2016 NFL Preview: NFC North

nfc-north.fw

The NFC North has been a fairly easy pick over the last few years as many of the teams have gone through a long rebuilding process.

One team has remained strong and as a result, they have been at the top of the North for a long time.

The Green Bay Packers were almost guaranteed a spot in the playoffs and more often than not that guarantee came with an NFC North title.

With Aaron Rodgers leading the way the Packers remained strong even after moving on from Brett Favre.

Meanwhile in Chicago, Minnesota, and Detroit teams were just trying to stay relevant as they searched for key pieces on their roster.

That was until 2015 when the same thought was surrounding the division throughout the off-season.

It was all about the chase of the Packers with many believing that they were on the path to the Super Bowl.

When the season began it looked like everyone had predicted right as the Packers were one of a few teams to start the season without a loss.

That lasted six weeks as they looked like a team to beat heading into their bye week.

Then things fell apart and the Packers began dropping games with Rodgers looking more human than usual.

The fall of the Packers left room for someone else in the North to take over the only question was who was ready to take that step in their rebuilding process.

The Bears were still a team with a great quarterback that underachieved especially with injuries to their star receiver and without a key rookie receiver all year.

The Detroit Lions had a great offence but a defence in transition that no longer had a mean streak they were known for.football-sidebar

The Minnesota Vikings seemed to be the best suited for the task but they were young with an inexperienced quarterback that had yet to be tested.

As the Packers struggled through the rest of the year the Vikings began to show their promise and Teddy Bridgewater was showing everyone that he was an NFL-ready quarterback in his second year with the team.

The Vikings made a run and eventually they surpassed the Packers to take the division title leaving Green Bay to fight for the wild card.

Two teams still came out of this division last year and into the playoffs where the inexperience of the Vikings showed in their first game and the experience of the Packers showed in the wild card and the division game, a game that they lost.

Now entering a new season the question would likely be whether or not the Vikings can continue their time at the top.

Instead, the question has reverted back to whether or not anyone can beat the Packers.

Many analysts are making the case that the Packers had an off-year without their top receiver which eventually hurt the team in the long run.

With Jordy Nelson likely to return sometime at the beginning of the year and Rodgers unlikely to have another bad season the Packers could be the team to beat.

The disrespect could be a motivating factor for Bridgewater and the Vikings though as they head into a new season looking to repeat as division champs.

Meanwhile, the Lions and the Bears are hoping to surprise everyone after a much less tumultuous off-season for both teams.

chicago_bears

The Chicago Bears seem to be one team that has never really had a quarterback that can be considered one of the greatest of all time. The closest they came was Jim McMahon but even when he won the Super Bowl with the ’85 Bears the defence was the star. When they traded for Jay Cutler the issues they had seemed to be solved as he looked like a future star in the league. So far his time in Chicago has been inconsistent at best as he has had issues in protection, targets, and in his ability. 2015 was one of his better seasons as he worked with Adam Gase to revive his career but injuries to the receiving corps kept the Bears down. Now he enters a new season without Gase but with a full complement of targets in the passing game hoping to stay on the field. The loss of Gase could be a big one but if Cutler can take some of the lessons he learned into a new season he might be able to surprise some people. Alshon Jeffrey is one of the best receivers in the game but he has to stay on the field to reach that potential. The addition of Kevin White in last year’s draft gave Jeffrey a partner on the other side but an injury in camp ended his year before it even began. If both can stay healthy Cutler has the targets he needs to bring this passing game up to par. The running game will be very different this year as a mainstay, Matt Forte is gone that leaves some young potential stars to take over. The Bears have yet to really decide who will carry more than everyone else but Jacquizz Rodgers has shown promise on other teams and might take over. The Bears have often depended on a great defence to get success but it has been far from great over the last few years. They tried to change that in the off-season adding a big lineman in Akiem Hicks and two key linebackers in Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. All three additions will ensure that the middle of their defence will be solid and hard to run into. That fixes a lot but it still doesn’t make them a dangerous defence. They will hope to get a better pass rush with a healthy Pernell McPhee leading the way much like he did last year when he was healthy. In the secondary, they have been better but their inability to force the turnover has hurt them as Adrian Amos hopes to increase that in his second year. The Bears have made some great moves in the off-season but it seems clear that they aren’t ready to compete at the top even if they surprise some teams this year.

chi-bears.fw

detroit_lions

The Lions once looked like they could be the next dominant team in the division as they put together a mean defence to go along with a potentially potent passing game. With Matthew Stafford throwing to Calvin Johnson the Lions would be tough to stop while a big defensive line with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairly was tough for everyone to go against. Over the last few years, the Lions have begun to lose their key pieces with Suh and Fairley leaving last year taking a big chunk out of the team. That was seen at the start of the season where the Lions struggled to get consistency out of their team. Then everything started to click and the Lions looked unstoppable but they had fallen too far behind and couldn’t find their way to the playoffs. They enter a new season hoping that this year goes a lot like the second half of the year and not at all like the first half. It could be a challenge on offence though as they have now lost their biggest weapon with Johnson unexpectedly retiring in the off-season. The Lions looked to soften the blow with the signing of Marvin Jones but replacing Johnson is a tough task. Jones will be expected to provide some help but Golden Tate, Anquan Boldin, and Eric Ebron will all need to carry the load. Stafford is more than capable of spreading it around the field and although he now lacks that go-to threat he is still one of the most talented QBs in the league. Behind him is a decent running game but nothing spectacular as Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick can be tough to stop but are not the best in the league. On defence, the Lions still do not have the replacements for big names like Fairley and Suh but they are not terrible. Haloti Ngata is not the star he used to be but still good while Ezekiel Ansah has turned out to be a top-tier pass rusher. The linebacking corps will enjoy the return of DeAndre Levy who was a big loss last year but they are still not a great group. The secondary played well a year ago and the Lions are hoping that stays the same but they are an unknown group that had one good year and are still a bit of a mystery. The defence was once a strength of the team but now there are some spots that other teams can take advantage of, especially in their division. The Lions were so inconsistent last year and heading into this year they are more of an unknown than last year. Without their top receiver and with some players that could be good but haven’t proven themselves they could be anything from a playoff team to the last place in the division.

