Most assume that the NFC North was the worst division in football because the Detroit Lions went 0-16 last year. However, the division had an overall record of 25-39, third worst in the NFL, ahead of the AFC West and NFC West.
The Minnesota Vikings won the division with a 10-6 record, despite issues (once again) at the QB position and a variety of injuries, ranging from Madieu Williams' neck to Jared Allen's shoulder to E.J. Henderson's toes. How good are their chances to repeat as champions of the NFC North this year? I will examine each team in the division and break down their chances of dethroning the Vikings.
Jay Cutler is the main reason the Chicago Bears could challenge the Vikings this year in the NFC North. While everyone and their mother has heard about his 17-20 record as a starter, people need to remember that he compiled that record on a team with one of worst defenses in the NFL.
The bottom line is that Cutler is a young, franchise quarterback who should be entering the prime of his career. His problem is that he left a fantastic young receiving corps back in Denver (Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal) to go to the Bears.
Their receiving corps consists mainly of Devin Hester, whose specialty is returning kicks, not catching passes. Let me just throw some names out there: Rashied Davis, Earl Bennett, Brandon Rideau. Including Hester, those are the Bears top four receivers. Two of them have never caught a pass in the NFL, and Rashied Davis has 74 career receptions. I rest my case.
In stark contrast, the Bears RB situation is in good hands, with the likes of Matt Forte and Kevin Jones, along with the other Adrian Peterson. Forte is a serious threat to catch the ball out of the backfield as well and had a TD in each of his games against the Vikings last year. The offensive line should be decent, and the addition of Orlando Pace, assuming he can stay healthy, should help them significantly.
However, the defense is a concern. A top-five ranked defense a few years ago when the team reached the Super Bowl, the unit looked old and slow at various points last year. This team is used to being carried by its defense and winning close, low-scoring games. While the Bears defense did lead the league with 32 takeaways, it finished 21st in yards/gm and 16th in pts allowed/gm. On top of this, Adrian Peterson owns the Bears, averaging 138.5 yds/gm against them.
Chances of dethroning Vikings: 60%
Let me be the first to say that the Green Bay Packers are much, much better than their 6-10 record indicates. They lost a ridiculous seven games by four points or less last season, and they have won five of six games against the Vikings during the Childress era.
The Packers' offense is in good shape, with a strong receiving core and Ryan Grant in the backfield. Aaron Rodgers played well last year and will continue to play a chip on his shoulder because of the whole Brett Favre situation. He should only get better.
The offensive line is a bit of a concern for the Packers, as Aaron Rodgers was sacked at the sixth-highest rate of any QB in the NFL last season. However, part of this was due to the fact that Rodgers consistently held on to the ball for too long.
The Packers' main challenge this coming year will be their defense. While B.J. Raji, the massive DT from Boston College, fell into their laps at No. 9 in the draft, and they traded up to get LB Clay Matthews, the fact remains that it takes time to adjust from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense. A team cannot plug all of the holes at once and this usually leaves one or two weak positions. The defense last year was 22nd in pts/gm and 20th in yds/gm, meaning that they were in the bottom tier of the league.
The secondary is still very strong with Charles Woodson and Al Harris, but they are not getting any younger.
Chances of dethroning Vikings: 35%
I like the Lions' draft and it has the potential to be a great draft—if Stafford ends up being a franchise QB. But that isn't going to happen this year. Very, very few rookie QB's come in their first year and do what Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco did last year. Plus, those two QBs had weapons to work with, along with quality defenses.
The Lions young core of Calvin Johnson at WR and Kevin Smith at RB should be very good for years to come. The problem is that their QBs got sacked 52 times last year, third most in the NFL.
I'm not usually one for stats, but here is a recipe for going 0-16: give up 404.4 yds/gm (worst in NFL), 517 pts (32.3/gm, also worst in the NFL).
To put this in perspective, they gave up 500 more yards and 50 more points than the St. Louis Rams, the second worst defensive team—that's how bad their defense was last year.
Their first two picks of this year's draft were a QB and a TE. Not going to help the defense much.
The Lions should improve this year (they can only go up), but seeing them winning more than 4-5 games would be generous.
Chances of dethroning Vikings: 0%
As long as the Vikings QBs do not turn the ball over haphazardly and Adrian Peterson stays healthy, the Vikings should repeat as NFC North Champions. And if Brett Favre comes out of retirement to stick it to the Packers, that will only increase their odds of repeating.