Wednesday, August 22, 2012

2012 NFL Divisional Previews - NFC North

The Green Bay Packers are clearly the class of the NFC North after winning the division by five games last year, including going 6-0 within the division. The Chicago Bears knew that and finally made the moves necessary to upgrade their wide receiving corps. The Detroit Lions are hoping to build off their first playoff season in over a decade, but instead made news for all the wrong reasons in the offseason, becoming the new Cincinnati Bengals of arrests. The Minnesota Vikings will be counting on the continued development of QB Christian Ponder, and the miraculous healing abilities of RB Adrian Peterson.

1. Green Bay Packers

2011 Record: 15-1, NFC North champs
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (7th season Green Bay, 68-36 career)
Key Additions: RB Cedric Benson, C Jeff Saturday, DE/DT Phillip Merling, DE/DT Tony Hargrove, LB Nick Perry
Key Losses: QB Matt Flynn, RB Ryan Grant, OT Chad Clifton, C Scott Wells, S Nick Collins 

2012 Outlook: The Packers ran roughshod over the NFL in 2011, going 15-1, scoring points at an amazing rate and looking primed to defend their Super Bowl title. Then the playoffs happened, and they ran into the suddenly hot New York Giants. The Packers played their worst game of the season, and were besieged by turnovers and lost to the Giants 37-20. Some of the Packers still believe that loss was a fluke and they will go right back to dominating the league again this season. Looking at their roster there is no reason why they shouldn’t. There will be some new faces on this season’s team and they did have to say goodbye to some of their veterans. However, the top performers still remain. Aaron Rodgers took the mantle last season as the best quarterback in the league. He was superb in every imaginable way en route to winning the MVP award. The Packers season rests on his health because they no longer have a capable backup, as Matt Flynn signed as a free agent with the Seahawks. The Packers running game was up and down last year and remains a question mark. Longtime Packer Ryan Grant was shown the door, but after incumbent James Starks struggled with injury and poor play, they brought in Cedric Benson. Benson isn’t flashy but is pretty much consistent every year in churning out 1,000 yard seasons. The Packers still have the deepest, most talented wide receiving corps in the league. The whole gang is back, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, old ass Donald Driver, James Jones and TE Jermichael Finley. Second year man Randall Cobb is also expected to emerge as a consistent threat. The Packers offensive line saw some change as C Scott Wells left via free agency and OT Chad Clifton retired. Longtime Colt C Jeff Saturday was brought in to replace Wells, so the Packers shouldn’t really miss a beat. It didn’t seem to matter much last season because the offense was so explosive, but the defense was terrible for Green Bay in 2011. They did create a lot of turnovers but they also gave up just as many big plays. The Packers secondary was lit up because their defensive front could hardly get any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. LB Nick Perry was drafted out of USC in hopes of clearing up some space for Clay Matthews. Longtime CB Charles Woodson might move to safety to make room for new CB Casey Hayward. The Packers have all the names to be a strong defense, but for whatever reason it didn’t come together last year. At some point defense does matter, and Green Bay will need a stronger effort from that side of the ball in 2012. The Packers special teams were consistent led by K Mason Crosby and P Tim Masthay, who didn’t have to do too much thanks to the proficiency of the offense. It is impossible to expect the Packers to rack up 15 wins for a second straight year but as long as Rodgers stays healthy, there is no reason to believe they won’t once again win the NFC North.

Prediction: 12-4

2. Detroit Lions

2011 Record: 10-6, 2nd place NFC North
Head Coach: Jim Schwartz (4th year Detroit, 18-31 career)
Key Additions: CB Jacob Lacey, SS Sean Jones, OT Riley Reiff
Key Losses: QB Drew Stanton, OLB Bobby Carpenter, CB Eric Wright

