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The Road To The Super Bowl, NFC North
by Wayne Root - 08/09/2012
This is a continuing series of Conference Previews as the 2012 NFL Season is just one week away from the start of NFL Preseason 2012. As the season progresses, I will be updating these predictions- as upsets and "key" injuries can change the course of action in a nano-second. There have been some off-season trades and the chemistry and the locker-room antics will be closely monitored during the two-a-day practices in the heat of August. This early season guide will allow you to stay updated on last season's strengths and weakness, and what lies ahead for each team this season.
Last year was a year in which the NFC North proved to be one of the best divisions in the league beginning with the 15-1 Green Bay Packers. Their first round loss gives both the league and the rest of the NFC North Division a reason to begin this season believing they have a chance. There are four teams that have a heck of a lot of offensive potential this year, and the time might be right now for this foursome (or at least 3 of the 4) to be considered the best in the league. Other than the Lions, the North has traded in their Black and Blue slogan with 3 of the best quarterbacks in the league. Home field will have its advantages in this Division.
Green Bay Packers---It’s not all that much of a shock that the team that is the odds on favorite to win the NFC North. But are they worthy of being -280 favorites to come out on top of this group of four? The Packers were the best team in the league last year in the regular season, going 15-1, but they just couldn’t survive the first round of the playoffs against the scorching New York Giants, who went on to win the whole enchilada. There are some problems for sure in Green Bay, as the defense and the rushing game just weren’t anywhere near up to par with where they should have been. QB Aaron Rodgers is as good as any signal caller in the league and he has all of the weapons in the world. Rodgers had some of the best numbers in the league last year, and he did so by spreading the ball around a ton. The weapons are numerous and the points should be flying onto the scoreboard once again. The defense just wasn't all that good at times and often allowed 30+ points. They did make a plethora of much-needed upgrades on the defensive side of the ball in the offseason, though. The offensive line may have taken a step back with a couple of departures, but there is still plenty of experience and talent to go around. The running game still doesn't cut it either, and in the end, this is a team that, in spite of its remarkable start to the season, really is flawed. The Packers are great, but they aren't necessarily this great. At one point in the season, the Packers will play three consecutive road games, but it's early enough that the travel shouldn't affect them. On three different occasions, they play consecutive games at Lambeau Field. After their bye week, they close the season out with five divisional games in seven weeks.
Detroit Lions---2012 is a fresh start, which means all of your injured players are back at your disposal. The Lions beat the door in just a bit, breaking a hellaciously long stretch without a playoff appearance. They weren’t able to win a game, but they did prove that they can throw the ball with anyone in the league. QB Matt Stafford stayed healthy for the first time in his career for a full season and ended up throwing for over 5,000 yards, and WR Calvin Johnson was the beast of all beasts at wide receiver. The Lions desperately need their running backs to stay healthy, or Matthew Stafford just might break Drew Bledsoe's record for most pass attempts in a season. The Lions proved to be very successful through the air last season, but it's not something that should be constantly relied upon. RB Jahvid Best has the potential to be explosive if he can stay on the field, but even if he can't, Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson make up as good of a quarterback/wide receiver tandem as there is in the league. The defense is nasty for sure, but this unit was guilty of taking a ton of dumb penalties, and the off the field problems for guys like DT Ndamukong Suh and DT Nick Fairley are starting to become a nuisance. That being said, they are both forces to be reckoned with, and opposing quarterbacks know it. In Weeks 11, 12 and 13, the Lions need to take advantage of three straight home games. Green Bay, Houston and Indianapolis all roll into town during that stretch. It would be ideal if they could win two out of three. Other than that, the only real thing of notice is that the last half of the season will be primarily played in domed stadiums. The Lions might still be a few players away from being as talented as the Packers are, but they could be worth a shot at +510 to win the NFC North.
Chicago Bears---Feel like they should be closer to the rest of the field than +575 suggests on the odds to win the NFC North. Chicago has had its fair share of problems over the past couple years with the offensive line and health of quarterback Jay Cutler. With Mike Tice replacing Mike Martz as offensive coordinator, look for Cutler to get sacked less and get rid of the ball quicker. QB Jay Cutler is being reunited with his good friend WR Brandon Marshall, which finally gives the Bears that bona fide No. 1 receiver for the first time in decades. OC Tice has publicly stated that he has eliminated all seven-step drops from the playbook, as they don't play to the overall philosophy of the offense. RB Matt Forte is expected to be one of the top threat running backs that the league has to offer once again. Forte can catch the ball out of the backfield and provide a spark as a big time back on the ground as well. Michael Bush and Alshon Jeffery will help the Bears become NFC North contenders once again. LB Brian Urlacher is clearly at the end of his career, but the likes of DE Julius Peppers and LB Lance Briggs can still carry this unit. QB Jay Cutler needs to step it up this season. He and Brandon Marshall made a great tandem with the Denver Broncos, and now, they hope to bring the same type offensive prowess to the Windy City as well. The Bears don't really have any lulls in their schedule, as they will have a couple of easy games sprinkled in here and there. This might be the last chance for Head Coach Lovie Smith to save his bacon.
Minnesota Vikings---QB Christian Ponder has taken over as the leader of this team, but he might have some problems this year if RB Adrian Peterson can't start the campaign. The Vikes suffered a lot of injuries last year, not the least of which is the one that put RB Adrian Peterson on the sidelines for the end of the season and might threaten the start of this campaign as well. QB Christian Ponder made some strides in the right direction last year when he took over for the booted QB Donovan McNabb, but he isn’t anywhere near being an elite quarterback yet and won’t be this year barring a minor miracle. That will pile even more pressure onto a defense that has some talent, but really didn't get the help from the offense last year to give it all that much of a chance. Cornerback and wide receiver were two big positions that needed to be addressed if the Vikings wanted to take that next step forward. Minnesota used a total of five draft picks, so it could address them. Christian Ponder lacks any sort of true playmaker on the outside. Ponder has four new targets to help him out, even though I would avoid calling John Carlson any kind of playmaker. Playing in the NFC North guarantees six tough divisional games. Minnesota won't be making any Super Bowls trips in the near future, but the Vikings have plenty of upgrades and always play the Bears tough. Coming off their bye, the Vikings will be forced to go on the road to Chicago and Green Bay, and both are very tough places to play. Five of their six NFC North games are in the second half of the season; the only first-half division game is Week 4 against Detroit.
While Minnesota Vikings rebuild, the rest of these teams are going to be contenders to get into the playoffs. If we could disregard potential injuries, we would consider backing the Lions or the Bears at +510 and +575 respectively to win this division. In the end, we do still expect the winners to be the Packers but they have two apparent problems in their defense and offensive line. Chicago should get into the postseason as a Wild Card, while Detroit will be a team that flirts with nine or ten wins, but probably ultimately falls just short.