2012 NFL Previews: NFC North
Written by Rohit Ghosh
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Packers still favorites in NFC North
Green Bay Packers
The preview for the Green Bay Packers could just say “Aaron Rodgers” and that would be enough. He’s the best quarterback in the NFL, and it doesn’t help other teams knowing he has a great supporting cast to go along with his arm. The defense was somewhat of a disappointment last year, and if there’s one place for improvement, it’s there. They can’t let Eli Manning throw for 330 yards in playoff game again.
Losses: RB Ryan Grant, QB Matt Flynn, C Scott Wells and S Nick Collins (retired)
Additions: OLB Nick Perry, C Jeff Saturday and DT Anthony Hargrove
% to win division: 75.8%
% to make playoffs: 94.1%
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How does the opposing defense even prepare for a game against the Packers? Aaron Rodgers is the epitome of what a QB should do (4,643 passing yards, 68.3 completion percentage, 9.2 YPA, 45-6 touchdown-to-interception ration in 2011). In addition to this precision, he has the knack to run the ball too, rushing for 257 yards and three additional TDs last year. He has Greg Jennings, who is one of the best receivers in football, Jordy Nelson, who is coming off a breakout year in which he caught 68 balls for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns, and James Jones, who serves as a viable third wideout. At TE, they’ve got the athletic Jermichael Finley who should have a much better season now that he is healthy.
The biggest weakness on the offensive side is at running back. Starks has some talent, but his injuries are a constant concern. Alex Green has plenty of potential but he’s coming off an ACL injury, and will have to battle it out with undrafted free agent Marc Tyler if Starks goes down with an injury.
The biggest difference between the 2011 Packers and the version from the previous year was the defense allowing for too many big plays. They ranked 25th against the run (4.6 YPC) and 29th versus the pass (8.0 YPA). The defense wasn’t putting enough pressure on the QB, ranking 27th in the NFL with 30 sacks. After having 13.5 sacks in 2010, Clay Matthews only had 6 last season, after facing plenty of double teams. As a result, the Packers used the No. 28 overall pick on Nick Perry, a 270-pound rush linebacker out of USC. The team is also hoping that BJ Raji, their best player up front, has a bounce-back season; he admitted that the lockout affected his conditioning, and is looking forward to being at full strength in 2012.
Another standout on this side of the roster is inside linebacker Desmond Bishop. He was just a sixth round draft pick 5 years ago, but has improved year after year and is now known as one of the better players at the position. He’s good at stopping the run, and on occasion, will pressure the QB too. He’ll play alongside A.J. Hawk or D.J. Smith, depending on how Hawk returns after a substandard season.
By the way, is Charles Woodson ever going to slow down? He’s the main reason the Green Bay defense can stay unpredictable, spending plenty of possessions in a 2-4-5. His ability to blitz is a treat to watch, but more importantly, the angles in which he attacks the ball has always been and will continue to be a weapon for the defense’s success this upcoming year.
Green Bay has a fairly easy schedule, with their more challenging contests coming on the road at Houston (Week 6), at Detroit (Week 11), at the Giants (Week 12) and at Chicago (Week 15). Don’t expect the team to lose [much] at home, Rodgers has a 21-4 record at home in the past three years.
There’s no doubt that the Packers are one of the favorites to win it all. They have the most dynamic offense in the league, and improved their defense enough to prevent any more letdowns.
Note: The line is at 12.0, and I would go over on that. 13-3 is my projected record for the Packers.
The Chicago Bears are quite the enigma: they started last season 7-3, but after an injury to QB Jay Cutler (broken thumb while making a tackle), the team just fell off. They lost the next five games with QBs Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown. Basically, not having a solid backup QB not only cost them the season, but also GM Jerry Angelo’s job.
Losses: DT Anthony Adams, CB Zack Bowman, CB Corey Graham, S Brandon Meriweather, OL Frank Omiyale
Additions: RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell, CB Kelvin Hayden, WR Brandon Marshall, WR/KR Eric Weems
% to win division: 12.1%
% to make playoffs: 49.8%
The Bears have plenty of talent on offense. Led by Cutler, Matt Forte, and Brandon Marshall, the team has weapons in the air and on the ground. Cutler threw for 2,319 yards (85.7 passer rating) with 13 TDs and 7 interceptions before getting hurt last season. He gets a chance to re-connect with Marshall, who actually had his best seasons when playing alongside Cutler in Denver. They have another big-bodied received in rookie Alshon Jeffrey of South Carolina, and some speed in Devin Hester and Johnny Knox. Matt Forte is coming off a season where he rushed for 997 yards and caught 52 passes in just 12 games. He’ll improve on those numbers, and help keep the offense moving forward; in case there are any injury concerns with Forte, the Bears added Michael Bush from Oakland as a backup.
In the past few years, one of the main concerns for the team was its offensive line. Since 2009, they have allowed the most sacks in the league (140). Surprisingly, the pass protection was much improved in the second half of last season, when Cutler was down with injury.
Last year’s defense was picked apart by the opposition’s passing game. If the ball went in the air, it was a completion. Okay, so maybe not every throw was a completion, but it sure seemed that way. Their 4-3 defense is supposedly the heart and soul of Midway, but they finished 17th overall (350.4ypg) in total defense, and 14th overall in points allowed per game. If Urlacher’s knee holds up and Peppers continues to put pressure on the offense, which he most likely will, look for the Bears’ defense to improve from last year’s numbers.
