In 2012, the NFC North was chock full of surprises. The Packers have had big things expected of them since the emergence of Aaron Rodgers several years ago, but couldn’t get it done in the postseason. The Vikings were a surprise postseason entry, riding on the reconstructed knee of manimal Adrian Peterson. The Bears looked like a playoff team for a good portion of the year, but missed out. And the Lions are a playoff team on paper who need to learn how to avoid underperforming. 2013 will be an interesting year in one of the toughest divisions in football.
1 – Green Bay Packers
The Pack took the North with one game over the Vikings (and Bears) in overall record last year, and as long as Rodgers is slinging ’em, they’re my pick to do it again in 2013. I don’t believe it’ll be in any more of a convincing fashion, as the defense has some serious question marks and showed an inability to match up against tougher offenses. It all comes down to Rodgers and the offense staying explosive, and the few defensive playmakers stepping up when needed.
There is a very sound argument to be made that Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the NFL, and that sort of thing gives your team an advantage over just about everyone else. Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are enviable receivers from almost any other team’s perspective, but when you throw in James Jones (who caught 14 TDs last year) and Jermichael Finley at the TE position, it’s almost overkill. This team is designed for Aaron Rodgers, and he has weapons to spare.
The defense has some nice pieces, including newly paid sack specialist Clay Matthews, who should live up to his contract with another solid season. B.J. Raji needs to step up and be the dominating force he’s capable of being in the middle of the line, but the solid LB corps helps make up for the line’s occasional lapses. Datone Jones could help make a real difference at one DE spot, and might go down as one of the absolute steals of the draft despite his 2nd round pedigree. The secondary, overall, was a top-10 unit against the pass in 2012, but there are concerns with injuries and depth, the latter especially now that the team let go of Charles Woodson.
Causes For Concern:
In true Green Bay fashion, the team didn’t squabble long with certain veterans, letting Woodson, Greg Jennings and LB Desmond Bishop go without much of a fight. Jennings in particular could end up hurting the team, but it’s unlikely considering the dearth of options in the passing game. One area of concern is the offensive line, and the news of Brian Bulaga being lost for the season leaves a major gap at the pivotal LT position. Despite Rodgers’ success, the offensive line allowed 51 sacks in 2012, and ended up next to dead-last on Football Outsiders’ pass protection rankings. Losing Bulaga isn’t going to help improve this, and neither is fielding almost the exact same line as 2012.
What seemed to transpire in key losses, particularly to the 49ers in the playoffs, was more of an issue of lack of preparedness defensively than anything else. This isn’t something I expect to happen with Dom Capers coordinating things, and the issue runs deeper, down into a group of underachieving players that absolutely need to step up when the moment comes. As good as Rodgers and the passing attack looks to be, without a reliable running game (which is a question mark until either rookie HB Eddie Lacy or Johnathan Franklin prove otherwise) or reliable defense, the Packers will have a hard time beating the better teams in the league.
With all my division winning predictions, there’s some doubt, and there’s more for Green Bay than I like. Minnesota is a young and talented team, and Chicago could improve their divisional record enough to challenge the Packers. However, neither team has Aaron Rodgers, or the depth of weapons at their QB’s disposal, and in a league that is predominantly won by passing the ball, you have to give a slight edge to the team who does it better than any other in their division. The capability of the defense to play significantly better is another plus, and if the running game somehow comes together…look out.
2 – Chicago Bears
The Bears’ 10-6 record matched the Vikings in 2012, but Minnesota took the wild card berth in a tiebreaker. Something tells me Chicago won’t forget that, and unlike some, I predict the new coaches and schemes to benefit the team going forward. There may be some bumps in the road, but so long as they’re on the same page come October, the Bears will compete for a wild card slot at the very least.
