The NFC North: A Pre-Draft Mock Season
In my running pre-draft mock season series, I had every intention of going about publishing each division in a methodical manner. Then the Chicago Bears traded up for some guy named Cutler. Apparently he is a pretty big deal.
Actually, "big deal" might be an understatement, as the acquisition of said quarterback not only changes the landscape of the NFC North, but also of the draft and the whole National Football League as we know it. With such a significant event coming to light, I had to skip straight to the NFC North.
So here is to completely screwing up my groove. Thanks, Jay.
At the beginning of the off-season, my money was hands down on last year's NFC North Champions, the Minnesota Vikings to make some small, but fundamentally significant adjustments via the free agency to fill in the last couple puzzle pieces of a Super Bowl caliber team.
Empirically, or at least since the dawn of the Wilf era, the Vikings have been relatively aggressive during this time in the off-season, acquiring names such as Bernard Berrian and Jared Allen. With the old rumor being that the Vikings are just one quarterback away from a Super Bowl, I was one of many of the belief that the Vikings would do what they needed to make it happen.
And they did. I guess.
But in my mind--and I am not alone in this thinking--Sage Rosenfels is far from what I consider the man to get the job done. Other than that, the Vikings have been surprisingly quiet in the free agency, as well as the Bear, Packers, and Lions.
To put it lightly, the 2008 Lions were horrible. Of course, this is no news to anyone. That said however, I am of the opinion that, with an 0-16 record, there really is no where to go but up.
Holding the first overall pick, as well as two picks before the NFC North Champion Vikings (1st and 20th overall), the Lions have a plethora of options to consider. It is fairly clear that Detroit will go for Georgia quarterback, Matt Stafford in round one. After that, there are still a lot of areas that could use some attention.
But this analysis is not about what may or may not happen in the draft. We'll save that for another time. Let us examine for a moment what the Lion's season would look like if the season started today.
From the playing level, the Lions currently do not have much more going for them than the 0-16 team that finished last season with their tails between their legs.
Knowing full well that the Lion's seek to build their team through the draft, I will acknowledge the most significant changes that have happened in Detroit: the coaching staff.
I believe the Lions have made a strategically savvy decision in appointing a successful and long-tenured defensive coordinator as their head coach in Jim Schwartz. As the old adage goes: defense wins championships, as has certainly been the case in most recent memory with the first ranked, new-age "Steel Curtain" taking the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLIII. Not coincidentally, the Steelers' head coach, Mike Tomlin was also a former defensive coordinator for the Lions' division rival, the Minnesota Vikings.
A man at the helm who has a firm foundation and understanding of the term "defense" and its fundamental applications will serve the NFL's 32nd ranked defense well.
External (Opponent) Analysis:
Ironically enough, though the Lions' schedule is seemingly more difficult than it was last season, even in they hypothetical event of the having the same roster as last season, I could see Detroit pulling out wins.
There are a handful of teams that the Lions could upset, but before I get ahead of myself, let us breakdown the 2009 opponents:
Within the division, I see the Lions pulling an upset on the Minnesota Vikings, if anyone, most likely in a home game scenario similar to the upset in 2007. Last season, the NFC North Champions narrowly escaped two more losses to their tally against this struggling Lions club. For some reason, the Vikings struggle when playing the Lions, though they seldom actually lose the game.
Still, it is too close for comfort, and if there is any rival in this increasingly stacked division that is looking to be upset, it is the Vikings.
Looking outside the North, I see home games against both last year's Super Bowl contenders, as well as a Redskins team that has been beefing up the defense to supplement an already capable offense.
Just for the sake of their poor showing last year, the Rams could also be upset, though I personally believe they may have a stronger showing this season.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity for a Lions victory this season will be against the Cleveland Browns, who now look at the road ahead of them in an uncertain quarterback scenario and in the absence of Kellen Winslow. Seeing as it is a home game, the Lions could most easily capitalize on this opportunity.
I honestly do not see an away scenario in which the Lions can conceivably secure a victory, however. Initially, one would be inclined speculate that Detroit could pull wins against Seattle, San Francisco, and Cincinnati.
Yet Seattle's greatest downfall last season was not one of lack of talent, but rather lack of depth. The injuries the starting lineup suffered last season marred the overall success of the team. Plus, the addition of T.J. Houshmanzadeh will prove to be an effective tool when coupled with the now healthy three time pro bowl quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck.
San Francisco made the best decision of the year when they fired head coach Mike Nolan and replaced him with "Samurai" Mike Singletary. Ever since Singletary stepped in, 'Frisco has been on the rise, and I expect the off-season to only improve on that trend.
