TDdaily is previewing each NFL division, one by one, leading up to Week 1. An asterisk after a team’s projected record means we’ve projected them to win a tiebreaker, and “Sunday Ticket Scale” rates each team on a 0-10 scale, from unwatchable to roller coaster excitement, designed to help you shape your Sunday afternoon viewing choices. Today, we’re breaking down the NFC North.
People can hype whatever division they want as the League’s toughest, but the NFC North is, no doubt, up there with the best. The Packers, Lions and Bears are all among the NFC’s top teams, and it’s very possible that both of the conference’s wild card spots come from the North.
The division saw only one big change this offseason—the arrival of Brandon Marshall in Chicago. Green Bay and Detroit stayed pretty silent, while the Vikings started to rebuild what was a strong team just a few years ago.
Each team in the division brings something completely different to the table. The Packers have the game’s best aerial attack and spread the offensive wealth better than anybody in the NFL.
The Lions win behind their passing game as well. But unlike Green Bay, who gets all its receivers involved, Detroit focuses on getting the ball into the hands of Calvin Johnson, and allowing the rest to take care of itself.
The Bears play punch-you-in-the-face type ball on offense and defense—just like they have for the last 50 years.
Even the Vikings, who struggled mightily last season, feature Adrian Peterson, a running back who can take over a game out of the backfield—an extraordinarily rare commodity.
The NFC North teams combined for more wins than any other division in the conference last season. The division features—in my opinion, anyway—the best quarterback (Rodgers), running back (Peterson) and wide receiver (Johnson) in the NFL.
The division also has its fair share of stars on the defensive side of the ball. Ndamukong Suh, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Jared Allen are four the best pass rushers in the League, Charles Woodson remains one of the best defensive backs in the NFL and Brian Urlacher can still wreak havoc in the middle of the field.
So, with that in mind, who’s ready for some freezing cold football?
Green Bay Packers — Projected Record: 13-3, 1st Place in division
Last Year: The Packers were the best team in the NFL during the ’11 regular season. They went 6-0 in division, 8-0 at home and 12-0 in the conference, they outscored their opponents by an average of 12.5 points per game, and they didn’t lose their first game of the year until Week 15, when a 19-14 loss to the Chiefs in Kansas City dropped Green Bay to 13-1. That loss turned out to be the only one the Packers suffered during the ’11 regular season. Unfortunately for cheeseheads, the Packers post-loss two game winning streak ended in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, where they fell at home to the eventual champion Giants, 37-20.
Key Additions: C Jeff Saturday, RB Cedric Benson, LB Nick Perry, DT Jerel Worthy, CB Casey Hayward, DE Anthony Hargrove
Key Losses: QB Matt Flynn, C Scott Wells, RB Ryan Grant, S Nick Collins, T Chad Clifton
Strengths: The passing game. Led by arguably the league’s top quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, the Packers air attack is lethal. Green bay finished the season No. 1 in passing touchdowns and QB Rating, No. 2 in completion percentage and plays over 20 and 40 yards, No. 3 in passing yards, No. 4 in completions and No. 5 in passing first downs. Most of those numbers, of course, came from Aaron Rodgers (Matt Flynn started one game). The NFL MVP finished the season with a 45:6 touchdown to interception ratio to go along with a 4,643 passing yards and a 122.5 QBR. Wideout Jordy Nelson broke onto the scene with 68 grabs for 1,263 yards and 15 scores. Greg Jennings caught 67 balls for 949 and 9 touchdowns in just 14 games. Tight end Jermichael Finley didn’t produce as nicely as some were expecting, but still had 55 receptions, 767 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
Weaknesses: Defense. The Packers defense gave up 299.8 passing yards and 411.6 total yards per game,—both league worsts. However, they do have a number of playmakers on D—namely Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and BJ Raji—which keep the unit afloat.
Green Bay’s run defense isn’t bad, as they surrendered a middle-of-the-pack 112 yards per game on the ground last year. Similarly, they were No. 19 in the league in points allowed per game at 22.4. The D does thrive in one area: turnovers. Green Bay picked off a league-best 31 balls in ’11, and tacked on 7 fumble recoveries.
