If you read or listen to the opinions and predictions offered by major national sports media experts, by now you will have detected a rough consensus regarding the outcome of the race to become the NFC North Division champion this year.
With few exceptions, most of these experts predict that the finishing order will be:
However, professional sports pundits, like weathermen, don't get paid to take risks. Nobody ever got sued for predicting a hurricane that didn't materialize. No one on ESPN ever got ridiculed for making mainstream predictions.
That's why sports outlets like Bleacher Report are so important to true sports fans. They offer alternative opinions, outside-the-box but often spot-on analysis, and fresh insight by writers who love sports and sports fans so much that they are willing to spend hours researching and writing articles for free.
Many Bleacher Report Lions fans disagree with the consensus predictions for the NFC North this year. They sense a disconnect between the experts' CYA opinions and what they, as fans with an actual horse in the race, have learned about the Lions and the rest of the division this year as interested observers.
Their reactions is, "Wait a minute, not so fast."
And they would be right.
The NFC North is in a state of real flux this year and neither Green Bay nor Minnesota has a lock on the title, despite what the professional pundits tell us.
Here are a few reasons why:
Green Bay Packers Offense
Last year, Aaron Rodgers got sacked a stunning 51 times. Get sacked enough times and injuries are inevitable.
Belatedly desperate to improve protection for Rodgers, the Packers are attempting to move 2010 first round draft pick OT Bryan Bulaga to starting LG.
And that's about the extent of Green Bay's effort to protect their star QB against the sack onslaught that has plagued Green Bay.
It's not a matter of if Rodgers gets hurt this season, it's more a matter of when.
Green Bay's backup QB is a guy named Matt Flynn. During his two seasons with the Packers, Flynn attempted a grand total of 17 passes and completed nine of them. One of those attempts resulted in an interception.
Flynn's longest completion was for 17 yards. His average QB rating is 37.4 percent.
In 2009, Flynn ran the ball five times, resulting in -5 yards rushing. His longest run was for -1 yards.
If Rodgers does go down, the Packers are toast.
Green Bay Packers Defense
Green Bay's first round pick last year, DE B.J. Raji, is developing slowly. He has not become the dominant, disruptive force that the Packers had hoped he would be when they switched to a 3-4 defense last season under newly hired defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
So they flipped Raji this year to nose tackle.
To make matters worse, Green Bay's other starting DE, Johnny Jolly, the Packers' most dangerous defensive player, has been suspended for a year for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
Additionally, last season, the Steelers, Cards, and Vikings exposed a glaring weakness in the Packers' pass defense, and Green Bay hasn't done much to address the multiple problems in their secondary.
In fact things have gotten even worse after safety Atari Bigby told reporters on August 19 that it could take him up to eight weeks to recover from his recent ankle surgery enough to get back on the field.
Minnesota Vikings: The Farve Factor
Last year, Brett Farve had an atypical season except for his "deja vu all over again" last minute interception against the Saints in the NFC Championship game.
It's highly unlikely that Farve, who averaged better than 16 interceptions a year over his 19 year career, will be able to limit himself again to a career-low seven interceptions in 2010.
The odds of Farve coming even remotely close to repeating last years' 107.2 passer rating after averaging a career PR of about 86 are essentially nil, especially so soon after his off-season ankle surgery.
In 2009, a more mobile Farve (who will turn 41 this season) got sacked 34 times. The Vikings bye week comes very early this year during Week Four, which means Farve will face a 13 game stretch after the bye with no time to rest or recuperate.
Would you bet on Farve playing in all 16 games and finishing the season under center?
The Vikings Schedule
Minnesota faces a very tough early schedule this year. They open in New Orleans against the Saints. Then they play Miami and the Lions at home, the Jets away, the Cowboys at home, Green Bay at Lambeau, and the Patriots in Gillette Stadium.
It's conceivable that the Vikings will start out 2-4, 1-5, or worse.
Trust and Respect Issues
Head coach Brad Childress has lost the respect of many Vikings players, some of whom have told the media that Brett Farve thinks Childress is clueless about the offense, and that Farve doesn't trust his judgment.
Childress's recent clumsy lie has compounded the situation.
