Lombardi: State of the NFC North

PackerReport.com's John Lombardi takes a look ahead at the NFC North Division and the state of each team at this time. How will the Green Bay Packers fare against the rest of the division? Which team is the favorite at this time? Lombardi offers his thoughts.

I know that the draft has not even happened yet and there are still many questions to be asked or even answered. But let's take a look forward into the 2006 season and see how the Packers stack up in the NFC North.

Taken in order of each team's finish in the standings from 2005, here it is:

Chicago – The Bears' defense will still be strong, but I feel they may have created some problems by signing Brian Griese. They have deliberately created a QB controversy. I understand that Rex Grossman seems to be injury-prone and Griese handled playing behind Chris Simms in Tampa with apparent grace, so it might work. But the first time whoever wins this derby struggles, (and with Chicago's offense he will) they set themselves up for turmoil. The Bears still lack a playmaker on offense, having lost out to Washington on Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El.

Until the Bears find some more weapons on offense, they will need to win close, low scoring games. They should be able to do so, but it will be harder to pull it off a second year in a row.

Minnesota – Losing Daunte Culpepper could be huge, assuming he returns to his 2004 form. If he plays like he did last year, before getting hurt, the Vikings will not miss him very much. The Vikings have a new coaching staff and it appears that the owner and staff are trying to rid the last of the Mike Tice-Randy Moss-Lake Minnetonka element from the team and create a more professional atmosphere. Minnesota signed Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson away from the Seahawks, kicker Ryan Longwell away from the Packers and QB Mike McMahon to back up Brad Johnson.

Safety Corey Chavous went to St. Louis and they will miss his leadership. Maybe Tank Williams will fill that hole. Michael Bennett left for New Orleans, but Chester Taylor arrived from Baltimore. The Vikings may lose wide receiver Nate Burleson to the Seahawks in a revenge signing, but they should be better just by having a coach different than Mike Tice.

Minnesota is probably the favorite to win the division based on its talent. It will be interesting to see if Brad Childress made the right move in never interviewing anywhere else. If he is a contender, the Land of 10,000 Lakes will be excited this season. If he is a pretender, then it will be another in a long line of underachieving seasons.

Detroit – Joey is gone and Jon Kitna and Josh McCown will battle to replace him. They have signed some journeymen offensive lineman and kept most of their free agents. Their new coach, Rod Marinelli, is not very well known, but those who know him speak of him somewhat reverently. Sources tell me that the feeling in Detroit among the team and media is that the Lions should have been better than they were last year and most of the blame for their underachieving was piled on Steve Mariucci. That is why he is no longer there. If Coach Marinelli is as good as they say and Kitna or McCown can get it done, the Lions will be a team to watch.

Green Bay – Much of the Packers' future hinges on the decision Brett Favre eventually makes. They kept Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, Aaron Kampman, William Henderson, Kevin Barry and Rod Gardner. They lost a kicker, a beat up center and a backup QB. They signed a kicker, a tall receiver, a talented, but underachieving defensive tackle, and a backup safety from the Seahawks. They have a new coach, who should be better than the old coach, if only because change has a way of doing that. They have holes in the return game, the center of the offensive line (still), at cornerback and linebacker. The fate of the receiving corps rests on the shoulders of a disgruntled Javon Walker and the running game is in flux with all three running backs coming off injuries. All bets are off if Favre retires and Aaron Rodgers gets thrust into the starting lineup.

Each of the NFC North Division teams will probably sign a few more free agents and stock up in the draft. Injuries will of course take their toll. It is notable that three of the four teams have new coaching staffs and possibly all four teams will have a different opening day starting quarterback than last year.

I listen to the local Green Bay radio shows and read almost every publication that covers the Packers, and I sense a feeling of dread from fans. "Ted Thompson has not signed enough free agents." "He will screw up the draft." "Favre will retire." It is yet to be seen what will happen. One of the beautiful things about sports and football in particular is that each moment is transitory and impossible to relive.

Movies and music can be listened to over and over again and the song or show never changes. Maybe you see it differently or notice something new, but the finished product is fixed. Not so with sport, and that is why we keep watching.

John Lombardi

Editor's note: John Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. His football experience includes stints with two teams in the World League (now NFL Europe); in the scouting departments of the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans; and graduate assistant coach and director of football operations at Vanderbilt. E-mail him at johnlombardi22@yahoo.com.

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