X-Factor: Sam Shields. The Packers third corner had a solid second season in ’11, coming up with 45 tackles and four picks. It appears that Charles Woodson will be playing strong safety in the Packers base defense this year, opening up significant playing time for Shields as the team’s second corner. Again, Green Bay was the league’s worst team against the pass, meaning they’ll need Shields to continue his development this season. If he can solidify his position, the Packers secondary will suddenly look pretty formidable with Shields, Woodson and Tramon Williams.
James Starks earns an honorable mention for this category, but, frankly the offense will function beautifully with or without him. The defense, on the other hand, will need some guys to step up.
Sunday Ticket Status: A perfect 10. Packers games nearly guarantee a ton of big plays, scores and turnovers. Not to mention the viewer gets a glimpse of the last season’s MVP in Rodgers. What’s not to like?
Bottom Line: The Packers have seven very losable games next season. They face San Francisco in Week 1 at home, New Orleans in Week 4, the Giants in New York in Week 12 and Chicago and Detroit twice each. A 5-2 or 4-3 record in those seven seems reasonable. A road game against the Texans in Week 6 could prove to be tough as well, so I’ll project a 13-win season for the 2010 champs.
Detroit Lions — Projected Record: 11-5, 2nd Place in Division
Last Year: After winning six games in ’10, the Lions flipped the script (and their record) last season, going 10-6. Quarterback Matt Stafford took some massive steps forward, throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 scores while playing in all 16 of his team’s games, which is three more games than he had played in during his first two NFL seasons.
Meanwhile, Calvin Johnson turned into, hands-down, the best wideout in the League. He opened the season with four consecutive two-touchdown afternoons and went over 100 yards in half of his team’s games. In all, he hauled in 96 balls for 1,681 yards and 16 scores. Nobody doubted Megatron’s abilities in the past, but last season he burst through the ceiling, shot up into the sky and never looked back.
Key Additions: OT Riley Reiff, WR Ryan Broyles, CB Dwight Bentley
Key Losses: CB Eric Wright, RB Maurice Morris
Strengths: The Lions have two major things going for them. Offensively, it’s the Stafford-Johnson duo. On defense, it’s the front line featuring Cliff Avril, Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Nick Fairley and Kyle Vanden Bosch.
I’ve already detailed what a productive QB-WR match Stafford and Johnson made last season. The defensive front is—sometimes, anyway—equally as dominant. Avril has recorded 20 sacks over the past two seasons, 11 of those coming in ’11. Vanden Bosch produced eight of his own last year. Suh has quickly become one of the league’s most dominant defensive tackles, a force that was able to notch 36 tackles and four sacks in 14 games last season, despite drawing constant double- and triple-teams.
Weaknesses: The Lions defense as a whole isn’t great, ranking around 20th in most major categories. When the offense is clicking, though, it can easily pick up the slack for the D. But for the offense to click, everyone needs to be healthy, something that, recently, the Lions have struggled with.
This, of course, starts with Stafford, who played ten games in ’09, and 3 in ’10. But he’s not the only Lion with an injury riddled history. Starting running back Jahvid Best played only six games last season due to serious concussion issues, and is starting this season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Mikel LeShoure, last year’s second-round pick and Best’s backup, tore his ACL last preseason and missed the entire year. Rookie receiver Ryan Broyles, a standout at Oklahoma, also tore his ACL last year. Safety Louis Delmas missed the final five games of the ’11 after hurting his right knee, and has missed most of camp with a left knee injury. They should all be available for Week 1, but will also need to stay on the field for the Lions to take the next step forward.
X-Factor: While nobody was looking, third-year tight end Brandon Pettigrew totaled 83 receptions for 777 yards and 5 scores last season. He’s improved every year since entering the league, and could be ready to make a big-time leap next season.
