Here's a quick first take on what to expect in 2010:
MINNESOTA VIKINGS – The Vikings didn't (and couldn't) do much in free agency and lost Chester Taylor and Artis Hicks. However, the Vikings had all 22 starters from the 2009 season under contract, so there wasn't nearly the sense of urgency to add starters in free agency or the draft. This is a veteran group built for a three-year run at a championship – many consider 2010 as the second year of that process. With veteran stars on both sides of the ball – Favre, Steve Hutchinson, Bryant McKinnie, Bernard Berrian and Visanthe Shiancoe on offense and Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, E.J. Henderson, and Antoine Winfield on defense – as well as a slew of young stars either in or approaching the prime of their careers – Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and Phil Loadholt on offense and Ray Edwards, Chad Greenway and Cedric Griffin on defense – the Vikings remain the team to beat in the NFC North. Few teams have the balance on offense and defense the Vikings possess. Early Division Odds: 3:2.
GREEN BAY PACKERS – Had the Packers beaten the Vikings once last year, they would have finished 12-4 and earned a first-round playoff bye. After going 6-10 in the first post-Favre season, the Packers defense allowed 18.6 points a game (more than five points a game less than in 2008) and finished 11-5. The Packers weren't overly aggressive in the free-agent market, but made the point to re-sign both veteran starting offensive tackles (Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher). With a young, improving defense and veteran leaders in the secondary, the Packers have become one of the more balanced teams in the league. Look for them to be the chic pick to win the NFC North this year and expect many of the "experts" to jump on their bandwagon. The team still needs to do a much better job of protecting Rodgers, but there is a growing sentiment that this could be an MVP-type season for the Packers QB. Unlike so many other franchises that have struggled to replace a Hall of Fame QB – Steve Young in San Francisco, Troy Aikman in Dallas, John Elway in Denver and Dan Marino in Miami – Green Bay has made an nearly seamless transition from Favre to Rodgers. There are still some question marks, most importantly on both lines, but the Packers have all the ingredients to be a 10- to 12-win team in 2010. Early Division Odds: 2:1.
CHICAGO BEARS – Nobody made a bigger early splash than the Bears when free agency began, signing Chester Taylor and Julius Peppers in the opening days of the free-agent market. However, this is a team that has more questions than answers. Anointed as the next big thing last year and the Cinderella choice to be an underdog Super Bowl contender, the Bears fell flat and Jay Cutler didn't look nearly as impressive without talent like Brandon Marshall on the receiving end. Devin Hester and Johnny Knox both have speed, but neither would be a starter on most teams. For the Bears to succeed, they will need to become a more wide-open offense, which goes against the formula that has made them successful over the years. Mike Martz tends to confuse players with his complicated offense, much less a corps of young receivers that have never played in his system before. In 2011, the Bears may be the team to beat, but, as they adjust to the complicated offense and were again unable to add defensive studs through the draft, 8-8 looks to be about as good as the Bears will do this year. Early Division Odds: 5:1.
DETROIT LIONS – Few teams have made more additions than the Lions, who immediately improved their defense by drafting Ndamukong Suh and helped the offense by trading up to get RB Jahvid Best. The Lions are a far cry from the team that went winless in 2008, but there is a still a long way to go to get back to respectability. If they don't lose double-digit games this year, it will be viewed as a huge step forward. That kind of goal doesn't bode well in the short-term, but if Detroit can keep its young core of star talent that it has drafted (Suh, Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson), it may not be long before the Lions get back into the equation … just not yet. Early Division Odds: 20:1.