Green Bay and QB Aaron Rodgers still have control of a division they’ve won the past two years, but it doesn’t seem to be with the same death grip of 2012 when it was listed at 1-3 to win the flag. This year it’s 5-8.
The Packers’ three loop rivals, meanwhile, all have major questions and likely will be scrambling for a shot at a wild card.
In Minnesota, the Vikings are off a stunning playoff season but have to be wondering if RB Adrian Peterson can come close to last year’s 2,000-yard season. Plus, can they trust third-year QB Christian Ponder, who couldn’t take advantage of that dominating ground attack?
In Chicago, the Bears have a new boss in Marc Trestman and will be without perennial Pro Bowl LB Brian Urlacher for the first time in 14 years. And on offense, QB Jay Cutler has made it clear he won’t be able to fully digest Trestman’s sophisticated offense any time soon.
And in Detroit, the Lions look to rebound from a 4-12 season a year after qualifying for the playoffs. Maybe if coach Jim Schwartz can steer his players clear of Warden Goodell’s office things will look up.
Here’s a look at how the division should shake out, with teams listed in order of predicted finish. Odds provided by the Las Vegas Hotel Superbook:
GREEN BAY PACKERS (5-8 division; 10-1 Super Bowl): As long as the Pack has Rodgers in the huddle, there should be little concern whether the team will reach the postseason. After all, he led the team to a 15-1 finish two seasons ago despite having the worst-rated defense in 28 years.
Despite the departures of veteran receivers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, the offense should receive a boost from the fresh legs of two rookie RBs – Eddie Lacy of Alabama and Johnathan Franklin of UCLA. Green Bay, after all, is the only team in the league to average less than 4 yards a carry in each of the past three seasons.
Defensively, it appeared the Pack made great strides last year, leaping from last in yardage allowed in 2011 to No. 11 last year and increasing its sack total to 47 from 29. But that 45-31 meltdown at San Fran in the playoffs suggests otherwise.
Note: An advantage could be opening the season with games against read-option teams (at SF, home to Washington), giving them all summer to work on their Achilles heel. Another plus is facing a league-high four teams that are coming off MNF games, including the Redskins.
DETROIT LIONS (6-1 division; 60-1 SB): Two years ago, the Lionst and QB Matt Stafford were the darlings of the league, finishing 10-6 and reaching the playoffs. Thus, they were trendy picks to make more noise in 2012. Alas, they skidded to 4-12 and are a trendy pick to finish last in 2013.
Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson have proven to be a stupendous pass-and- catch team, but the QB’s penchant for pitching INTs in enemy territory – 18 times the past two years, tying for a league high – has devastated the unit. Not to mention the team hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher the past eight years, the longest current drought in the league.
Perhaps the acquisition of ex-Saint/Dolphin/Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush will make a difference. For sure, special teams players and the offense should work on their tackling. Detroit yielded a league-high 10 return scores last year. Conversely, the Lions had no return TDs, producing a -10 differential – the worst by anyone since the 2002 Rams (also -10)
Note: The Lions have been among the bottom six teams in penalty-yard differential the past two seasons. That’s got to improve.
CHICAGO BEARS (7-2 division; 30-1 SB): Last year the Bears became the fifth team since 1975 to open a season 7-1 and miss the postseason, which resulted in Chicago giving nine-year coach Lovie Smith the heave-ho.
Trestman, from the CFL, takes over a team that has potent weapons in Cutler, RB Matt Forte and WR Brandon Marshall, but an offensive line that has been a turnstile for years. The defense can’t help but take a step back with the absence of Urlacher. There is enough talent at LB to stay in the hunt – especially having back-to-back years with 10 return scores.
Note: It is continually disturbing that the Bears can’t take their act on the road. Chicago hasn’t had an away win against a team that finished with a winning record since 2008, going 1-14-1 ATS.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (5-1 division; 50-1 SB): These odds are quite an improvement from 2012 when the Vikings were the longest shot to win a division at 25-1. They didn’t win the North, but their improvement of seven victories in the standings was best in the NFC, going from 3-13 to 10-6.
As numbers crunchers know, since the introduction of the 16-game season in 1978 (excluding the 1982 strike year) there have been 20 squads that have improved by seven-plus games from one year to the next (not including last year’s Indy and Minnesota teams). Only one of them, Bill Parcells’ 1998 Jets, didn’t regress the next season in the win column. Three-quarters of them had at least three fewer wins.
Note: How good can this team be if Matt Cassel is the backup QB?
Next week, the AFC North
“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting Professional Sports games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at [email protected].