Catch us if you can

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The chase is on in the NFC North. All three challengers—Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota—have coaches in place and have one goal.

Catch the Green Bay Packers.

A year ago, the Bears swapped defense (Lovie Smith) for offense (Marc Trestman) at head coach. This off-season, the Lions did the same in hiring Jim Caldwell, while the Vikings will reportedly hire longtime defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The gap in the division isn't nearly as wide as it was two, three years ago. The 8-8-1 Packers were the less-than-convincing 2013 champs.

To close that gap, all three teams need to, as always, overcome Aaron Rodgers.

In Caldwell, maybe the Lions have a coach who can make their very good Matthew Stafford great. In Zimmer, maybe the Vikings have the rare coach who can fluster Rodgers.

Green Bay has mostly owned the division under coach Mike McCarthy. Since taking over in 2006, McCarthy is 39-12-1 overall against NFC North foes with four division titles and a Super Bowl. His three division wins in 2013 were a career low.

Zimmer has not spoken publically yet—the news wasn't official as of Wednesday night. But Caldwell made it clear he's not around to rebuild.

“They believe and I believe the time is now,” Caldwell said at his introductory news conference. “Not two years or three years from now down the road somewhere. Right here, right now.”

To put it kindly, the Lions fumbled away the division. Following a 40-10 drubbing of the Packers on Thanksgiving Day, this was a team in total command at 7-5. Detroit imploded. Stafford struggled. With four straight losses, the Lions' front office needed to hit the reset button.

So out with the abrasive Jim Schwartz. In with the calm Caldwell, who led Indianapolis to the 2009 Super Bowl.

This is a team that has lived and (mostly) died with Stafford. He was spectacular again at times in 2013, passing for 4,650 yards and 29 touchdowns, yet his 19 interceptions too often finished Detroit.

The former No. 1 overall pick has delivered zero playoff wins in five seasons. It's on Caldwell to maximize Stafford's physical ability.

Caldwell, most recently Baltimore's offensive coordinator, said Detroit was the best fit for him. He worked with Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco. Manning may be one of five best quarterbacks ever on his own merit and Flacco endured a rough 2013 season, but Caldwell will need to pull from these experiences to help Stafford.

So after missing on Ken Whisenhunt, who will coach Tennessee, the Lions chose Caldwell.

“There's a great nucleus here in all three phases and I believe we're on the threshold of some great things,” Caldwell said. “I think the organization is ready. The city of Detroit is ready. Our fan base is ready. And I think our players are ready as well.”

Vikings management would probably take the Lions' problems in a heartbeat. They still haven't found a long-term answer at the game's most important position. It was a comedy of errors with Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel across the border.

Yet through their extensive coaching search, the Vikings were driven by defense, defense, defense. Their three reported finalists were all defensive coordinators—Zimmer, Todd Bowles and Dan Quinn. G.M. Rick Spielman eventually chose Zimmer, the Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator the last six seasons.

Passed over again and again Januarys past, Zimmer does not inherit much. Outside of 2012 NFL MVP Adrian Peterson, this is an aging team in transition.

Still, Zimmer does have a knack for flustering top quarterbacks.

In a thrilling 34-30 Bengals win over Green Bay this past season, Aaron Rodgers posted a 64.5 passer rating. New England's Tom Brady had a meager 52.2 rating in a 13-6 loss to Zimmer's Bengals. He'll have a few young pieces to develop in safety Harrison Smith, defensive tackle Shariff Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, but pass rushers Jared Allen and Everson Griffen might both leave in free agency.

The next order of business for Minnesota will be to find an offensive coordinator to complement Zimmer. NFL.com reported that the Vikings asked the Cleveland Browns for permission to interview Norv Turner.

In Chicago, the Bears are all in with the Trestman/Jay Cutler connection.

Trestman did jump-start the Bears offense last season. The Bears finished eighth in total yards (381.8 per game), second in points (27.8) and finished one fourth-down stop shy of an NFC North crown. Hours after that defeat, the Bears signed Cutler to a seven-year deal.

Change is in the air. And this division still goes through the Packers. They've won the last three division titles and the Super Bowl before that.

Reconstruction on offense in Minnesota might take time—and some luck in the NFL draft—but if Detroit and Chicago found the right coaches for their talented quarterbacks, maybe the tide will turn in 2014.

This will be a critical off-season for a division in flux.

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