Around the NFC North - Chicago

The Packers are aiming to defend the NFC North Division without Brett Favre this season. In the process, they will have to figure out a way to get back on the winning track against the Chicago Bears, who beat Green Bay twice in 2007. John Crist from Bear Report drops by to give us an insider's perspective on what to expect from the Bears in 2008 as well as his thoughts on the Packers.

Offense
The Bears were 27th in the NFL in total offense this past season, primarily because the offensive line wasn't capable of opening holes consistently in the running game and didn't give the triumvirate of quarterbacks enough time to throw the football.

Selecting Chris Williams from Vanderbilt in the first round of the draft should be an instant fix, as he'll start at left tackle right away and allow John Tait to move back to his original home on the right side. Neither guard position is much to brag about these days, but the Bears should be helped by the presence of center Olin Kreutz assuming he returns to his usual All-Pro form.

The never-ending search for a quarterback in Chicago drones on, as Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton will head to training camp apparently in a dead heat for the starting job -- Grossman appears to be the favorite once again. Cedric Benson was a colossal disappointment last year as the featured back, and the fact that he's currently dealing with problems both on and off the field means we could see an awful lot of rookie second-rounder Matt Forte from Tulane. While the tight end combination of Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen is enviable, replacing starters Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad with the likes of Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd leaves a little to be desired at receiver -- Devin Hester is not a primary target, no matter what head coach Lovie Smith thinks.

Defense
The Bears were 28th in the league in total defense in 2007, as injuries to key players and ineffectiveness by some of their replacements had them struggling both against the run and the pass.

Losing tackle Dusty Dvoracek and safety Mike Brown in the season opener was catastrophic, and then cornerback Nathan Vasher went down in Week 3 and was only able to suit up once the rest of the way -- stud D-tackle Tommie Harris limped through a sprained knee the final 13 games and still made the Pro Bowl. Even former Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher finally looked human at linebacker as he battled back and neck issues, although he was dynamite once again in December.

End is a point of strength with Adewale Ogunleye coming off his best year as a Bear and Alex Brown most likely back in the starting lineup, as Mark Anderson dealt with the proverbial sophomore slump after a sizzling rookie campaign. Weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs was re-signed unexpectedly after not getting near the attention he felt he deserved in free agency, and former Packer Hunter Hillenmeyer continues to get better over on the strong side. Brown, who hasn't played a full 16-game schedule since 2003, is once again the X factor because of his emotional leadership and big-play ability.

Outsider's Perspective on Packers
If you take a gander at 21 of the 22 starting positions on the field for the Packers, they appear to be in pretty good shape and in position to repeat as NFC North champions. Ryan Grant looks like the real deal in the backfield, and the offensive line is solid from side to side. The tight end position is weak, but having all those receivers largely eradicates that problem.

On defense, the front seven is deep and talented, featuring two of the more underrated defenders around in end Aaron Kampman and linebacker Nick Barnett. Cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson are getting up there in age, but they can still cover and both of them are physical.

However, as we've seen in the past, the quarterback position can single-handedly win and lose football games at this level. Brett Favre is arguably the greatest signal-caller of all time, and the shadow he will cast over Aaron Rodgers this year will be gargantuan. Even if Rodgers does play well, the Green Bay faithful will inevitably be muttering to themselves, "He's good, but he's no Favre." And if Rodgers doesn't play well, how long before Cheeseheads from Whitewater to Washburn come to Lambeau Field armed with "Come back, Brett!" signs to wave for the TV cameras?

Trying to make predictions on the Packers post-Favre is like wondering how good the Rolling Stones could be post-Mick, so I'm taking the Vikings to win the division just to be safe.


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