2014 NFL Preview: NFC North

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The NFC North has been one of the tougher division to compete in and although it always seems to come down to the wire. For the last three years the Green Bay Packers have been at the top of the division although they have not been able to run away with it for the last two years. The Chicago Bears have been right behind them every step of the way in the last few years as they continue their rivalry with the Packers. The two teams have been two of the best in the division every year and every year they continue to fight it out for the top of the division. Meanwhile the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings fall short of ever making a challenge for the division title. The strangest part of this pattern is that every year it seems like the NFC North is full of great teams waiting to break out and become one of the top teams in the league. The Vikings are always full of promise when they start the season but have yet to find a quarterback that can make good on that promise. As the march on season after season that promise seems to fade and they become the one team in the North that never really seems to get the hype from every other team. The Detroit Lions are a team that receives plenty of hype in the offseason and for a good reason. They have one of the more talented teams in the division with a potentially potent offence and a mean defence. Still they continue to fail to make the playoffs and fall below the top two teams in the division. The potential is always there and every year it seems like they fall short of the expectations. Then there are the top two teams in the division that are always expected to fight for the division title and move on in the playoffs. The Bears are the team that many consider the favourites every year to beat the Packers and finally take the title away from the Packers but they always seem to come up just short of doing that. Last year they finished just half of a game behind the Packers and lost the final game to the Packers that put them in second. It was another year where they fell just shy of meeting their expectations that many had for them in the start of the season. The Packers continue to meet their expectations that many have for them in winning the division and yet fall short in other aspects. They are a team that continues to make the playoffs and not go as far as most expect creating another team in the division that falls short. That seems to be the theme in the division as they continue to fall short of the expectations that are set out for them at the start of the season. With a new season approaching all four of these teams will be looking to prove people right and to prove some wrong that do not believe that any of these teams can survive the division beating to make a run at the Super Bowl.

Chicago Bears

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The Chicago Bears are one of the more disappointing teams in the North as they continue to fall just short of the division title. Every year it seems like everyone says that the Bears are the team to unseat the Packers and every year it seems like their offseason was good enough to do just that. The 2013 season was no different as the addition of a new offensive minded coach and some more weapons for Jay Cutler seemed to be the recipe to beat the Packers. They were in line to do just that until the last game of the year when they lost to the Packers in a game that decided the division. With the loss they fell out of the division lead and out of the playoffs in a season that seemed so promising. It was a season where the Bears got what they wanted but suffered in other areas. Bringing in Marc Trestman as the new head coach gave new life to a stalling offence but while the offence got better the defence began to suffer without long-time leader Brian Urlacher. This year Trestman hopes to continue the development of an offence that has to match the point total of one of the best offences in the league in the Packers. That offence is sure to be good again as Jay Cutler has time in the pocket after the line was rebuilt in 2013 and with the emergence of Alshon Jeffrey to go along with Brandon Marshall in the passing game as well as Matt Forte heading up the run game the Bears are in good hands. The defence on the other hand is in a rebuilding phase and they started this year with the defensive line where there will be a brand new front four highlighted by defensive ends Jared Allen Lamarr Houston, and Willie Young. The defence is rebuilt for the Bears but will it be enough to finally win the division and make it into the playoffs, or more importantly beat the hated Packers to end their streak.

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Detroit Lions

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The Detroit Lions are a team that many have looked to as one of the rising teams in the division with a chance to unseat the Packers. Yet year after year they fall short of the division race and cannot compete with the top two teams. Last year it was a 1-6 finish to the season that had them out of the playoff hunt by the end of the season. Like the Bears they were in it until their final 7 games with the Packers faltering without Aaron Rodgers under centre. The Lions bad stretch run cost Jim Schwartz his job as the franchise was done with disappointing seasons. This year the Lions will welcome Jim Caldwell as their new head coach after spending two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens and spending three years as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Caldwell brings and offensive mindset to a team that may have some of the best talent in the division on the offensive side of the ball. With Matthew Stafford leading the way alongside the best receiver in the NFL in Calvin Johnson and utility man Reggie Bush the offence is a solid one. The addition of Golden Tate at receiver to go alongside Johnson should open the field up more and create more playmaking opportunities. Meanwhile the defence is one of the meanest in the NFL with Ndamukong Suh leading from the front alongside sophomore Ezekial Ansah and Stephen Tulloch at linebacker. That has also been one of their biggest downfalls as they continue to get penalties at the wrong times and usually of the 15-yard nature. Caldwell will look to stop that pattern as he hopes to bring his calm and collected demeanor to the team on the field. There is no doubt that the Lions have the talent to compete at the highest level in the NFL but they never seem to be able to finish. If the Lions can reign in their discipline issues and play complete games without putting themselves in bad situations after penalties there is no stopping them from competing for the division.