But here is the bottom line, folks:
Optimistic Record: 5-11
Pessimistic Record: 1-15
My Gut Tells Me: 4-12
Green Bay Packers
The Packers surprised a lot of people last season, and not necessarily in a good way.
Coming off the bat, Packers fans released one massive, unison sigh of relief as Aaron Rodgers eased a turbulent transition from long-time star quarterback, Brett Favre when he led the Pack to an impressive week one home victory against the Vikings on Monday Night Football.
After week one, the Packers enjoyed moderate success, winning three of the next six games leading up to their Bye week, including a 34-14 massacre of the Indianapolis Colts in week 7.
Coming off the Bye, the Packers lost momentum that they would never truly regain, losing two heart-breakers against the Tennessee Titans 16-19 and the Vikings 28-27 respectively.
The only two victories they enjoyed for the rest of the season would come in a week 11 stomping of the Chicago Bears, 37-3, and a week 16 pity game against the Lions, winning by a margin of 31-21—both division games.
At the end of the day, one can only wonder, on a roster that was virtually identical to the one that led them to a 13-3 record and the NFC Championship game in 2007 (save for the quarterback position), what happened?
Or even better: What is going to happen in 2009?
The Packers have really done nothing notable in the off-season. To this point, I can only speculate that it is because...well...they don't really need to do anything.
The offense is set up for success with a competent QB, a threatening receiving core in Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and TE Donald Lee, and a running game that, while not always explosive, can move the chains when needed.
Leaks in the defense, which I attribute to injuries more than anything, are the source of Green Bay's woes. Looking ahead to this next season, I expect to see the same aggression from Linebacker A.J. Hawk and Corners Charles Woodson and Al Harris.
However, the defensive line is certainly nothing to brag about. What Green Bay has in pass disruption ability, the lack in pass-rush. If they want to solidify their standing in this competitive division, they will have to bulk up the front guys.
For the Packers, the regular season schedule is a manageable affair. Though there are some rough patches that they will have to work through, the majority of the schedule looks feasible, if the Pack can keep on their toes:
Home - Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota, San Francisco, Seattle, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Dallas
Away - Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota, Arizona, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay
Looking at division games, the Packers should have no problem picking apart the Lions this year. I am of the personal belief that the Packers will grow into a stronger team in an overall stronger division than last season.
That said, Chicago looks to have a lot of promise bringing in Jay Cutler, and with the combined powers of Matt Forte, Jay Cutler, and Devin Hester, the Bears might simply have more firepower than the Packers. I could see Green Bay, at best, splitting games with Chicago.
The Packers will pick up at least one game against Minnesota this season. Since Brad Childress took the helm of the Vikings, their record against the Packers has been less than favorable, sporting a 1-5 record in the past three years.
For whatever reason, be it karma or otherwise, the Vikings seem to drop games to the Packers like Troy Williamson drops passes.
As for the rest of the schedule, the Packers have but four games in which they are particularly in the red: Arizona, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Dallas.
Only two of these games I see as nearly impossible to win, those being Pittsburgh and Dallas.
Optimistic Record: 11-5
Pessimistic Record: 8-8
My Gut Tells Me: 10-6
And now, ladies and gentlemen, may I present: The club of the hour—the Chicago Bears.
The Bears were incredibly close to the playoffs last season. A win by the Vikings, and a loss to the Texans in week 17 sealed their fate and allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to miraculously sneak into the wild card game against Minnesota.
That said, the Bears were seemingly on the road to another mediocre season, posing the same problems coming into the off-season that plagued the NFC North as a whole last year: a lack of a foundational quarterback to move the ball around the field.
Then Jay Cutler came. At a price.
But regardless of the three draft pics and the quarterback they traded for Cutler, the Bears have finally acquired a quarterback who can actually make Devin Hester a deep ball threat and possibly become the quarterback to throw for over 3,000 yards for only the third time in franchise history.
The Bears now have the tools they need to put them in the running as a legitimate contender again, at least on the offensive side of the ball: a young RB of whom it is safe to say that his best days of football are still ahead of him, a franchise quarterback, and at least one receiver with the ability to gain massive yardage after the catch.
On top of that, Lovie Smith has been to a Super Bowl before. It is no new territory for this team that just made it there in 2006. This could give them an edge as they build into the 2009 season.
I am a firm believer that the Bears can win any game that is dealt to them this season, factoring in the occasional upset of course.
Let's look at the opponents:
Home - Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota, Arizona, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh
Away - Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota, Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Cincinnati
The hardest home game would seem to be against Pittsburgh, but here is what gets me thinking the Bears can pull off a win: The Arizona Cardinals lost in a close dual with the Steelers with a ferocious pass game, but little run game to speak of (though it certainly improved in the post-season).
