscure the fact that this unit played well in the second half of the season, as they grew accustomed to the 3-4 scheme of respected defensive coordinator Dom Capers, whose arrival in Green Bay was a big under-the-radar acquisition in a division that was otherwise riveted with the doings of Favre and Jay Cutler. And if the Viking defense was hurt by the loss of Henderson, Green Bay was really damaged by the loss of Al Harris over the last six weeks and in the playoff loss. Now that he's healthy, Harris couples with Charles Woodson to form a dynamite coverage team on the corners. They can afford to play aggressive with Pro Bowl free safety Nick Collins behind them. The linebacking corps is strong, with Clay Matthews being very good in coverage, Nick Barnett being physical against the run and A.J. Hawk being the kind of steady and sure presence every team needs from at least one of their linebackers. The defensive front doesn't have stars, as is the case in a 3-4 scheme where plays are funneled to the linebackers, but Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett do their jobs and tie up blockers.

CHICAGO: Jay Cutler's arrival as the new man in Chicago didn't work out as well as Favre's arrival in Minnesota or Rodgers' rise to power in Green Bay. The Bears fell apart last year and Cutler was turnover-prone. To my pleasant surprise, the organization didn't chase their solid coach Lovie Smith out of town, and will try to re-tool a team that's gotten old since its 2006 run to the NFC title. The biggest problem Cutler's offense has is up front. While center Olin Kreutz is a steady hand in the middle, the four spots around him are all problem areas in some degree. While Matt Forte is a decent back, Earl Bennet a respectable receiver and Greg Olsen a potentially very good tight end, it's tough to do much if your line doesn't drive people off the ball or protect the quarterback.

That leaves it to the defense, the hallmark of Smith's best years in 2005-06. They've added Julius Peppers at defensive end, an instant impact player who can wreak havoc. And Peppers has plenty of help on the line. Anthony Adams and Tommie Harris both tie up blockers inside, and Harris has the ability to be an explosive rusher himself coming up the middle. The linebacking corps welcomes back Brian Urlacher, who missed all last year and is no doubt anxious to disprove critics who were already saying he'd lost a step or two. Urlacher need not carry this unit though, as Lance Briggs is an excellent all-around player. The secondary is also a strength, with both Charles Tillman and Zack Bowman being solid on the corners and Chris Harris being a good physical hitter at strong safety.

DETROIT: In one of the better lines I read about the Favre Retirement Drama, it was accurately noted that Brett has more retirements in the last two seasons than the Lions have wins. Sad but true on both counts. Detroit's 2-14 year in '09 represented a step forward. This team has the talent to aim big and think about six wins this time around. Winning starts up front and the offensive line is pretty good, anchored by center Dominic Raiola, and with good run blockers in Rob Sims and Stephen Peterman. Whether the ball is carried by Kevin Smith or rookie Jahvid Best, the Lions should be able to run well enough to control tempo and at least get themselves in position. What happens there depends on the maturity of Matthew Stafford. The club got him some help in adding veteran receiver Nate Burleson, who can make you miss and bail an offense out on third down.

Defensively, the Lions got the best player on the board in this year's college draft. Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is fantastic and Detroit can be grateful he fell to them with the second pick. Both defensive ends, Kyle Vanden Bosh and Cliff Avril are respectable pass rushers. The linebacking corps is good against the run, but weak against the pass. The corners, Chris Houston and Eric King also represent a weak point. The defense overall should do okay stopping the run and the offense should do okay establishing it. But that's just not enough to cut it in a division where the powers-that-be can put up points with such ease.

NOTEBOOK PICK: Regardless of Favre's status, I like Green Bay to win this division. I believe having a full year under Capers' defensive tutelage is the difference and the secondary is superior to that of Minnesota. The Vikes aren't far behind though, and this is a matchup I would expect to see repeated three times before it's all over. But if Favre retires, look for a Green Bay runaway and possibly all three rivals finishing sub-.500. Number Four still means that much to a team.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Notebook Family of sports blogs, published through the Real Clear Sports blog network, offering daily commentary on baseball and previews in college football and the NFL.

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