NFL Season Predictions Part 9: The NFC North

NFC North

The Green Bay Packers

In Rodgers we trust.

Record Prediction: 12-4 (4-2)

The NFC North drew the AFC North for their non-conference games, which will be a difficult task for all of these teams. The Packers would have been a 12 win team last season had it not been for this play:

All of the other teams in this division have major consistency issues, so the Packers are the safe pick to win this division.

What to like: (This is a bit painful because I have been programed to hate everything about the Green Bay Packers)

Aaron Rodgers is annoying to fans of anyone but the Packers, but it is hard to ignore the impact he has on this team. As long as Rodgers is on the roster and is healthy the Packers are guaranteed to win a minimum of 10 games a season. His career touchdown to interception ratio is 171 to 46, including 39 and 8 last season. I don’t want to admit that he is better than Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but the numbers he has been able to put up over the past few years are hard to ignore.

Greg Jennings may be gone, but Rodgers doesn’t care. He loves the versatility of Randall Cobb and expects to highlight him in this offense again this season. Cobb led all Packer receivers in nearly every category last season; leading in targets (104), receptions (80), yards (954) and plays of 20 yards or more (17). Rodgers confessed his love for Cobb in an interview with the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel where he said:

“Randall sees the game through the eyes of a quarterback because he was a quarterback. So he understands timing and spacing and when he has to get out of his breaks. He’s an excellent – just like Jordy is – an excellent second reaction guy. When I have to come out of the pocket, where in the past you might have seen some of the balls go to Greg and Jordy, Randall caught more than anybody last year because he was healthy and he also has really good reactions.”

“I think he can be a 100-catch guy. We haven’t had that here in a while. But I think he can. I think he’s a special player. As long as he can stay healthy, I think he’s going to be a big-time star for us.”

Cobb is joined by Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jermichael Finley, all respectable receiving options in their own right. Jones broke out last season scoring 14 touchdowns. That number will be hard to repeat, but he should be able to fulfill a bigger role in the absence of Gennings.

Do the Green Bay Packers finally have a running game to go along with their high-powered passing attack? They added Eddie Lacy (Alabama), a running back that has the ability to be a 1,000 yard rusher. Lacy probably will not be asked to rush for 1,000 yards, but he should be effective enough to at least threaten defenses with a running game.

Concerns:

It really is amazing the Rodgers was able to put up the numbers he put up in 2012 because his offensive line did not help him out very much. Rodgers was sacked 51 times last season. All it takes is one hit for Rodgers to go down and then a 12-4 team turns into a team that battles to get to 8-8.

Everyone questions this teams defense, especially their run defense. They gave up an average of 116 yards per game on the ground last season and were torched by guys like Adrian Peterson and Colin Kaepernick. Their 3-4 defense may not be set up to stop the run as well as it could, but with Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji they still can be effective enough as a whole. Getting destroyed in the running game is not as much of a concern when Rodgers is capable of scoring in a hurry.

Mentioning Mason Crosby here is kind of laughable, but he has to be a concern. Crosby was 21 of 33 last season and somehow the Packers were confident enough in him to bring him back for anther season. For better or worse, kickers can have a huge impact in close games and Crosby is not a guy I would want kicking a game winning field goal.

Bold Prediction:

Not very bold considering Rodgers said he wanted to get him 100 catches, but I will say Cobb leads the team in receiving and scores double digit touchdowns, with a few being a result of some rushes out of the backfield.

The Detroit Lions

Can’t escape their own history

Record Prediction: 9-7 (4-2)

The Detroit Lions were 10-6 in 2011, but then in typical Lions’ fashion, the team underachieved finishing 4-12 last season. Lion critics poke fun at the Lion franchise’s history, with their 0-16 record a few years ago and all of their years underachieving. I get it, but the Pittsburgh Pirates just capped off their first winning season in 20 years so why can’t the Lions finally be as good as they should be based on their pretty darn talented roster? At 9-7 the Lions would likely still miss the playoffs, but I do like the Lions to be in the hunt for a Wild Card and maybe even be in the running to win the division.