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Green Bay Packers

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The Green Bay Packers are the rulers of the NFC North and have been for the last three years while also making the playoffs for the last five years. The Packers won the division in 2013 but they didn’t do it by much with a tie game putting them ahead of the Bears by a half a game after they beat the Bears in the season finale. The Packers then went on to do what they have become known for and lost in the first round of the playoffs. They are only four years removed from a Super Bowl win but the league is about what they have done lately and they haven’t been able to compete with the best of the best. This year they are trying to change that and looking at a deep run in the playoffs to end the pattern of early playoff exits. The team is an offence first team now led by one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Aaron Rodgers. The issue on offence is that the Packers depend so much on Rodgers that when he goes down with injury there is nobody to pick up the slack for him. Meanwhile on defence the Packers were a shadow of their 2010 team in 2013 and they went about changing that in the offseason. The addition of Julius Peppers was an attempt to bring a pass rush that they were missing. If Peppers can return to his old self and provide a rush with Clay Matthews on the other side of the line the pressure could be one of the best in the division. Meanwhile the Packers also added Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the defensive backfield, an issue they had to deal with in the offseason, through the draft should give a boost to the pass defence. The Packers are clearly a talented team but with very talented players covering up bigger issues, injuries that have hurt them in the past could creep up again and hurt their chances of repeating as division champions.

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Minnesota Vikings

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The Minnesota Vikings are one of the stranger teams in the North as they finished 2008 and 2009 at the top of the division while in 2012 they finished second. Those finishes had many people thinking that they may be trying to find their way before becoming a real power. In 2013 it was the exact opposite as they ended up last in the division and out of the playoffs. The inconsistency was too much for the Vikings ownership and Leslie Frazier lost his job while they began looking to their biggest problem area under centre. Christian Ponder just simply did not work out under centre and after rotating him, Matt Cassel, and mid-season signing Josh Freeman through the lineup they looked for a more long-term solution. The Vikings went out and got one of the top quarterback prospects in the draft in Teddy Bridgewater. Although Bridgewater may not start the year at quarterback, with Matt Cassel likely heading into Week 1 as the starter, there is still a chance that Bridgewater could be the solution they have been looking for over the past few years. Although the quarterback position has been their biggest issue there is no doubt that they are one of the last true running teams in the NFL with Adrian Peterson continuing to be one of the only feature backs left. The offence is hoping to be improved this year but the defence is going to have to step up after ranking 31st in total defence last year. The Vikings will look to new head coach and former defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, Mike Zimmer to bring a new attitude to the defence. That attitude will have to do a lot as the Vikings lost their top rusher in Jared Allen and will try to replace him with a number of unproven players that have great potential but are still unknowns. Bringing in Linval Joseph will help to soften the blow but there are still a lot of questions on the defensive side of the ball. The Vikings are once again a strange team as they have talent and potential to surprise a lot of people but may have to go through some growing pains before they become contenders.

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Prediction
The NFC North has been ruled by one team for three years but they have not been able to run away with it as other teams continue to challenge them. Further away from this battle is the Minnesota Vikings who are clearly getting better but do not have what it takes to win the division. They still need to find a quarterback and need to improve their defence and so they will fall to the bottom of the division again this year. Meanwhile the Lions will be better this year and will not have the fall off at the end of the season like they did last year. But it won’t be enough to overcome the top two teams that are improved from last year. That leaves the Bears and Packers to fight it out again for the division like it has been for the last few years. The Bears are improved from last year but their defence is still questionable even with their additions. Meanwhile the Packers are still the class of this division and although they will not run through the division this year they will take the division.

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