NFC North Predictions

Posted: 09/01/2015 by levcohen in Football

The NFC North is next on my list of division projections, and it’s a division that always seems to come down to the wire down the stretch. How many times have we seen intense NFC North games in the freezing cold (and/or snowy) weather down the stretch? Well, since 2007 only one team, the 2011 15-1 Packers, has won the division by more than a game. Despite the fact that the Packers have generally been heavily favored entering the season, the division always seems to be tight at the top in December, either by virtue of a key injury (Aaron Rodgers for the 8-7-1 division-winning 2013 Packers) or a surprise story (the 11-5 Lions last year). Close finishes aside, though, the Packers always seem to end up on top. Will they win the division for the fifth straight year, or will a surprise team come out on top?

Green Bay Packers (11-5): Entering the preseason, the Packers were a very popular pick to win the Super Bowl. And it made a lot of sense. There’s the all-world quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, who is by far the best in football. There’s the wrecking ball running back, Eddie Lacy, who’s near-impossible to tackle. There’s the offensive line, which is probably one of the three best in football. Until a few days ago, there was the best group of receivers in football (more on that). If that sounds like a recipe for a good offense, it’s because it is. This was the best offense in football last year, and the Packers scored 30+ points eight times last season. Back to those receivers, though. In the last week and a half, they lost top receiver Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL and then #2 Randall Cobb to a less-serious shoulder injury. There’s no doubt that the Nelson loss is a huge one; anyone who has watched the Packers over the last few years knows how dynamic, fast, and all-around great he is. And if Cobb, the team’s slot receiver and their best route runner (with a great rapport with Rodgers), is out for a significant amount of time, the Packers will be left with second year starter Davante Adams and unproven Ty Montgomery and Jeff Janis starting around Adams. It’s a huge downgrade at wide receiver, but if anyone can make Janis and Montgomery look like Nelson and Cobb, it’s Aaron Rodgers. And since it looks like Cobb will be back by week one, I don’t think the Packers will suffer much offensively. The greater questions still come on the defensive end. This was a mediocre defense last year, and I think they’ll be around the same this season. There’s been very little turnover, although top picks Demarious Randall and Quinten Rollins should help an already-decent secondary. Overall, this is a team that’s remarkably similar to the one that went 12-4 last year. They have by far the least roster turnover from last year in the NFL, with basically the same starting lineup. I’ll dock a win because of a mixture of a tougher schedule (they play both West divisions) and Jordy’s injury, but this is still clearly the team to beat in the division.

Minnesota Vikings (10-6): I’m a big fan of the Vikings this year and I think they can be the biggest success story of the season this year (not just because they are undefeated this preseason). All of the pieces are in place for a breakout for a team that went a respectable 7-9 last year. Let’s count the reasons. First of all, Minnesota could be getting a breakout season from second year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was surprisingly competent in his rookie year. Bridgewater is a very accurate QB who completed nearly 65% of his passes and showed great poise for large stretches of last season. And he’s completing 82.9% of his preseason passes, which, while meaningless, is pretty darn impressive. Improved quarterback play is the quickest way to the playoffs, and the Vikings should have that. Then there’s the addition of Mike Wallace, the former Steeler and Dolphin who should slot in as the top receiver. Wallace probably won’t have many deep opportunities with Bridgewater at quarterback, but he’s a good enough route runner to give the team a huge boost in the passing game. And then, of course, there’s the return of Adrian Peterson, who just so happens to be the best running back in the NFL. How do you think Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner, the team’s coach and OC, felt when their starting QB (Matt Cassel) and RB (Peterson) went out so early in the season? They had to adjust on the fly, and they did a pretty good job. Now, they’ve had the whole offseason to devise plays for the Bridgewater-Peterson duo. We all know that AP’s chomping at the bit to get back to his All-Pro self, and he’ll have every opportunity to do so. The offense, which was 22nd in DVOA last year, could threaten the top-10. I was very surprised to see that the defense, which looked pretty good at times, finished just 23rd in DVOA last season. I think the “D” could also make a huge jump this season, thanks both to early round picks Trae Waynes (the top cornerback in the draft) and Eric Kendricks (perhaps the top inside linebacker), and to improvements by young and talented defenders like Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr, and Sharrif Floyd. So I think the offense is going to leap up near the top-10, and I think the same about the defense. You know what that means? A huge overall improvement for a team I think could threaten the mighty Packers.

Detroit Lions (8-8): Just as the Vikings will step forward this season, the Lions are going to be worse than they were last year. My main rationale for that is the fact that they lost a lot of talent at the defensive line, the heart of their team. The loss of Ndamukong Suh could prove crushing, as could the departure of fellow dominant inside force Nick Fairley. Adding injury to insult, interior defensive linemen Haloti Ngata (acquired from Baltimore) and Caraun Reid are both questionable for week one. Suddenly, the team’s strength might become a weakness. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole defense, which was so good (#3 in DVOA) last season, collapses or at least declines to the middle of the pack. The secondary just isn’t good enough to support a front seven that isn’t dominant. If the defense gets worse, I don’t think the offense, which was mediocre last year, will be able to pick up the slack. While the return of a healthy Calvin Johnson and the addition of exciting running back Ameer Abdullah should help, I’m just not convinced that the offensive line or Matthew Stafford will be anywhere near solid enough to lead an above-average offense. Year after year, Stafford puts up huge numbers, but the Lions never manage to have even a good offense. I think that will happen again this season in a disappointing but still respectable year for the Lions.

Chicago Bears (4-12): I wrote about the Bears in my three underperforming teams post. I just don’t see any improvement coming from them.

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