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NFC North Preview
by Tom Stryker - 09/02/2005
When analyzing the NFC North, most pundits donâ€™t speak in terms of championships or Super Bowls. This â€œblack and blueâ€쳌 division has not been a factor in the overall NFL scheme of things for some time. Looking at the four teams - Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota - one finds plenty of similarities. They all want to move up. And for at least two, if not more, of the coaches it better happen soon or changes will be coming. Both Sherman Smith at Green Bay and Mike Tice at Minnesota may need playoff appearances (or more) to save their jobs. Funny thing is, all four teams â€œthinkâ€쳌 they will be better this year. Letâ€™s take a look at the NFC North.
Wait a minute. Who is that quarterback? For the third straight season, projected savior Rex Grossman is out for the year. This time it happened early in the exhibition season at St. Louis.
And, after, some lackluster (at best) performances by Chad Hutchinson, rookie Kyle Orton was named the Bears starter du jour by head coach Lovie Smith, who has to now hope a rookie can lead the Bears to a mark better than his 5-11 debut last fall.
The Bearsâ€™ top draft choice, Texas running back Cedric Benson was a holdout and signed just recently so the running back will be Thomas Jones, who gained 948 yards and caught more than 50 passes a year ago. Benson, though, will be rushed into duty because he is a pounder, between the tackles kind of runner - just what new offensive coordinator Ron Turner wants. The Bears made a big off-season move when they earned the rights to wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who made 93 catches for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns last year at Carolina. The offensive line, other than standout center Olin Kreutz, was a mess last year and has to improve - especially with a rookie quarterback in Orton. The Bears did pick up Roberto Garza from the Falcons and guard Ruben Brown is back after a neck injury sidelined him a year ago.
But the Bears calling card has to be its defense - best in the NFC north last year. Brian Urlacher in the middle and weak side linebacker Lance Briggs give Chicago two of the best backers in the division. The defensive line is a big question mark, and the Bears need Adewale Ogunleye and left end Alex Brown to have big years for the front line to have much impact. The secondary is a strength, even though RW. McQuarters was released. Charles Tillman and Jerry Azumah are both solid cover men.
One advantage the Bears may have while Orton learns the ropes is that they play only one playoff team in the first 12 weeks of the 2005 season. The Bears open on the road Sept. 11 at Washington.
Chicago Investing Tips
57-34 ATS â€“ Play ON Chicago coming off back-to-back SU losses
19-8 ATS â€“ Play AGAINST the Bears as a dog coming off a SU loss as a favorite
27-12 ATS â€“ Play ON â€œDa Bearsâ€쳌 priced as a home underdog of +3 or more
Steve Mariucci is starting his third season with Detroit and he thinks, along with most of the Motor City faithful, thatâ€™s itâ€™s time to get things revved up. The team is loaded with playmakers, but ranked 24th offensively a year ago. Their red zone production was awful and all signs are pointing to quarterback Joey Harrington, who has never met expectations. Harrington did throw for 19 touchdowns in 2004 and now that he some more weapons, this may be his make or break season. Former 49er Jeff Garcia is waiting in the wings if Harrington falters.
Some awesome wide receivers will be battling to get their share of touches, including Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and highly-touted rookie Mike Williams. The Lions also added veteran tight end Marcus Pollard (Colts) to strengthen their receiving corps even more. Williams led the group a year ago with 54 catches and eight touchdowns. The premier running back is Kevin Jones, who proved to be a workhorse in 2004 with 1,133 yards. Three talented veterans will anchor an offensive line thought to be a bright spot for Detroit. Dominic Raiola is the center, Damien Woody will be at right guard and Rick DeMulling will be at left guard.
The Lions didnâ€™t do well against the run last season (15th), but veterans Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson will be mainstays along the defensive front this fall. High draft pick Shaun Cody will help with his quickness. Boss Bailey, who missed last year, is back at linebacker, along with Teddy Lehman and 10-year veteran Earl Holmes. Terrence Holt will be the free safety, while Pro Bowler Dreâ€™ Bly and Fernando Bryant should man the corner spots. Strong safety Kenoy Kennedy (Arkansas) may be the big hitter Detroit lacked in its secondary.
Detroit, 6-10 last year, opens at home Sept. 11 against Green Bay.
