With the National Football League teams completing their OTA’s and preparing for the start of training camps in just about a month (the Dallas Cowboys start on July 21 and the Detroit Lions on July 23), it is time to start taking a look at the upcoming NFL season.
In this segment, we’ll take a look at the NFC’s North Division. This has long been the domain of the Green Bay Packers and, in 2013, that isn’t going to change any. The reason isn’t because of any great upgrades that the Packers have made to their squad; it is in that the other teams in the division are in a tremendous state of flux right now. Before flux and after flux are excellent (in most cases), during flux is not a great time for any NFL team.
Green Bay Packers
The Aaron Rodgers-led Packers were able to withstand a season long injury bug that threatened to take them out of the 2012 division race. Holding off a charging (and surprising) Minnesota Vikings squad and a free-falling Chicago Bears team (who once again started the season strong and faded down the stretch), the Pack was able to win the division and a first round game against the Vikings, although they would fall in the next round to the eventual NFC champion San Francisco 49ers.
Looking to shore up their team, the Packers were able to get one of the better running back options in the draft, Eddie Lacy, who could actually step into the Week One starting lineup. Gone from the team is veteran wide receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, but there is still some talent there with Randall Cobb, who came into his own in 2012 for the Pack.
The defense also took some knocks in the offseason with the departure of Charles Woodson back to the Oakland Raiders, but the defensive side of the ball will still be strong with All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews still on the field. While they haven’t improved much, the Packers have at least stayed even with last year’s team and should be able to win the NFC North handily.
Prediction: First (Record: 11-5)
The Vikings stunned football in 2012 as running back Adrian Peterson came back from a horrendous knee injury to have arguably one of the finest seasons in NFL history (he fell nine yards short of breaking the rushing record) in winning the Most Valuable Player trophy. Quarterback Christian Ponder was thought to be a risky experiment, but he proved to be an adequate game manager in leading the team to a 10-6 record.
Look for Peterson to be the leader of the offense again in 2013, but Ponder will have a bit more freedom as he enters his third year. Although he lost two of his valued wide outs, Percy Harvin (to Seattle in a trade) and Michael Jenkins, he did gain Greg Jennings from the Packers as a target and will also have another receiver in Cordarelle Patterson to relieve the pressure.
The defense harkens back to the days of the “No Name Defense” of the Miami Dolphins in that there are few players that can be identified but play well as a unit. Their schedule is a difficult one, though, starting out with two road games and a visit from the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first four weeks and it might not be something that the team can recover from to make the playoffs in 2013.
Prediction: Second (Record: 8-8)
Most teams would be happy with a 10-6 record and coming thisclose to making the playoffs (the Bears weren’t eliminated until the last game of the 2012 season), but Bears fans (and front office staff) aren’t the type to be happy about even that success. At the conclusion of the season, longtime Bears coach Lovie Smith and future Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher left the team to start what could be a difficult 2013 for the “Monsters of the Midway.”
It isn’t like the cupboard is bare (pun intended) for new head coach Marc Trestman (a surprise hire from the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League). Jay Cutler has moments of complete brilliance but, coupled with his other moments of sheer lunacy, has driven Bears fans to the edge of the cliff with him regarding patience. Matt Forte is still a solid running back and, depending on the offense that Trestman installs, there should be some excitement on this side of the ball.
Without Urlacher to lead the defense, it falls upon Urlacher’s longtime partner in the linebacking corps, Lance Briggs, to lead the unit. There is also outstanding cornerback Charles Tillman in the mix, so it will still be a formidable squad that hits the Soldier Field turf. Unfortunately, there won’t be much joy in the Windy City as this team will take some time to come together.
Prediction: Third (Record: 7-9)
In 2012, the Lions were supposed to challenge for supremacy in the NFC North and, instead of excelling, crashed to earth in an ear-splitting 4-12 season. As head coach Jim Schwartz scratches his head and tries to come up with some type of season that might save his job, he does have some options.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson have become one of the best tandems in the NFL, but the lack of a running game hurt them tremendously last year. Enter former Heisman Trophy (hey, he did win it) winner Reggie Bush, coming over from the Miami Dolphins through free agency, to address that situation. If Bush can give them the type of season that he had in his last two in Miami (2072 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns, nearly another 600 receiving and three TDs), he could be the salve for what ails the Lions offense. The defense remains strong for the Lions with one of the beasts of defensive linemen, Ndamukong Suh, ready to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
The Lions could be the “wild card” of the division and finish anywhere from second to last. Unfortunately, I believe that the Lions will underachieve once again this year, barely eking out an improvement over 2012 but not enough to go anywhere (other than Schwartz, who might be gone if this year doesn’t prove to be a better one).
Prediction: Fourth (Record: 5-11)
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