2012 Outlook: The Detroit Lions should have been able to celebrate this offseason. They had just finished making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Quarterback Matthew Stafford had a wonderful season and cemented himself as the Lions future. But instead, a host of players ran afoul from the law and that is all that has really been talked about in regards to this team. Stafford was finally healthy for a full season and was able to turn the promise he had shown into actual results. It was even more amazing he had the year he did because the Lions were a mess at running back. Jahvid Best is still out with a concussion and no one knows, when, if ever, he will return. RB Mikel LeShoure missed his rookie year after getting hurt in the preseason and then was arrested this past off-season. Kevin Smith returned last year when the Lions had no one left. For coming off the streets he did pretty well but he also has had injury issues. The Lions will probably have to go by running back by committee until someone can stay healthy and take command of the position. The Lions aren’t hurt as much as most teams by their poor running game because they have the best WR in football, Calvin Johnson. Johnson was amazing last season, seemingly making highlight reel catches each week. There is some concern with how he will perform this year since he was voted to grace the cover of Madden. Whether real or not, it seems that whoever lands the cover suffers through a terrible season. Johnson won’t fall to that as long as he stays healthy. Titus Young showed promise as a rookie and will be asked to contribute more this season. Nate Burleson is still around but might see his role decrease with the emergence of Young. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew had a very nice season last year and turned into a reliable target for Stafford.  The Lions offensive line did a good job of keeping Stafford healthy last year and added some depth by drafting Riley Reiff. Much like the Packers, the Lions were terrible defensively despite having the personnel that you would think would lead to a stout defense. The front did well rushing the quarterback, led by Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch, but they struggled against the run. Cliff Avril was the Lions best pass rusher and signed his franchise tender in the offseason, and will be highly motivated to secure a long term deal. Nick Fairley had a highly disappointing 2011 and then was arrested twice this off-season. The defensive unit was also undisciplined and was penalized often.  The secondary was a problem last season, glaringly so in the playoff loss to the Saints. Eric Wright left via free agency so the Lions are counting on the tandem of Dwight Bentley and Jacob Lacy to replace him. Jason Hanson is once again back as the Lions kicker, and he might be reaching Hall of Fame status with how long and consistent his career has been. The Lions are hoping for a better season this year from punter Ryan Donahue, who statistically was one of the worst punters in the league last year. The Lions have had a lot of distractions this off-season so it will be interesting to watch the chemistry of the team. I think the Lions should be back in the playoffs though as the offense will remain outstanding. Their season really rides on the health of Stafford and Johnson.

Prediction: 10-6 

3. Chicago Bears

2011 Record: 8-8, 3rd place NFC North 
Head Coach: Love Smith (9th season Chicago, 74-60 career)
Key Additions: QB Jason Campbell, RB Michael Bush, WR Brandon Marshall, WR Alshon Jeffery, G Chilo Rachal, DE Shea McClellin
Key Losses: QB Caleb Hanie, RB Marion Barber, DT Amobi Okoye, S Brandon Merriweather

2012 Outlook: The Chicago Bears were 7-3 and right in the thick of things. But then bad news struck when they found out they had lost QB Jay Cutler for the year. They had to turn to Caleb Hanie which was a complete disaster. It didn’t get any better when they also lost their star player and biggest offensive contributor, RB Matt Forte in Week 13. The Bears would end up losing 5 of their last 6 and miss out on the playoffs. To the Bears credit they at least appeared to have learned from their mistakes. They cleaned house with their front office, they finally got Cutler a suitable backup they can trust, and they gave Forte the extension he was seeking. Jason Campbell is now Cutler’s backup. I never believed in Campbell as a starter but he is more than capable as a backup. Should Cutler be injured this season, the Bears season won’t fall off a cliff like last year. Cutler also has some weapons to throw to for a change, as the Bears traded for his old Broncos teammate Brandon Marshall, and drafted Alshon Jeffery out of South Carolina. The Devin Hester experiment of turning him into a wide receiver has seen its ups and downs, and it was clear that he was nowhere near a number one receiver. The additions of Marshall and Jeffery can also take some pressure off of Forte. Forte was responsible for over half of the Bears offense. He is more than capable of being the man, but for his long term prospects they need to find ways to slow down his touches. Mike Martz is gone as offensive coordinator so we may see a reemergence of the tight end in the Bears offense. If so, expect to see more of Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth this season. An issue that is still looming for the Bears is their leaky offensive line. Gabe Carimi is returning from injury to provide some help, but left tackle J’Marcus Webb has to play much better this season as he was a revolving door last year. Right tackle will be competed between last year’s starter Lance Louis and new player, Chilo Rachal. On defense, the Bears aren’t sure when they will have Pro Bowl LB Brian Urlacher who suffered a knee injury in their meaningless season finale last year. They will hope to have him back as soon as possible so he can resume teaming with Lance Briggs to form one of the better linebacking units in the league. Julius Peppers was outstanding last season and looked worth the big money contract the Bears gave him. The Bears drafted Shea McClellin to add even more depth to their pass rush.  The Bears were strong against the run last year but pretty awful against the pass. They did a decent job at stopping teams from scoring through the air but put a lot of pressure on themselves by giving up lots of passing yardage. The secondary remains mostly in tact from last year with Charles Tillman, Major Wright, and Tim Jennings, with only Brandon Merriweather leaving. The Bears have a manageable schedule but having to play the Packers and Lions four times will be challenging. I suspect the Bears will be sort of up and down all season, but in the thick of things for a playoff spot right until the end.

