NFC North Preview: Can Anyone Catch Green Bay?
The Green Bay Packers have owned the NFC North, for the most part, since this division was created in its present form in the realignment of 2002. The Packers won the North from 2002-04, and again in 2007. The torch passed from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have won this division each year since 2011. The last time they didn’t win the NFC North was 2010…when they merely won the Super Bowl as a wild-card.
SIGN UP FOR THE FREE NEWSLETTER OF THESPORTSNOTEBOOK
ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
Thus, as our NFC North preview begins, there’s not much doubt who the team to beat here is. Here’s a concise rundown of all four teams, with comments on the offense and defense for each, and concluding with a look at the Over/Under win totals for all four.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Offense: Aaron Rodgers was healthy for eight regular season games last year and the Packers went 6-2. In the eight he missed with a broken collarbone, the team was 2-5-1. That disparity is both a tribute to Rodgers’ greatness and an exposure of the fact that this team’s depth is not as good as many (including me) believed.
The perimeter of the offensive line is a problem, with both tackles being weak spots. It’s going to mean more exposure for Rodgers and if nothing else, quicker drops and more rollout passes, both of which limit the passing options of one of the game’s elite quarterbacks. At least Green Bay has a running back—Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy—but the line needs to get Rodgers some protection and prevent Lacy from having to break his first tackle at the line of scrimmage.
Defense: There’s no real weaknesses among the defensive personnel, and this unit has the potential to be really good, a development that immediately puts Green Bay back on a par with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. The first key is that outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who’s been hampered with nagging injuries to his hamstring and thumb over the last two years, has to stay on the field.
The addition of Julius Peppers might not have a huge impact at this stage of Peppers’ career, but it was a risk worth taking. If Peppers and outside linebacker Nick Perry take some focus away from Matthews, Green Bay is going to have an outstanding pass rush and the secondary looks to be pretty good.
Offense: This offense went from the Stone Age to the Modern Age last year under new head coach Marc Trestman. Jay Cutler is signed to a new long-term deal and there’s no doubting the ability of the playmakers around him, starting with Brandon Marshall and going through Alshon Jeffrey and Matt Forte out of the backfield. But the offensive line is average on a good day, and the weather gets nasty in Chicago as the season wears on.
Furthermore, when Cutler signed his new contract there was rejoicing…in Green Bay. Whether that should serve as a basis for analysis is a fair debate, but it does underscore that rivals don’t fear the Bears’ ability to execute at key moments, however flashy the show may be.
Defense: The gains Trestman made with the offense were given back and then some with the regression on defense. A once-proud unit turned into a defense that didn’t know enough to put a man within five yards of Green Bay’s best receiver (Randall Cobb) on a fourth-down play that decided the NFC North in 2013.
There are still playmakers on the corners, Peanut Tillman and Tim Jennings, but they’re soft up front. The great names of Bear lore—from Mike Ditka to Buddy Ryan to Mike Singletary to Richard Dent to Dan Hampton and now including Brian Urlacher and Lovie Smith–have to wonder what happened to the franchise heritage they helped create.
Offense: There’s no doubting the explosive quality the Lions’ offense brings to the table with Matthew Stafford throwing to Calvin Johnson. Detroit added Golden Tate, a quality second receiver in the offseason and they have Reggie Bush in the backfield. I’d like to see a more physical running back play a complementary role, but I guess you can’t have everything.
What Detroit really needs is Stafford to stop throwing the ball up for grabs. The offensive line used to be a huge weak point and is now upgraded to at least average, maybe even a little better. There’s no excuse for Stafford not to become more efficient and he’s the only one who can stop the Detroit offense.
Defense: The defensive front is the strength of the team, with Ndamakong Suh and Nick Fairley anchoring the middle, both stopping the run and able to generate a pass rush up the gut, the premium place to collapse the pocket.
The back seven represents the collective weakness of this team, and Detroit will be in some scoring races again this year. But even here, it’s not as though the linebacking corps and secondary are just awful. Glover Quin is a good free safety and Stephen Tulloch is solid at middle linebacker. Detroit just needs to slow opposing offenses and maybe force a few more drives to end with field goals and not touchdowns.
Offense: This offense is one player away from being really good. The Vikings start with a foundation as good as there in football—a solid offensive line all the way across and the best running back in football in Adrian Peterson. They should be able to at least control the tempo against anyone.
Of course when the one piece you’re missing is at quarterback it tends to be magnified. Matt Cassell is the starter and for as long as that holds true, the Vikes are going to have a ceiling of 8-8. But I’m totally sold on rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The sooner he gets in the lineup the better. It might not be this season that everything comes together in Minnesota, but this is a unit—with Norv Turner now as the coordinator—that is moving decidedly in the right direction.
Defense: Minnesota’s defense is a little spottier, so maybe it’s a good thing that new head coach Mike Zimmer was a successful defensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals. Then again, his predecessor, Leslie Frazier also was. The reality is that the Vikes don’t have solid talent on this side of the ball.
What could change the equation is if some big-play creators step up. Brian Robison is the most obvious example at defensive end. But with Jared Allen now gone, Robison will draw extra attention from opposing pass protection schemes. That leaves incoming rookie outside linebacker Anthony Barr. He’s got the ability and a rookie OLB stepping up big is certainly not unheard of…but that’s still a lot to ask of a rookie in July.
Before the regular season starts, final predictions will be made, including an exact W-L record for each team. For now, we’ll start with simply making a pick on each team against their Over/Under number on the NFL win props in Las Vegas. Although, as you will see, the comments make it pretty plain that I share the conventional view that this is Green Bay’s division to lose.
Green Bay (10.5): This number looks like one that Vegas sharps would call a “tight” number. As in, it’s about what it should be, as the Packers probably end up 10-6 or 11-5. So to make the pick, I’ll go one level deeper—I think Green Bay has a legitimate shot at getting as high as 12 wins, whereas I can’t see a healthy Rodgers falling any lower than 10-6. Meaning there’s more room on the “Over” side of this, and that’s where I go.
Chicago (8.5): Using the “range” theory again, of simply picking the side I think there’s more room on, this is clearly an Under call. It’s not that I can’t see the Bears going 9-7. But I can’t see them going any higher and I can certainly see 7-9, even 6-10 if the defense doesn’t improve.
Detroit (8.5): For all the reasons listed above, I’m again going Under. I’ll throw in the caveat that I consider the Lions better than the Bears, but not enough to alter the bottom line.
Minnesota (6): A definite Over pick. The Vikes almost got to this number last year, at 5-10-1, and that was in a train wreck of a season that got away almost immediately. With even modest improvement, they at least get to respectability at 7-9 and cash the Over. And remember, to win on an Under they have to go 5-11 (presumably a tie won’t happen again), meaning you’d have to think they would be worse than in a year where everything went wrong.