Coach: Lovie Smith (16-16).
Last year: 11-5 (First place NFC North; lost to Carolina 29-21 in divisional playoffs).
The schedule: The rest of the NFC North was awful last season, so the Bears have the easiest strength of schedule in the league with an opponents winning percentage of .445. The Bears do have some tough games, though: home to Seattle, Miami and Tampa Bay and at Arizona, the Giants and New England.
Why the Packers should be pessimistic: All 11 starters are back from a defense that yielded a league-best 20 touchdowns last season. The defensive front seven is especially tough, and when you pair that against the Packers' young offensive line, it's a big mismatch. Brian Urlacher is the reigning defensive player of the year. Defensive end Alex Brown is a budding star as a speed rusher. Safety Mike Brown is one of the best in the business, and the cornerback duo of Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher rivals the Packers' combo of Al Harris and Charles Woodson. The difference is No. 3 corner Ricky Manning is infinitely better than Ahmad Carroll. Even modest offensive improvement will make the Bears almost impossible to beat, unless the Packers' young offense makes giant strides in a hurry. The Bears' offense will be helped by the field position provided by electric rookie returner Devin Hester.
Why the Packers should be optimistic: Judging by the preseason, the Bears still don't know how to play offense. In four games, the Bears' No. 1 offense scored a total of 16 points and committed four turnovers. Quarterback Rex Grossman completed barely 50 percent of his passes this summer. If he struggles, a quarterback controversy will rage, with the fans howling for the chronically mediocre Brian Griese to come off the bench and be a savior. If that doesn't hurt team chemistry, perhaps the controversy between running backs Thomas Jones and the unloved Cedric Benson will. For some reason, the Bears concentrated on defense in the draft, leaving Grossman or Griese hamstrung by a lack of legitimate targets. The Bears' top wideout is Muhsin Muhammad, and he caught all of one pass in two games against the Packers' Harris. Woodson matches up well against the other starter, Bernard Berrian, and the Bears don't have a tight end who can catch. Who on earth will the Bears throw the ball to when it's third-and-8? Maybe they'll just punt.
The fate of the world rests on: Grossman. If Grossman suddenly starts playing like the first-round pick he was, then the Bears will score just enough points to win a lot of games. If Grossman fails, or gets hurt again — he has seven starts in his three seasons — Chicago will be playing in a bunch of 13-10 games.
Steve's pick: A repeat of last year: The Bears will win the division by default, going 11-5, but they don't stand a chance in the playoffs.
Coach: Brad Childress (first season).
Last year: 9-7 (Second place NFC North).
Other acquisitions: QB Brooks Bollinger (T-Jets), G Artis Hicks (T-Eagles), G Steve Hutchinson (Transition UFA-Seahawks), LB Ben Leber (UFA-Chargers), K Ryan Longwell (UFA-Packers), FB Tony Richardson (UFA-Chiefs), S Dwight Smith (waived-Saints), RB Chester Taylor (UFA-Ravens).
Key losses: RB Michael Bennett (UFA-Saints), WR Nate Burleson (RFA-Seahawks), S Corey Chavous (UFA-Rams), QB Daunte Culpepper (T-Dolphins), LB Chad Greenway (first-round pick suffered season-ending injury), DE Lance Johnstone (UFA-Raiders), S Tank Williams (season-ending injury), CB Brian Williams (UFA-Jaguars).
The schedule: The Vikings' strength of schedule ranks 29th, with an opponents winning percentage of .457. The first three games — at Washington and home against Carolina and Chicago — could be the key, and they play Seattle and New England back-to-back in late October.