At 6-5, 265, Pettigrew is a beast with mammoth potential. The Lions had an extremely potent offense last season, but if Pettigrew grows into a truly elite tight end this season—and there’s reason to believe that he will—Detroit’s passing game will be nearly impossible to stop.
Sunday Ticket Status 9. The Lions are a thrill to watch. They averaged nearly 30 points per contest last season, good for No. 4 in the NFL. They have the game’s top receiver in Johnson and a QB who loves to utilize that weapon and throw it deep. Defensively, Suh and the rest of that D-Line get after the quarterback about as effectively as any unit in the League.
Bottom Line: Detroit has seven very tough games and a few other potentially challenging ones. They draw the division-rival Bears and Packers twice, travel to San Francisco in Week 2 and Philadelphia in Week 6 after their bye. In Week 16, they face Atlanta at home. If they go 3-4 in those games (a very respectable mark) and drop one other game (they face Tennessee and Arizona on the road and Seattle at home), that would leave them with an 11-5 record.
Chicago Bears — Projected Record: 10-6, 3rd Place in Division
Last Year: Last year was a roller coaster for the Bears. After opening the season 2-3, they went on a five game winning streak, which they followed up by dropping five of their final six games and finishing the season 8-8. The free-fall, though, was not without reason. Quarterback Jay Cutler missed the team’s final six game with a broken right thumb and running back Matt Forte missed Chicago’s final four games with a sprained MCL. The Bears went 1-5 in games without Cutler and 1-3 without Forte.
Key Additions: WR Brandon Marshall, QB Jason Campbell, RB Michael Bush, WR Eric Weems, G Chilo Rachal, CB Kelvin Hayden, DE Shea McClellin, WR Alshon Jeffery, S Brandon Hardin
Key Losses: DT Amobi Okoye, S Brandon Meriweather, WR Roy Williams
Strengths: The Bears do a lot of things pretty well. The passing game should be strong with the addition of Brandon Marshall. The defense is an experienced unit centered around standouts Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher and is always tough.
The Bears main advantage, though, is their running game, which is led by Matt Forte. ’11 was a breakout season for Forte; he averaged 83 yards per game on the ground and another 41 yards receiving. He was only healthy through eleven games, but still managed to produce nearly 1,500 all-purpose yards, four scores and a very impressive 52 receptions. If Forte is as good in ’11 as he was in ’12, and is able to stay on the field, the Bears will be a very strong bet to make the playoffs. They may even become a Super Bowl contender.
Weaknesses: Last year, only the Packers, Patriots, Saints and Giants gave up more yards through the air than Chicago. On the plus side, they gave up 22 passing touchdowns and picked off 20 passes, a pretty good ratio (in comparison, the Vikings had the league’s worst ratio at 34:8). The Bears drafted safety Bradon Hardin in the third round and signed veteran Kelvin Hayden, but did nothing else to improve their secondary. Starting safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte ought to be tested early and often, so the Bears may get burned by the deep ball this season.
X-Factor: Henry Melton. Who is Henry Melton? Selected in the 4th round out of Texas in ’09, Melton didn’t play a single defensive snap as a rookie. In ’10, he recorded 16 tackles and three sacks. Last season, he took a big-time step forward. In 15 games, he totaled 24 tackles and seven sacks. He’s slotted in as a starter for next season, and, playing alongside Julius Peppers, shouldn’t see double-teams too often, if at all. If he can continue his development, he’ll give the Bears another much-needed force along the defensive line.
Sunday Ticket Status: 7. The Bears are a good team with a number of good-to-very good players, but they’re simply not that entertaining. They play an old school brand of football—focusing on the ground attack and don’t-bend-or-break-or-Urlacher’s-eyes-will-turn-you-to-stone defense. It’s likely to bring them some serious success next season, but not necessarily high TV ratings.
