By Tom PollinChicago Bears
Cold Hard Football Facts' Black and Blue Preview-er

The Green Bay Packers close the door on Sunday to a disappointing 2011 to battle fellow playoff contender San Francisco.

The Bears will also enjoy a bit of Sunday’s spotlight when they host the Indianapolis Colts and the regular season debut of quarterback Andrew Luck.

In the other two division games, the Lions begin their run for a second consecutive playoff appearance when they host the St. Louis Rams and the Vikings begin the long process of rebuilding with a home game against the Jaguars.

For a division that has climbed a long way back to respectability the last two seasons, all four teams need a strong start to erase the memories of their disappointing finishes to 2011. Here are five things to look at as action begins on Sunday.

And in case you missed them, check out my NFC North over/under projections for the 2012 season.

1. The unstoppable force meets the immovable object at Lambeau Field

The Packers are relentless on offense and the 49ers are suffocating on defense. The Packers’ NFL high 560 points scored is second only to the 2007 New England Patriots for most ever in a season. The 49ers 229 points allowed finished the season second to only the Pittsburgh Steelers’ league leading 227.

The Packers rolled to a triumphant 15-1 regular season and were ready to march into Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVII when the New York Giants brought their season to a crushing end in the Divisional Round of the playoffs at Lambeau Field. The 49ers crashed into that same brick wall when Lawrence Tynes’ overtime field goal ended their season a game short and sent the Giants to the Super Bowl.

In the 2011 Quality Stats, both teams dominated the Power Rankings, the 49ers finished the season at No. 3 with the Packers No. 4.

Air power wins wars and has also been proven to make the difference in winning football games. Aaron Rodgers’ dominance of the Quality Stats quarterback rankings drove the Packers to a 15-1 record in 2011 and should keep them among the NFL’s elite in 2012.

Rodgers finished the 2011 season No. 1 in Real Yards per Pass Attempt, by nearly half a yard per attempt better than Tom Brady, Real Quarterback Rating and Offensive Passer Rating.

As dominant a passer as Rodgers is though, the 49ers hold a key that gave him problems last season. The 49ers ranked No. 2 in the Defensive Hog Index in 2011. One of the three stats that make up the index is the ability to cause Negative Pass Plays (sacks plus interceptions).

The Packers one loss in 2011 came against the Kansas City Chiefs, No. 6 in the Defensive Hog Index and No. 6 in Negative Pass Plays. The Chiefs were also No. 8 in preventing third down success. The New York Giants were ranked No. 3 in causing Negative Pass Plays and ended up bouncing the Packers out of the Playoffs.

As part of their No. 2 Defensive Hog Index ranking, the 49ers finished No. 5 in negative pass plays in 2011. Take the air out of the football against the Packers and you achieve a result similar to giving kryptonite to Superman, they end up grounded and beatable.

There is one trend between these two teams that can’t be countered by the other. The Packers are 5-1 on opening day under Mike McCarthy as head coach and, going back to the 2000 season, 7-0 against the 49ers. Unless the Packers fall behind early and have to play catch-up, that trend of success should serve the Packers well on Sunday.

2. Chicago is ready to warmly welcome Andrew Luck to Soldier Field for his regular season debut

Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers and company are ready to wrap him in big Bear hugs and congratulate him on being the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Actually, considering the health of the Bears coming out of their preseason schedule, the Colts and Luck will have better success in picking up their first win of the season in Week 2 or Week 3 against the Vikings or Jaguars.

The 2011 Bears were flying high while riding a five game win streak after struggling out of the gate 2-3. They had established a two game lead (counting their tiebreaker advantages) for the top wild card slot over the rest of the conference and their offense had the arrows moving up each week in the Quality Stat offense rankings.

After Jay Cutler broke his thumb, the Bears’ season became the equivalent of a 50-car pile-up on the expressway.

They stumbled against the Chiefs to give Tyler “freakin’” Palko the only victory of his otherwise forgettable quarterback career, added a chapter to the 2011 myth of Tebow and saw middle linebacker Brian Urlacher leave the field with a knee injury in the final game of the year. The Bears limped home to an 8-8 record and began preparations for 2012.

In the meantime, the Colts were spending the entire 2011 season wallowing in a sea of badness. Without Peyton Manning at quarterback acting as on-field offensive coordinator for the entire team, the offense and defense fell apart on the way to a 2-14 record.

Heading into 2012, Jay Cutler’s thumb is healed, Matt Forte is healthy after a Week 12 knee injury ended his 2011 season and new general manager Phil Emery spent a lot of time in the offseason acquiring new toys for Cutler to play with on offense.

The Bears added Brandon Marshall, Cutler’s favorite receiver when both played for the Broncos. The team also added running back Michael Bush, both  as a change-of-pace back and to cover Forte’s one weakness as a short-yardage back. The club also signed quarterback Jason Campbell, an experienced back-up who has started for the Redskins and Raiders in his career.

The only positive the Colts can take from the wreckage of last season is a No. 20 ranking in the Offensive Hog Index. Their offensive line protected well enough to rank No. 14 in preventing Negative Pass Plays. A similar performance by the offensive line in 2012 will give Luck the time to start feeling comfortable in the pocket as he begins to establish himself as an NFL quarterback.