The Bears will go as Cutler does, and keeping him healthy is a number one on the priority list. The offense is ready, there there’s talent on both sides of the ball for Chicago. If Forte can give Cutler’s arm a break a few possessions here and there, the team’s offense can be one of the more dangerous ones in the league. With all this said, though, can the Bears beat the Packers? As of the now, the answer is still [most likely] no.
Note: The line is at 9.5, and I would go over on that. 10-6 is my projected record for the Bears, hoping that Cutler is healthy all year.
The Lions, from players and management to the fan-base, have been suffering for a while through disappointing seasons, but the future is now bright for the team led by Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, both coming off career years. Assuming that Ndamukong Suh can stay on the field, Detroit can and will compete for the NFC North title.
Losses: CB Eric Wright, LB Bobby Carpenter and QB Drew Stanton
Additions: B Jacob Lacey, S Sean Jones, OT Riley Reiff, WR Ryan Broyles, QB Kellen Moore, CB Dwight Bentley, LB Ronnell Lewis, LB Tahir Whitehead
% to win division: 11.9%
% to make playoffs: 51.1%
Just a few years ago, this team didn’t win a single game. Now that GM Martin Mayhew has had some time to work his magic, the team is looking better than ever. With Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford healthy, the Lions just might have the best young offensive core in over a decade. Stafford is coming off a season in which he threw for 41 touchdowns and 5,038 yards, and Johnson with 96 catches for 1681 yards and 16 touchdowns. Johnson is an absolute beast, there’s no other way to state it. As a rookie last year, Titus Young caught 48 passes for 607 yards and 6 touchdowns and looks to improve on his performance in his second year. He’ll compete with Nate Burleson for the number two receiver spot, but it’ll most likely be Young since his athleticism is more appealing.
Defense was a big problem last year as they allowed 24.2 points per game, 23rd in the league. The 29.6 points per game they scored on offense, 4th in the league, bailed them out at times, but they can’t keep depending on the offense to make big play after big play. They did have a strong pass rush, however, ranking 10th in the league in sacks with 41 last year.
The defense had the team playing from behind in plenty of games last season (offense had to mount 4 comebacks from down 13 or more to win), and that’s something that will have to change in order for the Lions to improve for the 4th straight season, something that hasn’t been done in the NFL in over a decade.
The Lions led the league by passing on 65.2% of their offensive plays, but it was mostly as a result of a poor rushing game. Jahvid Best led the way with 84 carries (390 yards and 2 touchdowns), but concussions ended Best’s season 6 games into the season. He also caught 27 passes for 287 yards and 1 TD. The Lions were 5-1 while Best was healthy, and they’re hoping to keep him healthy since they didn’t draft another RB.
With everything said, there’s one stat that still stands out. They didn’t beat a single team with a winning record last year and their only win against a playoff team came against the 8-8 Broncos. They’ll have to face Chicago and Green Bay 4 times, and have road games at San Francisco, Tennessee, Philadelphia, and Arizona. Just by looking at the schedule, and understanding that a lot of things have to fall into place for the team, it’s tough to envision the Lions improving upon last year’s win total.
Note: The line is at 9.5, and I would go under on that. 9-7 is my projected record for the Lions.
Adrian Peterson might be Minnesota’s best player, but in today’s NFL, there’s very little success for teams who rely on the running game. The Vikings have no one consistent to lead them at the QB position, and by playing the league’s toughest division, the 2012 season doesn’t look too promising for the franchise.
Losses: QB Donovan McNabb, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, OG Steven Hutchinson, S Tyrell Johnson, LB E.J. Henderson, CB Cedric Griffin and CB Benny Sapp
Additions: TE John Carlson, WR Jerome Simpson, OT Matt Kalil, S Harrison Smith, CB Zack Bowman, RB Lex Hilliard, LB Marvin Mitchell, K Blair Walsh, OG Geoff Schwartz, WR A.J. Love, DE Jeff Charleston, FB Jerome Felton, CB Josh Robinson, WR Jarius Wright, FB Rhett Ellison and S Robert Blanton
% to win division: 0.2%
% to make playoffs: 2.4%
There’s really not much to look forward to this season, other than a favorable schedule outside of their division. Assuming they lose the majority of games against the Lion, Packers, and Bears, they still have plenty of potential wins waiting for them. They open against Jacksonville at home, and then face Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. Starting week 5, they start a set of games against the Redskins, Cardinals, Buccaneers and Seahawks, all winnable matchups. They will benefit from a late season bye, week 11, and face the Bears and Packers multiple times soon after. It’ll be more opportune for them to face those teams later in the season as it gives Minnesota more time to prepare and get AP healthy.
In 2011, the Vikings drafted Christian Ponder to be their future QB. With McNabb out of the picture, Ponder will get ample opportunity to use his arm, but first and foremost, he needs to improve on his 13:13 touchdown to interception ratio. Ponder threw for 1,853 yards after taking over for McNabb. He’ll need help from the team’s running game to keep safety’s in check, and all that depends on how healthy Peterson is.
The Vikings added some pieces to help out, drafting USC tackle Matt Kalil with the fourth pick in the draft and signing potential free agents in wide receiver Jerome Simpson and tight end John Carlson.
On defense, Jared Allen will do what he does best and get a good amount of sacks (he led the league last season with 22 sacks). Their secondary, however, is weak and will continue to give up big passing plays.
Minnesota is rebuilding and there’s no chance for them to make any sort of noise this season. They might win a game or two against a playoff team, but don’t expect more than five wins.
Note: The line is at 6.0, and I would definitely go under on that. 4-12 is my projected record for the Vikings.