With two teams making the playoffs last year, and another just missing them with a 10-6 record, the NFC North is one of the best divisions in football, at least recently. With the perceived rise of the NFC West, the NFC North may not be able to hold that title much longer though. Too bad we couldn’t play the AFC this year.
The Packers have won the division two years running. Led by Aaron Rodgers (and constantly let down by their defense), the Packers for the last few years have been contenders for the Super Bowl. I expect this is the year the division gets a bit more competitive.
Let’s go over the teams one by one. I’ll go alphabetically.
After a 10-6 record, the Bears missed the playoffs, fired their long time head coach, and put their offseason priority on improving an anemic offense. It started with the hiring of one time hot young coach, now NFL expat in the CFL, Mark Trestman, and the hiring of a new offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer from the Saints. Two strong, offensive orientated minds that the Bears hope will improve the biggest failures on their team: the horrid O Line, the pathetic TE corp, and the consistently underperforming head case, Jay Cutler. Their free agency moves did the same thing, with Jermon Bushrod getting a nice payday, the signing of Matt Slauson, and getting a young, high potential TE in Martellus Bennett. They lost Brian Urlacher to a hissy fit retirement, and their old defensive coordinator left and was replaced by Jax Jag Mel Tucker.
Offense: Matt Forte is a seemingly perfect fit for Trestman’s version of the west coast offense, and he’s looked like an All Pro in the preseason. But the biggest question surround Jay Cutler, who, for the third year in a row, is in a prove it/no excuses season. With the big free agent signings and the first round drafting to build the O Line and with Brandon Marshall (who, of late, is showing his headcaseness), Cutler has the tools to succeed. But he’s still an inefficient, turnover prone gunslinger who will have a slight improvement in his stats, but will, once again, be a disappointment. This offense has the potential to be very good, but I don’t see that happening this year.
Defense: The Bears’ defense’s 2012 was simply amazing, with the defense coming up with so many turnovers and TD’s that their DVOA (value of their defense) was the best in NFL, hell best in the NFL in the last 5 years. The defenses’ ability to win games for the team tailed off a bit toward the end of the season, though. If the defense is even half as good as it was last year, they’ll be a competitive team. I keep waiting for age to catch up, and this offseason it claimed Brian Urlacher. Peppers, Tillman, and Briggs are all up there in age too, maybe this year they fall back.
Projection: The Bears constantly vex me, because I can’t believe just how good their defense is at effecting outcomes and how lucky they are regarding injuries. I don’t think they can pull another rabbit out of the hat this year, however. The defense will be solid, but I can’t imagine another outstanding season like last year. I think the offense will take awhile to gel, and I still don’t think Cutler is consistent enough, nor good enough, to carry the team on his back. Matt Forte will help immensely though (but I’m not so sure he’s as good as his preseason portends). Given their average strength of schedule and their penchant for beating bad teams, I can’t imagine they’ll do much worse than 8-8, but I also don’t think they’ll be playoff bound. I’ll project that they’ll be 8-8 or 9-7, and second, maybe third, in the NFC North.
As a Jim Schwartz hater, I really enjoyed last years’ Lions season. The penalties, the meltdowns, the losses. Ah, good times. For some reason, they kept Jim Schwartz on as coach, and I wasn’t too impressed with their offseason. The offensive line took a couple hits losing both starting tackles and a starting guard. They also lost a couple DE’s, but they weren’t any great shakes. The big offseason move, signing Reggie Bush, looks great on paper (indoor turf, receiving ability), but I’m just not buying it with that O line. The Lions relied on the draft to help their defense, and reached with both their picks for raw, untested players who may be liabilities this year.
Offense: The Lions threw more money at Matthew Stafford, who should donate 90% of it to Calvin Johnson, possibly the greatest WR to ever play the game. Stafford has a strong arm, sub average accuracy, and throws way too many picks. Bush is certainly an upgrade, and having a healthy Ryan Broyles and Brandon Pettigrew will give Stafford more weapons to ignore while he throws it to Megatron. This offense is quite good (3rd in the NFL last year), but that O line could kill them.
Defense: It starts on the D line, where the Lions invested heavily on their DT’s, Suh and Fairley are the cornerstones of the Lions defense, but they are penalty prone and take a few plays off here and there, and are about the only good things about this defense. The Lions invested heavily in DE’s, signing Israel Idonije from the Bears and Jason Jones from Seattle and drafting Ansah at #5 in the draft. Unfortunately, they still have gaping holes in the linebacking crew and secondary. And that’s where they’ll fall apart again this year.
Projections: While last season was fun, I don’t see the Lions ending 4-12 again with that offense. However, they have a very tough schedule, the O Line is trouble, and they are one of the dumbest fucking teams in the NFL, so I can’t see success for them either. I’ll guess (and these are mostly guesses) 6-10 and Jim Schwartz loses his job. At least that will be a step in the right direction for next year.
