Wednesday, July 3, 2013

FOURTH & FOREVER: Previewing the NFC North

Johnny J

The NFC North is becoming one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. All of the teams can be playoff contenders and with each of them getting better within the past year, this division can be considered up for grabs:

  • The Green Bay Packers have won the division title the last two years. Now with the help of a potential backfield, they can extend their streak to three. 
  • The Minnesota Vikings made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2009. With Adrian Peterson coming off a 2,000 yard season after a serious knee injury, the Vikings are looking very promising. 
  • The Detroit Lions have so much talent around them, but fell short of the playoffs. With the addition of Reggie Bush, I believe they can see the middle of January . 
  • The Chicago Bears fired Lovie Smith in hopes of returning to the promise land. With an aging defense and a contract year for quarterback Jay Cutler, this is a make or break year for the Bears.

As a Packers fan, I like the way the 2010 Super Bowl Champs are headed. They extended contracts for their best players on both sides of the ball, in QB Araon Rodgers and Linebacker Clay Matthews. Right now, they are the highest-paid players at their positions. In the offseason, defensive coordinator, Dom Capers and the rest of the defensive coaches went to Texas A&M to learn how to stop the read-option. Colin Kaepernick and the San Fransico 49ers ran that very effectively against the Pack as they made their way to Super Bowl XVLll. It still makes my stomach hurt. The Packers have a team who can compete for a Super Bowl every year thanks to GM Ted Thompson He added two good running backs, in Alabama prospect in Eddie Lacy in the second round and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin, the future mayor of Los Angeles. Alex Green, now third year running back out of Hawaii, had a team high 464 yards and a 3.4 average. That won't do. Defenses didn't respect the running game, as they played 2-deep shell safeties, concentrating more on Rodgers and the Packers' passing game. Eddie Lacy is going to require defenses to "RESPECT HIS GANGSTA!" With the Packers switching their whole offensive line to protect Rodgers' blindside, this offense should be unstoppable.

The Vikings are constantly picking up Green Bay throwaways. They signed wide receiver and former Packer Greg Jennings and Linebacker Desmond Bishop. Both have a lot to prove after being injured in 2012. Obviously, money is more important than winning, right Jennings? The Vikings are coming off a playoff year and look to build on that success. As long as Adrian Peterson is in the back-field, they should have been trying to build a team around him. They're starting to learn, I think. It just took them about five or six years and some areas on offense can still be questioned. Coach Leslie Frazier is trusting quarterback Christian Ponder who showed some growth in his second year, throwing for almost 3,000 yards and throwing 18 touchdowns. Plus his promising tight-end, Kyle Rudolph made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and even won the game MVP, so he was able to show off his game against the very best. Now if they can just get Ponder to get him the ball. With Rudolph, Jennings, and first round pick Cordarrelle Patterson (First Team All-SEC), this offense may have a promising passing game. With this being a contract year for defensive end Jared Allen, I'm expecting another big year from him after totaling 34 sacks the past two seasons. The Viking should be smart to extend him now, before someone else comes along. At the end of the day, they are just a playoff contender and nothing else. They show a lot of promise though.

The Detroit Lions missed the playoffs last year. It's hard to believe as they're equipped with a good, young passing duo in quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson.  Stafford has thrown over 10,000 yards in the past two seasons. Oh, and he has played in all 16 games the past two years as well (still, he throws like Tarzan and acts like Jane).  Johnson broke Jerry Rice's all-time record of receiving yards. He now holds the record at 1,964 yards. "Megatron" is an elite receiver as well as the the top receiver in fantasy football. He is definitely living up to being picked number two overall in the 2007 NFL Draft. Now with the addition of running back Reggie Bush, this should help keep defenses honest. As long as Kim Kardashian isn't in the building, he should be explosive. This offense is dangerous.  Bush is a three-down back. He runs, catches, and blocks. Now staying healthy, for him, is another issue, as he has battled knee, groin and fibula injuries. The only thing stopping the Lions are off-the-field issues. From possession of drugs to assault, there have been problems for the Lions, not to mention their play on the field. They also have one of the dirtiest players on the field in Ndamukong Suh. We won't talk about coach Jim Schwartz getting in the action with the controversial handshake between him and 49ers' head coach, Jim Harbaugh. Overall, this team can be a deep playoff contender, if they could only act like regular, upstanding citizens.

The Chicago Bears are looking to rebound after winning the division in 2010. They haven't made the playoffs since, which led to the firing of Lovie Smith and the hiring of new coach Marc Trestman. "In Trestman we trust." We'll see if the Bears' current practice of hiring cheap people in hopes of getting the job done actually works for them this season. If you remember, the Bears didn't even want to make the field conditions better for their own players at Solider Field. "I don't know what else to say. We complain about it all the time. I prefer playing on grass, but the Field Turf stuff is pretty awesome," said former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. When your star player complains about field conditions, that's when you know the organization you root for is cheap. They just signed D.J. Williams for cheap after he failed a drug test, lost his starting job in Denver, and then got released. They expect this guy to replace Urlacher! (the Bears bought low on Williams if you ask me--Ed). Another one of those, "we'll see" moves. Trestman said that he may implement the read-option in the offense. That's one-way to get Cutler on the season-ending injury reserve list. Enough about the bad, here's the good. Matt Forte has to stay healthy. He is the focal point of the Bears' offense. Cutler has a great arm and his accuracy could be decent, but when you have a top five receiver in Brandon Marshall, you're going to get your numbers in a passing game. Well not in fantasy football, but you get your numbers (when it comes to Jay Cutler, not really--Ed). This is a make or break year for Cutler or he will be replaced. He has the talent around him, but the defense has to get younger. Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman, and Lance Briggs are all over 30. All I can say is this is a team fighting for the playoffs.

This season is going to be tough for the NFC North, as they play the AFC North and NFC East. The Lions have the second toughest schedule. The Packers have the sixth toughest and the Vikings have the 10th toughest. The Bears have the 16th toughest. Even though they have the easiest schedule out of the division, I really believe they are going to have a hard time winning games. I only see the Packers and Lions making the playoffs, with the Packers winning the division. Now with a running game, Rodgers should pick defenses apart. Just avoid the sacks my friend (51 in 2012). The Lions will make the Playoffs, just as long as they stay out of trouble. Suh needs to perform like he did as a rookie because he had 10 sacks, compared to just 14 the last two years. Help that offense secure wins.

Adrian "All-Day" Peterson will do his thing, but he needs help. Ponder has to be the one, to use that play-action to his advantage, because right now he doesn't get respect. If Bishop is healthy, that defense just got a whole lot better.

Finally, the Bears are very close to a rebuilding era. Cutler has to avoid being hurried out the pocket and stop throwing clumsy INTs. Forte will get his carries, just stay out of the training room during games. The defense is old, enough said. It maybe a long year for them.

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