Bottom Line: Chicago has a very difficult schedule next year. They’re slated to play six very tough games. They face the Lions and Packers twice and both Dallas (Week 4) and San Francisco (Week 11) on the road. Smells like 2-4 or 3-3 to me. They also draw the Panthers, Texans and Seahawks at home and the Titans and Cardinals on the road. If they drop a pair of those games, that will leave them with a 10-6 or 11-5 record. Mark me down for ten, since I’m still not 100% sold on the Cutler-Marshall reunion.
Minnesota Vikings — Projected Record: 5-11, 4th Place in Division
Last Year: The Vikings were awful last season. They went 3-13, including 1-7 at home and 0-6 in the division. They opened up with four straight losses and dropped six straight between Week 10 and Week 15.
Worst of all, Adrian Peterson, who a year ago was widely regarded as the league’s best and most reliable back, tore his ACL in Week 16 against the Redskins. He also missed three games earlier in the season, but obviously the ACL tear is the big scare for Minnesota.
Key Additions: WR Jerome Simpson, TE John Carlson, OT Matt Kalil, S Harrison Smith, CB Josh Robinson
Key Losses: LB EJ Henderson, DT Remi Ayodele, CB Cedric Griffin, G Steve Hutchinson, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, G Anthony Herrera
Strengths: Despite last season’s failures, the Vikings do have some things going for them. Christian Ponder delivered a quality rookie season under center for Minnesota. He threw 13 touchdowns and 1,853 yards while completing 54.3% of his passes in 11 games. He also rushed 28 times for 219 yards, a very solid bonus. Ponder did turn the ball over 15 times, which leaves room for improvement, but ’11 was a good starting point for a player who many believed the Vikings reached for when they took him with the 12th pick in the ’11 Draft.
Another one of the Viking’s strengths is third-year receiver Percy Harvin. Last season, Harvin had 87 catches for 967, and caught six touchdown passes. He also carried the ball 52 times for 345 yards and two scores. On top of that, he returned 16 kickoffs, taking one to the house and averaging 32.5 yards per return.
Of course, Minnesota’s greatest strength is in Peterson, assuming he’s ready to go for ’12. After all, 50% of Peterson is about as good as 200% of the next guy.
Weaknesses: Defense. Minnesota gave up the second-most points per game last season at 28. They had the third-worst defensive third down conversion percentage. Most other statistics are middle-of-the-pack or worse.
They do have Jared Allen, an absolute sacks machine, but not a whole lot after that. DT Kevin Williams and LB Chad Greenway are both good players, but not really game-changing type talents.
The Vikings have a lot of youth on the defense, but probably a little too much. Their two starting safeties have one year of NFL experience between them, and they’ll be relying on third-year man Chris Cook to hold down the second corner back spot.
X-Factor: Left tackle Matt Kalil. The third overall pick in this year’s draft has monster potential, and the Vikings will need him to deliver. If he can anchor the offensive line from the extremely important LT spot, and give Ponder more time in the pocket and Peterson bigger running lanes, among other things, then Minnesota’s outlook can really turn around. Those are huge keys for the Vikings offense to be productive, so their success will undoubtedly be intertwined with Kalil’s development.
Sunday Ticket Status: 6.5. Typically a terrible team would be ranked even lower, but Minnesota does have a few entertaining players. Watching a healthy Peterson is worth the price of admission alone, and Harvin always has a chance to break off a huge play. Kick in Allen’s playmaking ability on the defensive side of the ball, and Vikings games may be worth tuning into.
Bottom Line: It’s hard to imagine the Vikings taking more than one division game, so we’ll start with a 1-5 division record prediction. From there, the winnable matchups are home games against Jacksonville (Week 1), Tennessee (Week 5), Arizona (Week 7), Tampa Bay (Week 8) and road games facing the Colts (Week 2), Redskins (Week 6), Seattle (Week 9) and St Louis (Week 15).
For those tracking at home, yes, the Vikings have an easy schedule, but the chances of them taking advantage of it are unlikely. Even if they split the games listed above, and my 1-5 in-division prediction is correct, the Vikings would still only be 5-9. Add in the two remaining games—Week 3 against the 49ers and Week 16 at the Texans—and you have a 5-11 team.