Why the Packers should be pessimistic: Mike Tice is gone, which provides an immediate upgrade on the Vikings' sideline. While the Packers, with a few exceptions, chose young and cheap during the offseason, the Vikings bought and paid for numerous high-profile additions. Defensively, the Vikings are using the Buccaneers' Cover-2 scheme, which traditionally has given Brett Favre fits. The front seven could be tremendous, with three former first-round picks on the defensive line — ends Erasmus James and Kenechi Udeze and tackle Kevin Williams — and marquee 2005 free-agent pickup Pat Williams at the other tackle. The linebackers consist of E.J. Henderson (second round), Napoleon Harris (acquired in the Randy Moss trade and a former first-rounder) and solid free agent Ben Leber. The starting secondary was all obtained in free agency the past two seasons, including safety Darren Sharper. Can the Packers' young and smallish guards and center handle the big and talented Williams duo up the middle? On offense, the Vikings will try to hammer the ball with free agent bowling ball Chester Taylor running behind free agent fullback Tony Richardson, free agent guard Steve Hutchinson — an All-Pro with Seattle last year — and Artis Hicks, obtained in a trade with Philadelphia. Finally, if the game is on the line, expect Ryan Longwell to beat the Packers with a last-second field goal.
Why the Packers should be optimistic: Money never buys championships, so there's no guarantee the Vikings will be worlds better in 2006. How will all that talent mesh? Taylor is well thought of but he's never had to be the marquee running back. When the Packers took on a big back in the preseason, they stuffed Tennessee's Chris Brown. With the release of troubled Pro Bowler Koren Robinson, the Vikings lost a superb kickoff returner and a starting receiver. That leaves Travis Taylor and Troy Williamson as the starters and Marcus Robinson in the No. 3 role. Williamson is a former first-round pick, but as a whole, that group won't scare the Packers' Al Harris and Charles Woodson. The quarterback is Brad Johnson, who's going on 105 years old. If he can't deliver like he did last year, when he completed 62 percent of his passes and helped push the far more dangerous Daunte Culpepper out the door, the Packers will be able to gang up on the running game. Finally, how good a coach is Childress? He didn't even get to call the plays in Philadelphia. Now he's calling the shots for the entire team. The Vikings are paying big bucks at practically every position but quarterback and coach.
The fate of the world rests on: Brad Johnson. Johnson is old, but as he proved last year, he's still functional. But if Johnson gets hurt, the Vikings are ruined. The backups: Brooks Bollinger and second-round pick Tarvaris Jackson, who's miles away from being NFL-ready. Is Bollinger any good? Well, before the Vikings acquired him in a trade, he would have been the odd man out of the Jets' four-headed quarterback derby. With all the money the Vikings spent, why didn't they get a veteran? There's a logical answerr: Johnson makes so little money — he ranks 40th among NFL quarterbacks — the Vikings couldn't lure a proven backup because they obviously couldn't pay the backup more than the starter.
Steve's pick: If everything gels, the Vikings will pounce on an easy schedule, go 10-6, and contend for a playoff spot. If Johnson gets hurt early, they'll finish 6-10. So, a happy medium: 8-8 and second place.
Green Bay Packers
2005 record: 4-12 (fourth place NFC North).
Coach: Mike McCarthy (first season).
The schedule: The Packers' strength of schedule ranks 31st, with an opponents winning percentage of .449. It doesn't get much tougher than at Minnesota, home vs. New England and at Seattle in consecutive weeks in November. It also doesn't get much better than home to the Jets, at San Francisco and home vs. Detroit and Minnesota in December.
Why Packers fans should be pessimistic: Mike McCarthy has never been a head coach. Last year, as San Francisco's offensive coordinator, the 49ers had one of the worst offenses in NFL history. Jim Bates is no longer the defensive coordinator. While his protege, Bob Sanders, will run Bates' scheme, it remains to be seen if Sanders has the same feel for the game and the same way of getting through to and inspiring his players. Some 27 of 53 players on the final roster have one year or less of NFL experience. Four rookies will be in the starting lineup on Sunday. That's a lot of youth-oriented mistakes. Green Bay at times looked dreadful in the preseason, as the running backs were stuffed at the line of scrimmage and Brett Favre on occasion continued his dangerous habit of throwing the ball late over the middle. The offensive line is small and athletic, which is by design in the zone-oriented run game but could mean trouble against the NFC North's prodigious defensive tackles. Which Charles Woodson will start at cornerback? Fans had better hope it's not the one who got torched at Cincinnati in the preseason. Expect teams to run three-receiver sets to exploit nickel back Ahmad Carroll penchant for stupid mistakes, linebacker A.J. Hawk's inexperience in coverage and the Packers' general lack of a pass rush. In the fourth quarter of a close game, can the Packers count on young kicker Dave Rayner to make a field goal or young punter Jon Ryan to come through with a big punt to shift field position?