Green Bay Packers
I’ve been spoiled the last couple years, with the regular season not really mattering to me and most of my concerns being about the playoffs. I’m also not so spoiled, in that the Packers lose in the playoffs, with the defense (and coaching) having a catastrophic meltdown against the Colin Kaepernick led 49ers last year. I expect much the same this year. I will interject a second to bemoan how frustrating it is watching teams like the 49ers, Seattle, and the Bears stay so healthy and the Packers suffering injury after injury to starting players and having to patchwork their team together. This season is no different, already losing their starting LT Brian Bulaga for the season. Sigh. Anyway, the offseason for the Packers was typical, losing good players to free agency, not signing much themselves, building through the draft, and rewarding their own players. The Pack lost Charles Woodson, Greg Jennings, Erik Walden, and Desmond Bishop, drafted Eddie Lacy and Datone Jones, and giving big money to Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews Jr. Same old, same old.
Offense: Having the best QB in the league is a huge help to the offense. Having a patchwork O line isn’t so much. The Packers’ will have first time starters at two positions, including rookie David Bahktiari protecting Rodgers’ blindside. And with the emphasis on pass protection, the Packers have all but failed to even try to run the ball with any consistency whatsoever. They drafted Eddie Lacy, who, if he can stay healthy, could be the best RB the Packers have had in years. Losing Greg Jennings hurts, but Rodgers should once again carry the offense, and the team, on his back. There are questions (will Finley ever reach his potential? Will the O line ever open a hole? How many more starters will go down with injuries?), but I expect another solid offensive year with a big improvement in the running game.
Defense: A lot of young talent with the penchant for blowing it in big games, I expect much the same this year. Their young secondary is a strength (but, like always, injuries are a problem with starting CB Heyward and FS Burnett nursing hamstring injuries). But, again as usual, the Packers are still looking for a guy to put opposite of Clay Matthews to emerge as a playmaker. The defensive line has much more depth this year (with the return of Johnny Jolly and the drafting of Datone Jones), but needs to do a better job of stopping the run. Good teams will still be able to take advantage of the weaknesses of the defense, and unless they get their shit together, it could be another disappointing end to the season.
Projections: Same old, same old. Another divisional win, maybe with a 11-5 record. I do think the running game will improve and that the defensive line will be stouter and get more interior pressure. The question is, once again, can the defense avoid the huge letdown games. If healthy, I think they can.
This is the toughest team for me to get a handle on. They were a huge surprise last year, with Adrian Peterson throwing him on his back and carrying them to a 10 win season and a playoff appearance (although I’m still with Occam’s razor on him). And I think they added more to their team than they lost in this offseason. They traded away Percy Harvin and his bum hip and odd attitude and lost starting CB Antoine Winfield, but they added Greg Jennings and three, count them three, first round draft picks. I don’t think Jennings is as good as he apparently thinks he is, and I’m not sold on two of their three draft picks (Shariff Floyd, if healthy, should be a beast). Add in the enigmatic Christian Ponder, and I have no idea what to expect.
Offense: Once again, the offense revolves around the greatest RB in the game today, Adrian Peterson. With Jennings, Patterson, and Randolph, their pass catching crew is much better than it was last year without Harvin. But the biggest question mark, and most inconsistency, lies with Christian Ponder. Is he the guy who threw 3 TD’s against the Packers in week 17 to push the Vikings into the playoffs, or is he the guy who threw two picks and had a 35.5 passer efficiency rating against the Cardinals. I’ve been big on Ponder (although he was overdrafted), and I think he takes a step forward this year, but he doesn’t need to be great, he just needs to not be bad for this team to win. And the Vikes have Matt Cassel waiting in the wings in case Ponder fails.
Defense: With Harrison Smith, Sharif Floyd, Everson Griffen, and Erin Henderson, there is a fair amount of young talent on the defense, and it is mixed with some old and injured veterans (K. Williams, Desmond Bishop, Jared Allen). They’ve been an average defense, and I just don’t see a whole lot of improvement that would make me think they’ll be anything but average again. I’m not sold on Xavier Rhodes as a #1 CB, and Chris Cook is too injured and too inconsistent to rely on either. But Jared Allen can still be a force, and with a ball control offense, there shouldn’t be too much pressure on the defense.
Who knows? Personally, I think Ponder could be an average to slightly above average NFL QB, which is all they really need out of him. Having Jennings and Rudolph to throw to will help him immensely, as will another year in the league. This team has the potential to go 10-6, but also to go 6-10. If they stay healthy, the old guys have more gas in their tanks, and their rookies are better than I think they are, they could be special. I think 9-7 and just missing the playoffs (because the NFC is tough this year) is a likely outcome.
Well, there’s my thoughts on the NFC North this preseason. Football starts in 2 more days, and I couldn’t be happier. Feel free to add your thoughts, your concerns, and your opinions all throughout the year.