1. Green Bay Packers
2012 record: 11–5
With QB Aaron Rodgers (4,295 passing yards, 39 TDs) and LB Clay Matthews (13 sacks), the Packers have two of the NFL's best players leading their offense and defense. Green Bay does have some concerns, though. WR Greg Jennings signed with Minnesota, and the team has no proven running backs (rookies Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin will likely share carries). Still, Rodgers will find ways to score with talented pass-catchers Randall Cobb, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson. Last season, huge improvements were made on defense, and the Packers finished fourth in the NFL in sacks (47). First-round pick DE Datone Jones will make the pass rush even stronger.
BOTTOM LINE: The Packers will win the NFC North. The ground game will determine how far they go in the playoffs.
2. Chicago Bears
2012 record: 10–6
It will be odd seeing a Bears defense that doesn't feature LB Brian Urlacher. The future Hall of Famer retired, but Chicago's veteran defense will still be strong thanks to CB Tim Jennings (nine INTs) and CB Charles Tillman, who helped the Bears lead the league in interceptions (24). LB Lance Briggs (74 tackles) and DE Julius Peppers (11½ sacks) are proven leaders. New coach Marc Trestman needs breakout seasons from QB Jay Cutler (3,033 passing yards, 19 TDs) and RB Matt Forte (1,094 rushing yards). The one sure thing on offense is All-Pro WR Brandon Marshall (1,508 receiving yards, 11 TDs).
BOTTOM LINE: Cutler and Forte are the keys to the Bears' chances in this tightly contested division.
3. Minnesota Vikings
2012 record: 10–6
An MVP season by RB Adrian Peterson (2,097 rushing yards, 12 TDs) carried the Vikings to a surprising playoff berth in 2012. To build on that success, QB Christian Ponder (2,935 passing yards, 18 TDs) will need to improve on his 6.1 yards per pass attempt (31st in the NFL). Ponder will be without WR Percy Harvin (677 receiving yards), who left for Seattle, and new WR Greg Jennings (366 yards for Green Bay) is coming off an injury-filled year. The defense is led by DE Jared Allen (12 sacks), who has reached double-digit sacks in six straight seasons.
BOTTOM LINE: There's no doubt that Peterson will deliver. If Ponder blossoms, the Vikings will be back in the playoffs.
4. Detroit Lions
2012 record: 4–12
The Lions have no problem moving the ball downfield. They just have to find ways to score. QB Matthew Stafford (4,967 passing yards, 20 TDs) led the NFL in completions (435), yet Detroit ranked just 17th in the NFL with 23.3 points per game. All-Pro WR Calvin Johnson (1,964 yards, five TDs) is set for another monster year, but the key is for RBMikelLeshoure (798 rushing yards) and RB Reggie Bush (986 yards with Miami) to ignite the ground game, especially in the red zone. The defense made strides last season. Rookies DE ZiggyAnsah and CB Darius Slay will make a difference.
BOTTOM LINE: Bush's pass-catching ability is the dimension Detroit's offense needs to bounce back with a strong year.
DID YOU KNOW?
Packers starters missed a total of 83 games due to injury last season, the most in the NFL. The 49ers were the league's healthiest team, with only eight games missed.
PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PACKERS), MIKE DINOVO/US PRESSWIRE (BEARS), JOHN BIEVER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (VIKINGS), AL TIELEMANS (LIONS)
ILLUSTRATION: ANDREW ROBERTS