According to Mike Florio of PFT.com:
"The goofy decision to instruct special teams coordinator Brian Murphy and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to lie about the whereabouts of Ryan Longwell, Steve Hutchinson, and Jarad Allen, who traveled to Mississippi to "fetch" Farve, apparently has caused Childress to lose even more locker room style points."
Fumbles and Migraines
It's likely that Adrian Peterson, who has fumbled 20 times in three years, will continue his fumbling woes. Once a running back gains a reputation as a fumbler, it encourages defenses even more to try to punch or strip the ball out.
If Peterson does manage to hang onto the ball better this year, it will because he changed his running style, which could lead to shorter gains.
Last season, talented, multi-tasking WR Percy Harvin was forced to miss a game because of a severe migraine headache.
His frequent migraines have already caused Harvin to miss most of training camp this season. Then this past Thursday, Harvin collapsed on the practice field and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.
Kevin Siefert of ESPN.com:
"It would be one thing if Harvin were a part-time player. But he was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year last season, and the Vikings were planning to make him a centerpiece of both their offense and return teams this season. The departure of tailback Chester Taylor figures to increase [Harvin's] role on third downs."
The severity and frequency of Harvin's migraines are probably going to give the Vikings headaches throughout the season as well.
Meanwhile, the Vikings' other star receiver, Sidney Rice, missed almost the entire summer with a hip injury and remains on Minnesota's PUP list. According to Mike Florio of PFT.com, Rice told reporters on August 16 that he had suffered "a couple of setbacks during camp."
To sum it up, with Brett farve's ankle-related mobility problems and durability issues, Adrian Peterson's fumbles, Sidney Rice's lingering hip injury, Percy Harvins unpredictable bouts of debilitating migraines, and the general lack of team respect for head coach Childress, the Vikings appear to be a train wreck waiting to happen.
Da Bears in Da Basement?
Jay Cutler threw 26 interceptions last season and was sacked 35 times. Those statistics are about to get worse in a Mike Martz offense that favors seven-step drops and precise timing routs.
Martz offenses are typically hard on his offensive line and relatively easy on opportunistic opposing defenses. They feature lots of sacks and interceptions.
An uncredited writer for ESPNChicago.com put it this way:
"Not only is Cutler working with another offensive coordinator, he's also working with a group of young, unproven wide receivers. And with Martz's offense being predicated on the receiver being at an exact spot, and the ball already being in the air before he reaches the spot, the interceptions could mount, especially early."
Cutler himself admitted as much on the Waddle & Silvy Show on August 11 on ESPN Radio 1000 in Chicago.
"I'm going to throw some [interceptions] this year, I'm not going to lie about that. There are going to be some balls that are picked off. It's part of the game. But we can't worry about it. Defenses will make adjustments, and we have to make them back."
"The guys are going to be knocked off routes, something is going to happen, the defender is going to get in the way, and the ball's [already] going to be gone."
"That's part of this offense. It's not a read and see what happens and let it fly [offense], it's a read and let it fly. So balls are going to be in the air."
It will take a year, at least, before Martz's offense will begin to be consistently productive in Chicago, if he's still around then.
Detroit's Old Soldiers Never Die, They Just Coach in Chicago
With former Lions head coach Rod Marinelli (leader of the infamous "OwenXVI season in Detroit) now installed as the Bears defensive coordinator and former Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz assuming the same position for Chicago this season, the Bears have essentially become the Millen era Lions on Lake Michigan.
We know how well the Marinelli-Martz coaching combo worked out for us in Detroit. Good luck with that in Chicago, guys.
The Bears Running Game
Last year, the Bears were ranked 29th in yards rushing. Since then, Minnesota was foolish enough to let Chester Taylor escape to Chicago, who then quickly signed him to a four-year, $12.5 million contract, with $7 million of it guaranteed in the first year.
Matt Forte and Chester Taylor would appear to give Chicago a pretty potent power rushing tandem.
In 2008, with Martz as offensive coordinator, San Francisco ranked 26th in rushing yards and last in total turnovers. In 2007, with Martz as offensive coordinator, Detroit ranked 31st in rushing yards. In 2006, Martz's first year as Detroit's offensive coordinator, the Lions ranked dead last in rushing yards.
