NFL 2013: NFC North preview capsules
GREEN BAY PACKERS (12-6)
NEW FACES: RB Eddie Lacy, DE Datone Jones, QB Vince Young, LT David Bakhtiari, DL Johnny Jolly, CB Micah Hyde, RB Johnathan Franklin.
KEY LOSSES: WR Greg Jennings, S Charles Woodson, LT Bryan Bulaga.
STRENGTHS: QB, WR, TE.
EXPECTATIONS: Loss to 49ers in last year’s playoffs raised questions again about Packers’ defense. Then again, Green Bay does have Aaron Rodgers. The key, as always, is keeping Rodgers’ precious right shoulder off ground. He was sacked 51 times last year. Reconfigured line took serious blow when left tackle Bulaga (knee) went down in preseason camp. Bakhtiari, a rookie, now has task of protecting Rodgers’ blind side. With potential of grind-it-out running game with Lacy, third straight NFC North crown appears within reach. But can Packers protect Rodgers and buckle down on defense just enough to get past divisional round of playoffs?
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (10-7)
NEW FACES: WR Greg Jennings, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, LB Desmond Bishop, DT Sharrif Floyd, CB Xavier Rhodes, P Jeff Locke, QB Matt Cassel.
KEY LOSSES: WR Percy Harvin, CB Antoine Winfield, P Chris Kluwe, LB Jasper Brinkley.
STRENGTHS: RB, DL, OL.
WEAKNESSES: QB, CB.
EXPECTATIONS: Vikings zoomed past projections last year with seven-win improvement and spot in playoffs, riding Adrian Peterson’s 2,097 yards rushing that earned him NFL MVP award. With quarterback Christian Ponder still largely unproven, skepticism of repeat in postseason abounds. With Jennings, Patterson and tight end Kyle Rudolph, Ponder will have better chance, even if Peterson proves he’s human and falls short of 2,000. Winfield might be harder to replace than Harvin, with cornerbacks Chris Cook, Josh Robinson and Rhodes tasked with defending NFC North’s talented passers.
CHICAGO BEARS (10-6)
NEW FACES: LT Jermon Bushrod, TE Martellus Bennett, G Matt Slauson, G Kyle Long, LB James Anderson, LB D.J. Williams.
KEY LOSSES: LB Brian Urlacher, DE Israel Idonije, LB Nick Roach.
STRENGTHS: RB, WR, DE, CB, special teams
WEAKNESSES: OL. Aging defense.
EXPECTATIONS: Five playoff misses past six seasons led to coach Lovie Smith’s firing. Offense appears better — or at least has potential to be better — but defense could take step back, with aging core players such as DE Julius Peppers, LB Lance Briggs, CB Charles Tillman in their 30s. Bushrod, Slauson should be major upgrades on left side of OL, but Bears could be going with rookies on right side in Long, RT Jordan Mills. Even with new additions, unit that ranked among league’s worst remains question mark. Still, Bears gave QB Jay Cutler upgraded line. He also has versatile TE and offense-oriented coach in Marc Trestman. But to many, Cutler’s out of excuses and possibly running out of time. Expiring contract and relationship with new coaching staff are two major story lines.
DETROIT LIONS (4-12)
NEW FACES: RB Reggie Bush, S Glover Quin, DE Jason Jones, DE Ziggy Ansah, CB Darius Slay, DE Israel Idonije, K David Akers, RB Montell Owens, DT C.J. Mosley, OG Leroy Harris, OG Jake Scott.
KEY LOSSES: OT Jeff Backus, OT Gosder Cherilus, OG Stephen Peterman, LB Justin Durant, DE Cliff Avril, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, DE Lawrence Jackson, K Jason Hanson, WR Titus Young.
STRENGTHS: DT, WR.
WEAKNESSES: OL, CB.
EXPECTATIONS: Detroit’s retooled defensive line with new ends (Ansah, Jones, Idonije) along with perhaps one of NFL’s best tandem of tackles (Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley) makes franchise’s bid to get back to playoffs a possibility. Quest becomes closer to reality if Matthew Stafford has time to connect with Calvin Johnson behind rebuilt offensive line with three new starters, and Reggie Bush has room to run. Jim Schwartz, entering fifth year as coach, stands to lose a lot if Detroit makes its 2011 postseason appearance look like fluke.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org