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NFC North remains Packers' division

Bears will improve, but finish 9-7 and miss postseason again

Dan McNeil

August 30, 2013

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Because I was the only one of the Tribune's nine-man panel who correctly predicted the Bears would miss the playoffs last year, it's my privilege to hit leadoff with this year's NFL crystal ball.

It's easy to make a case for all four teams in the NFC North. It's also not a challenge to find blemishes with all of them and expect the worst.

Because the Packers are the only of the four I can't see finishing last, I'm picking them to win the division. A deep playoff run, however, isn't in the cards. The Packers are thinned out at receiver and on the offensive line so the law of averages says it's time they fail to overcome heavy doses of adversity.

Nonetheless, as long as Aaron Rodgers is standing, it's their division.

•The Bears, as expected, are going to be markedly improved offensively, but will finish 9-7 and again watch the postseason at home.

The schedule is not Marc Trestman's friend. Maybe I've allowed "Hard Knocks" to cloud my judgment, but I see a stumble right out of the gate as the Bengals clip the Bears on Sept. 8 at Soldier Field.

Bears fans have good reason to be optimistic about a radically better offensive line, but the Bengals' front seven is formidable and will be too much for an opening day assignment.

Defensively, only Lance Briggs, Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman have a high trust factor. And there's no chance the Bears author a repeat performance of scoring so many points on defense.

•The Seahawks will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Of all the read-option, expose-themselves-to-injury young gun quarterbacks, Russell Wilson possesses the best ability to get small and protect himself. Wilson has smarts and maturity beyond his years. Marshawn Lynch won't slow down and the Seahawks have enough difference makers defensively to get to New York in February.

•The Ravens will repeat as AFC champions.

John Harbaugh probably hasn't been given enough credit for the Ravens' success. And not just on the heels of their Super Bowl title.

Under Harbaugh's guidance, the Ravens consistently have been solid and we all should be finished with doubting Joe Flacco. The Ravens are faster defensively than they was last year.

•The Saints will have a bounce-back year and make the playoffs.

They are a bit of an enigma defensively, but the lack of upheaval that the suspension of Sean Payton and others last season will settle down the Saints. Drew Brees will have another monster year and the Saints will outpunch the overrated Falcons for the NFC South title.

•On the clock: the Raiders.

If Terrelle Pryor is the answer, what's the question? Second-year coach Dennis Allen is dealing with the worst roster in the league. Take a look at the names that comprise his defense. Mercy.

Even in the lousy AFC West, I can't see the Raiders winning more than three games, which is why they'll pick first next April.

•Chopped first: Jason Garrett.

The Jets should have fired Rex Ryan already, but he survived after re-inserting projected starting quarterback Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter of an exhibition against the Giants. Sanchez was injured.

Jerry Jones won't be able to endure another year of pain without pulling the trigger on Garrett, who enters the season stripped of his play-calling role. That's not a vote of confidence.

•When CBS sends its No. 1 team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms here next week for the Bears-Bengals game, it won't take Simms more than two series before we ask ourselves: "And why does his network again think this guy is a good analyst?"