What to like:

The defensive line may be the most intimidating in all of football. Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh has to be the leader of this defense. Obviously there is some personality issues with Suh who has caused some trouble with late hits in the past. The word from Detroit camp is that Suh is taking the leadership role well. If he deals with the attitude, but keeps his competitive fire, it is hard to ignore his talent. He had eight sacks last season, a pretty high number for defensive tackle. Only the Bengal’s Geno Atkins had more with 12.5 last season.

Nick Fairley lines up beside Suh and brings anther 5.5 sacks to this defensive line. When a quarterback walks to the line and sees these two guys in front of him he has every reason in the world to be a bit scared. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly I guess) the Lions used another high pick to get Ziggy Ansah with the fifth pick in this years draft. He will line up as the defensive end opposite Jason Jones, the acquisition from the Seattle Seahawks. This defensive line will get pressure on the quarterback week in and week out and with poor offensive lines in Chicago and Green Bay they could really run up the sack statistics as well.

This offense was above average last season and with the addition of Reggie Bush it has become scary good. Bush’s career high in receptions was 73 in 2007 when he was working with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. His career high in rushing yards came in 2011, when he rushed for 1,086 yards. In Detroit he will bring both his running and catching abilities to be a very dangerous weapon for this offense. The Lions have needed a running back like Bush for a number of years. Personally, I always had hope for Javid Best, but his unfortunate concussion issues got in the way and we never will know what he could have been capable of. Bush will up the level of this offense a significant amount.

The one guy that is going to fall in love with Bush is quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford has finally put the injury concerns behind him, having played in two consecutive full seasons (knock on wood) and has been near the top of the league in passing yards both of those ear (4,967 yards in 2012 and 5,038 in 2011). There are two things that Stafford critics use to knock him:

  1. His 2012 touchdown to interception ratio was 20 to 17, showing some glaring consistency and ball protection issues.
  2. His success is tied to the league’s best wide receiver: Calvin Johnson who brought 122 receptions for 1,964 years in 2012.

The first issue has some validity, Stafford does need to protect the ball better overall, but look at his numbers the previous season when he threw 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Obviously the interceptions look a lot better when you score a lot of touchdowns, so yes, it would be better if he cut that number down to 10 or so, but if this offense is able to score to the level of their offensive talent then they can get away with the higher interceptions, much like Drew Brees in New Orleans.

Calvin Johnson is a stud and he does elevate the level of the guys around him, including Stafford, but the quarterback still deserves some credit. We have seen plenty of mediocre and terrible quarterbacks continue to be awful despite having a great receiver to throw to (Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona for example). If you take away Johnson from this offense, Stafford probably would not throw for 5,000 yards, but he still is a solid starting quarterback. I know I would take him on my team.

Concerns:

I probably should mention their defensive secondary here, because they are still an unproven group, but I am not going to waste any more space than that in doing so.

The biggest issue with the Detroit Lions is a lack of control and discipline. With this issue all fingers have to be pointed at head coach Jim Schwartz

Schwartz should have the shortest leash of any head coach not named Rex Ryan. This team has far too much talent to not be in the hunt for a playoff spot. At some point the Lions front office has to move on. I get that Schwartz is the same coach that got this team to the playoffs in 2011, but he just is not the guy to deal with some of the personalities on the team.

I have said this before, but I will write it here too; if the Detroit Lions fire Schwartz, the team’s talent may be enough to get Nick Saban to leave Alabama and give the NFL a chance. I think Saban may be getting a little bored winning National Championship after National Championship. If he was offered the Lion’s job he would look at the talent across the board (especially the defensive line) and would take the job in a heartbeat. Saban is just what the Lions need. As a fan of the NFC North, I would be scared of the Lions if that was their future.

Bold Prediction:

I have two for this team:

  1. Reggie Bush finishes the season ranked second on the team in catches, only behind Calvin Johnson.
  2. The defensive line itself combines for at least 20 total sacks.