Why the Packers should be optimistic: The Packers won four games last season, but they went 1-5 in games decided by a field goal or less. By cutting down on turnovers, the Packers ought to win a couple of those close games. Favre seems to respect McCarthy, which should reduce his 29 interceptions from a year ago. That's almost two interceptions per game, and the stats show that teams that throw at least two interceptions in a game win just 23 percent of the time. Running back Ahman Green is back, giving the Packers what they didn't have after he suffered a season-ending injury a third of the way through last season. Donald Driver is Donald Driver, and his brilliance should give rookie Greg Jennings the opportunity to continue doing what he did in the preseason. The young and athletic linebacking corps of Hawk, Nick Barnett and Brady Poppinga could develop into something special. Across the board, the Packers are better — if only slightly so — at practically every position. Woodson over Carroll is a big upgrade, and if Woodson gets close to earning his pay, he and Harris will form a dynamic tandem that will help everything from the pass rush to the run defense.
The fate of the world rests on: Ahman Green. If Green is anywhere close to what he was a couple of years ago, the Packers will have a decent running game, which should make life easier for Favre and the passing game. If Green is either a step slow after the injury and years of wear and tear or has no chance because of woeful blocking by his line, it could be a repeat of 2005 on offense, with teams blitzing Favre and waiting for him to give away the game.
Steve's pick: It's easy to look at the preseason and last year's record and assume the Packers won't be any better. But the schedule is soft, Favre and Green are back, and, did I mention the schedule is soft? A 6-10 record and third place seems just about right.
Coach: Rod Marinelli (first season).
Last year: 5-11 (third place NFC North).
The schedule: The Lions' strength of schedule ranks 25th, with an opponents winning percentage of .473. The Lions could be finished after their first five games: vs. Seattle, at Chicago, vs. Green Bay, at St. Louis and at Minnesota.
Why the Packers should be pessimistic: New coach Rod Marinelli brings discipline, something the Lions sorely lacked under the fired Steve Mariucci. Just as importantly, Marinelli brings Tampa Bay's Cover 2 scheme with him. That defense has given Brett Favre fits over the years. The interior of the Packers' offensive line is young and small, and they'll face challenges throughout the NFC North, including against Detroit's superb Shaun Rogers and Shaun Cody. In fact, the entire two-deep rotation of the Lions' front four is strong. First-round pick Ernie Sims may be the fastest and toughest linebacker this side of Chicago's Brian Urlacher. Quarterback Jon Kitna isn't anything special, but he's not Joey Harrington, either. Marcus Pollard is a fine receiver at tight end, and that's something the Packers absolutely couldn't stop during the preseason. Special teams will be a strength with Jason Hanson kicking and Eddie Drummond the returner.
Why the Packers should be optimistic: Do you think Packers cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson are going to lose a minute of sleep before facing Detroit receivers Roy Williams and Corey Bradford? Didn't think so. Bradford is one of three former Packers castoffs in the starting lineup: linebacker Paris Lenon and guard Ross Verba are the others. They are all huge weak spots. Oh, and Matt Millen remains the general manager. How bad as he been? Two of his elite first-round picks, Harrington and Charles Rogers, were eliminated from the roster this year. Teams can't afford to miss on a top-three pick. Teams really can't afford to miss in back-to-back years. The Lions are 21-59 during Millen's tenure.
The fate of the world rests on: Mike Martz. Martz is an offensive genius, but how will he do as an offensive coordinator after years of being the head coach in St. Louis? Martz famously didn't get along with the front office in St. Louis. Will he be able to get along with his superiors in Detroit when they tell him to run the football on occasion? Will he erupt like a volcano when he figures out Kitna isn't Kurt Warner or Marc Bulger, and receivers Roy Williams, Bradford, Drummond and Mike Furrey combined don't get close to equaling the talents of Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt?
Steve's pick: Marinelli could be the second coming of Vince Lombardi and not get six wins out of this bunch. Since Marinelli isn't the second coming of Lombardi, 4-12 and last place seems a likely finish.