Much maligned QB Jay Cutler is still capable of winning a game more or less on his own, and over time has managed to stay out of his own way well enough to not be the sole cause of his team’s defeats. He quickly re-developed the rapport he had with Brandon Marshall in Denver, and the two form one of the better QB-WR tandems in football. Matt Forte is a versatile and potentially dangerous weapon out of the backfield, and the team is high on 2nd year WR Alshon Jeffery. The patchwork offensive line should get a boost from newly signed LT Jermon Bushrod and early draft pick G Kyle Long.
No team in the NFL had a defense as dominant, efficient and turnover-happy as Chicago’s in 2012, and the majority of starters return this year. The talk in camp and throughout the preseason has focused on who will be replacing retired MLB Brian Urlacher, and 2nd round pick Jon Bostic has made a strong case throughout the preseason by making a handful of heads-up plays. Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman may be the best CB tandem in football, and veterans Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers are still effective playmakers in the late stage of their careers.
Causes For Concern:
The offense under the previous brain trust had a tendency to either overthink or underutilize its talent, and its going to be up to the new breed, including the offensively geared HC Marc Trestman, to wring the most out of what’s available on offense. The tools are there, but the offensive line needs to come together around the new faces. 10-6 is a record that doesn’t typically loan itself to having a bad team, and underachievement was the real killer of the Bears in 2012. Folding in a handful of key games, whether due to Cutler turnovers or poor line play (or both) cannot happen again if the Bears want to stay in contention.
I don’t see why not, beyond the fact that each other division is going to be sporting a team or two behind the division favorites who will be vying for wild card status. The competition in the division is fierce enough, but the NFC in general is the same, and if Chicago wants to take the next step, they’ll have to limit their own turnovers and capitalize on their own takeaways.
3 – Minnesota Vikings
I don’t usually mix actual football and fantasy when I’m focusing on the former, but a telltale sign of what the NFL was not ready for in 2012 was me picking Adrian Peterson in the 5th round of my fantasy draft. Behind one of the NFL’s strongest offensive lines, Peterson came several yards shy of breaking the single-season rushing yardage mark, and was the primary reason the Vikings were playing past week 17. The defense isn’t too shabby either, and some new faces on both sides of the ball could keep the ball rolling into 2013.
Even the most fairweather NFL fan knows how much Peterson means to the Vikings, so there’s no need to go into that. What may turn out surprising many is an improved passing game, where newcomer Greg Jennings finally will provide QB Christian Ponder with a reliable #1 target on the outside. TE Kyle Rudolph has already proven to be a Ponder favorite and one of the league’s best in the clutch. On top of all that, you’re looking at that dominant O-Line, featuring the young and quickly rising LT Matt Kalil, underrated C John Sullivan, and the giant and mostly effective Phil Loadholt at RT.
The defense has its share of playmakers, although the pickings are a bit thinner. Jared Allen is still a double-digit sack specialist, but this may be his last year in Minnesota with his contract set to expire in 2014, when he’ll be 32 and looking for a sizable payday. Brian Robison, opposite Allen, is a solid playmaker in his own right. At this point, nobody is sure if 1st round pick Sharrif Floyd is ready to go opposite Kevin Williams, but his natural ability would turn a very good line into one of the best in the league if he manages to put it all together. At linebacker, don’t overlook the addition of ex-Packer Desmond Bishop, and keep overlooking Chad Greenway; he’ll just be doing his thing, making plays on a regular basis.
Causes for Concern:
This is THE year, and apparently the last, that Christian Ponder has to prove he can be the guy. He’s done little to date to make a case in his favor, and with a new toy in Greg Jennings to play with, excuses will be thin at best if Ponder struggles. If the offense is all Peterson, All Day (pun!), then the Vikings are going to have to once again fight tooth and nail if the postseason is to be reached. Somehow, without a passing game to take the pressure off, I don’t see them being able to do it again.
That’s not to mention the very serious concerns in the secondary, where the team is going to need draft pick Xavier Rhodes to make an impact at some point, because beyond him the CB position is a pit of so-sos. The rough, rugged and raging Harrison Smith is the only trustworthy player in the back four, and that’s not a combination suited towards winning in today’s NFL.