The Chicago Bears

Clear eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Finish

Record Prediction: 8-8 (2-4)

The Bears are a tough team to peg. The past two seasons they have jumped out of the gate quick. The Bears started 7-1 last season before going 3-5 through their last eight games to, finishing 10-6 (losing the tie-breaker with the Minnesota Vikings). Maybe this year they are able to put together a full season, but my gut says this team struggles a bit, finishing 8-8.

What to like:

It is a new regime in Chicago, with Marc Trestman taking over the head coaching role. There is not much proof that Trestman can make it as a head coach in the NFL, but he does bring a impressive resume (by Canadian standards), having led the quarterback of the Montreal Alouettes to two consecutive MVPs. He is not likely to elevate Jay Cutler to MVP status, but he should be able to utilize his strong arm.

Rumor has it that the Bears have finally solidified their offensive line and if that is even half true, Cutler and the offense should be able to be more productive. The success of the offensive line could elevate the success of Brandon Marshall. Marshall is a dominant. There are few, if any, defensive backs who are able to prevent him from getting the ball in his hands. This is pretty essential when Jay Cutler is your quarterback, because he typically has no time to go through his progressions to find the open receiver. Marshall was the reception leader of the Bears by a long shot. He caught 118 balls for 1,508 yards and 11 touchdowns. Earl Bennett, who was second on the team in receptions had only 29 catches for 367 yards.

An improved offensive line in the passing game, should also result in an improved offensive line in the running game, opening the door for Matt Forte to have a big season. He has given the Bears nearly 1,000 yards in each of the last five seasons, taking some of the attention away from Marshall and the offense. It is pretty simple, if it were not for Forte’s production, Jay Cutler would likely get hit twice as much because of the constant pass rush that teams would bring.

It is impossible to mention the positives of the Bears without mentioning the defense. The Bears had 24 interceptions last season and eight of those were returned for touchdowns. Tim Jennings led the team and the league with nine interceptions. Charles Tillman had three interceptions and returned all of them for touchdowns. The secondary is elite and the pass rush is not to shabby itself. Julius Peppers quietly had 11.5 sacks in the 2012 season and as long as he is bringing pressure, quarterbacks will make some nervous mistakes.

Concerns:

I had to think about this one a bit, because this team seems strong enough to be competitive in the division, yet I have them dropping off to an 8-8 season. The main reason for this is because of the offensive line. The team has had a poor offensive line for several years and until they prove to be solid, it is hard to put any faith in this team. Jay Cutler is also hard to trust. He has the arm strength, but he also has a terrible habit of staring at Brandon Marshall and no one else. This will lead to a ton of big plays for Marhsall, but it likely will also lead to a ton of forced interceptions by Cutler.

Bold Prediction:

This one is not very bold, because defensive touchdowns are hard to repeat one year to the next, but I say that the Bears defense takes a step backward in interceptions and touchdowns. (This is probably the worst prediction I have).

The Minnesota Vikings

Built to win now……oh wait I think we forgot something

Record Prediction: 7-9 (2-4)

The 2012 Vikings season was a memorable one thanks in large part to a historical performance by the running back. They exceeded every expectation (except for KFAN’s Paul Allen, who just predicts a 10-6 season year after year). If you looked at last year’s roster and thought that it was a 10-win team then you should probably go get your head checked. Entering the 2013 season, there is no doubt that the Vikings are an improved team on paper, but that does not mean they are an 11 or 12 win team. It is possible to improve on paper while taking a step backwards in the win column. This is exactly what I think this team does, finishing the season 7-9.

What to like:

I could write 20,000 words on how good Adrian Peterson is, but instead I will just let you enjoy the greatness of his 2012 season.

The Vikings signed former Packer wide-receiver Greg Jennings in the offseason, filling a glaring hole at the position. Gennings only started in five games for the Packers last season, but prior to that he caught at least 900 yards in each of his four seasons with the team. He may struggle to get near 1,000 yards in the Vikings offense, but in addition to his on the field production, he should be a great asset to a young receiving core.

