Help is on the way for the familiar stars of the Black 'n' Blue division. Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews have held down the Packers fort since Super Bowl XLV; Eddie Lacy arrives as running-game cavalry, while the defense hopes to learn from the mistakes of Capers' Last Stand against the Niners. A new offensive line and offensive-minded coach will allow Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall to do more than play catch. Adrian Peterson proved he could carry a team to the playoffs by himself; a rebuilt Vikings receiving corps may finally ease his burden. And the Lions hope to repair their inconsistent bad boy reputation with the help of … Reggie Bush?
Green Bay Packers
In a Tweet: The defense went back to school. Now it hopes to get some respect.
What's New: The Packers are no longer experimenting to determine if running backs really are interchangeable. Rookies Eddie Lacy (who had a phenomenal camp) and Jonathan Franklin (who did not) give the Packers runners who can actually break tackles and elude defenders. The influx of rushing talent arrives just in time, as the Packers lost Greg Jennings to free agency and Donald Driver to retirement, depleting their receiving corps.
What's Old: Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is an old coach who learned new tricks in the offseason, traveling to Texas A&M to take some evening classes in read-option defense after the 49ers baffled them with the basics in the playoffs. The Packers are also facing an old problem: their offensive line. Left tackle Bryan Bulaga was lost for the year at the start of camp, so Aaron Rodgers' mobility will once again be as important as his arm.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Packers rush five defenders more than any team in the NFL: 34.7 percent of pass plays. The results (46 sacks) were encouraging last year, but the Packers could blitz less and enjoy it more if a complementary rusher to Clay Matthews finally emerges. Nick Perry was drafted last year to do the job, and he is finally adjusting to his role in Capers' defense.
Best-Case Scenario: Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy cobble together yet another offensive line out of late picks and street free agents. Lacy brings balance to the offense. Capers says, "Eureka! We need an alley defender, someone to shadow the quarterback, and someone to pinch the play inside from the sideline!" The Packers cruise into the playoffs with a plan to beat all the option-y teams they are likely to face.
Worst-Case Scenario: If rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari or someone else cannot solidify the line and protect Aaron Rodgers, Seneca Wallace, who joined the team on Labor Day weekend, is the backup quarterback. But even without a 33-year-old slash player under center, a lot can go wrong. Rodgers is short on weapons for the first time in his career, the defense is thin behind the front-line talent, and the Packers are more scheme-dependent than most contenders. A 10-6 finish and first-round exit would not sit well with impatient fans.
Bottom Line: The Packers are victims of their own success. Thompson scours waiver wires better than any personnel expert in the NFL, so the Packers overcome injury plagues that would cripple other teams. Rodgers and Matthews allow McCarthy and Capers to run excellent-but-lopsided schemes that overwhelm weak opponents; but when the Packers reach the playoffs, healthier, more balanced opponents pounce on them. The Packers are not a sexy Super Bowl choice because they are not now like the Niners-Seahawks-Redskins, and preseason injuries make them hard to defend as NFC favorites. Still. only a little has to go right for the Packers to enter the NFC Championship with the best quarterback in the NFL, one of the two or three best pass rushers, and strategies that have been pulled back from the pass-and-blitz brink.
In a Tweet: An OFFENSIVE head coach? From CANADA? What's next, vegetarian bratwurst?
What's New: Marc Trestman replaces Lovie Smith, but just as importantly, Trestman replaces Mike Tice, whose offensive tactics grew increasingly ineffective and weird every year. Trestman is an old-school West Coast Offense guy who spent a few years in Canada, so his system could include anything from quick slants to 12-man formations. Aaron Kromer arrives from New Orleans to repair an offensive line that Tice micromanaged into the ground. Mel Tucker is Lovie-like as a defensive coordinator, but his influence will be limited to one side of the ball, and defense is never the problem in Chicago.
What's Old: Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall have become as inseparable as Bert and Ernie; one of Trestman's tasks this year will be to spread the rubber duckie around. Matt Forte still does the dirty work, which should be a little less dirty if the new offensive line coalesces. Brian Urlacher is gone, but Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs, and Julius Peppers headline a defense with no shortage of leadership. Devin Hester is not as exciting as he used to be, but he is still the return man, and I wouldn't want to try to tackle him.
Football Outsiders Stat: Marshall was targeted for 40.2 percent of Bears passes last season, the highest percentage of any receiver in the last 20 years. (You have to go back to Sterling Sharpe in 1993 to come close, at 35.6 percent). The Bears offense was caught in a vicious circle under Tice: the line was terrible, so Tice called max-protect, which left Marshall as the only viable receiver running a route, which forced Cutler to stare him down, which made things harder for the offensive line, which led to more max protect …
Best-Case Scenario: Kromer's rebuilt line, with Jermon Bushrod at left tackle, Matt Slauson at left guard and rookie Kyle Long at right guard, turns out to be the missing piece of a Super Bowl puzzle. The Bears defense and skill position talent is that good: Give Cutler time to do more than hand off to Forte and wait for Marshall, and the Bears can easily win 11-12 games.
Worst-Case Scenario: The line needs more work than expected, the veteran defenders begin to slip, Cutler reverts to the close-your-eyes-and-heave-it-over-the-middle habits that crop up when things are going wrong for him, and the Bears end up mired at-or-below .500.
