1. Green Bay Packers
While some teams scrambled to make acquisitions in this year's hyper-condensed free-agency period, the Packers sat idle. The Super Bowl champions, who were the lowest playoff seed (sixth) to win a title, seemed to think that they could improve with what they already had.
The Packers' offense remains almost entirely intact under quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who reached elite status last season. The usual suspects — Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones — will be catching his passes. But Rodgers will also add tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Ryan Clark, who both return from serious injuries last season.
If everything continues as planned, the Packers' offense (ninth best in the NFL last season) and defense (fifth best in the league) should remain as productive. The Packers face the immensely difficult task of repeating as Super Bowl champions, but expect them to remain in the mix for it.
2. Chicago Bears
The Bears again expect to be carried by their defense, long their trademark. Defensive end Julius Peppers (54 tackles and eight sacks last season) and linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs (a combined 214 tackles) form a tremendous defensive core.
Even though kickoffs have been moved up five yards this season, Devin Hester is capable of scoring on any return, as well as on offense. Wide receiver Roy Williams is a nice pass-catching replacement for departed tight end Greg Olsen.
The scoring, however, will be a problem if the offensive line, which allowed a league-high 56 sacks last season, doesn't protect quarterback Jay Cutler. Even with all-pro center Olin Kreutz, now on the Saints, the Bears struggled to protect their passer and open holes for runners. If they can work that out, the Bears could again find themselves in an NFC title game.
3. Minnesota Vikings
After what seems like a year hiatus from playing a position at which he excelled for 11 years, Donovan McNabb gets to start from scratch. The Washington Redskins traded McNabb away in late July for at least one sixth-round pick, giving the Vikings a proven starter to take over for retired Brett Favre.
Much else is new in Minnesota. Coach Leslie Frazier has full rein of the team after having his interim tag removed. The team drafted a future quarterback, first-round pick Christian Ponder, to develop under McNabb. Defensive tackle Pat Williams, left tackle Bryant McKinnie and wide receiver Sidney Rice are gone.
But the Vikings still have playmakers in running back Adrian Peterson, wide receiver Percy Harvin, defensive end Jared Allen and linebacker Chad Greenway. The Vikings can remain competitive if they overcome age and offensive line problems.
4. Detroit Lions
It has been 11 years since the Lions had a winning season and 12 years since they've reached the playoffs. And for all their improvements in recent seasons, they can't seem to quite get over that hump. They did, however, finish the season on a three-game win streak, including victories over the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
For all his promise, quarterback Matthew Stafford again proved fragile last year. In all, he has missed more than half of his games since he was drafted first overall in 2009. This year, he appears healthy and ready to shoulder the team's offense after another shoulder injury that required surgery.
With a solid defensive front led by 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Lions can mask the issues in their secondary. Stafford's receiving corps, Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson, is formidable. The Lions should be capable of matching their 6-10 record last season. The problem: they have to face the Packers, Bears and Vikings twice each.
By James Wagner - The Washington Post. Published Aug. 31, 2011.