Prediction: 9-7

4. Minnesota Vikings

2011 Record: 3-13, last place NFC North
Head Coach: Leslie Frazier (2nd season Minnesota, 6-16 career)
Key Additions: FB Lex Hilliard, WR Jerome Simpson, TE John Carlson, OT Matt Kalil, G Geoff Schwartz, CB Chris Carr
Key Losses: QB Donovan McNabb, TE Visanthe Schiancoe, G Steve Hutchinson, G Anthony Herrera, ILB E.J. Henderson, CB Cedric Griffin, CB Asher Allen, K Ryan Longwell

2012 Outlook: Last season was a disaster for the Vikings. They thought the group that got them to an NFC Championship game in 2009 might have a little something left despite struggling in 2010. The signing of Donovan McNabb was a disaster as he was ineffective from the start and released before the season even ended. Adrian Peterson had some struggles behind an aging line and then suffered a torn MCL and ACL late in the season that might sideline him for the beginning of this season. If Peterson does miss time then Toby Gerhart finally has to show something. He hasn’t had a ton of chances but he hasn’t looked all that impressive when has had carries. Christian Ponder was thrown into the fire as a rookie and showed some promise but mostly struggled. His backup Joe Webb looked better than Ponder in relief and I am kind of surprised the Vikings didn’t open up the job to competition this season. WR Percy Harvin came to camp unhappy and requested to be traded, but hasn’t made much noise since preseason started so hopefully whatever the issue was has been laid to rest. They added Jerome Simpson to be their number two receiver but will be without him for the first three games while he serves a suspension for a drug violation. They also signed John Carlson to try to bolster their tight end production with incumbent Kyle Rudolph. The offensive line saw some major changes as the Vikings recognized the unit was aging. Left tackle Matt Kalil will start right away out of USC, while Charlie Johnson moves from left tackle to right guard to replace Steven Hutchinson.  The Vikings defense struggled against the run but was pretty good against the pass in 2011. DE Jared Allen almost broke the single season sack record and has been a tremendous addition since coming to Minnesota. Kevin Williams is still pretty dominant up front, although the Vikings did miss having him and Pat to completely close off that interior. The linebacking corps is pretty strong with Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway. The secondary is the big question mark, Chris Cook ran into legal troubles last year, so the Vikings hope those are behind him and he stay on the field, where has been a reliable player. Antoine Winfield has been injury prone lately and is getting up there in age so the Vikings can’t rely on him like they used to. Chris Carr was signed to provide some help and depth to the cornerback position. The Vikings said goodbye to kicker Ryan Longwell and gave the starting job to rookie Blair Walsh, rookies at kicker positions can be a recipe for disaster. At punter is Chris Kluwe, who when he isn’t making outlandish comments off the field is pretty reliable on the field. The Vikings have some winnable games on their schedule, combine that with the progress Ponder should show at quarterback and I think the Vikings can double their win total from last year.

Prediction: 6-10

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