1. Chicago Bears 11-5
The Bears made the league's biggest move this summer in acquiring quarterback Jay Cutler. While the Bears have had one of the NFL's better defenses for the better part of a decade, the offense has never been able to keep up. No longer.
Last year Matt Forte burst onto the scene amassing 1,238 yards on the ground and 63 receptions for 477 yards. Forte was a revelation last year, but he will be even better now that opposing defenses won't be able to stack the box against him. Cutler may have an ego, and he may be a bit of a drama queen, but there simply isn't a more talented young quarterback in the league. While teams usually must take their chances in the draft on young quarterbacks, the Bears were able to skip that step and acquire a clear franchise quarterback without experiencing the growing pains.
The receivers aren't what Cutler had in Denver, but he has some more interesting weapons with the Bears. The Devin Hester experiment has been a major disappointment, but he'll thrive by doing what he does best, run. Cutler can throw the deep ball as good as anyone, and if he lets it fly Hester is the perfect player to track the ball down. Cutler also will be reunited with former Vanderbilt teammate Earl Bennett with whom he had obvious chemistry. Greg Olsen is primed to join the NFL's elite tight ends, and Cutler will use him frequently on third down and in the red zone.
It may now fall on the defense to keep up with Cutler's offense. The Bears had a poor statistical season in 2008, but the talent is still there. Brian Urlacher is hungry to return to the postseason, and the Bears will stop the run. They got burned through the air last season, but additions in the draft should keep the secondary fresh. Finally for the Bears the defense doesn't have to win games by itself.
Player to watch: Orlando Pace. Pace has played his entire career with the St. Louis Rams and was widely considered to be the premier left tackle in the game for most of that period. The Bears snatched him up off the scrap heap to protect Cutler, and it'll be very important to see early what Pace has left. His dominant days seem like a distant memory, but the Bears must keep their prized acquisition clean.
2. Green Bay Packers 10-6
Much has been made of the Packers as they rolled through the preseason. Those games don't count, but the Packers have all they need to reverse a disappointing 6-10 outing in 2008. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers stepped in and outperformed the legendary Brett Favre, and he's the primary reason the Packers will finish above the Vikings in 2009. The Pack needs Ryan Grant to perform consistently, too often last season he disappeared for long stretches. A large part of that was due to injury, but the Packers can't hope to compete in this division without a dual threat offense. The Packers probably have to most dependable set of starting receivers in the league. Donald Driver and Greg Jennings don't drop the ball and both are above average blockers.
The Packers have a lot of talent on defense too, but they haven't really figured out how to play together. First round pick Clay Matthews will have an immediate impact and give the Packers one of the league's best groups of linebackers with Aaron Kampman, A.J. Hawk, and Nick Barnett. They may struggle to get to the quarterback with Kampman's transition to linebacker, but they should integrate some interesting blitz packages as the season progresses. The defense needs to adjust quickly to the 3-4 or they might get exposed early. But the Packers have the feel of a team on the brink right now, and 2009 will be the first step toward Super Bowl contention.
Player to watch: Donald Driver. Driver, 34, is starting to reach the point in a wide receiver's career when teams begin to explore alternatives. The problem is that Driver's production remains as consistent as ever. He now has five straight 1,000 yard seasons and he still isn't mentioned among the game's best. Driver does take some hard hits working across the middle, but much like Hines Ward, he seems to have plenty left in the tank. As one of the longest serving Packers, Driver's leadership will be counted on heavily.
3. Minnesota Vikings 10-6
Everyone's convinced Brett Favre will improve the Vikings fortunes, but the opposite will prove to be true. Tarvaris Jackson quietly threw eight touchdowns with only one interception in the Vikings final four regular season games and though he struggled in the playoffs, he has the tools to succeed in the NFL. Though he's still a bit of a wild card, Jackson is still too young to be cast aside. It's no wonder so many teams are interested in trading for him. Instead, the Vikings brought everyone's favorite retiree back from the dead.
The Vikings remember the Favre who haunted their sleep 10 years ago, and don't seem to recognize that he's now an interception machine bound to fall apart midway through the year. Not only is Favre a shadow of his former self, but rumors of a divide in the locker room are not what a supposed contender should have going into the season. The Vikings can count on Adrian Peterson to win games by himself, but they simply didn't make themselves better with Favre.
They can't afford to lose Kevin and Pat Williams to suspension. Without them, they could lose a couple games they shouldn't and in such a competitive division that won't suffice. If they are allowed to play the full season, the Vikings should have no trouble finishing at the top of the league against the run again.
The defense really doesn't have a weakness. Their pass defense statistics aren't superlative, but that's simply because teams know they can't run, and the repeated pass attempts accumulate. If the Vikings had pulled off the Jay Cutler trade, they'd easily win the division and possibly the Super Bowl. But when Favre disappoints they'll be looking for a new signal-caller next summer.
Player to watch: Percy Harvin. Harvin has drawn many comparisons to Reggie Bush and it'll be interesting to see just how the Vikings deploy their newest toy. Harvin's speed and agility make him a versatile weapon. The most intriguing option is to confuse defenses by putting Harvin and Peterson in the backfield together or in decoy sets. Defenses won't be able to guard against both, and the Vikings should rip off some big gains.
4. Detroit Lions 3-13
Well, it can't get any worse for the Lions can it? At least fans have to be encouraged that the Lions did everything they could to overhaul a roster and coaching staff that suffered through the worst season in NFL history. The defense in particular should be much better. They'll take a while to adapt to all the new faces, but newcomers Larry Foote, Julian Peterson, Grady Jackson, Anthony Henry, and Phillip Buchanon are all upgrades.
On offense, the Lions will hand the ball to the top choice in April's draft, Matthew Stafford. While Stafford will endure all the pains of being a rookie quarterback with a bad team, he at least has a young superstar receiver to throw the ball to. Stafford has been impressive so far, but he'll undoubtedly struggle this season. Whether he can withstand the pressure of an impatient fan base and a losing season will be his true test. Calvin Johnson is arguably the league's best receiver and he has shown that he will produce no matter who is throwing the ball. Running back Kevin Smith enjoyed a very good rookie season, as the Lions have clearly outlined their offensive building blocks. The Lions must thank the NFL schedule makers for winnable home games against the Redskins, Rams, and Browns.
Player to watch: Brandon Pettigrew. The Lions other first round pick has the luxury of going rather unnoticed thanks to Stafford's high profile position. But the Lions expect big things from the tight end out of Oklahoma State. Pettigrew is a hulking specimen and he and Calvin Johnson will give Stafford big targets to count on when the protection breaks down.