Monday, August 18, 2014

2014 NFL Divisional Previews - NFC North

The Chicago Bears went through a role reversal last season. A team that had been challenged offensively and excellent defensively, saw the opposite happen in 2013. They are hopeful that in 2014 they can get both sides of the ball on the same page. The Green Bay Packers stayed just enough above water while they waited out Aaron Rodgers return from injury and then were able to wrest the NFC North from the Bears in the final seconds of the season. The Minnesota Vikings are starting over with Mike Zimmer at coach and also at quarterback where it appears to be only a matter of time before Teddy Bridgewater takes over. The Detroit Lions are rebuilding for the umpteenth time and made one of the least inspiring coaching hires in history by choosing the least inspiring man in history, Jim Caldwell.

1. Chicago Bears

2013 Record: 8-8, 2nd place NFC North
Head Coach: Marc Trestman (2nd season Chicago, 8-8 career)
Key Additions: WR Josh Morgan, DE Jared Allen, DE LeMarr Houston, S Ryan Mundy
Key Losses: QB Josh McCown, RB Michael Bush, WR Earl Bennett, DE Julius Peppers, DE Corey Wooton, DT Herny Melton, CB Zackary Bowman, S Major Wright, P Adam Podlesh, KR Devin Hester

2014 Outlook: In 2013 the Bears seemed to have set themselves up perfectly to take the NFC North. In a Monday night game at Lambeau Field they injured Aaron Rodgers, who would then miss the next seven games. Despite Rodgers missing and the Packers struggling, the Bears were unable to clinch the division but still had a home game against the Packers in the regular season finale to do the job. However, Rodgers was able to return for that game and then ripped the Bears hearts out when he hit Randall Cobb for a game and division winning touchdown in the final seconds. During the Lovie Smith era the Bears offense was always lacking and unable to keep up with the defense. In Marc Trestman's first season the opposite happened. The Bears featured one of the most potent offenses in the NFL and that was even with Jay Cutler suffering his annual injury. The Bears were fortunate last season to have Josh McCown step up when Cutler got hurt, but looking at the quarterback depth chart this season, it looks like another Caleb Hanie, Jason Campbell type disaster would be on Chicago's hands if Cutler goes down. Jordan Palmer is Cutler's backup this season and Palmer has never started a game in his career. Matt Forte continues to churn out strong season after strong season and is one of the most versatile running backs in football, with his abilities as a receiver to complement his rushing prowess. The Bears passing game is excellent with monster receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and burly tight end Martellus Bennett. Cutler and Marshall have excellent chemistry and Cutler's objective this season will be to find that same type of chemistry with Jeffery. Jeffery really excelled when McCown was at quarterback last season. A main reason for the Bears quick improvement on offense was better play out of their offensive line. LT Jermon Bushrod made an immediate impact, and left guard Matt Slauson and center Robert Garza are each coming off strong seasons. The right side of the line is weaker with Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, but each player was a rookie last season so improvement is expected. The single biggest culprit for dashing the Bears playoff dreams in 2013 was their horribly inept defense. Age and injury seemed to catch up with the Bears defense last year so the Bears responded by signing more old guys. Jared Allen was plucked from the Vikings but Allen seems to be about half the player he once was. Lamarr Houston takes over at left defensive end while the Bears maintained the status quo at defensive tackle with Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea. The Bears top linebacker Lance Briggs is healthy as of now but he missed more than half the season last year with various ailments and is starting to get up there in age. D.J. Williams is back at middle linebacker and didn't do much last season to make Bears fans forget about Brian Urlacher. Peanut Tillman and Tim Jennings are the starting cornerbacks and Tillman is another Bear like Briggs, who is seeing a sharp decline in play due to age and injury issues. Ryan Mundy and Brock Vereen figure to have their struggles at safety this season. Robbie Gould is one of the best kickers in football, especially dealing so well with the winds of Chicago. Rookie Pat O'Donnell is the Bears new punter. Eric Weems is set to take over punt and kick returning duties for longtime Bear Devin Hester. I am going out on a limb picking the Bears to win the division and a lot of things will have to break correctly for it to happen. Cutler has to somehow play 16 games because the Bears season will implode if Palmer has to start any games. The defense just has to be a tad bit better, as I think the Bears are so good offensively they can outscore most teams. It looks like 2014 will be another divisional dog fight between longtime rivals, the Bears and Packers.

