- Packers (12-4). Rather than the Packers suffering from a Super Bowl letdown, I think this team will maintain the momentum from the end of last year and be fairly dominant this year. The players who brought home the Lombardi trophy got a massive boost of confidence from the accomplishment and will carry this into this season. And I don’t think they will be overconfident because the team is largely comprised of hard-working guys not too inclined to let success get to their heads. This team will be good again. The schedule definitely has its challenges (@ Atlanta, @KC, @SD), but overall the Packers should win a lot of games. Rodgers, Finley and the WRs will be very good again but I think the offense will benefit significantly from having both a healthy Starks and a healthy Grant in the backfield splitting carries. The defense should be good again – though we’re all a bit concerned about filling the void left by Jenkins. Special teams has improved and Randall Cobb may even give us something to get excited about in the return game – for the first time since Desmond Howard. But one of the biggest reasons why I believe the team will be good again this year is that Mike McCarthy now feels significantly less pressure. McCarthy did not enjoy losing and the pressure that came with possibly missing the playoffs again etc. It made him visibly irritable. But now that he has won the big game, I really think he’ll be freer with playcalling and be a bit more willing to take on risks – and his players will now have the confidence to execute riskier playcalls. Think Belichick and the Pats. Well, at least this is how I hope it plays out.
- Detroit (10-6). I just changed my pick for Detroit. I had them going 9-7, but I’m putting a bit more faith in the team to win a couple of the close ones. This is a much improved team. Everyone likes the D-Line for good reason – very talented. But I also like that they went out and picked up LB Stephen Tulloch, RB Jerome Harrison and TE Tony Scheffler. The passing game will be good with a healthy Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Burleson, Best, Pettigrew, and even rookie Titus Young. The one area of weakness for the Lions this year, though, will be in the secondary. Safety Louis Delmas is a decent player, a mean player and big hitter, but I’m not convinced he’s that good in coverage. And the other 3 guys seem like just guys. They could struggle against teams with better passing games this year, but overall the Lions will be solid and they just may end their playoff drought.
- Minnesota (8-8). The Vikes will be better this year than most prognosticators think. Donovan McNabb on the Vikings makes sense primarily because his personal style and general annoyingness fits with the general annoyingness of the Vikings. But I think McNabb will have a stabilizing influence at a position where the Vikes have been unstable for a few years (2009 excepted). I’ve read plenty of previews contending that McNabb doesn’t have anyone to throw to this year. I don’t agree with that necessarily. The guys he’ll throw to are mostly capable pass catchers: Percy Harvin could be an elite WR with more touches; Shiancoe could be really good as McNabb likes his TEs; Bernard Berrian (Ok, Berrian isn’t that good); Michael Jenkins did some damage as a Falcon; and Devin Aromashodu – the former Bear who had his potential crushed while in the doghouse – could be surprisingly good. (I’m on record saying the Vike’s pick-up of Aromashodu was really smart – and that he could have a really good season this year.) No, these aren’t big-name targets and the loss of Sidney Rice hurts to be sure. But historically, McNabb has made a habit of developing a decent passing game with less heralded pass targets. I just don’t think the passing game will be that bad and of course the running game will be good again. (Though this year, watch for Peterson to be more involved as a pass catcher out of the backfield – McNabb likes throwing to his backs.) On the other side of the ball, the Vikings could be really bad. Nobody stands out on that defense right now. Winfield is getting too old, Jared Allen seems to have lost his mojo, The Williams Wall has been dismantled and there are no other individual contributors I can think of who deserve special mention. Though Leslie Frazier will surely give defense extra attention, they might be surprisingly bad on defense this year.
- Chicago (5-11). Yes, the NFC title game participants will be awful this year. Why? Because under Lovie Smith, the Bears do fluky things like get to the Super Bowl or the NFC Title game only to then vanish for a few years. The Bears have upgraded a bit on the O-Line but I don’t think they’ve done much with the rest of the team. Adding Roy Williams won’t help at all and adding Marion Barber will only help a little bit come wintertime. This is another team, like the Redskins, that is headed in a questionable direction. Ted Thompson has a vision – as do lots of other GMs. But I’m just not following the vision of the Bears. Many of you may be reading this thinking I’ve lost it – how can I pick a team that beat the Pack for the NFC North title last year to finish 5-11 when their personnel hasn’t changed dramatically? I’m telling you, I can’t explain it but I think I just have a read on the Bears. I picked the Bears to make the playoffs last year when nobody else did (everyone picked the Vikes or Pack…remember?). This will be a down year for the team and there will be lots of grumpy Bears fans come January.