When the Colts are on offense Sunday, more eyes in Chicago are going to be focused on Brian Urlacher’s mobility than on Andrew Luck at quarterback. When the Bears’ offense is on the field they’ll be facing a defensive unit that surrendered 27 points per game in 2011.

Bears head coach Lovie Smith is 2-1 in week one games at Soldier Field. The only way that record doesn’t get run to 3-1 is if the Bears peek past the Colts to their match-up the following Thursday against the Packers.

3. The Lions have the perfect opportunity to jump out to another fast start in 2012.

The Detroit Lions announced that the days of counting games against them as a “win” were over when they dashed out to a 5-0 record to start the 2011 season. They finished the year at 10-6, which included an NFL record four 13+ point comeback wins, and a wild card playoff berth.

In his third season in the NFL, Matthew Stafford started all 16 games for the Lions for the first time in his career. He established himself as one of the elite passers in the league when he joined Drew Brees and Tom Brady to smash through the 5,000-passing yards in a season barrier.

On the other end of those passes, Calvin Johnson enjoyed being a main beneficiary of Stafford’s quarterback talents. Johnson led NFL receivers in receiving yards and was second in touchdowns, was named a First-Team All-Pro and earned a spot on the cover of the new EA Sports Madden 13 game.

One weakness of the 2011 Lions was with their 0-5 mark against teams with winning records. The positive to this was their ability to beat up the rest of the teams on their schedule to the tune of 9-1. On that note, enter the St. Louis Rams.

The only reason the Rams weren’t the worst team in the NFL in 2011 was because the Indianapolis Colts kept them from scraping bottom. The best move the Rams made came after their 2-14 season ended when they brought in Jeff Fisher to be their new head coach.

As the 2012 NFL Draft approached, the Rams passed on the chance to bring in Robert Griffin III as quarterback in favor of staying the course with Sam Bradford and using the picks obtained from the Redskins in return for their No. 2 draft position to begin rebuilding their roster.

The results of the Rams’ efforts are still at least two seasons away from being judged as a positive or negative. When it comes to this Sunday though, the Lions will do what they did best in 2011; beat up on a team that can’t keep up with them.

4. Two second-year quarterbacks will begin the process of trying to prove themselves as starters.

Both Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert were surprise first round picks in the 2011 NFL Draft who ended up on the field as starters a lot earlier than expected.

Ponder saw his first action in the fourth quarter of the Vikings’ week six game against the Bears. His presence on the field ended the Donovan McNabb experiment in Minnesota.

Gabbert was thrown into the fire in the fourth quarter of the Jaguars’ week two game against the Jets when Jacksonville decided giving him experience under center was preferable to continuing with Luke McCown at quarterback.

Both teams stumbled to losing records last season but the main difference between them is the Vikings only have the pass rush abilities of their line to carry them on defense; the Jaguars can do more to stop opposing offenses. The Vikings made every opposing quarterback appear to be Pro Bowl caliber in 2011 by allowing them to compile a 107.6 Defensive Passer Rating, No. 32 in the league.

The Vikings also failed to take advantage of their No. 16 ranked Defensive Hogs, which finished No. 8 in Negative Pass Plays. Despite the ability of the Vikings’ defensive line to rush the passer, their secondary ranked No. 25 Defensive Real Yards per Pass Attempt.

An advantage for the Vikings is Gabbert finished 2011 ranked at the bottom, No. 32 in Real Yards per Pass Attempt, Real Quarterback Rating and Offensive Passer Rating. It remains to be seen if the addition of Justin Blackmon at wide receiver will help Gabbert improve his overall play and position in the Quality Stat rankings.

Maurice Jones-Drew will be on the field Sunday after ending his holdout but it’s a question as to how effective he will be after missing all offseason team activities and training camp.

Playing the Jaguars at home gives the Vikings a chance to begin the 2012 season on a positive note, especially with the Colts in Indianapolis as their opponent in week 2. If they don’t take advantage expect head coach Leslie Frazier to immediately land on the NFL’s head coach hot seat.

5. The NFC North teams have a lot of work to do to rebuild the division’s reputation after all four endured disappointing finales to 2011

The defending Super Bowl Champion Packers got bounced from the playoffs almost as easily as the Detroit Lions did but the heightened expectations created after rolling to a 15-1 regular season record made them the biggest disappointment in the division in 2011.

The Bears didn’t miss the playoffs exclusively because of Jay Cutler’s broken thumb. Their complete misjudging of backup quarterback Caleb Hanie’s abilities to step in and lead the offense when Cutler was injured led to the Bears’ rapid slide out of the playoff picture, and also to general manager Jerry Angelo’s firing.

With the Vikings, the disappointment didn’t end at their final record, especially after they expected to make one more playoff run in 2011. In the only game they won the second half of the season, against the Redskins, Adrian Peterson had to be carted off the field after tearing the ACL in his left knee.

Since the 2002 division realignment, NFC North teams have managed a 22-18 record (.550 winning percentage) on the opening weekend of the season. That record improves to 12-5 (a .706 winning percentage) in games played at home, which all four teams are doing this weekend.

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With no other records to analyze until the season gets in gear, the recent trends and 2011 Quality Stats lines lead to the belief that the teams in the NFC North division will enjoy a strong start to the 2012 season.

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