Beginning to see a pattern here?
Martz runs a pass-happy, unbalanced offense that heavily favors long, slow-developing timing passes to wide receivers and pretty much neglects the running game. Jay Cutler is no Kurt Warner. Chester Taylor is no Marshall Faulk. And Devin Hester and Johnny Knox are certainly not Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt.
After his stint in St. Louis, Martz was never able to recreate his "Greatest Show on Turf." He does stand a pretty good chance, though, of turning Jay Cutler into the "Greatest Scapegoat on Earth" this season.
In the short term, the good news here for Lions fans is that Chicago seems destined to occupy the cellar of the NFC North this year.
The bad news is that if it does, Mike McClasky will clean house and fire GM Jerry Angelo, head coach Lovie Smith, and both Rod Marinelli and Mike Martz, clearing the decks for someone competent like former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher to come in and rescue of this flailing franchise.
Detroit Lions: The Roar is Being Restored
It's already evident to Lions fans that Detroit has the smartest, hardest working sophomore general manager/head coach tandem in the NFL.
As I mentioned in my last article, the Lions had over 40 new players on the roster during the 2009 season that weren't on it in 2008. So far in 2010, the Lions current roster lists over 30 players that weren't on the roster last year.
GM Martin Mayhew has guided Detroit through two consecutive good drafts, executed a number of very shrewd trades, and has consistently worked the waiver wire hard, taking full advantage of the Lions' favorable place in the waiver wire pecking order.
To date, during the last two years, on offense, the Lions have acquired a franchise quarterback and a very competent backup, a solid LG, two very good TEs, a bona fide second wideout, and a very quick and nimble RB.
Detroit now has a pair of outstanding WRs, a potent two TE combination, a solid power running game, and a couple of RBs that have the speed and agility to score from anywhere at any time in open space.
On defense, Detroit drafted a franchise DT and has him lined up with first-rate talent on both sides. The Lions may now have one of the best D-line rotations in the NFL.
The Lions drafted a franchise safety and middle linebacker last season, and retained the Pro Bowl strong side linebacker that they acquired last year in a trade with Seattle.
The Lions also significantly upgraded their cornerback and safety positions with trades and free agent signings.
Yet the acquisitions I've mentioned represent only a few of the many talented, hard working, mostly young players the Lions have added to their roster.
Mayhew seems to be adding more talent almost every day, and the roster keeps on improving.
The Lions have already lost backup linebacker and special teams player Jordan Dizon to injury for the season.
Rookie safety sensation Louis Delmas has been sidelined by a nagging groin pull that might linger throughout the season.
But Jim Schwartz has taken a prudent, go-slow-and-safe, player-first approach with Delmas and all of the other nicked-up Lions like Brandon Pettigrew, DeAndre Levy, and Amari Spievey, confident that in a pinch, he can rely on Mayhew to find quality value-players to plug holes.
The Lions have maintained continuity, when it was earned, by retaining four out of five of last years' starting O-linemen, their offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, as well as the team's defensive coordinator.
When necessary, Detroit made changes, most noticeably by firing last years' special teams coach and beefing up the emphasis and talent on special teams.
Fortunately for Lions fans, the major sports media outlets have pretty much ignored the progress Mayhew and Schwartz have made. Let's hope that our NFC North opponents have as well.
Being underestimated is an advantage.
But strictly for you Bleacher Report Lions fans, here are a few optimistic, but entirely achievable predictions that you won't read anywhere else:
Last season, the Lions scored only 25 touchdowns, nine rushing and 16 passing. They averaged only 16.4 points per game only because their defense scored three touchdowns and two safeties.
Expect the Lions to roughly double last years TD tally.
Last year the Leos allowed opposing teams to score on average 30.8 points per game.
Look for that number to drop by at least a touchdown per game this season.
Last year, opposing QBs averaged a 107.0 passer rating against the Lions.
This season, look for that number to drop closer to the league's average QB passer rating. No more free lunches for QBs looking to boost their numbers when they play against Detroit. Instead, they will be lucky to escape the match-up unscathed.
If these predictions come true, and there is a reasonable expectation that they will, the Detroit Lions will have surprised everyone but you B/R readers by winning the NFC North Division title.