NFC North: Up for Grabs?
I would not go as far as saying that the NFC North was the worst division in football last year. That distinction falls on either the AFC or NFC West, where between the two divisions, only one team had a winning record. That team, of course, made it to the Super Bowl and lost.
But, that is neither here nor there. All four teams in a division can be considerably bad, but one team still does need to win one more game than the rest to win the division. Yes, the NFC North has the easiest scheduling in football this season (on paper), but what people are not talking about is how teams still need to win those games.
There is a difference between a team that goes 10-6 against bad teams and a team that goes 4-12. That difference is the that the 10-6 team beat the teams that it should have beat, which says something about the preparation of the team.
So, who is going to win the NFC North?
Are the Packers improved enough to switch their record around from 6-10 to 10-6 (which I believe would be enough to win the division once again)?
Did the Vikings do anything to lessen their ability to win games, and lose the division crown?
Do we even need to talk about the Lions?
Well, the answer to all of those questions is next.
Let's start with the Packers, who had no problem putting up points last season. They averaged over 26 per game, and gave up a little over 23 per game. So, why did they go 6-10?
That is because they never could win a close game. Only one of their six wins came with a margin of less than ten points (24-19 opening game win over the Vikings). And, seven of their ten losses came with a margin of four points or less.
A major sign of team transformation is winning close games that they lost before. And, if they can turn around three or four of those losses, the Packers would be a 10-6 or 11-5 team this season.
The cause of most of those close losses was the fact that the Green Bay Packers could not stop the run. They gave up almost 132 yards per game on the ground, which was 26th in the League last year. Making more stops on defense will allow their potent offense to have more possessions, and allow them to put up the points they know they can put up to put the game out of reach.
With the draft picks of BJ Raji and Clay Matthews, and getting a healthy year out of Nick Barnett, I believe the Packers are going to improve their defense enough to change the outcomes of some of those close games.
They won't win them all, but I believe that with the strong secondary they have, and the improvements they have made on defense, that the Packers are going to be a tough win in 2009.
Also, be prepared to hear a lot of "Aaron Rodgers to Greg Jennings" this year.
Coming in underneath the Packers in the running for the NFC North crown, last year, were the Detroit Lions. They became the first team to go an entire 16 game season without pulling out one victory. They came close a few times, but never could quite pull it off.
The Lions were busy during the off-season, shoring up holes on the defense that were much needed. They gave up the most rushing yards per game, were 27th in the defensive passing game, and gave up the most points, as well.
The biggest signing might be 350 pound Nose Tackle Grady Jackson. He is getting up their in age (36), but he can definitely still plug a hole in the gaps of the offensive run game.
The next biggest signing was of OLB Julian Peterson. Teaming his athleticism, with that of their already talented OLB Ernie Sims, can definitely help in the run game, as well as the pass game.
Peterson slipped a little last season in the sack department, but his pass rushing ability is well noted. And, he is not bad at staying with tight ends going down the field, which is something that most defenses need to have due to the resurgence of the TE position in the NFL today.
They also signed Phillip Buchanon and Anthony Henry, both defensive backs with experience. Any help they can get in the secondary is much needed, and will definitely help them win more than zero games.
On offense, the drafting of Matthew Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew, and Derrick Williams will help build a nucleus behind Calvin Johnson and Kevin Smith.
I think, with the upgrades they made on defense, everyone should watch out for Kevin Smith this season. With not being behind by 20 points early, the Lions will be able to run the ball a lot more, and he should have a breakout year.
I say not to sleep on the Lions just yet. They won't be a good team, but they will be better than people are thinking. They might sneak up on a few teams this year.
The Minnesota Vikings won the division last year. They won it with an impressive run at the end of the season, winning five of their last six games, and seven of their last nine games.
They lived and died with their running attack of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, and their run defense, led by the Williams' in the middle.
Their passing offense struggled with Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte leading the way. They added Sage Rosenfels during the off-season, who has had semi-impressive short term runs the past two seasons in Houston when Matt Schaub got hurt.
He has shown flashes of brilliance, and flashes of disaster, so I'm not sure he's that much of an upgrade.
Of course, the talk of the town is that Brett Favre is interested in coming to play for them, and if that happens, they become a legitimate threat to blow the competition away in the NFC North.
I'm not saying they will become Super Bowl contenders, but with the weak schedule they have this season, having a legendary QB like Brett Favre is a five step leap from having Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte lead your team.
And, with the talent and speed of Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin, a lot more open areas will be available for AP and Chester Taylor to run through. And, Favre might just sneak in a few passes to the two WR's, as well.
They stayed pretty stagnant on defense, with no major free agent signings, but did draft an athletic corner in Asher Allen, out of Georgia. I believe the Vikings would best benefit from turning him into a safety, which is not a strong suit in their secondary.
I can see the Vikings going either way this year. They have the talent to make a serious run, but all is hedged on the play of the quarterback. If they don't get Favre, and Rosenfels can step up and supply them with quality play, I don't see anyone in the NFC North stopping them.
But, if they don't get a good season out of their quarterback, they are going to rely too much on their running games (both offensive and defensive) and end up exiting the playoffs in the first round again, or perhaps not even making the playoffs.
The last team to cover is the Chicago Bears. Like the Lions and the Packers, the Chicago Bears have made significant changes to their team for this upcoming season. But, unlike the other two teams, we did it with the addition of just one player: Jay Cutler.
I am not going to pretend like he is the answer to all of the team's problems, but he is definitely going to be the foundation of the change the Bears need to make.
The Bears, like the Packers, struggled in close games. They were 5-5 in games decided by ten points or less. The cause of that bad record was the mistakes made on offense, and in some cases, on defense. But, the play of Kyle Orton was the major cause of some of those losses.
With Jay Cutler at quarterback, he will be able to make the throws that Kyle Orton could not. And, if you put a few extra passes into the hands of Devin Hester, in the open field, more points will be put on the board, guaranteed.
The only issue is that Devin Hester is not a No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL. At least he shouldn't be. I would have liked to have seen the Bears get a No. 1 receiver and slide Hester to the slot, but they did not go after one.
There were talks that they did ask about Anquan Boldin, and about Braylon Edwards, but the asking price was too high for both. My belief is that Anquan Boldin was never truly on the block, and I'm not sure what Cleveland would have asked for in return, seeing as how we didn't have a first round pick, and that is what I heard they wanted most.
If Juaquin Iglesias can come out of camp in good shape, and learn the routes of an outside receiver, I believe Jay Cutler can have enough tools to make a big difference in the Bears offense.
They already have the run game in Matt Forte to open up the passing game, so all they need is a middle-of-the-road type WR corp, and they can put up points at a higher quantity, which is something the Bears struggled with last year.
The defense is another issue they have to address. The line cannot get to the quarterback like they used to, Urlacher doesn't roam the middle like he once did, and the secondary is just troubled.
The drafting of Jarron Gilbert, DJ Moore, Marcus Freeman, and Al Afalava shows that the Bears coaching staff understands this. If they can get those guys to become good NFL players, the Bears defense will be feared like it once was just a few, short years ago.
In summation, the NFC North is not a weak division. There are four solid teams in this division that can do some damage. I do not think it will be long until one of these four teams starts dominating the league, and maybe winning some Super Bowls. There is a lot of young talent in the division, and remember you heard it here first!
My prediction is that the Vikings win the division at 11-5 (losses to Packers, Ravens, Steelers, Bears, and Giants), followed by the Bears and Packers at 10-6, with the Bears owning the tiebreaker for the wild card due to two wins against the Packers. And, coming in fourth, the Lions at 4-12, possibly 5-11.
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