Bottom Line: The traditional Bears playoff formula combines an exceptional defense with just enough offense to control the ball and win games by 20-17 scores. Lovie Smith was a master of this formula, but his tactics yielded diminishing returns as the years wore on: Last year brought one too many 13-6 and 21-13 losses, and there was little hope of the situation improving. General manager Phil Emery got rid of Lovie a year early instead of a year late, which is never an easy decision. The Bears have an offense-oriented head coach for the first time ever (yes, Mike Ditka played tight end, but c'mon), and the change should be beneficial for a franchise that took the "defense first" philosophy further than anyone could expect it to go.
Bottom Line: 10-6
In a Tweet: If Adrian Peterson could also fund and build stadiums, he would be the greatest employee ever.
What's New: Percy Harvin is gone, but Greg Jennings and Cordarelle Patterson have arrived, so the Vikings traded a forever-injured big-play threat for a talented rookie and a #1 receiver with a chip on his shoulder. That's a significant upgrade, especially since Harvin somehow got injured in transition from Minneapolis to Seattle.
What's Old: The Vikings' hopes still begin and end with Adrian Peterson. Purple Jesus bought time for quarterback Christian Ponder and coach Leslie Frazier, neither of whom would enter 2013 with job security if someone had not rushed for 2,000 yards while dragging the franchise behind him. The Vikings new stadium financing efforts remain the kind of boondoggle that makes you want to build a log cabin in the wilderness with a "Tax Collectors Will Be Electrocuted" sign out front.
Football Outsiders Stat: Ponder was just 22-of-77 on passes that traveled 15 or more yards downfield. The lack of receiving threats besides Harvin was part of the problem, but anyone who watches Ponder throw deep knows that he will never be Daryle Lamonica. Jennings and Patterson should stretch defenses horizontally; coordinator Bill Musgrave will have to be creative about ways to stretch them vertically.
Best-Case Scenario: Everything that clicked last year clicks this year, but the new receivers take pressure of Peterson and give Ponder more surfaces to spray passes onto. The Vikings remain in the playoff race without adding another decade to their running back's life.
Worst-Case Scenario: Peterson does not have to buckle for things to go wrong. Kevin Williams got hurt late in the preseason, and neither he nor Jared Allen is getting younger. If the Vikings front four gets old before rookie Sharrif Floyd can contribute, or Ponder needs a windup and a running start to reach his new receivers, Peterson will go back to his former role: providing the Vikings highlights in 39-10 losses.
Bottom Line: The Vikings deserve credit for recognizing the 2012 season for what it was. They did not go all-in for a misguided Super Bowl push this year (see the Colts for a counterexample); instead, they traded Harvin and reloaded through the draft, with Patterson expected to help immediately and Floyd and Xavier Rhodes preparing to fill holes on defense as they open. Frazier and Ponder don't provide much of a tingle, but both did enough to keep their jobs last year, and both understand that their main task is to stay out of Peterson's way. The Vikings must build a championship-caliber supporting cast before Peterson starts to fade. That will take more than a season, but Peterson is one of those transcendent athletes who could blow the age curve, and the Vikings are wise to not rush.
In a Tweet: The only nasty thing Jim Schwartz wants to see this year is a nasty groove. Will this one do?
What's New: Reggie Bush brings reliability and balance to the Lions offense … wow, there's a sentence you never thought you'd read four years ago! James Jones and rookie Ziggy Ansah replace Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch on a defensive line that never lives up to its billing but often lives down to its reputation. Titus Young is gone, so all Lions wide receivers can be expected to line up properly and run correct routes.
What's Old: Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are still one of the league's most dangerous big-play combinations. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are always intimidating and sometimes excellent on the defensive line. The Lions committed a slew of roughness/facemask/taunting penalties on the preseason (11, with some of their Three Stooges behavior un-flagged), so Jim Schwartz still has not reined in his team's counterproductive tendencies. One old-timer is gone, though: Kicker Jason Hanson retired, with veteran David Akers taking over. Save a seat for Hanson at your Thanksgiving table.
Telling Stat: The Lions used shotgun formations 71 percent of the time, the highest percentage in the NFL. They ranked 30th or lower in just about every rushing category. Bush will allow them to remain in the shotgun most of the time while providing both a draw-delay rushing threat and a weapon in the passing game.
Best-Case Scenario: The Lions were 10-6 two years ago, and their talent level has not changed much. Smarter play alone could get them to .500. If stars like Stafford, Suh, and Bush get their acts together at the same time, the Lions could go much further.
Worst-Case Scenario: No team makes more of a science out of self destruction. Last year was a prime example of how all the big things could go right for the Lions and they can still wind up with four wins.
Bottom Line: The Lions are the only team in the NFL that could end up in the NFC Championship game or end up with one of the top five picks in the draft, without throwing a season-ending quarterback injury into the equation. They are loaded with high variance players. Stafford is the best pure passer in the league until he inexplicably starts throwing sidearm or off his back foot. Suh is an All Pro sometimes, a dangerous goon others, and an indifferent paycheck player when he gets moody. Bush, you know about. The offensive line and secondary are nothing great, so everything rides on the top talent, and what a ride that has been in the last two years. The Lions looked dominant at times in the preseason but also lapsed into goonery a few times. So it's boom-or-bust, Goofus or Gallant. Unfortunately, a little Goofus can undo a whole lot of Gallant.