Seventh of an eight-part series
Overview: Head coach Lovie Smith helped lead the Bears to their first NFC North title since 2006 and quieted critics along the way. With one of the league's top defenses, extraordinary special-teams play and an offense that did a better job of masking some of its deficiencies after a Week Eight bye, the Bears went all the way to the NFC championship game before bowing out against the archrival and eventual Super Bowl-champion Packers.
Team MVP: It's not an obvious choice since two players can make legitimate cases for the nod, but DE Julius Peppers edges out MLB Brian Urlacher. After signing with the Bears in the offseason, Peppers was dominant in the regular season, aside from a handful of games. His pass rush and relentless pursuit vs. the run made the "D" much more effective.
Biggest surprise: In addition to the team's overall success — few expected it to come so close to reaching the Super Bowl — its decision to make RB Matt Forté the focal point of the offense in the second half of the season — and Forté's performance in the role — came as a surprise. It seemed as though offensive coordinator Mike Martz was set in his pass-first ways, but necessary changes were made, and Forté finished with a new career high in yards per carry (4.5).
Biggest disappointment: For the team and a large segment of its fans, coming so close to the Super Bowl only to lose to the Packers at Soldier Field in the conference title game was devastating. In the biggest moment of his career, QB Jay Cutler played terribly before being relegated to the sideline with a knee injury after the first series of the third quarter.
Offseason outlook: It would make sense for the Bears to focus on strengthening their offensive line in the draft. Cutler was sacked more than any other quarterback in the league, and the blocking has to improve for the offense to catch up to the Bears' solid defense. C Olin Kreutz will be an unrestricted free agent, and the franchise is still looking for a long-term answer at left tackle. GM Jerry Angelo also has said a contract extension for Smith is on the way.
Overview: It appeared to be a maddening case of "here we go again" when the Lions started the season 2-10. The pain was especially tough because QB Matthew Stafford had missed most of the season with a shoulder injury and that seven of the 10 losses were by a deficit of one score. But the team raised optimism significantly with its four-game winning streak (without Stafford) to close out 2010, when the fruits of the team's labor started to show.
Team MVP: It depends on how you define "most valuable." DT Ndamukong Suh just might be the team's best player and maybe the best interior lineman to join the league since Warren Sapp. WR Calvin Johnson is a true field tilter and difference maker who found ways to produce despite bracket coverage and a QB carousel. And if you're talking leadership, there's no contest: Kyle Vanden Bosch was the defensive point man, effort guy and teacher and helped his team even after injuring his neck. Those three had the biggest impacts on the team and can split our vote.
Biggest surprise: GM Martin Mayhew has unearthed some decent players on the waiver wire the past few seasons. But his best work might have been landing dynamic RS Stefan Logan, who ranked as one of the five best punt and kickoff returners, consistently giving the team hidden yards and better field position. He also was excellent in kick and punt coverage and carved out a small but effective offensive role. A great find.
Biggest disappointment: The health concerns that now have followed Stafford in his two pro seasons are becoming alarming. He has played in only 13 of a possible 32 games since earning more than $41 million in guaranteed money and has only teased the team with his potential. The coaches, namely Jim Schwartz, will scold anyone who questions Stafford's toughness or durability, not to mention his potential as a QB. But the pressure will be on both men heavily next season for Stafford to remain healthy and the Lions to build on the first real optimism in a long time.
Offseason outlook: The Lions are not expected to be as aggressive in free agency as they were last year, when they nabbed Vanden Bosch and WR Nate Burleson, among others. But they could look to upgrade at a few spots with a veteran (right guard and linebacker, for instance) and continue to use the draft to become more talented. Talent actually isn't their biggest need, as it was in 2009 and '10. But depth remains a concern.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Overview: Overcoming one of the more severe injury epidemics in league history — 15 players landed on injured reserve, including six starters — the Packers went on a red-hot roll at just the right time to become the first No. 6 seed from the NFC to win the Super Bowl. Picking up where it left off after must-have victories over the Giants and Bears in the last two regular-season games, Green Bay proved to be too much in the playoffs for the Eagles, Falcons, Bears and Steelers on the road to its fourth Super Bowl title and league-high 13th NFL championship.
