Over the next few weeks, I will preview each NFL division from an Over/Under season win total perspective. All totals and odds to win division courtesy of Bowmans.com as current as the date the article is published.
For additional division previews please find links at the bottom of this article for previews of the NFC South, NFC West and NFC East divisions.
By now the Lion’s 2008 season needs very little introduction. 0-16 was good enough for the NFL’s worst-ever record and almost by default this team can only get better.
Not only did the Lions lose, and lose often last year, they often did it in ugly fashion. They gave up 517 points, had a negative 249 point differential, and ranked almost rock-bottom in most major statistical categories.
One thing in Detroit’s favor was that, when things were all said and done, they had faced the league’s second toughest schedule, having faced opponents with a combined 143-113 record.
The theme for 2009 will be that of new faces and trying to create a winning culture for a franchise that has averaged less than five wins over the last five years and hasn’t even seen the .500 mark in eight years. For Detroit’s sake, hopefully this year’s schedule will be more accommodating as it sets up as only the 21st toughest.
The new faces are plentiful, starting with a new GM in Martin Mayhew, as the Matt Millen era finally comes to an end, a new coach in Jim Schwartz and new offensive and defensive coordinators in Scott Linehan and Gunther Cunningham, respectively.
Mass changes were made on both sides of the ball in an attempt to overhaul the roster and give Schwartz some better parts to work with.
Through the draft, the Lion’s nabbed three players who were arguably the best at their positions and could be starters on the team for years to come. QB Matthew Stafford, TE Brandon Pettigrew and S Louis Delmas will most likely be counted on to contribute at some point this season and could be keys to the revival of this dormant franchise.
Maurice Morris will join Kevin Smith in the backfield and Bryant Johnson should line up opposite Calvin Johnson.
Several potential backups along a marginal offensive line were added, but some such as Jon Jansen and Ephraim Salaam are on the wrong side of 30 and others like Tony Fonotiu haven’t played in the league since 2006. By and large, this group will look very similar to the unit which struggled to create space or time for the offense to operate in 2008.
The Lions' defense, while hard-pressed to be much worse than they were in 2008, may actually have the potential to be the team’s strength in '09. For years, WLB Ernie Sims has struggled with sub-par talent around him, however this year he will be joined by Julian Peterson and Larry Foote, both productive starters in the past for the Seahawks and Steelers, respectively.
The secondary has the potential to have three new starters come opening day if rookie Delmas gets a chance, as well as the additions of Phillip Buchanon from Tampa and Anthony Henry from Dallas.
One of the biggest and most glaring concerns for Detroit this year will be their defensive line. This unit contributed to the 32nd ranking versus the rush and 31st ranking in generating sacks on opposing QBs. While the LBs and secondary made several upgrades, this group remained mostly the same.
The lone key addition is DT Grady Jackson, who is still serviceable, but will be 35 this year and could have trouble holding up for an entire season. Should Jackson start, he will combine with fellow DT Chuck Darby to make half the starters on the line well over 30. Darby will be 33.
While the Lions' schedule is slated to be on the easier side this year, it’s by no means a walk in the park either. The first five weeks will see Detroit play no team with worse than an 8-8 record from last year, including the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in Week Five.
The schedule does lighten up after that, and the Lion’s will have the benefit of playing four teams who will be coming off a short week having played a Monday nighter. Three of those games will be at Ford Field and three of them will take place during the last four weeks of the season, which could help the Lions finish strong.
The pieces are in place for a rebuilding process to begin, and Daunte Culpepper still has enough talent to manage this team until Stafford is ready to take the reins.
It’s not often that even a five-win improvement from the season before would still not be enough to get over the posted win total, however tis’ the case with this year’s Lions. Obviously Detroit won’t go 0-16 again and a four or five-win season seems very probable.
Stranger things have happened and a strong second half to the season could push them over this win total. However, this team had been far too bad, for far too long, for me to be confident trying to justify at least six wins for them this year.
Prediction: Five seems about right, so if I had to I’d bet Under the total, but would prefer to wait and see if the number goes up at all before the season begins.
The Chicago Bears remained competitive throughout the 2008 year and were on their way to securing a playoff spot with three straight home wins in Weeks Fourteen to Sixteen. However, when their playoff hopes came down to the final game of the year, they came up just short by losing in Houston 31-24.
