Yesterday, I wrote about how the NFC North is shaping up as the strongest division in football, which says one thing: this division will be both tough and competitive.

Any one of three teams has a legitimate opportunity to win the NFC North. In addition to the Green Bay Packers, the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings have the look of playoff contenders. Even the lowly Detroit Lions will be improved.

So, while trying to be as realistic and unbiased as possible, here’s a look at the 2009 NFC North.

Minnesota Vikings

Projected finish: 11-5, first in the NFC North

Upside: The Vikings have the best running back, and possibly the best player, in the NFL. It wouldn’t surprise many people if Adrian Peterson topped 2,000 yards rushing this season. The Vikings defense is one of the best in the league against the run with anchors Kevin and Pat Williams. Defensive end Jared Allen, although a consumate redneck douchebag, will bring consistent pressure to opposing quarterbacks and cornerback Antoine Winfield is one of the best in the league, making the Vikings pass defense solid. Brett Favre gives the Vikings their first capable quarterback since Daunte Culpepper was, well… capable.

Downside: The Vikings no longer have five-time Pro Bowler Matt Birk anchoring their offensive line after he signed with the Baltimore Ravens in the offseason. John Sullivan takes over for Birk and rookie Phil Loadholt starts at right tackle, giving the Vikings an inexperienced offensive line for the first time in some time. Free safety Tyrell Johnson is also an unproven first year starter. The main question that will follow the Vikings throughout the season will be whether Favre can stay healthy and limit his mistakes. Outside of that, the biggest thing going against the Vikings is history – the franchise has never won a Super Bowl, and the current roster hasn’t had success in the playoffs. Coach Brad Childress won’t be confused with Bud Grant anytime soon. Still, the Vikings have the talent to win the NFC North.

Green Bay Packers

Projected finish: 10-6, second in the NFC North, NFC Wild Card

Upside: The Packers offense is loaded, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks to be on the verge of a breakout year. Pair him with stud receiver Greg Jennings, a healthy Ryan Grant, and a potential star in tight end Jermichael Finley, and the Packers will be hard to stop on offense. The defense looks to be dramatically improved after switching to Dom Capers’ 3-4, which should translate into more turnovers and pressure on opposing quarterbacks – something the team lacked last year and contributed greatly to finishing 6-10.

Downside: The Packers linebackers have a lot to prove – Nick Barnett is coming back from major knee surgery, Aaron Kampman is transitioning from defensive end, A.J. Hawk hasn’t lived up to the expectations of the fifth overall selection in the NFL Draft, and Brady Poppinga has been unimpressive as a starter in the past. While the Packers secondary is brilliant as a whole, safety Atari Bigby hasn’t looked like the same player he was before injuries took a toll on him last season.

Chicago Bears

Projected finish: 9-7, third in the NFC North

Upside: Jay Cutler. The Bears have always had a solid defense. It’s been their offense that’s been the problem. With Cutler and running back Matt Forte, an emerging star, the Bears should have no problem moving the ball. On the aforementioned defense, the defensive line and linebackers are solid and should be stout against the run. Devin Hester is a game-changer on special teams.

Downside: Outside of tight end Greg Olsen, no one knows if Cutler has a reliable receiver. Hester and Earl Bennett are hardly Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal – Cutler’s receivers in Denver last season. Chicago’s secondary has similar question marks. Trumaine McBride, Nathan Vasher, Al Afalava and Kevin Payne will hardly strike fear in the hearts of opposing quarterbacks, although Payne is an up-and-comer.

Detroit Lions

Projected finish: 4-12, fourth in the NFC North

Upside: Well, they can’t be any worse than last season. Seriously though, the Lions look like they’re on the track back to respectability. New coach Jim Schwartz seems to have changed the culture of losing and general idiocy that the Lions had developed under Ron Marinelli and general manager Matt Millen. On offense, the Lions have two legitimate stars in receiver Calvin Johnson and running back Kevin Smith. On defense, they’ve added several veterans that should improve the unit drastically over last season, including linebackers Julian Peterson and Larry Foote, and cornerback Philip Buchanon.

Downside: The Lions will start a rookie quarterback in Matthew Stafford and deal with his rookie mistakes. Outside of Johnson and Smith, you’d be hard pressed to find a big-time player on the Detroit offense. Outside of the aforementioned defenders, the Lions defense is largely young and unproven. They will start two rookies and Packers retread Jason Hunter. The Lions will be bad, but at least they’re moving in the right direction.

The fun thing about the NFC North this season will be the competitiveness. A key injury to any of the top three teams could completely alter the outcome of the division race. Losing more than three non-division games is likely to eliminate a team from the race for first completely. The division could realistically have three playoff teams, although I’m sure the NFC East and NFC South will have something to say about that.

I’m sure there are plenty of you that would like to agree with my predictions, so please feel free to do so in the comments.

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