Teams in predicted order of finish
1. GREEN BAY PACKERS: King Rodgers of the great white North
- How they did in 2012: 11-5 (5-1 vs. North); in playoffs, beat Vikings 24-10 in Wild Card round, lost to 49ers 45-31 in Divisional Round
- 2012 top performer: QB Aaron Rodgers (Pro Bowl, 4,295 passing yards, 39 TD passes, 8 INTs)
- Key losses: LT Brian Bulaga (knee injury, out for 2013), S Charles Woodson (cut), WR Greg Jennings (free agency)
- Key additions: RB Eddie Lacy (draft, Alabama), DT Datone Jones (draft, UCLA)
- Why we picked them here: In each of five seasons as Green Bay’s starting QB, Rodgers has thrown for 3,922 or more yards, tossed 28 or more TDs. In those five seasons, Rodgers has had 13, 7, 11, six and eight passes intercepted. With 171 TDs and 46 INTs over that stretch, the former Cal star and the Packers have won 11, 10, 14 and 11 games the last four years. We're well past debates about anyone in conversations with Mr. Rodgers. He is the best until proven otherwise and the NFC North is entirely under his control like Joe Montana's West and Brady's East before him. This year, they might even have a running game behind heralded rookie Lacy from Alabama, who knows a thing or two about playing in the postseason.
2. CHICAGO BEARS: The Green Bay Packers of defense
- How they did in 2012: 10-6 (3-3 vs. North); missed playoffs
- 2012 top performer: WR Brandon Marshall (Pro Bowl, 1,508 receiving yards, 11 TD receptions)
- Key losses: LB Brian Urlacher (retired)
- Key additions: LT Jermon Bushrod (free agency), OG Kyle Long (draft, Oregon)
- Why we picked them here: Every year the Bears put a defense on the field that gives the team a chance in the playoffs. Even without retired LB Brian Urlacher, the unit should shine again behind DE Julius Peppers (11.5 sacks), former Wildcats star Lance Briggs (2 INT returns for TD) and CB Charles Tillman (an absurd 10 forced fumbles). On offense, RB Matt Forte (1,434 rushing and receiving yards) and Marshall will help QB Jay Cutler put enough points on the board to finish second behind the Packers.
3. DETROIT LIONS: Sky is the limit for Megatron’s minions, but who trusts them when they're the Lions?
- How they did in 2012: 4-12 (0-6 vs. North); missed playoffs
- 2012 top performer: WR Calvin Johnson (Pro Bowl, NFL record 1,964 receiving yards, 5 TD receptions)
- Key losses: LT Jeff Backus (retired), K Jason Hanson (retired), DE Cliff Avril (free agency), RB Jahvid Best (retired because of concussions)
- Key additions: RB Reggie Bush (free agency), DE Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah (draft, BYU), S Glover Quin (free agency)
- Why we picked them here: Following their first playoffs in 2011 since 1999, the Lions fell off the boat again (4-12) and continued their trend of finding strange new ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But there is hope once again in the Motor City. Bush gives them the game-breaker (six 20-plus yard runs in 2012 to the Lions’ four) they’ve been missing since Best's career-ending concussion in Game 6 of 2011. Calvin Johnson is Calvin Johnson. DTs Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were the best DT combo in the league the last half of 2012 and came into 2013 in fantastic shape and acting like professionals for once. But alas, these are the Lions. The most talented roster since Barry Sanders suited up probably means 8-8 - but don't be surprised by much of anything, good or bad.
4. MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Peterson will Ponder what could have been
- How they did in 2012: 10-6 (4-2 vs. North); in playoffs, lost to Packers 24-10 in Wild Card round.
- 2012 top performer: RB Adrian Peterson (Pro Bowl, 2,097 receiving yards, 12 TD runs)
- Key losses: WR Percy Harvin (trade to Seahawks), CB Antoine Winfield (free agency)
- Key additions: WR Greg Jennings (free agency), DT Sharrif Floyd (draft, Florida), WR Cordarrelle Patterson (draft, Tennessee)
- Why we picked them here: After 2,097 rushing yards, 12 TDs and a ridiculous 27 20-plus-yard rushes in 2012, Peterson might feel slighted that we consider Rodgers and Johnson the two best in the division. The Vikings should hope he feels that way, because he must carry this team if it hopes to repeat its playoff effort from 2012. QB Christian Ponder isn’t bad, but with Rodgers, Cutler and the Lions’ Matthew Stafford in front of him, and with no game-breakers outside of Peterson, the Vikings are headed for the cellar in 2013.
FANTASY FRIENDLY SLEEPER: Eddie Lacy, RB, Packers
- Why we like him: He’s not the fastest guy, and he’s not the biggest guy. But he’s still really big and plenty fast. If he is as advertised, the Packers will run away with the division — literally and figuratively.