The 2014 National Football Season kicks off Thursday when the Green Bay Packers travel to Seattle to take on the defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. The match up is a possible preview of what is to come when the Playoffs roll around in January.
For that to happen however, the Packers will need to go through what could be a very tough NFC North Division. In 2012, the North had three 10+ win teams, including a playoff appearance by the Detroit Lions. The following season, 2013, the division took a drop with no teams winning more than eight games. Don’t let the numbers fool you, this division has four quality teams with proven stars.
The main question for the NFC North and who will run away with this division will come down to defense, and the health of the four teams top stars. Can Aaron Rodgers stay healthy for the entire season? Will the Detroit Lions get the best of all of their fire power to get into the playoffs and make a serious run? Will the Minnesota Vikings new staff and new Quarterback be enough to get the Vikings back into the playoffs? Will Jay Cutler finally get over the hump in Chicago and lead the Bears back into January?
1) Green Bay Packers
2014 prediction: 12-4
2013 Record: 8-7-1, 1st Place
Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in this division if not the entire League. With him, the Packers are still a Super Bowl contender. The key to being a contender will all ride on the health of a QB who will now enter his tenth season in the league. The Packers were 6-3 in games Rodgers was under center, 2-4-1 without him in the line-up.
More important for Rodgers will be the state of Green Bay’s running game, something which they have not had. Eddie Lacy will need to impress this year in order for the run game to work and help take the workload off of Rodgers. Rodgers will need the run game to work with the loss of receivers James Jones and Jermichael Finley.
On the defensive side, this is not an elite defense. They do have the firepower on offense however that they do not need to be. With Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji, newly acquired Julius Peppers and rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the Packers have a defense that will be able to hold leads that this high powered offense can provide.
The overall outlook for the Packers is simple. This is the most talented offensive division in the NFL and the Green Bay Packers have the best QB in the division, if not the entire league. The Packers will win this division if they don’t lull any games this season.
2) Detroit Lions
2014 Prediction: 10-6
2013 Record: 7-9, 3rd Place
Jim Caldwell enters his first season in the Motor City and he comes in with a history of working with All-Pro QBs. Now he has another one in Matthew Stafford. And unlike Peyton in Indianapolis, no offense to Reggie Wayne, Caldwell has the ultimate weapon at receiver in the form of Calvin Johnson. With Johnson, Reggie Bush, Brandon Pettigrew and new receiver Golden Tate, this could be the most dynamic offense Stafford has ever had.
The defense for the Lions will need to be able to keep up with the rest of the division in order to have a great season and a possible playoff run. With Suh, Fairley and Ansah, this defense has the possibility on being dominant. Emphasis on possibility. Last season, the line accounted for 33 sacks (28th) and ranked 17th against the run. This line was mediocre under Jim Schwartz. If Caldwell and new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin can get them playing to their expectations, this could be the most talented defensive line in football that could give teams and opposing QBs problems.
The Lions will put up a lot of points. But the defense will have to play to their talent in order for the team to go to the playoffs in a division with plenty of offensive firepower. The Lions last made the playoffs in 2010 with a 10-6 record. Since starting 2011 5-0, the Lions are 16-28 (including a playoff loss).
3) Chicago Bears
2014 Prediction: 7-9
2013 Record: 8-8, 3rd place
The losses of Josh McCown, Julius Peppers, Devin Hester and Michael Bush could play a key factor in how the Chicago Bears will play out. With McCown out of Chicago, Jay Cutler needs to prove to Chicago and the league he can be a top QB. The “Good” Cutler can make all the throws, have a cannon for an arm, and can look like a Top 5 QB. The Bears need this Cutler from week-to-week. With Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte and Michael Bennett, the Bears should be able to find the endzone with a very talented offensive core.
With an improved O-Line, with the addition of Jermon Bushrod and rookie Kyle Long, the Bears averaged 4.5 yards per carry (7th) and allowed only 30 sacks (T-4th). Cutler didn’t feel the need to assault any of his offensive line. Most important, Cutler will be able to stay upright, which could result in fewer turnovers and the Bears will have a better chance to record a better record than the prediction.
The addition of Jared Allen on defense and rookie Kyle Fuller have the formula for a suitable replacement for Peppers. The Bears were dead last against the run last season, giving up 5.3 YPC and gave up 25.4 more Yards per Game than the next closest team. If the Bears don’t improve this then teams will be able to milk the clock by running the ball down their throats.
4) Minnesota Vikings
2013 record: 5-10-1, Last Place
Minnesota made a bold move in the draft, trading up to draft Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater with the last pick of the 1st round. Starting him would be practical with the fact the Vikings have the best running back in the league in Adrian Peterson. It’s hard not to argue that fact when you run for the second most yards in a season (2,097) after coming of a season ending ACL injury the year before and following that with an impressive 2013 season (1,266 in 14 games). But Peterson is 29 years old now, with that history of an ACL surgery. Peterson will not be able to shoulder the entire load this season. Bridgewater might not start.
Matt Cassel will need to shoulder some load and live up to the expectation he put on him in New England after Tom Brady was lost for the season. New Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner, and new Head Coach Mike Zimmer will clearly be at a disadvantage in a division where Rodgers, Cutler, and Stafford are the other QBs in the division. The defense, while decent, will still be in the bottom half of the league.
Minnesota under Zimmer can be a better team and could surprise a lot of teams. The Vikings will not however make a legit playoff run. They could get up towards .500, which comes with the possibility of fighting for second in the division, but I don’t see a scenario where the Vikings make the playoffs.