Prediction: 11-5

2. Green Bay Packers

2013 Record: 8-7-1, 1st place NFC North
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (9th season Green Bay, 88-50-1, 1 Super Bowl Championship)
Key Additions: S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, DE Julius Peppers
Key Losses: WR James Jones, OT Marshall Newhouse, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, S M.D. Jennings

2014 Outlook: The Packers were left wondering what might have been when their 2013 season ended at the hands of the 49ers. Cruising along at 5-2, Aaron Rodgers was injured and the Packers limped to a 3-5-1 finish to the regular season. Packers fans might say that Rodgers wasn't 100% for that 49ers playoff game but let's be real, the Packers are the 49ers bitch right now. Rodgers remains one of the best quarterbacks in football and the Packers hope that he goes back to making it through a 16 game season unscathed. A major positive for Green Bay last season was the emergence of RB Eddie Lacy. For years, Rodgers had to do most things on his own since the Packers didn't have a rushing attack that could support him, but with Lacy running the ball that has all changed. Rodgers passing weapons will look a little different this season. Gone are James Jones and Jermichael Finley, but Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb should still be the beneficiaries of having Rodgers throwing the ball. Andrew Quarless is slotted to take over at tight end for Finley but is battling with Brandon Bostick and Richard Rodgers for the starting job. JC Tretter is the new starting center with the departure of Evan Dietrich-Smith. Bryan Bulaga is healthy after missing 2013 and ready to reassume his right tackle position. The rest of the line is solid, including the rapidly improving left tackle David Bakhtiari. The Packers shocked many when they went out and signed an aging Julius Peppers. The Packers hardly ever do much in free agency but these type of moves have worked out for them in the past. Charles Woodson was brought in when he was considered on the downslope of his career and had solid seasons in Green Bay. He will line up alongside B.J. Raiji, who was once the Freezer but lately has played like a mini-fridge. Mike Daniels doesn't have the name power of Peppers or Raji but is probably the most talented going into 2014. Clay Matthews has trouble staying healthy and when he is healthy he thrives at taking cheap shots at opposing quarterbacks. A.J. Hawk is another Packers defensive player living off past glory and not nearly as good as some think. The Packers are really excited for how Ha Ha Clinton-Dix might be able to help their secondary. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields make a pretty decent cover corner duo. Someone should test Packers kicker Mason Crosby for HGH stat as he went from one of the worst kickers in football in 2012, to one of the best in 2013. Tim Masthay has a pretty cool name but isn't a very good punter. I think Rodgers will stay healthy this season, Lacy will get even better, and the defense will be adequate enough that the Packers will return to double digit wins. But they still aren't good enough to beat the 49ers.

Prediction: 11-5

3. Minnesota Vikings

2013 Record: 5-10-1, last place NFC North
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (1st season Minnesota, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: LB Anthony Barr, QB Teddy Bridgewater, DE Corey Wooton, DT Linval Joseph, ILB Jasper Brinkley, SLB Anthony Barr, CB Captain Munnerlyn, S Kurt Coleman
Key Losses: QB Josh Freeman, RB Toby Gerhart, WR/QB Joe Webb, TE John Carlson, DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams, ILB Erin Henderson, ILB Desmond Bishop, CB Chris Cook