Detroit Investing Tips
8-0 ATSâ€“ Play ON Detroit coming off a shutout loss
20-5 ATS â€“ Play ON the Lions at home coming off back-to-back SU wins
14-3 ATSâ€“ Play ON Detroit as a division guest coming off back-to-back SU losses
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The watch is on for sixth-year head coach Mike Sherman. Yes, he has posted a 55-31 record with Green Bay, but the Pack simply hasnâ€™t advanced far enough in the playoffs. Ted Thompson became the general manager with final say on all football matters - and, Green Bay basically didnâ€™t pick up anyone via the free agency route in the off-season.
The stand-pat Pack begins, of course, with Brett Favre, now entering his 15th season. His career has been legendary, but it is in its twilight. Rookie Aaron Rodgers (California) may the QB of the future - and has played well enough to probably be Favreâ€™s backup this season. The running game will rise and fall on the legs of Ahman Green, who has five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons under his belt. The wide receivers are skilled, especially Javon Walker, who caught 89 passes for 12 touchdowns last year. Veteran Donald Driver (84 catches) and Robert Ferguson also are back.
The offensive line becomes a question mark for 2005. Yes, tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are back, but starting guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera are now wearing different NFL uniforms and their departures create a huge void in the Packer front.
Jim Bates, formerly with Miami, is the new defensive coordinator at Green Bay - the third in three years. One of his first orders of business is to fashion a defensive front from Kenny Peterson, James Lee, Donnel Washington and Corey Williams. Three of those four will join Grady Jackson, an effective, veteran and defensive tackle. Questions also exist when evaluating the talent level of the linebacking corps. One sure starter is Naâ€™il Diggs, while Nick Barnett is slated to go at middle linebacker. But Bates will have to develop some help for those two. The Packers defense was awful in 2004 and the secondary took a lot of the blame. Bates brought Arturo Freeman with him, Ahmad Carroll and safeties Darren Sharper and Mark Roman have to improve or Bates will have to turn to rookies.
Green Bay, 10-7 in 2004, opens play Sept. 11 at Detroit.
Green Bay Investing Tips
13-1 ATS â€“ Play AGAINST Green Bay priced as a favorite of -11.5 or more
18-9 ATS â€“ Play ON the Packers at home coming off back-to-back SU and ATS wins
17-8 ATS â€“ Play AGAINST the Pack as a division guest coming off back-to-back SU wins
There are nothing but question marks surrounding the Minnesota Vikings as the 2005 season opener nears. First, there is the security of head coach Mike Tice, now in his 4th year and the owner of a mediocre 24-27 record. Tice could find his job on the line unless Minnesota improves by strides from the 9-9 record of last season. Another big question mark is centered on how the Vikings will do without big-play receiver Randy Moss, now in Oakland.
There is plenty of change coming, especially on the offensive side. Steve Loney is the new offensive coordinator and he favors a strong running game. But with Daunte Culpepper at quarterback, the Vikings canâ€™t ignore the passing attack - even without Moss. Culpepper had a banner year in 2004, completing 69.2 percent of his passes for more than 4,700 yards and 29 touchdowns. South Carolinaâ€™s Troy Williamson is pegged to be the next Moss (minus the on and off-field problems), but until he proves himself, Culpepper will have to aim at Nate Burleson (68 catches) or Marcus Robinson. All kinds of problems face the staff when looking at their running backs. Michael Bennett has been hurt much of the last two seasons, and backup Onterrio Smith suffered through suspension last year for drug issues. There are some veterans on the offensive front, but many are switching positions for 2005. Chris Liwienski switches from left guard to right guard, and Adam Goldberg flips from right tackle to left guard.
All Minnesota fans are beaming when talking about the Vikings defense. The down lineman will be anchored by all-pro tackle Kevin Williams and end Kenechi Udeze, but look for for Wisconsin rookie Erasmus James to have an impact early in the season. He gives an excellent pass rush to the Minnesota line. Big money was spent in recent years to give Minnesota a quality secondary, and in corners Antoine Winfield and Fred Smoot, the Vikes have two solid ones. Darren Sharper is a quality safety, especially if he can stay healthy.
Minnesotaâ€™s season opens Sept. 11 at home against Tampa Bay.
Minnesota Investing Tips
27-15 ATS â€“ Play ON Minnesota priced as a home dog
48-27 ATS â€“ Play AGAINST the Vikings priced as a road favorite
21-8 ATS â€“ Play AGAINST the Vikes as a division guest facing an opponent that is off back-to-back SU and ATS wins