By Tom Pollin
Cold, Hard Football Facts Black and Blues Brother

The NFC North was a broken thumb away in 2011 from sending more than two teams to the playoffs for the first time in its history.

You might remember that back in 1997 that the NFC Central, the descendant of the original Black & Blue Division, sent four teams to the playoffs: the Packers, Lions, Vikings and...Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 2012, three teams have the capability of not only making the playoffs but making a strong push to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVII

Green Bay Packers (Over/Under 12)

Last year: O/U 11.5 (Over, 15-1)

The Case For Over

The offense is still formidable.

The Packers scored 560 total points in 2011, most in the NFL. That averages out to 35 points per game, 5 touchdowns plus extra points for those of you who skipped math class on a regular basis in high school (always happy to be of service to fans).

Aaron Rodgers set a record with a single season passer rating of 122.5 while throwing 45 touchdown passes, No. 2 in the NFL behind Drew Brees. Jordy Nelson emerged as a dangerous deep threat for Rodgers, leading the Packers’ receivers in with an18.6-yards per reception average while hauling in 15 of Rodgers’ touchdown passes.

The defense added a lot of young talent in the 2012 NFL Draft.

The Packers are one of the best teams in the NFL at drafting and developing young talent. In the 2012 NFL Draft they used their first five picks to add five players on defense that are already contributing during the preseason. If they don’t begin the season as starters they are still expected to play major roles in Dom Capers’ defense when the season begins on Sept. 9.

The Case For Under

This defense needed improvement because it was one of the worst in 2011.

In 2011 the Packers’ defense was No. 19 in the NFL with 359 points allowed. Browsing through the final 2011 Quality stats and you see that their defense was No. 30 with a 7.2 real passing yards per attempt average and No. 26 in the Defensive Hogs Index (made upof rushing yards per attempt, negative pass plays caused and third down conversion percentage).

As fast as the Packers’ offense was grounding teams under their heel, their defense was giving ground nearly as fast.

The Packers don’t have much of a ground game to offset their prolific passing attack.

Green Bay couldn’t even break 4-yards per carry in 2011. They finished No. 25 in the league with an anemic 3.95-yards per carry average (hell, most of the Cold, Hard Football Facts writing staff could fall head-to-toe OR side-to-side and gain ground at a 3.95-yard average).

New free agent acquisition, running back Cedric Benson should fit right in with the Packers after gaining 3.5-yards per carry in 2010 and 3.9-yards per carry in 2011 with the Bengals.

Final Analysis

The Packers draft players and develop them. Signing free agent center Jeff Saturday and running back Cedric Benson is out of character for the team but both positions were glaring needs. On Sept. 9 the Packers will have their defensive draft picks in place and we’ll begin to see whether the Packers have succeeded in upgrading that side of the ball. In the meantime, their offense is relentless and they should have no problems smashing the over this season. OVER 12.

Detroit Lions (Over/Under 9)

Last year: O/U 7.5 (Over, 10-6)

The Case For Over

Quarterback Matthew Stafford is still throwing to Calvin Johnson.

They’re back and ready to make life miserable again for opposing defensive backs. Stafford joined Drew Brees and Tom Brady as the first quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for over 5,000 yards in a season.

Stafford was also No. 3 in the NFL with 41 touchdown passes while Johnson ranked No. 2 among receivers with16 touchdown catches. If Stafford repeats his 2011 accomplishment of starting all 16 games there’s no reason why these two can’t continue as an elite quarterback/receiver pairing.

Take away Johnson and the Lions still have a talented receiver corps.

Stafford has his choice of targets every time he drops back to pass.

There is the always dependable Nate Burlson, second year speedster Titus Young and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Calvin Johnson and Pettigrew are also tall targets; both stand 6 feet, 5 inches tall, which makes them especially difficult for average size defensive backs to deal with near the goal line.

The Case For Under

The team’s running attack is practically non-existent.

Jahvid Best suffered a concussion at the end of the Lions’ week six game against the San Francisco 49ers, his second concussion of 2011 and his third in two years.

Despite having the entire offseason to recover, Best is still not cleared by team doctors for contact and has been placed on the physically unable to perform list.

The Lions may have to face facts that Best’s career may be over. In the meantime Kevin Smith is set as the Lions’ No. 1 running back with Mikel Leshoure as the second option (after he completes a 2-game suspension to start the season).

Can the receiving corps go “old school” and double as defensive backs?

This was a thin secondary before they released cornerback Aaron Berry. Defensive Leader, safety Louis Delmas is injured with no news on when he’ll be able to return.

Starting cornerbacks Chris Houston and Bill Bentley left the third preseason game with injuries. The Lions reacted by acquiring cornerback Kevin Barnes from the Redskins but he’s been primarily used in nickel coverage in his career. He only started one game in 2011.

Final Analysis

The Lions blitz faced five teams in 2011 that finished the season with a winning record and lost all five. Despite that, they brought a 12 year postseason drought to an end but couldn’t stop the arelentless New Orleans Saints offense in the Wild Card round.

Suh needs to get back to his 2010 form for the Lions to be able to step up their pass rush to keep their thin secondary from getting shredded. Look for Stafford to lead the NFL in pass attempts again because the Lions will only go as far as his right arm can carry them. PUSH (An offense capable of OVER, a defense capable of UNDER).

