Last year the NFC North came down to a thrilling conclusion, with Aaron Rodgers returning from a broken collarbone to lead a late game-winning drive against the Bears to break their hearts. This year the North looks to be another dogfight between the two longtime rivals, especially if quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler stay healthy for their respective teams. Here’s a look at how the division will stack up this year.
1. Green Bay Packers
2013: 8-7-1, 1st, lost in wild card round to 49ers
2014 (projected): 10-6
It’s business as usual for the Packers, who will win their fourth straight division title, as well as advance to the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. As long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy, the Packers are a lock to advance to the postseason. Last year the Packers were 5-2 when he went down with a broken collarbone and were 2-5-1 without him, having to wait until the last game of the season to lead them to the playoffs.
A healthy Rodgers will give the fans at Lambeau Field an electrifying offense. Even with the loss of James Jones Rodgers still has his favorite target Jordy Nelson as well as young wideouts Randall Cobb and Jerome Boykin, who are poised for breakout seasons. Eddie Lacy finally gave Green Bay the running game they wanted, so expect Rodgers to get a little more breathing room this season as they run the clock out with Lacy to end games. The only concerns are the defense, which allowed the 25th most yards in the NFL last season (372.3) as well as 26.8 points per game and the offensive line. The defensive line should get a boost from Julius Peppers, who is still disruptive even at 34. The team drafted Alabama safety Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round, which should give a boost to the secondary. The offensive line suffered a major blow in the off-season losing center Evan Dietrich-Smith, and they can’t afford to have a weak center if they want Rodgers to stay healthy. The Packers season depends on the health of Rodgers, who can turn this team into a contender when healthy.
2. Chicago Bears
2013: 8-8, 2nd
2014 (projected): 9-7
Tell me if this sounds familiar:The Chicago Bears come up just short of winning the division, finishing one game behind the Packers. It’s because it happened last season and looks like it’s going to happen again. The Bears have faith in Jay Cutler, especially now that he two outstanding targets in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Look for both to be great alongside tight end Martellus Bennett, another top 10 target at his position. Matt Forte was one of the best all-around running backs in the NFL last season, gaining 1,933 total yards and scoring twelve touchdowns. Even the offensive line improved as Cutler was only sacked 19 times in 11 games compared to 38 times in 15 games in 2012.
If the NFL was just about offense, the Bears could be one of the best teams in the NFL. But defense wins championships, and last season the Bears were toothless on defense. Once a huge advantage for the Monsters of the Midway, the Bears D ranked 30th in the NFL last season and was shredded on the ground, giving up a league worst 161.4 yards a game. To add some beef to the defensive line, the Bears signed defensive end Jared Allen who isn’t the great player he once was, but can still make a difference and replace Julius Peppers. They also drafted defensive lineman Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, whom the Bears hope will improve last season abysmal front. They also drafted Kyle Fuller to start alongside the aging Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. Since the Bears run to the Super Bowl in 2007, they’ve only made the playoffs once. They always look like a team with potential, but will always be behind the Packers unless they become a more complete team
3. Detroit Lions
2014 (projected): 7-9
Like the Bears, the Lions are extremely talented on the offensive side of the ball. Calvin Johnson is a matchup nightmare for any cornerback in the league, and should have another outstanding season. Matt Stafford has a strong arm and can keep the team in most games. Reggie Bush can be explosive at times, and he and Joique Bell should be a dynamic duo this season.
Yet for as much potential as the offense has, they’ve never lived up to it. Stafford has always gobbled up yardage, passing for 14,655 yards in the past three seasons, but has also turned the ball over 61 times. Those turnovers were critical last season, as the Lions faded down the stretch and missed the postseason. Johnson has always been dominant but has never had a good enough receiver alongside him. That changed this off-season when the Lions lured Golden Tate away from Seattle, and he should have a big year since teams will be double and triple-teaming Johnson.
Defense has always been one of Detroit’s problems, but the Lions finally cracked the upper half of the league last season, ranking 16th in total yards allowed. The front four will continue to be dominant with tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley clogging running lanes, and Ziggy Ansah coming off the edge in pass rush. The secondary could still be better even with the acquisition of strong safety James Ihedigbo, but the Lions should still look for a long term option alongside Glover Quin. The Lions are definitely talented enough to make the playoffs, I just don’t see it this year.
4. Minnesota Vikings
2014 (projected): 6-10
After an unexpected run to the playoffs in 2012 on the legs of Adrian Peterson, the Vikings crashed and burned last year, leading to Leslie Frazier getting fired and the team hiring defensive guru Mike Zimmer. But the Vikings have more to fix than just their defense. Having a good quarterback is the key to success in today’s NFL, and the Vikings QBs were awful last season. The team has given up on Christian Ponder, who can only win if Adrian Peterson dominates a game. The front office drafted Teddy Bridgewater to compete with incumbent starter Matt Cassel, and even though Cassel is the starter right now, Bridgewater could certainly usurp him by midseason. But the quarterback battle is one of many concerns for the rookie head coach, as he needs to fix a defense that ranked 31st in the NFL and total yards while surrendering 30 points a game. The biggest concern is the secondary that was the worst in football last season, allowing a league worst 287.6 yards per game in the air. With the loss of defensive linemen Jared Allen and Kevin Williams, the secondary should have more pressure put on them this season. To alleviate some of the pressure the Vikings drafted linebacker Anthony Barr, who should boost the pass rush. With a quarterback battle and a defense two years away from being able to contribute, expect Mike Zimmer’s first year to be difficult.
All stats are courtesy of ESPN.com and NFL.com, photo is from Google Images.