NFC North among NFL’s top divisions

McCarthy’s Packers ready to continue division dominance
It’s no surprise that the Packers are 4 ½ point underdogs going into their regular-season opener at San Francisco. After all, in most NFL preseason power rankings the NFC North rates a close second to the NFC West as the best division in football.
The Packers, Vikings, Bears and Lions were a combined 35-29 last year. Only Detroit’s dismal and unexpected 4-12 season dragged down the division. Otherwise, the Packers (11-5) and Vikings (10-6) were NFC playoff qualifiers with the Bears (10-6) just on the outside looking in.
What will 2013 bring inside the old Black and Blue Division?
More of the same based on the offseason head coaching change in Chicago, the additions in free agency in Minnesota and Detroit, and Green Bay’s perpetually effective draft-and-develop philosophy.
Here’s a team-by-team breakdown with win-loss predictions:

Green Bay Packers (11-5)

McCarthy’s Packers went 5-1 in the division a year ago. Their only loss was a 37-34 shootout in the season finale at Minnesota. Look for the Packers to own the NFC North again this season.
First, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense create significant matchup problems within the division. Neither Detroit’s nor Minnesota’s defensive secondary can handle Green Bay’s passing attack, and Chicago’s defense is aging and depth is thin on the defensive line.
Second, Eddy Lacy already has proven to be no shrinking violet. The second-round draft pick gives Green Bay’s offense a dimension it hasn’t had in years. The effect should keep defenses off-balance and make play action passes available to the wide receivers and especially tight end Jermichael Finley.
Third, the Packers’ defense is better than it was a year ago. How much better remains to be seen, but I agree with McCarthy when he says the defensive line is the best and deepest since he arrived in 2006. The Vikings’ Adrian Peterson and the Bears’ Matt Forte will have to earn everything against B.J. Raji and Co. Meantime, the Lions’ Reggie Bush won’t be able to exploit the Packers’ limitations like he might have had he been in Detroit a year ago.

Detroit Lions (10-6)

It’s time for the Lions’ production to live up to its potential. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and Bush are too talented for the Lions to repeat 2012’s disastrous 4-12 win-loss record.
The question mark is head coach Jim Schwartz. It might be asking too much of Schwartz – who presided over a 0-16 outfit – to make the climb from winless to NFC North champions. Schwartz, like his team, seems to lack discipline and the ability to handle adversity.
The defense is much better with rookie defensive lineman Ziggy Ansah, although he has been troubled by concussion issues.
The Lions open up at home against Minnesota in what should be an entertaining and enlightening matchup. If Detroit hopes to reach its postseason aspirations it needs to win games like the opener, especially at home against a division opponent.

Chicago Bears (7-9)

Quarterback Jay Cutler likely will get Chicago off to a fast start, and that could include a season-opening home win against playoff contender Cincinnati. However, the Bears’ modus operandi is to start fast and then fizzle down the stretch.
Perhaps first-year head coach Marc Trestman can reverse that trend, but with an aging defense and a still untested offensive line the potential problems are obvious.
Will Cutler stay upright behind another makeshift Bears’ line? And will the defense, already thin along the line, be able to reach back for more even though many are long in the tooth? I’m thinking probably not.

Minnesota Vikings (6-10)

Ex-Packers receiver Greg Jennings is going to wish he still had Rodgers throwing the ball to him. The Vikings’ offense has the NFL’s No. 1 weapon in the run game – Peterson – but it also has an erratic quarterback in Christian Ponder.
Minnesota’s weaponry is upgraded with Jennings and rookie Cordarelle Patterson, plus solid holdover Kyle Rudolph at tight end. But the offensive line remains a question mark, and Ponder needs to show much more than he did a year ago.
I don’t see it.

Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio ( Havel also hosts Event USA’ MVP Parties the evening before home games.