If the handful of “what if?” scenarios play out their way, you’re going to see Minnesota taking one of the wildcard spots, I’m convinced. This team has some real talent beyond Peterson, and the league took notice of it last year. Still, there are weaknesses to exploit, and if the quarterback ends up being one of them, it’s hard to see them even matching 10-6. The division is improving around them, and their new faces, draft picks and established veterans better recognize this and improve at a similar rate.
4 – Detroit Lions
On paper, Detroit has a team that should excel in the areas necessary to make consistent postseason runs. 4-12 in 2012 doesn’t exactly compute, when your quarterback is amongst the most proficient in the league and your defense has at least a couple of powerhouses. But, for whatever reason (mostly the defense and one-dimensional offense), this team was a bottom scraper in 2012. They may yet improve in 2013, and there are few excuses for them not to, but it’ll be too much to ask them to overcome their well-balanced division rivals.
Matthew Stafford has been nothing short of outstanding the past two seasons, and you almost can overlook the 17 INTs in 2012 when he was forced to throw the ball a whopping 727 times. Hopefully, newcomer Reggie Bush can help add a direly needed dimension to the Lions’ offensive attack. Not everything can involve Calvin Johnson, regardless of whether he’s the best at his position in the NFL (he is). Brandon Pettigrew needs to become more of a factor as well, as a good combination of him and Bush will free up Megatron and make Stafford much more effective at spreading the ball around. According to Football Outsiders, who do some great statistical work, the Lions had the best pass protection in football last year, only giving up 27 sacks on a ridiculous amount of dropbacks.
Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are a powerful duo at DT, but if they can’t play up to their potential, the rest of the subpar defensive unit will suffer. It’s way, way too early to think that Ezekiel Ansah will have an impact at DE. A raw prospect coming out of the draft, reports so far have been mixed on his ability to break into the starting lineup. I’d expect to see him in on obvious passing downs, however, and with his natural athleticism he should at least cause some chaos from his end. The only other defensive playmaker appears to be FS Louis Delmas, but if his left knee can’t hold up, the entire secondary could collapse, much like it did in 2012 when Delmas missed time. Some good news in Detroit’s secondary: rookie Darius Slay has shown some things in the preseason, and will at least rotate at nickel/dimeback and may very well end the season starting opposite Chris Houston.
Causes For Concern:
There are no guarantees, despite two solid seasons in Miami, that Reggie Bush is going to be the answer to the offense’s question of ‘how do we open things up?’. If they gameplan around his strengths, and feed him a healthy amount of carries on top of plenty of screens and the like, he could be the answer…but can he handle that sort of workload? Nobody behind him can, and much hinges on his ability to produce. As a run blocking team, Detroit were porous in 2012, but I will give them a flier simply because the talent running the ball was nothing if not ineffective. We’ll see how they do with somebody who knows what he’s doing this year.
Much more worrisome is a defense that has issues at all three levels. Lack of depth and underachieving on the line, a lack of any proven quality in the linebacking corps, and a secondary that has potential but was too often burned in 2012. This entire unit was as much responsible for Stafford’s 727 pass attempts as the lack of a running game was, and even if this is a pass-first league, that lack of balance is going to result in 4-12 or similarly horrid seasons every time. The real problem is the team did almost no upgrading on defense in the offseason. Beyond Ansah and a handful of depth/roleplayer types, Detroit is going to be fielding the same defense as 2012 and crossing their fingers that certain guys step their games up and improve the play of the rest of the unit. A tall order.
Honestly, I’d be surprised if the Lions won 6 games this year. For whatever reason, the brass has let the defense become a gaping hole of inadequacy over the years. The drafting of Suh and Fairley was a start, and if Ansah turns into something that’s another step forward, but the back seven is just not up to snuff. For a team who has a QB who is more than capable of getting things done, the best WR in football and one of the most versatile HBs you can have, a 6-10 season is going to look embarrassing. However embarrassing it is, that’s what I see happening.