By now, we know that Chicago made arguably the biggest splash this offseason by trading for disgruntled ex-Bronco QB Jay Cutler. A lack of offense has been the achilles heel in Chicago for the past number of years, and passing attacks led by Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton have come up short in gaining Chicago elite status.
Cutler brings with him all the tools necessary to revive an offense, however his new stomping ground won’t offer up nearly the quality of receiving options as the Broncos did.
Devin Hester has the speed to take advantage of Cutler’s cannon arm, however he has yet to prove he can be a consistent No. 1 receiving option, after making a name for himself as a returner. Hester’s stat line read 51 catches for 665 yards and 3 touchdowns last year, hardly the kind of production you are looking for in a No. 1 wideout.
TE Greg Olson has shown he can be dangerous but he alone won’t be enough. Should Cutler miss any time to injury, panic will rip through the Windy City, as there are no budding stars or wily veterans waiting in the wings as backups.
Cutler may have to take a back seat to the running game, as the Bears look to have a star for years to come with Matt Forte. In only his rookie season, Forte amassed the seventh most rushing yards in the league while also adding 477 yards receiving. For all Forte’s accomplishments though, the Bears still ranked a dismal 24th in rushing and 21st in passing.
With Cutler under centre now, Forte may see a little extra space as opposing defenses will have to respect the deep ball.
The offensive line was restocked, as the team said goodbye to Terrence Metcalf and John St. Clair and welcomed Orlando Pace, Frank Omiyale and Kevin Shaffer into the mix. In Pace, C Olin Kreutz and RG Roberto Garza, the Bears will have three starters in their thirties, so keeping this group healthy and fresh will be a priority.
A defense which remained strong versus the rush, ranking fifth, yet poor versus the pass, ranking 30th, will return essentially the same group as last year. The only major noteworthy additions are LB Pisa Tinoisamoa and FS Josh Bullocks.
Obviously the secondary must improve, but the once vaunted D is slowly on the decline. This group will see a few faces move into their 30s and many more enter the 2009 season coming off poor performances in 2008. This is no longer the feared group of defenders that lost in the Super Bowl not too long ago, and a 29th ranking in sacks is further evidence.
The schedule makers were very kind to the Bears in 2009, as they have been blessed with the league’s easiest schedule. Chicago will only play six teams with winning records from last year and their combined opponent’s records from ’08 is only 105-149-2. Chicago also avoids playing any teams coming off a bye and only has to play two games off short weeks of rest.
There’s a very real chance Brett Favre could un-retire again and steal the spotlight away from Cutler in the NFC North, but for the time being Cutler has the chance to be the star of this division.
While having the Lions on your schedule twice will certainly contribute to an easy schedule ranking, there are definitely enough winnable games for the Bears in ’09. That being said, teams can improve quickly in the NFL and many of their opponents will probably be better than their 2008 records would imply. I believe Chicago has many great pieces in place, however, collectively, I think they are on the decline.
The window is far from shut though, and getting over this win total for at least another 9-7 season or better looks manageable.
Prediction: Over 8.5 wins
Minnesota: No Line Yet
As of the time of this writing, there has still been no number set for the Vikings for a season win total, which has to be because of the uncertainty of the status of Brett Favre.
Given that Minnesota is favored to win this division at +162, followed very nearly by the Bears at +188, and taking into consideration the Bears over/under is 8.5 and the Packers is 9, my best guess would say the Vikings number should be about 9.5.
Should Favre be deemed fit enough for NFL competition and the worst kept secret becomes a reality with him joining the Vikes, I could see the number rising to anywhere from 10-11 wins.
After stumbling out of the gate last season at 1-3, the Vikings proceeded to only lose three more games all year to finish with a 10-6 record and the NFC North division crown. Much of their success could be attributed to their strong finish to the year, winning five of their final six games.
Home field advantage didn’t prove to be enough though in the playoffs, as Minnesota bowed out early in the Wildcard round losing 26-14 to the Eagles.
The Vikings are a squad that’s most likely only a couple small pieces away from a championship-caliber team.
They boast quite possibly the strongest 1-2 punch of running backs in the league in Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, a serviceable WR corps which added rookie Percy Harvin through the draft, and the top-ranked rush defense, which also has the ability to put opposing QBs in the dirt on every play.
