Chicago is team to beat in NFC North

The Packers are one of three teams in the NFC North with a new head coach in 2006. That is one significant reason why the Bears (the only team in the division with a returning head coach) are favored to repeat. It usually takes a new coaching staff at least a year to fully install a system and get "their guys" on the roster.

More bluntly, new coaches are usually taking over a losing team.
Chicago rode a talented young defense to a 11-5 record and the division title last season. A healthy Rex Grossman is the starting quarterback, at least for now. If he can't pump more juice into an offense that did just enough to win last season, veteran Brian Griese showed in the preseason that he's ready to take over. Thomas Jones was expected to back up Cedric Benson as the Bears' featured runner, but Benson will come off the bench after being slowed by a shoulder injury in camp. The receiving corps must improve to provide some kind of downfield threat. Still, Lovie Smith's team will rely on a defense anchored by linebacker Brian Urlacher.

It was the dominant unit in the division last year and could be for awhile.
Minnesota's new coach is former University of Wisconsin and Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress. Having traded Daunte Culpepper to Miami, the Vikings are relying on 38-year-old Brad Johnson to be able to provide the steady leadership that he provided in last season's late surge.
It might be asking quite a bit to expect Johnson to stay healthy and effective for 16 games. Former Badgers quarterback Brooks Bollinger was acquired as a backup to Johnson. The biggest off-season acquisitions for Minnesota were elite guard Steve Hutchinson, former Packers kicker Ryan Longwell, running back Chester Taylor and guard Artis Hicks through free agency and linebacker Chad Greenway from Iowa in the draft. Greenway was lost for the season with a knee injury. Getting center Matt Birk back from injury will be a huge asset. New defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin is installing the Cover-2 system that he worked with in Tampa Bay.
Detroit turned to Tampa Bay defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to bring discipline and order to the losing chaos that has defined the Lions in recent years. With former Rams coach Mike Martz running the offense, Jon Kitna is the new starting quarterback. Joey Harrington was deemed a flop and jettisoned to Miami. Charles Rogers, a former No. 2 pick in the draft, didn't buy into the season and felt the blade.  Former Packers receiver / kick returner Corey Bradford was brought in to provide a reliable veteran at the position. After a year away from the NFL in a self-inflicted contract hiatus, former Packers first-rounder Ross Verba was signed by the Lions to play guard. Boss Bailey has been moved to middle linebacker and the Lions hope that first-round draft pick Ernie Sims can help improve the defense.
Despite what looks like a soft schedule, the Packers' holes on the offensive line and staggering youth indicate a team in rebuilding, not in contention. If it's any comfort to the Packers, there are plenty of new faces in the NFC North besides Mike McCarthy, A.J. Hawk and Charles Woodson. But the team from Chicago that visits Lambeau Field Sunday and remains largely intact will be the team to beat.


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