Chicago Bears (Over/Under 9.5)

Last year: O/U 8.5 (Under, 8-8)

The Case For Over

Jay Cutler’s thumb is healed and he has new toys to play with on offense.

Caleb “just good enough to lose” Hanie, Marion “game clock, what game clock” Barber and Roy “I don’t want the ball you take it” Williams are additions by subtraction.

The real excitement is from the new No. 1 receiver in Chicago, who is a genuine No. 1 receiver.

New general manager Phil Emery acquired Brandon Marshall from the Miami Dolphins for two third round draft picks, then upped the ante by selecting wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in the second round of the draft.

Those two, along with Earl Bennett and Devin Hester give Cutler talented options to begin stepping up the passing game.

Matt Forte is healthy and happy; he’s recovered from his knee injury plus signed a new 4-year contract.

Matt Forte was leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2011 before injuring his knee against the Kansas City Chiefs in week 12. With his contract impasse with the Bears behind him he’s been participating in team drills from the beginning of training camp and is on track to be the starter at running back in week one against the Colts.

The Bears further strengthened the position by signing Michael Bush from the Raiders as a backup/short yardage back behind Forte.

The Case For Under

J’Marcus Webb will again be the starting left tackle.

Currently there’s no one else on the team that is a better option for the most important position on the offensive line. Chris Williams was drafted by the Bears in the first round in 2008 to be the left tackle but struggled with injuries and inconsistent play before being moved to left guard in 2010.

The Bears tried Williams at left tackle again this preseason with dismal results. Webb led the NFL with 14 false start penalties in 2011 and by allowing 14 of the 49 quarterback sacks the offensive line was charged with.

Brian Urlacher is still struggling with a left knee injury he suffered last year in the final game of the season.

Urlacher collided with safety Major Wright as both went for an interception in the end zone against the Vikings. He had arthroscopic surgery on August 14 after the knee began swelling from training camp workouts.

Urlacher and the Bears are still targeting the first week of the season for his return to the field but they both said the same thing about his ability to be ready for training camp.

Final Analysis

Given the upgrades on offense, maybe Cutler can begin to erase Sid Luckman’s name from some of the Bears’ team passing records.

Given the lack of upgrades for the offensive line, Cutler may have to do a lot of scrambling to have a chance at those records. Brian Urlacher is the key to this season. The Bears will score points in 2012. If Urlacher is healthy and able to run the field the way he has in the past, this team stomps all over the over.

If Urlacher starts to slow down in his thirteenth season in the league, that and a tough slate of games after the bye week will put the Bears just under the half-game kicker with 9 wins. UNDER 9.5.

Minnesota Vikings (Over/Under 6)

Last year: O/U 7 (Under, 3-13)

The Case For Over

Adrian Peterson is close to being ready to play after suffering tears of his MCL and ACL in his left knee.

The wonders of modern medical science has Peterson participating in contact drills in practice, nothing up to game speed but still, by all rights he shouldn’t even be wearing a uniform right now.

If it does take Peterson one or two weeks into the season to be completely healthy, Toby Gerhart emerged as an accomplished backup in 2011 and is capable of handling the role of the No. 1 back until Peterson is ready for game action.

Their defensive line is the best in the division.

I know there are some who are reading this and asking, “What about the Detroit Lions?” Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch both had solid seasons in 2011 but during Ndamukong Suh’s two game suspension they nearly disappeared from the stat sheet.

Jared Allen came within a half a sack of breaking Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5 sacks in a season and he’s far from satisfied with not breaking that record. Kevin Williams will anchor the middle of the line for the tenth season and Brian Robison picked up 8 sacks of his own in 2011 while working on the end opposite Allen.

The Case For Under

The Vikings’ best three receivers are Percy Harvin, Percy Harvin and Percy Harvin as the slot receiver.

The lack of receiver depth will make it very difficult for Christian Ponder to continue to show improvement at quarterback in his second season in the league.

The acrobatic Jerome Simpson was signed as a free agent in the offseason but had very inconsistent production for the Bengals in 2011. Simpson will also be missing the first three games of the season due to his guilty plea in a felony drug charge in June.

The Vikings will assemble the rest of their receiver group from Devin Aromashodu, Michael Jenkins and Jarius Wright.

The team still needs to build a defense that is worth of its line play.

In 2011, the Vikings’ defense was dead last in the NFL with 34 touchdown passes allowed, 8 interceptions and in defensive passer rating, allowing opposing quarterbacks to compile a Pro Bowl caliber 107.57 rating against them, the second worst Defensive Passer Rating in NFL history.

The defense also allowed opponents to convert on 44.2 percent of third downs, ranking them No. 30 in the league.

Final Analysis

2012 will still be a rough season for the Vikings and their fans but don’t expect too many more of these in the future.

New general manager Rick Spielman added three extra picks for the Vikings in the draft and still landed left tackle Matt Kalil, the player he had targeted from the start. As Kalil matures as a player Christian Ponder can begin to feel more confident that his blind side is taken care of and begin to feel more comfortable in the pocket. In 2012 the Vikings will be UNDER 6, but with an arrow pointing up for the future.