Management decided to change very little this offseason, making no major additions save swapping out backup QB Gus Frerotte for ex-Texan backup Sage Rosenfels. It will be a battle all training camp as to whether Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson gets to start in 2009, however as mentioned earlier, that could all change if Brett Favre joins to the team for another kick at the can.
The Fave saga could be detrimental to the mental psyche of the QBs on the roster right now, as the Vikings very public interest in Favre is certainly not a glowing endorsement to the players they have.
While the offensive line did a great job clearing space for the running game in '08, they were 28th in allowing sacks and will potentially be breaking in two new starters in John Sullivan at centre and rookie Phil Loadholt at right tackle.
Other than improving the 25th-ranked passing offence, the major concern going into the season is the likely suspensions of both of Kevin and Pat Williams on the defensive line. Tyrell Johnson did a decent job when called upon last year, and he will be taking over at safety for the departed Darren Sharper.
Minnesota’s opponents ranked middle of the of pack record-wise after the season ended in 2008, and this year three quarters of the NFC North will play the league’s easiest schedule. Minnesota comes in at 31st, with Green Bay at 30th, and as mentioned earlier Chicago at 32nd. Looking at their travel schedule, it may be one of the easiest in the league as well, as they only play one game outside of either the Central or Eastern time zones.
The Vikings haven't improved at all over last year. Even if Favre comes aboard, I don’t think he will be a huge upgrade under center. This is a player who wore out during last season, will be 40 in October, threw just as many interceptions as touch downs, and hasn’t been able to fully practice as he recovers from a bicep surgery this offseason.
Favre was not the answer in New York and one year later, I don’t see any different scenario playing out in Minnesota. It’s hard to make a prediction not knowing what the line will be, but given the uncertainly at QB, possible suspensions, new players on the o-line and the upgrades their division rivals have made, making a strong case for the Vikes seems difficult.
Prediction: I will go out on a limb and say the Vikes regress, and would bet the Under, if the line is 9 or higher.
Green Bay: 9
A quick 2-0 start and a 4-3 record going into their bye in Week Eight had the Packers in a position to do some damage moving into the second half of the season. Unfortunately
Green Bay was only able to win two of their remaining nine games, and only one of their last six, with the one win coming in their season finale against the Lions. The game was essentially meaningless for both teams in regards to the playoffs, except that Green Bay wanted to avoid being the only team to lose to the Lions in 2008.
If you look at the games Green Bay won, their 6-10 record looks even less impressive, as two of those wins came vs. the Lions and another vs. the 4-12 Seahawks.
As mentioned earlier, the Packers face the third easiest schedule this season, so the potential to improve upon last year and get closer to their 2007 record of 13-3 is definitely there.
Travel-wise, their schedule also shapes up nicely with only one game played outside of the Central and Eastern time zones, and besides divisional games, they only play three teams on the road who had winning records last year: Tampa, Pittsburgh, and Arizona.
The biggest change this offseason was the hiring of Dom Capers as defensive coordinator and the switch to the 3-4 defense he will be implementing. The change will hope to improve upon Green Bay’s 26th ranking versus the rush and 25th ranking in generating sacks.
The secondary was respectable as they ranked 12th versus the pass.
No major changes were made to the roster, besides DT Colin Cole’s departure. However, RT Mark Tauscher may not return as he suffered a major knee injury in tearing his ACL. Several other players will be returning from injuries sustained during 2008, which could be enough to bring the Packers back to prominence.
Offensively, Aaron Rogers proved he could step up more than adequately in his first year as Brett Favre’s successor. He ranked third in the NFC in passing yards, TDs and QB rating.
WR Greg Jennings should be motivated to improve upon his career highs in 2008 as he just signed a new, lucrative contract extension. However, running backs, namely Ryan Grant, will have to do more than the four touchdowns they managed last season.
The NFC North should be a tightly contested division all year as, in my opinion, the Packers, Vikings and Bears don’t give up much between them. Their difficulty of schedules are all about the same and each have their own question marks heading into the year.
In the NFL you are never as good or as bad as your record may indicate from one year to the next, and I think that may be the case with this year’s edition of the Packers. Sure they switched from Favre to Rogers in 2008, but Rogers was not responsible for the seven-win slide the team took.
The schedule shapes up nicely and there’s enough talent in Green Bay to make a decent improvement.
Prediction: Over 9 wins
Best bet to win division: Green Bay Packers at +200