det-lions.fw

green_bay_packers

The season did not go entirely as planned for the Packers who lost their topo receiver in the pre-season only to start the year off as one of the best teams in the league. They went six weeks without a loss seemingly not minding life without their top target in the passing game. They stumbled into the playoffs letting the Vikings pass them in the division standings and taking a wild card spot. Although they made it to the divisional round they couldn’t go any further. It was an off year for one of the top teams in the league over the last few years and a lot of it had to do with a year that Aaron Rodgers began to look more human than usual. This year Rodgers looks to get back to his usual dominant self and he is sure to have some extra help. Nelson is set to return sometime early in the season from his knee injury while Randall Cobb goes back to a more comfortable role as the secondary target. Rodgers will also have a new target in Jared Cook and the Packers have always loved to use their tight ends. In the running game, the Packers may be improved but only because Eddie Lacy has taken his health seriously this off-season. After last year saw him take criticism for his weight and the effect it had on him, especially late in the season, he re-focused and has slimmed down. It may very well make him a better back which is dangerous considered he is already considered one of the best in the league. On defence, the Packers have been up and down since their Super Bowl winning season as depth has hurt them. They will have to deal with that again this year as their nose tackle, B.J. Raji retired unexpectedly in the off-season. That leaves Letroy Guion in the middle while Mike Pennel and Mike Daniels patrol the ends. That is not the most fear-striking line in the league and if they go down there is little to back them up. The linebacking corps is one of the strengths as Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers provide plenty of pressure from the outside with Matthews now back in his old role full-time. In the defensive backfield the Packers are still young but getting better with more experience as Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Damarious Randall have put in five years combined. They are a talented group and this could be the break-out year but could also be exposed by the best passing games. The Packers have the talent to make the playoffs and they likely will, as the division seems to be theirs again. How far they can take that is the question as they have been unable to return to the Super Bowl since 2010 and this year isn’t likely the time they get back.

gb-packers.fw

minnesota_vikings

The Minnesota Vikings surprised plenty in 2015 as they were a team that many expected to be better but not as good as they were. For the first time in years, the Packers were challenged for the division and the Vikings were the ones to do it with a young team that seemed like they were on their way to getting better. With Teddy Bridgewater turning out to be a great option under centre and Adrian Peterson back in the lineup the Vikings had a great year. The season didn’t end the way they wanted it to but the future looked bright for Minnesota. As they headed towards the new season optimism reigned with a new stadium and a newfound competitiveness to the team. Then disaster, as Bridgewater went down at the end of the pre-season with a torn ACL suffered during practice. The complete tear of his ACL has likely ended his season and the Vikings are back to square one before they found a QB. They made a late move to try to soften the blow as they traded for Sam Bradford to fill the starting role. Bradford is a very talented quarterback but has struggled to stay on the field to show what he can do with this natural talent. It is a quick turnaround though as he enters the team without much time to practice and learn a brand new offence. That will make Kyle Rudolph and Stefon Diggs very important as both will need to make life easy for Bradford as he learns the passing game. With the change at QB the running game will take a lot of focus at the start of the season as Peterson will get a lot of work as Bradford learns the system. The defence will need to step up more than ever and under Mike Zimmer, they have been better every year. His defensive style and commitment to building a great defence are beginning to pay off. Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, and Everson Griffen have turned out to be a very strong line that is the backbone of the defence. In the second level, the Vikings have not figured it out as well with plenty of potential in players like Anthony Barr but potential that hasn’t fully been seen yet. The backfield is getting better but much like the rest of the team, they are still developing. Xavier Rhodes and Terrence Newman are part of that youth movement but they are still somewhat unknown in terms of how good they can be. That is much of the defence as they are a young group that could be good but it might not come yet. The Vikings have the potential to do big things but the question will be whether or not Bradford can meet his potential with a new team and help lead the Vikings for this year.

min-vikings.fw

Prediction:
The NFC North is not going to be the best race as there seems to be one team that has already put it together more consistently. The Bears and the Lions both have talent but they are every much unknown entities in this division. If the Bears can get a good year out of Cutler they might challenge for the top spot. If the Lions can get a better defensive performance and overcome the loss of their biggest weapon they could do the same. Those are some big ifs though and as a result, they will sit at the bottom of the division. The Vikings likely were headed there until they traded for Bradford. With a solid quarterback, they could challenge for the top spot again but the start of the season could be rough with a new QB. The Packers are the team to beat for another year as Rodgers is unlikely to have another off year like 2015 and with his best weapon back they should be better. Whether they can take that to the Super is another question though as they will take the division and look to make a run.

nfc-northpred.fw

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 168 other followers

%d bloggers like this: