Wow, riveting Hall of Fame Game, wasn’t it? Why yes that was, in fact, sarcasm. It seems that everywhere you look, most everybody is picking the Green Bay Packers to either win the NFC North, the Conference, and the Super Bowl. Hey, everyone has a right to their opinion, regardless of how misguided it is. I wanted to figure out why they think that. So, I’ve decided to look at each position on all the NFC North teams, contrast and compare, and try to assign a point value to each. 4 points goes to the best player or unit in the division, 3 points for second best, etc. From there, I’m going to add them up and see if Green Bay really is better than Minnesota. Or Chicago. Ha, I was kidding on that one. There is one big, huge, wildcard in this, and that’s whether or not Brett Favre comes back. I will be up front and say that if he doesn’t, the Vikings are the second best team in the division, and it’s not really debatable. I still think the Vikings will be good, even a playoff team, but they will have a tall order winning the division. Anyways, let’s get on with it. As I rate each position, I’ll put in order the best player or unit from best to worst. At the end, we’ll add up the points and let the chips fall where they may, as the old saying goes.
QB: Brett Favre (4), Aaron Rodgers (3), Jay Cutler (2), Matthew Stafford (1). Most people will think this is a blatant homerism call on my part, but Favre had a better season last year, beat Rodgers twice, and went to the NFC Championship while Rodgers couldn’t get his team out of the Wild Card round. Look, Rodgers will be around a lot longer than Favre, and if he keeps it up, he might even approach or surpass Favre in some passing records. And yes, for the long term, the Packers made the right decision to let go of Favre and move on with Rodgers. Rodgers is a very good QB, but Favre, at age 40, is better. Everybody discounts Favre because of his age, or that he’s one hit away from retirement, but they’ve said that every year. He wins big games (and loses them, to be fair), but Rodgers does not yet have a signature, ‘over the hump’ win. Favre does. For Chicago, Jay Cutler will be better simply because he can’t be any worse. It will be interesting to see if offensive line coach Mike Tice can produce a line that can protect Cutler long enough to let those deep routes that a Mike Martz offense is known for develop, though. Matthew Stafford is the real deal, but is only in his second year.
RB: Adrian Peterson (4), Ryan Grant (3), Matt Forte/Chester Taylor (2), Jahvid Best (1). Is this really even debatable? No, it really isn’t. Ryan Grant is a good back, but would he have had 1,300 yards behind the Vikings line last season? No. The Bears offensive line was abysmal last season, which contributed to the suckitude of the Bears running game. Chester Taylor will be a good complement, but they are still the third best running game in the division. I think the Lions running game, behind Jahvid Best, will be better than Chicago’s at the end of the season, but Best has to prove it first. And he has to stay healthy.
WR: Minnesota (4), Green Bay (3), Detroit (2), Chicago (1). Green Bay has very good receivers in Donald Driver and Greg Jennings. Both Driver and Jennings had 1,000 yards receiving, and averaged over 15 yards a catch. However, Sidney Rice is the best WR on either team, and the Vikings have more depth, with Rice, Percy Harvin, and Bernard Berrian. Remember, Berrian was the marquee free agent signee for the Vikings in 2008, and by 2009 he was the #3 receiver. That was partly due to injury, and he is healthy now, and if you had to pick your #3 receiver, who would it be: Berrian, James Jones, or Jordy Nelson? If you add in the multi-dimensional threat that Harvin brings, it pushes the needle a little bit more in Minnesota’s direction.
TE: Green Bay (4), Minnesota (3), Chicago (2), Detroit (1). Jermichael Finley had a breakout season in 2009, and his coming out was in Minnesota, ironically. Finley can play the middle of the field as well as anyone, and can beat linebackers like a stepchild. Visanthe Shiancoe has come a long way in Minnesota, from a guy who couldn’t catch a cold to arguably Minnesota’s most reliable red zone threat. Greg Olsen had a good year for Chicago, but I still think he’s a step behind both Green Bay and Minnesota, and admittedly, that’s due to the quarterback play. When you add in the reliance on wide receivers in a Mike Martz offense, Olsen’s production might go down even more.
OL: Minnesota (3.5), Green Bay (3.5), Chicago (2), Detroit (1). Quite frankly, both Minnesota’s and Green Bay’s lines were flawed in 2009. The Vikings played, from left to right, and underachiever, an injured Pro Bowler, a first year starter replacing an all-decade player, an injured journeyman, and a rookie. Green Bay had issues on the line for most of the year, between injuries and guys playing out of position. Green Bay’s line got better as the season progressed, but regressed during their playoff loss to Arizona. That said, they still allowed enough time for Aaron Rodgers to light up Arizona’s defense. For all the issues the Vikings had, they managed to play middle of the road statistically, and were pretty decent in the post season. Favre took a beating in the NFC championship, but that was just as much from late hits and dirty play than poor pass blocking. Green Bay addressed their issues (hopefully) by using their first round pick on OT Brian Bulaga. The Vikings drafted Chris DeGeare, and early reports are encouraging. I would say that all things being equal and everyone is healthy, the Vikings have a marginally better offensive line, but not by much. Hutchinson is older, McKinnie is still more worried about nightlife than blocking, and the right side of the line is young, if talented. Green Bay is getting younger, but still have a lot to prove for 2010. Chicago is a mess, but they hired Mike Tice as their offensive line coach. Say what you want, but Tice was generally considered the best offensive line coach in the NFL when the Vikings promoted him to head coach in 2001, and he made a collection of journeymen and reserves a decent group.
So offensively, we have Minnesota with 18.5 points, Green Bay with 16.5 points, and Chicago and then Detroit. Green Bay’s offense is potent, but Minnesota’s is better. They have a good young QB, we have a Hall of Famer. They have a good back in Ryan Grant, we have the best RB in football. They have very good receivers, we have the best receiver in the NFC North and the returning rookie of the year. Green Bay is a very good team, but Minnesota is just a bit better, at least offensively.
Tomorrow, the defense.
Okay, I can’t sleep, so let’s do the defense now. To finish up, we’ll look at the defensive line, linebackers, defensive backs, and special teams. Since everybody thinks their coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator are all idiots, that’s a push. I will award no points for that category, and may God have mercy on their souls.
DL: Minnesota (4), Chicago (3), Green Bay (2), Detroit (1). When you have three All Pro’s and a 9 sack guy on your defensive line, you win this debate. When you factor in the addition of Julius Peppers in Chicago and the subtraction of Johnny Jolly in Green Bay, I put Green Bay behind Chicago. If that doesn’t convince you, who would you rather have on your line, Ryan Pickett or Tommie Harris? It’s a but unfair to compare a 3-4 line to a 4-3 line, but Green Bay’s defensive line has no one that you must game plan for, and Chicago’s does.
LB: Green Bay (4), Minnesota (3), Chicago (2), Detroit (1). Clay Matthews is a difference maker, and is the best playmaker of a solid corps. AJ Hawk has been a disappointment, but Nick Barnett is a solid player. The departure of Aaron Kampmann brings an opening, and you might argue that a pure 3-4 LB who can pass defend might actually be an upgrade over Kampmann, who was playing out of position as a rush defensive end asked to play pass defense. For the Vikings, Chad Greenway is one of the mnore under rated players in the NFC. He is a solid tackler, doesn’t blow gap assignments, but is average on pass defense. Ben Leber is better at defending the pass, but isn’t as good as Greenway at tackling in the open field. The key here is EJ Henderson. If he can come back, the Vikings LB corps will be a strength. If not, it will be just a little above average. For the Bears, there’s Lance Briggs and question marks. Brian Urlacher is coming off another injury, like Henderson, but the Bears don’t have the depth.
DB: Green Bay (4), Minnesota (3), Chicago (2), Detroit (1). This was the strong point of the Packers last year, and the Achilles heel for the Vikings. I love Antoine Winfield, and pound for pound he’s the best tackler in the NFL, but he’s not as good in coverage as Charles Woodson, who has had a career revival in Green Bay. Al Harris and Cedric Griffin are a push at this point, as both are coming back from ACL injuries. I would take Atari Bigby on the Vikings over Tyrell Johnson and not look back, but if there is an advantage that the Vikings may have, it might be depth. Minnesota signed Lito Sheppard and drafted Chris Cook, and those additions might help close the gap with the Packers here, but Green Bay wins this category. Chicago? They are dealing with age and injuries throughout their defense, and particularly the secondary. With no high draft picks to help out due to the Cutler trade, it will get worse before it gets better in Chicago.
ST: Minnesota (4), Chicago (3), Green Bay (2), Detroit (1). The Vikings have the best kicker and kick returner in the division. Their kick and punt coverage improved dramatically in 2009, and punter Chris Kluwe is good enough. I’ll take Robbie Gould and his ability to kick in Soldier Field, over Mason Crosby and his inability to make a makeable kick. What happened to Devin Hester, the exciting kick and punt returner for the Bears? He still wears the uniform, but he’s dropped off the map, and his title has been replaced by Percy Harvin.
So, let’s add it all up. I show the Vikings with 32.5 points, the Packers with 28.5 points, and the Bears and Lions a distant third and fourth.
The point of this column isn’t to say that Green Bay stinks. On the contrary, they’re a very good football team that will be a serious contender for the division title. But Minnesota is still a little bit better, and until the Packers can beat Minnesota on the field and take the title from them, the Vikings are still the team to beat, regardless of what experts say.