The Bears, on the other hand, can throw off the "Steel Curtain" with their ability to demonstrate proficiency in the run and pass game, through an already proven Matt Forte, and what Chicago fans are already claiming as the "So Long Denver, Go Long Devin" connection between Cutler and Hester.
Teams on potential upset alert, however, would fall mostly in the "away" games, by teams like the Seahawks, 49ers, and Falcons.
Seattle will have more juice with a healthy roster and a new star receiver and the 'niners have been building momentum since Singletary took over. Either of these teams at home could spark an unforeseen upset.
With Matt Ryan at helm and Michael Turner in the backfield, the Falcons have youth and momentum that could also upset a strong Bears team.
Overall, I have confidence in this Bears roster:
Optimistic Record: 15-1
Pessimistic Record: 10-6
My Gut Tells Me: 12-4
The Vikings have been "one quarterback away from a Super Bowl" for at least two off-seasons. I use parenthesis in that phrase because frankly, it has become cliche.
Yet I stare at the depth charts for hours on end, and can reach no other conclusion but just that.
There are, however, a couple factors that could throw a wrench into the Vikings Super Bowl aspirations even if the quarterback situation is truly resolved.
Vikings fans wait uncomfortably for the verdict of the case against Pat Williams and Kevin Williams for alleged violations of the NFL's drug policies, set to be dealt on June 15th.
The outcome of that combined with the order of teams the Vikings end up playing in the first four weeks of the season could play a key factor in determining the champion of this heated division in 2009.
The Vikings still have many unanswered questions beyond these significant looming unknowns, however.
How effective will the acquisition of Sage Rosenfels be in the Vikings efforts to solidify a quarterback? I am fairly confident that the Vikings will enjoy at least moderate success with this strategy, but will still stick with Tarvaris Jackson as starting quarterback, as I highlighted in an earlier article.
The main thing the Vikings have going for them in 2009 is their age. For the last couple of seasons, the Vikings have had a very young football team that has, this past season in particular, grown into a contender. I expect this trend to continue going into 2009.
Cedric Griffin began turning heads at the Corner position this past season and it has showed through a recently negotiated contract extension. Opposite of Griffin, Antoine Winfield, though not necessarily young, earned his first trip to the Pro-Bowl through his stellar performance in the regular season.
Sidney Rice, a young receiver, will (fingers crossed) enjoy his first fully healthy season, and it will be interesting to see how he elaborates on the short glimpses of stardom he has experienced the last two seasons.
Then of course, who can forget Adrian Peterson, the NFL's 2007 rookie of the year and 2008 league leader in rushing yards gained. Still on the rise, Peterson will continue to make big plays for the Vikings.
The Vikings, like the Bears, have the potential to beat any opponent they face this season, though I admit it is much more of a stretch for me to say it.
Home - Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, San Francisco, Seattle, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and the New York Giants
Away - Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Arizona, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Carolina
At home, the Vikings have a considerably easier schedule, which doesn't necessarily work to the advantage of a team that finished last season 6-2 at home. The more difficult games will be on the road and the Vikings have struggled on the road in the past.
However, Minnesota has had great success against the New York Giants the past two seasons, clobbering them in New York in 2007 and pulling off a narrow win for the division title in 2008. Without Plaxico Burress, quarterback Eli Manning has struggled to find his go-to guy in the pass game, which has weakened the team's ability to put points on the board.
Baltimore, on the other hand, will be an interesting game, as the Ravens have signed former Viking Pro-Bowl Center, Matt Birk to their already solid roster. If there was a home game that would call going stale for the Vikings, it would be this one.
Looking at the away games, Minnesota proved last season that they can beat Arizona in Arizona—and by a good margin at that.
The games that could pose a problem for the Vikings are against Pittsburgh and Carolina. It is just hard to walk onto Heinz field and win a game on the road against the Steelers, and Carolina did not lose a single regular season home game last year.
Whatever the case, Minnesota's job will be motivating the offense to score points, as the defense clearly carried most of the weight last season.
Optimistic Record: 14-2
Pessimistic Record: 8-8
My Gut Tells Me: 11-5
If there is one thing to say about the NFC North, it is to look for a stronger showing than last season on all fronts. The Lions have nowhere to go but up. Green Bay looks to improve their game with a virtually identical roster to that of 2008. The Bears look to their new leader, Jay Cutler to put some points on the board, while Minnesota will move forward with a more mature team under the helm of Sage Rosenfels and/or Tarvaris Jackson.
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