Team MVP: After finishing among the top 10 in nearly every major passing category for a second straight season despite missing the Week 15 game against the Patriots with a concussion, QB Aaron Rodgers threw for 1,094 yards and registered a 9-2 TD-interception ratio in four postseason games. Rodgers cemented his status among the elite players at his position by winning the Super Bowl MVP award following a near-flawless 304-yard, three-TD performance in the 31-25 victory over Pittsburgh.
Biggest surprise: A case could be made for numerous Packers players who performed above and beyond the call of duty when pressed into action in place of key injury victims throughout the season. But nobody was more surprising than undrafted rookie Sam Shields, who just kept getting better and better in the nickel corner role as the season wore on. The fleet-footed Shields came through with flying colors when it counted most, with a pair of interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble in the NFC title game win over the Bears.
Biggest disappointment: Even though they somehow seemed to become a better team in spite of them, it has to be all the injuries the Packers were forced to deal with in 2010, beginning with the season-long loss of featured back Ryan Grant in Week One. The season-ending knee injury in Week Five suffered by TE Jermichael Finley, who was considered an offensive centerpiece, was particularly painful. In all, 12 starters missed a total of 86 games.
Offseason outlook: While the Packers appear to have a tremendous nucleus headlined by Rodgers and PFW/Professional Football Writers of America Defensive Player of the Year Clay Matthews, they also have their share of concerns. Most notably, they must figure out how to handle a potential logjam at inside linebacker and whether or not to re-sign DE Cullen Jenkins and WR James Jones, among other free agents on the team.
Overview: From the moment Brett Favre agreed to rejoin the team, everything collapsed — Favre's career, Randy Moss' brief tenure, Brad Childress' job and even the Metrodome roof. It might have been the most ridiculous season of all time if it weren't so unfortunate. Although Adrian Peterson had a fine season, there are still lingering issues, such as Sidney Rice's contract (and his decision to delay surgery) and the age of the defense, which started to show.
Team MVP: Peterson was the team's best player. Period. Despite Favre's decline in play and injuries to Rice, Percy Harvin, Steve Hutchinson, backup QB Tarvaris Jackson and others on offense, Peterson did his best to churn out yards and punish defenses. For the most part, he succeeded. He also curbed his fumbling almost completely and expanded his role by looking more comfortable in the passing game, both as a blocker and receiver.
Biggest surprise: In a season of few positive surprises, we'll go with the comeback of MLB E.J. Henderson, which was nothing short of miraculous. Coming off his second straight season-ending injury — a broken leg that many people thought would derail his career — he gave a superior effort and was rewarded with a Pro Bowl invite. Truth be told, his play probably fell a bit short of that standard, but Henderson was an inspiration and a solid performer. Another year of recovery could work wonders.
Biggest disappointment: It's impossible to pick only a single thing, so we'll have to settle with a team that got within a few plays of reaching the Super Bowl the previous season being pretty much out of the race by November in 2010. Favre had little magic left, Childress lost control of the locker room, the defense declined, the offense was uneven and the special teams were shaky, despite the kicking game. All in all, the 50th Vikings season might have been the franchise's worst when you consider the expectations.
Offseason outlook: Leslie Frazier is left to clean up the mess, but he has the support of management, his fellow coaches (many of whom are new to the staff) and the locker room. It's a good start. Working on long-term deals for Rice, Peterson, SLB Chad Greenway and possibly DE Ray Edwards are the top priorities once a new CBA is reached. It's doubtful that big spending is on the horizon again, but the Wilfs have green-lighted previous big-money moves after their predecessors did not.