By Erik Lewis, Feature Writer
The NFL season is fast-approaching. So close you can almost hear the fans in the stands, smell the tailgate grills cooking, and even hear the snap count being called out. And this year in the the NFC North, it will be another knock-down drag-out battle royale. Haven’t we seen this before??
1. Green Bay Packers: 8-7-1 (3-2-1 Division) – PF: 417 PA: 428
2. Chicago Bears: 8-8 (2-4 Division) – PF: 445 PA: 478
3. Detroit Lions: 7-9 (4-2 Division) – PF: 394 PA: 376
4. Minnesota Vikings: 5-10-1 (2-3-1 Division) – PF: 391 PA: 480
Highlights of 2013:
It all came down to week 17 in the NFC North, so we can brush past the rest of the season rather quickly.
Detroit was 6-3 with seven weeks to play. Green Bay was 5-4 and in the midst of a Rodgers-less three-game losing streak. Chicago was also 5-4, and Minnesota was out of it early with a 2-7 record.
The division title came down to the final game of the season which pinned the Packers against the Bears in one of the NFL’s greatest rivalries. Aaron Rodgers made his return against the team that injured him in week 8 with a broken collarbone.
Rodgers struggled early – which was no surprise after he missed the Packers last seven games – throwing two interceptions on two consecutive drives that looked like they would end in touchdowns.
After that, however, he came back to throw for 318 yards and two key touchdowns, including the game-clincher to Randall Cobb on fourth-and-8 with 38 seconds left to play.
The Bears were left dumbfounded with a second place finish in the division after a season that
could have should have been theirs.
Rodgers and the return of Randall Cobb were the saviors for the Packers, who went 2-4-1 without the MVP at the helm. Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn showed that how important Rodgers is to the Packers, throwing for just 7.2 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The same may be said for the Bears with Josh McCown replacing Cutler. However, McCown was arguably more impressive than Cutler, as the career
backup threw for 13 TDs and just one interception.
As for the Detroit Lions, disappointment reigned on their parade as they squandered their opportunity to secure a division title with those two starting quarterbacks out with injuries for 12 games. Forget that the duo of Calvin Stafford and Calvin Johnson led the Lions to a 4-2 record in the division with two big wins over the Bears. Nope, none of that mattered when they lost 14-13 to the Vikings in week 17. But that’s how it goes in the NFL sometimes.
Looking at the current standings of the NFC North so far in the preseason won’t tell you much right now, since teams aren’t playing to win. What it could be saying is that there might be more of a three-team race for first place this season.
Minnesota – Going 3-0 in the preseason isn’t an indicator of a Super Bowl berth.
With two close wins and a convincing defeat of Kansas City (albeit without Jamaal Charles) though it looks as though Mike Zimmer is having an early impact. Choosing Matt Cassel as his starter is going with the safe choice. Letting Teddy Bridgewater ease into the starter role will be a good choice. Rookie QBs need time to learn. The less pressure, the better.
Cassel earned a new contract in the offseason and is playing good enough to steal the spot from Bridgewater…for now. Cassel can play well and has shown it in the past. Now with a definite decision from the Vikes that he’s the week 1 starter, he should be more a more confident passer.
That being said, I don’t think or expect him to start the entire season. I think Bridgewater will be called upon by midseason to clean up the potential mess left in Cassel and the Vikings defense. With no Jared Allen on the defensive line, Brian Robison will have much more ground to cover. But that doesn’t mean they will be a hapless, it will just be difficult against strong offenses like Green Bay and Chicago, which put up big points against them last season.
Green Bay – While the defense has been slow to warm up, the offense has gotten out to quick leads but hasn’t kept up that pace for the entire first half. Rodgers and the offense scored on their first possession against St. Louis and Oakland, but were stymied after that. Defensively, the Packers did the same things. Oakland scored on its first possession, but didn’t put points on the board until the seventh-string defense was on the field. So there are positives and negatives to the Packers 2-1 preseason record. Clay Matthews and Peppers will need to feed off each other to spark the defense. If they do, scary things are possible.
Chicago – Starting off slowly in the first half against Jacksonville at home was a bit of a surprise to me. After getting beat in the first quarter 13-0, the Bears tightened up on an 85-yard touchdown drive with the first team offense. They ended up winning the game late, but the telling sign of good things was the play of the defense in the redzone. The Jaguars had three chances at six points in the first quarter, but were shut down on all but one. That drive even needed help from the officials, otherwise it would’ve yielded three points like the other two. So, with a 2-1 record in the preseason (who cares?), it looks as though Chicago’s defense is locked and reloaded with Jared Allen, making them a tough oust.
Detroit – Stafford is in midseason form, Reggie Bush has looked dazzling at times and Golden Tate is showing why he was a much needed addition. While a 2-1 record may seem good, remember it’s just the preseason. Their final game will be another tuneup for the regular season. I expect to see three running backs vying for playing time this season. Mikel Leshoure should be back in the mix after a season where he was MIA. Eric Ebron and Tate have contributed so far in their short time with the team. Will the defense play tough all season, though?
Players to watch:
Here are just four players to watch, one from each team. Granted there could be many more, but these players will have big impacts on their team’s success. Here are my top four to watch and my predictions of some of their stats.
1. Reggie Bush, DET: 1,500 combined yards (rushing & receiving) and 12 total touchdowns
2. Eddie Lacy, GB: 1,300 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns
3. Cordarrelle Patterson, MIN: 1,200 all-purpose yards and 8 touchdowns
4. Jared Allen, CHI: 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles
I think the season comes down to Green Bay and Chicago, as it has in the past few years. The NFL is so hard to predict, but here’s my shot in the north.
With a healthy (dose) of Rodgers to Jordy Nelson, and Eddie Lacy to boot, the Packers should be able to overcome their defensive struggles in the preseason. Without BJ Raji, their defense will need to find another player to plug the running lanes, otherwise I see teams being able to gash that defense for some big runs, much like the Raiders did in the first quarter of last week’s preseason game. If Julius Peppers becomes the force the Pack hopes he will, then that defense will certainly outperform my expectations.
Chicago’s offense under Marc Trestman looked unstoppable at times last season, and I see that trend continuing. Matt Forte will be a force to be reckoned with as a dual-threat of the backfield, and Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall are one of the best receiver duos in the league. Therefore, 10 wins is attainable. If they can steal a win in Green Bay, that might mean the difference in first and second place.
Detroit has been a team that has collapsed numerous times in the past. Part of that was with the vibe that Jim Schwartz put out there. If the offense was on fire and the defense wasn’t beating people up, then look out. However, when Ndamukong Suh was getting penalized and Stafford was throwing loads of interceptions, then things went backward. So, it’s important for Jim Caldwell to be the stabilizing force he was in Indianapolis to keep the Lions in this race. They certainly can do it with Reggie Bush running as well as he did at USC. And…I mean Megatron is reason enough to give them at least seven wins.
1. Green Bay: 11-5 (Predicted key wins: NYJ, Carolina, New England, New Orleans) Predicted points for: – 475
2. Chicago: 10-6 (PKW: Carolina, Atlanta, Green Bay, New Orleans) – PPF: 425
3. Detroit: 8-8 (PKW: NYG, New Orleans, Arizona) – PPF: 470
4. Minnesota: 6-10 – (PKW: Washington, St. Louis, NYJ) – PPF: 390
So there you have it! The NFC North season prediction in a nutshell.