TORONTO - 1. Are the Lions for real?
After finishing the 2010 season with four straight wins to earn a 6-10 record, they have shown additional signs of improvement on both sides of the ball during their first three pre-season games, most notably in the QB play of Matthew Stafford, with a 77% completion rate. Sure, it was just pre-season, but they seriously spanked the Patriots, putting a lot of heat on Tom Brady. Verdict: For real.
2. Can Jay Cutler lead the Bears?
When Cutler came out of the NFC Championship game against the Packers with a knee injury last January, he was accused of quitting on his team and lacking toughness. That stain on his reputation may linger in some sectors, but not among the Bears. “It was undeserved,” says linebacker Brian Urlacher. “He got hurt. That’s what it comes down to. He’s a tough guy.”
3. Will the Packers’ offensive line keep Aaron Rodgers safe?
If this Packers team has an Achilles Heel, it’s on the offensive line and that is not a good thing when the health of your best player hinges upon the ability of the 300-pounders charged with his protection. In three games, Rodgers has played the equivalent of just over one full game and been sacked six times. Since Rodgers took over as QB in 2008, he has been sacked 123 times.
4. Will the Bears offensive line keep Jay Cutler safe?
In 2010, Cutler was sacked a league-high 57 times and the Chicago offence as a unit was 30th of 32 teams. If the Bears are going to do anything at all on offence this year, the O-line has to be better. In the last two preseason games, Cutler has thrown 42 passes and been sacked just once. Still, the jury will be out on this young line.
5. How much better will the Vikings be with Donovan McNabb at QB?
McNabb has already resurrected Bernard Berrian, ignored the past two years by Brett Favre. McNabb is also making sure Adrian Peterson gets plenty of touches, hoping to draw defences closer to the line of scrimmage, setting up passing opportunities. Vikes were 23rd in total offence last season, so the bar is set fairly low for McNabb.
6. Will Ndamukong Suh be a kinder, gentler presence?
Uh, not any time soon. He’s already been fined $20,000 for roughing up Bengals QB Andy Dalton in a preseason game and he’s sure to get dinged for another fine for throwing a punch at Patriots’ Logan Mankins this past weekend. His nastiness is transforming the Lions defence from pussycats into, well ... lions.
7. Has the Vikings defence taken a step backward?
In a word, yes. The Williams Wall has crumbled with Pat Williams moving on, making them vulnerable to the run, allowing opponents to double-team Jared Allen. So far in preseason, the Vikes’ secondary has been lousy because of a lack of depth. Minnesota, perennially one of the NFC’s top defensive units may, in fact, have the worst defence in the division when all is said and done.
8. Can the Packers repeat as Super Bowl champions?
The Broncos and Patriots have each done it in the last 13 years. Despite having 15 players on injury reserve during their playoff run last season, the Pack prevailed. They have a top QB and they have a stout defence and they have a coach who is able to create a relaxed team atmosphere while maintaining discipline. They will be No. 1 on everybody’s hit list, but they have the parts to make it happen.
9. What if Matthew Stafford gets hurt again?
That would be a big blow for the Lions to absorb but they are now better equipped to deal with it than before. Backup Shaun Hill was the QB of necessity last season and he engineered enough yards and TDs to make the Lions the 17th-best offence but a healthy Stafford is probably the difference between a seven-win season and a 10-win season and a chance at a wildcard playoff berth.
10. Who are the division’s top difference-makers?
On offence, it’s hard to get past Aaron Rodgers, with a nod to Adrian Peterson. Peterson is probably the best running back in the NFL and Rodgers may be its best QB. On defence, Packers LB Clay Matthews and Bears fixture Brian Urlacher are 1 and 1A, with Suh in hot pursuit. On special teams, returner Devin Hester is in a class by himself.