Before this season, we’ve heard a lot about the NFC West at the NFL’s best division, and rightly so. They boast two legit Super Bowl contenders in San Francisco and Seattle, both lead by excellent defenses and dynamic, duel-threat QBs. We’ve also heard a lot of noise, as always, coming from the NFC East. Whether it was the usual Dallas drama, RGIII’s comeback or a new coach in Philly, it has taken much of the focus off the NFC North, which is once again a strong division since all four team have playoff aspirations. So let’s preview the division that contains arguably the best QB, RB, WR and defense in the league. Here’s a look at how things will shake up in the black and blue division, the NFC North.
1. Green Bay Packers
The Packers have ruled the NFC North for three straight years and I expect this trend to continue this season. Aaron Rodgers should have no problem losing oft-injured wideout Greg Jennings, with a trio of more than capable targets in Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Cobb was the number one receiver in Green Bay’s offense for much of last year, and he enters this year as Rodgers’s top option. The Packers also resigned TE Jermichael Finley. If he can cut down on the drops, he will be yet another weapon for Rodgers, especially in the red zone.
Rookie Eddie Lacy out of Alabama enters the year as the starting RB after a good preseason. While Lacy will not be the focal point in this high-flying offense, he will have a great opportunity to be an X-factor for Green Bay. Lacy is an upgrade for the Packers at running back. Their running game was an ineffective committee job last year, with Cedric Benson, Alex Green and DuJuan Harris all sharing the load. The Packers have not had 100-yard rusher in a single game since Week 5 of 2010. They hope Lacy is the man to end that drought.
The last time we saw Green Bay, their defense was getting torched by the San Francisco in the playoffs, so that is something of a question mark for them heading into this season. Clay Matthews is a dominant pass rusher and B.J. Raji is a clogging force at DT, but there are many unknowns after that. How will a a secondary that struggled last year hold up after losing veteran Charles Woodson? That remains to be seen.
Prediction: Rodgers is the league’s best QB. He and the offense will make up for any shortcomings of the defense. This team went 11-5 last season, and that was counting the infamous Fail Mary game in Seattle. 12-4
2. Chicago Bears
It’s a contract year for Jay Cutler and I think he’ll deliver a playoff berth at the very least. After going 10-6 last season and narrowly missing out on the postseason via tie-break, the Bears will have an improved offense under new coach and alleged QB guru Marc Trestman. Coming from the CFL, Trestman’s main job won’t be to fix Cutler, simply refine him. At this point, the Bears know what they have at QB. Cutler has the strongest arm in the league. He will make great throws and also awful ones. Trestman just needs to coach Cutler on the importance of not forcing any throws that might end up going for picks.
Chicago’s offense will look a lot like it did last year. Matt Forte will get most of the snaps at RB, with Michael Bush backing him up. Brandon Marshall will once again see a ton of action coming his way. He finished second in the league in targets last season with 194. The Bears hope that Alshon Jeffery can emerge as a number two receiver in his second season. Jeffery caught 24 passes last season, and as of now, Forte is Cutler’s second favorite target. Martellus Bennett enters as the new TE for the Bears, replacing Kellen Davis. Bennett had a career year last year, with 55 catches and five touchdowns for the Giants. With Marshall drawing double coverage, Bennett should have chances to make plays over the middle of the field.
For the first time since 1999, the Bears will not have Brian Urlacher leading the defense. Urlacher, the longtime captain and face of the team, retired this offseason after not getting the contract he wanted from the Bears. It would be asking a lot for the Bears to repeat their feat of nine defensive touchdowns this year, but this defense has plenty of playmakers. Julius Peppers is a perennial Pro-Bowler and virtual lock for double-digit sacks. Peanut Tillman can not only cover the opposing team’s top receiver, but he’ll force a lot of fumbles with his patented Peanut Punch. And of course, return man Devin Hester is the biggest playmaker of all for Chicago. His ability to score quick touchdowns or simply change field position always gives the Bears a special teams edge.
Prediction: Jay Cutler throws for his first 4,000 yard season as a Bear, while keeping the interceptions down. Forte and Marshall stay healthy, the defense stays solid and the Bears get into the playoffs as a wildcard. 11-5
3. Detroit Lions
Don’t let the 4-12 record from last year fool you, this is a talented team. The 2012 Lions just couldn’t catch any breaks. Whether it was the “miscommunication” against the Titans last year or the misguided challenge on a touchdown on Thanksgiving against Houston, Jim Schwartz was lucky to still be the Lions coach this year. But can a team with Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh, that also added Reggie Bush, be as bad a 4-12 again? No way.
There’s just no way that Johnson will get tackled at the one yard-line five times again this year, it’s not humanely possible. We’ve heard a lot about Adrian Peterson possibly running for 2,000 yards in consecutive seasons, but consider this, Megatron could be the first player EVER with a 2,000 yard receiving season.
Bush and the Lions are an ideal fit for each other. A pass-happy team like Detroit will benefit from Bush’s excellent receiving skills out of the backfield. And Bush, a scatback who is never one to run between the tackles, will love playing in a wide open offense in Detroit. Sure, the defense is full of question marks beyond Suh, but that’s not a bad thing. The Lions team identity is an offensive one, and they will win by putting up points.
Prediction: Stafford will break his own record for pass attempts per season. Ryan Broyles will have a good year as the benefactor of the double and triple teams drawn by Johnson. The defense will be exploited regularly, most notably by the rival Packers on Thanksgiving Day. 9-7
4. Minnesota Vikings
Everyone comes back down to Earth, it happens. Welcome to the story of the 2013 Vikings. No one expected Adrian Peterson to be at full strength last year, much less run for 2,096 yards. No one expected the Vikings to be any good last year, and they went 10-6 en route to a playoff berth. This year, everyone expects them to regress, and I think they will too.
After trading Percy Harvin to Seattle, the Vikes have a new look at receiver. Greg Jennings comes over from Green Bay after signing a free agent deal and they also drafted Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round. It won’t take Jennings long to realize his old QB Rodgers is a superior option. Christian Ponder is still an unproven commodity at QB. His yardage per completion is among the league’s lowest and he’s less of a passer and more of a glorified hand-off giver to Peterson.
What about Peterson? All Day was more like All Season in 2012. He was incredible. The knee surgery didn’t slow him down at all and those occasional injury and fumble issues that he used to have seemed to disappear as well. But his MVP season last year seems unsustainable. There’s a reason that no one has ever had two straight 2,000 yard rushing seasons. In the age of the passing game, Peterson is certainly against the odds in his attempt at 2,500 yards.
Prediction: We find out that Peterson is not bionic after all, as he has a good, but not great season. The Vikings have some nice pieces, especially left tackle Matt Kalil, but the D-Line begins to show its age as Jared Allen and Kevin Williams struggle uncharacteristically. Unable to rely on AP, Ponder struggles and proves he isn’t a franchise QB. 5-11