2014 Outlook: The Vikings have wasted most of Adrian Peterson's career and talent because of their inability to land a franchise quarterback. The only good quarterback Peterson has ever played with was Brett Favre and that was Favre's last good season as a pro. The Vikings reached a few years ago for Christian Ponder and predictably he has failed. So now Teddy Bridgewater is the latest "savior" that the Vikings hope can turn into a franchise quarterback. Right now it appears that he will start the season behind Matt Cassel. Cassel is adequate but unless the Vikings come storming out the gates this year, I would expect we see Bridgewater play sooner rather than later. Peterson feels excitement over the prospects of Norv Turner taking over the offense. There was no way that Peterson was going to have a season like 2012, but in some ways 2013 was a disappointment. Peterson only broke 100 yards in a game 5 times and it was becoming obvious that teams just focused all their defensive efforts on him. One bright spot for the Vikings on offense last year came with rookie WR Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson was a threat returning kicks and started translating that to the wide receiver position late in the season. Greg Jennings looked like a sunk cost and a player that was propped up by having Favre and Aaron Rodgers throwing to him throughout his career. The Vikings resigned TE Kyle Rudolph and with Turner calling the plays, people expect his role in the offense to increase. The Vikings have a good offensive line, an area that has been a position of strength for the team for quite some time now. Phil Loadholt and Matt Kalil make an excellent right and left tackle pairing. The Vikings were decent at stopping the run but their pass defense was atrocious in 2013. The Vikings knew that the time was right to part with some aging veterans so Jared Allen and Kevin Williams were allowed to leave. They are also hopeful that by bringing Mike Zimmer aboard as coach he can use some of his renowned coaching skills to help improve the defense.The Vikings signed Linval Joseph away from the Giants and are hoping for improved play out of second year man DT Sharrif Floyd. Everson Griffen will take over Allen's spot and the Vikings showed their faith in him by giving him a big money contract this offseason. Brian Robison will be on the other end and is coming off a 9 sack season. The linebacking corps is mostly new with the additions of Jasper Brinkley and Anthony Barr. Chad Greenway is the only holdver from last year's group. Captain Munnerlyn is expected to make a huge difference in the Vikings pass defense. Putting him next to second year man Xavier Rhodes and passing the ball on Minnesota should be much more difficult this season. S Harrison Smith battled injuries last year but when healthy is a premiere player in the league. Blair Walsh is a reliable field goal kicker, and punter Jeff Locke is less of a headache and a better punter than Chris Kluwe. Patterson will be back returning kicks and is always a threat to bust one off, even from the back of the end zone. One factor to not overlook is the Vikings will be playing games outdoors this year at the University of Minnesota as they wait for their new stadium to be built. The Vikings were usually pretty tough to beat the Metrodome so it will be interesting to see if they can keep that homefield advantage in their temporary home. I think Zimmer was a smart hire by the Vikings and they did some nice things to improve the defense. Hopefully, Bridgewater ends up being the real deal because a lack of quarterback is all that holds Minnesota from being a playoff team.

Prediction: 7-9

4. Detroit Lions

2013 Record: 7-9, 3rd place NFC North
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (1st season Detroit, 28-24 career)
Key Additions: LB Kyle Van Noy, QB Dan Orlovsky, FB Jed Collins, WR Golden Tate, DE Daryl Tapp, S James Ihedigbo
Key Losses: QB Shaun Hill, WR Nate Burleson, DE Isreal Idonije, S Louis Delmas, CB Chris Houston

2014 Outlook: The Lions have so much talent on both sides of the ball but the past two seasons they just couldn't being themselves and throwing it all away. With the Packers scuffling without Aaron Rodgers and the Bears unable to run away with the division, the Lions had the NFC North right there for the taking. They thrashed Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day to improve to 7-5 but then would not win for the rest of the season, costing coach Jim Schwartz his job. Former Colts coach Jim Caldwell is the new head man and showed his excitement by blinking twice in a 60 second span. QB Matthew Stafford has a world of talent and puts up video game like numbers at time, but he also turns the ball over way too much. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell will share rushing duties, although if I were coaching the team I would give Bell the most carries as he is a more physical and dependable rusher than Bush. Stafford has plenty of options at receiver, including the best receiver in football, Calvin Johnson. Golden Tate was signed away from the Seahawks and while the Lions overpaid him, he should benefit from defenses having to focus so much attention on Megatron. Ryan Broyles has shown some ability but has trouble staying healthy. The Lions have a pretty fearsome duo at tight end with Brandon Pettigrew and the newly drafted Eric Ebron. One of Detroit's biggest strengths is their offensive line. They may not be names you all are that familiar with besides veteran Dominic Raiola but they get the job done as witnessed by Stafford being sacked just 23 times last season. The Lions defense is filled with monsters and guys with big reputations, but they haven't always lived up to those reputations. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley on paper should give the Lions the best interior defense in football but Fairley has never been a consistent presence. Plus, both have played undisciplined at times, one of the biggest problems during the Schwartz era. DE Ezekiel Ansah had a strong rookie season and should be even better in 2014. Even the linebackers Detroit has on defense are pretty good with a group that includes DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch, and Kyle Van Noy. The Lions season could be made or broken based on how their secondary plays this season. Their rush defense was excellent but they ranked 23rd in the league against the pass. James Ihedigbo was signed to replace Louis Delmas, but Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis return at cornerback and neither was very good last season. To the surprise of no one but the Lions David Akers really was past his prime and no longer a viable kicker in the NFL, so he was jettisoned in favor of Nate Freese. Punter Sam Martin has a pretty powerful leg. The Lions really just need to find the right coach and maybe move out of Detroit to escape the bad history the franchise has. They have a lot of the pieces needed to win the division but I don't think Jim Caldwell is the coach to lead them to it. They needed discipline more than anything, so how is quiet as a mouse Caldwell going to instill that in his team? I expect another missed opportunity of a season for the Lions.

Prediction: 6-10

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