Seems like there's a collection of MCMers who think that the NFC West isn't as much of a pushover as I do, but look at that division and then compare it to this beastly collection of three top teams and one crappy one. More NFC prediction goodness awaits after the jump.
Projected Winner: Detroit Lions. Look, I fully expect there to be two representatives in the playoffs out of this division, who wins the division should be a total crapshoot. The Pack survived with a record-shattering offense last year that hid a lot of their terrible defensive lapses. Charles Woodson is another year older and the secondary is vulnerable. I like Detroit to take the next step. This could just as easily be Green Bay at the end of the year, I just trust Detroit's defense a little more.
"X" Factor: Jay Cutler. He could almost single-handedly make this division a three-team race by playing to his ability. I've never understood the toughness concerns surrounding this guy, he's pretty much been a warrior since he's been there. Don't underestimate the debilitating effects that those injuries had on him, those weren't paper cuts he suffered. A healthy Cutler will make this year very, very interesting.
Chicago Bears: It seems like the Bears are competitive every year. Maybe that's not entirely true, but that's the way it seems. Lovie Smith's job also always seems to be in question despite the fact that his team is usually pretty good. This team lost it's starting quarterback, starting running back (a bigger deal than with most teams as Forte was great in the passing game as well), and got almost no production out of their supposed "number one" receivers in Devin Hester and, more importantly, Johnny Knox. Now, with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in the mix, Knox will have a world of pressure taken off of him. He's still good enough to fry most third corners all day. Devin Hester just isn't a number one receiver, that ship has sailed. The defense was great against the pass and the run last year (rated fourth overall by football outsiders and number one overall in weighted defense) and I fully expect them to be a solid unit again. With Forte and Cutler in the lineup, this team should compete for the division crown and at the very least should be a thorn in the sides of Detroit and Green Bay. I do not look forward to when the Titans have to face these guys.
Detroit Lions: Stafford to Megatron, Stafford to Megatron, Stafford to Megatron. Basically all you need to know are those three words and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect this year in Detroit. Matt Stafford is a great player, what else is there to say? The number one overall pick from a few years ago is living up to his billing, he quietly had one of the best passing seasons ever last year by eclipsing 5,000 yards and leading the Lions to the playoffs. That would've been enough to garner serious MVP consideration if Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees hadn't decided to go on a rampage throughout the league. The run game was decimated by injuries and while I don't expect Jahvid Best to be a full-time player, Mikel Leshoure should be good to go by the time the season rolls around. The defense will have to get better against the run and the offensive line will have to be upgraded, but with the addition of Reily Reiff up front and mega sleeper Travis Lewis, I think this team is doing a good job of assembling the talent they need to compete. That offense should be near impossible to stop if Ryan Broyles, Titus Young, and Brandon Pettigrew find their potential.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers can carry this team as far as he wants to. The 2011 Packers were one of the best teams we'd seen in a long time. They weren't necessarily a "complete" team, the defense was downright putrid, but they were opportunistic and the offense was near unstoppable. I expect a lot of that offensive domination to continue. If they could stiffen up just a little bit on defense, this team would have the chance to be the best in the NFL next year by a long shot. That streak of lucky turnovers forced by last year's team was a fluke, they'll have to stop yielding so many yards if they want to be seriously in the discussion for Super Bowl favorites as it takes more than just a top-flight passing game to win it all. Keeping Aaron Rodgers healthy should be priority number one. If he goes down, so does everything else, although it wouldn't really surprise me at all if backup Graham Harrell, former cult-hero of Texas Tech, came in and dominated like every other backup QB in Green Bay has for the last couple of decades.
Minnesota Vikings: Poor Vikes, one play away from the Super Bowl just two years ago and now...well, this is kind of a mess isn't it? They're probably headed in the right direction, I didn't hate what I saw from Christian Ponder last year. I don't think he'll ever be a superstar, but he's looked pretty good as a pro so far, especially given how awful the team around him was. Percy Harvin confuses me. I think he's a really good player, but at the same time I'm almost 100% sure that you can't win a Super Bowl with him as your best receiver. I think he's an excellent complimentary weapon, but having Sidney Rice on that team was a real luxury that they're going to miss for awhile. Losing him to injury and then to the Seahawks has to hurt. Nothing exciting about drafting a lineman third overall, especially with Morris Claiborne still on the board, but they did it. I'm sure we'll be praising the pick when Ryan Kalil is starting next to his older brother in the Pro Bowl for the next "x" number of years at offensive tackle. Adrian Peterson might be the only back in the NFL good enough to be worth all that money he was paid, but a shredded knee is going to make it an uphill battle to continue playing with that straight ahead style of his. Ultimately, it's going to be a rough year for this team considering all of the holes on the roster and the division that they're in, but I think that by the time their new stadium is done that they'll be a pretty ok squad.
To summarize: this is a brutal, brutal division. Everyone but the Vikings should be in it until the very end, just like last year. If Minnesota puts it together for a few games and AP goes nuts then they could potentially be the deal-breakers to one of their divisional rivals. A divisional loss to the boys in purple would be nearly a death sentence down the stretch if things play out like I think they will. It's going to be a fun one to watch again this year. None of the top three, Detroit, Green Bay, and Chicago, would surprise me by winning the division, or even the Super Bowl. I have few doubts that the NFC's wild card team will be from the North.