The NFC North is a fascinating division as although the Packers won the Super Bowl last year they didn't actually win the division after finishing 10-6 & qualifying for the playoffs in the Wild Card round, the Chicago Bears won the division & will hope to follow up this year. The Green Bay Packers were highly impressive at times last year, taking real momentum from the tight win at home to the Vikings (thanks to turning 2 Brett Favre interceptions into touchdowns) to then shut out the Jets away, smash the Dallas Cowboys & then maul the Vikings at the Metrodome coming off the bye week. The Packers then lost 3 of their next 4 before going unbeaten to the Super Bowl & their record serves to highlight the sides strength & weakness - they have an elite Quarterback in Aaron Rodgers & a phenomenal receiving core, especially in terms of depth, but they do seem to be a streaky team that play well when things are going great, they only had 2 games last year where they came from behind at half time to win. I have a suspicion that when the offensive line can protect Rodgers he becomes supremely confident & finds it easy to throw strikes to his receivers but if teams can get at him then his accuracy & timing get shakier & he doesn't gather his composure as well as say a Brady or Rothelisberger. However Aaron Rodgers is likely to still be improving & with 4 very good receivers in Jennings, Driver, Jordy Nelson & James Jones he's still likely to have a big scoring season & they are good enough to come out on top in any game when facing opposition without good enough pass rushers. The running game for the Packers is still suspect though with Brandon Jackson leaving & James Starks having minimal experience, Kuhn is useful for sort yardage situations but overall this aspect of the game is far behind the passing & opposing teams should note this & set up to dfeend the pass much more effectively this year. At defense the Packers are solid & have one of, if not the best defensive players in the league in the dominating linebacker Clay Matthews, he is a player that can make things happen & it would leave a big hole if he were to get injured. At cornerback they still have the future hall of famer Charles Woodson but at 34 turning 35 this year his influence may be on the wane, Tramon Williams needs to continue his strong form from last year (6 interceptions) to ensure they stay strong against the deep threat. Clearly the Packers are a side that can beat any other on any day but without improvement in the rushing game consecutive championships may prove beyond them, a tough schedule also doesn't help with away games at Atlanta, the New York Giants & San Diego being some of the hardest they could have faced.
(Devin Hester making a return for the Chicago Bears)
In the same NFC North division the Chicago Bears appear to have a slightly easier schedule than the already discussed Packers (save for a monster game away to the Eagles), made more interesting as one of their away games is counted as the game in London against Tampa Bay in the International Series. The game in London hasn't adversely affected the teams involved in previous years & should give the Bears a taste of the glamour they will be hoping to get with a successful run to the playoffs. The ground game has always been the Bears traditional strength & 2011 should be no different with the strong Matt Forte being backed up by new recruit from the Cowboys Marion Barber. Chicago have weapons in the wide receiver position with Roy Williams having joined from the Cowboys & Devin Hester, Earl Bennett & Johnny Knox all having the potential to make plays. How the Bears season pans out depends much on how well they can integrate their controversial quarterback Jay Cutler into the game, he was roundly criticised for not coming back onto the field in their crucial NFC Championship game following a sprained ligament, Cutler can put up big numbers but will need to be better protected if they harbour hopes of going all the way. At defense the Bears are strong with Brian Urlacher starring at inside linebacker & 6 time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers still being one of the best defensive ends, they have had a setback though with outside linebacker Lance Briggs requesting a trade right before the start of the season. The Bears also have the most dangerous return man in football with Devin Hester now the all-time leading kick & punt return touchdown leader. At the available big odds of 13/2 with Stan James the Bears are worthy of picks for being NFC North divisional winners although they may not have quite enough star quality to progress too far in the playoffs.
The Phildelphia Eagles are general 3rd favourites for the Super Bowl & certainly have claims with players that can make things happen on offense & defense. The Eagles appear to have traded well in the offseason bringing in one of the very best cornerbacks in from Oakland in Nnamdi Asomugha, Ronnie Brown as extra running back competition for LeSean Jackson & Vince Young as backup quarterback to the re-signed (on a $100m contract) Michael Vick & Young could be needed with the amount of rushing Vick undertakes. Having a dual-threat quarterback that is so good at both aspects of the game, with a big accurate arm & quick legs is something that no other team posess & makes it so hard for teams to defend against when the QB can take off at any time. A big problem with the rushing quarterback is that they can get banged up & injured or even just tired through games but with a backup as good as Young it means they can slot him in when needed without needing to change tactics, even the 3rd string QB Mike Kafka is dual-threat & has potential. In defense the Eagles are simply phenomenal aginst the deep threat with star cornerback Asante amuel now being joined by Asomuga & they should get plenty of interceptions betwen them to make the defense a potent unit. Their schedule hasn't been unkind with some of their toughest opponents having to travel to Philadelphia & probably their hardest away game comes in week 2 versus the Atlanta Falcons. Although the rush defense was only middling last year & there appear to have been no obvious improvements to it the Eagles are still due a great season & best odds of 10/11 to win the NFC East underestimates their superiority to their rivals as Dallas have ben overrated for years are in a little bit of transition & the Giants look some way off their 2007 Super Bowl winning best.
Chicago Bears to win NFC North at 13/2 with Stan James
Philadelphia Eagles to win NFC East at 10/11 (general)