Probably the most exciting receiver on the team is rookie Cordarrelle Patterson. I admit, Patterson was not my favorite wide receiver coming out of the draft. I thought the NFL readiness and the proven route running ability of Robert Woods (USC),who ended up falling to the Bills, but Patterson probably is the more explosive player of the two. With Percy Harvin gone, Patterson will be asked to play a role in the return game. This is likely where Patterson will show his speed and quickness, at least initially. He should have an increased role in the offense as the season goes on and should have a very bright future.

The Vikings also have Pro Bowl MVP Kyle Rudolphlining up at tight-end. Rudolph was dominant in the red-zone last season, scoring nine touchdowns, and with more options in the passing game he could find himself open over the middle more frequently in all situations.

Defensively, the team has some key pieces. Rookie additions should play a key part on this defense. Sharrif Floyd will be asked to improve upon run defense that was ranked 11th in the league with an average of 105.8 rushing yards against. That number is respectable, but some of the most glaring issues in the 2012 season were against teams with strong running attacks like the Buccaneers and Redskins.

Rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes will pair with second year player Harrison Smith in a secondary that ranked 24th in the league in average passing yards against per game at 244. Rhodes has been compared to Browner of the Seahawks and though comparisons can be overrated, it would be great if Rhodes lived up to that expectation.

Concerns:

Everyone knows what is coming here. This team seems built to win now. The secondary is unproven and may struggle and the run defense may not be one of the elite in the league, but it should be respectable. There are finally good receivers to work with on offense and the running game remains the best in the league.

The one thing that remains an issue is quarterback. The elephant in the room is Christian Ponder.

I have sat on the fence with my opinion about Ponder for long enough and it is time to just have an opinion.

My opinion is that he is not not the answer for the Vikings. As long as Peterson is running like he did in 2012, this team has the chance to put together a stretch of wins that may get them in the playoffs, but with Ponder they are never going to be able to do much more than that.

Check out this video of Ponder at the ESPYs. He looks intimidated even standing next to good quarterbacks.

The problem that I have with Ponder is that he just seems far to comfortable off the field and far too uncomfortable on the field. I heard an interview with Ponder over the summer where he said was asked what he had been up to in the offseason. He said he was enjoying his time with his wife, going camping out west and just taking a break. He then was asked if he had ever considered holding a camp in Florida with some of his receivers, like so many other quarterbacks in the league do (even Mark Sanchez). He answered by saying that it is hard to get the guys together to do such a thing.

This is a perfect example to prove my point. He is too comfortable just being a starting quarterback in the league and does not show any initiative to want to improve. Multiple teams in the league have camps for their receivers and quarterbacks, so do not try to tell us that it is hard to get the guys together. You are getting paid millions of dollars to toss a football around….go do it.

Ponder does not have the drive to be a good quarterback in this league. His talent is also lacking, but if he had the drive of a Robert Griffin III to go with the lack of talent he has, at least we would know that he is working his butt off to get better. Maybe the media fails at highlighting his work ethic, but something tells me it is not that simple.

All of that being said Ponder has no excuse for not performing on the field this season. They have receivers and Adrian Peterson is still standing behind him. Only Blaine Gabbert averaged less yards per attempt than Ponder, who averaged 6.08 yards. This leads me to my next concern about the Vikings: offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Adrian Peterson is the only reason that Musgrave is still employed by the Vikings this season. He calls sweep plays over and over again and Peterson eventually breaks one for 80 yards. The passing game was very vanilla last season, maybe because the coach was coddling Ponder or maybe because he just has no faith in him, but the offense is going to have to open up with the improved receivers.

When it comes down to it, the Vikings have a very difficult schedule. Look at the quarterbacks and the teams the Vikings have to ace from week six to 12.

  • Eli Manning
  • Aaron Rodgers (who is probably out for blood after what Greg Jennings said about him.
  • Tony Romo
  • Robert Griffen III
  • Russel Wilson
  • Rodgers again

I have them going 0-6 in that stretch of games. The game against the Browns in week three may be the only game all season that the Vikings are favored in. The schedule is a major concern for this team.

Bold Prediction:

 

All done with the regular season predictions. Football season is finally here!

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