This division has remained in the shadows as of recently. We all know what Aaron Rodgers is capable of, but does he have enough weapons to justify a 1st place finish? Brandon Marshall has already gone on record to say Jay Cutler is an early MVP candidate, is that realistic? Could Jim Caldwell be the missing piece to bring Detroit over the hump? And will Teddy Bridgewater make a dark horse out of the Minnesota Vikings? I see this playing out possibly 1 out of 2 ways. It has been 4 years since Rodgers emerged as a Superbowl winning Quarterback. It is hard to imagine that he does not return to prominence this season. The NFC north has been the most offensively prolific division when you take a look at the QB’s, and although there have been some major changes in personnel, coaching, and leadership this will be a tight race to the finish. The two keys to this division will come down to:
Will Teddy be the starting QB this season, and if so how many games of Cassell will it take before a change is made?
How quickly can Jim Caldwell get his guys to “buy-in”?
Detroit Lions (11-5)
Caldwell has a super bowl pedigree both as a Head coach and Offensive Coordinator. He knows exactly what it takes, preparation wise, in order to win a championship. Adding him as a Head Coach to this overly talented Lions team will implement a sense of discipline and accountability in the locker room. Although he is an offensive specialist, don’t be surprised if the defensive unit is what carries this team. Look for Stafford to lead a more balanced attack, resulting in a longer average time of possession, and by not attempting to break the single season passing record as he so effortlessly puts up daunting numbers every year. Not only is Suh in a contract year, but the defensive front (as a unit) are entering the prime of their careers. Put opposing offensive lines on notice.
Greenbay Packers (11-5)
The Packers compete with a certain level of consistency year in year out. The NFL seasons in which they do not advance deep into the post-season is primarily due to major injuries at core positions. Their defensive unit is deeper with Clinton-Dix, and a healthy B.J. Raji will return this Packer team back to the upper echelon in the NFC. This is not a strong receiving core, and certainly not a physical one. But with Green Bay, its never if—its when, and in this instance it is when the newcomer wideouts become acclimated with Aaron Rodgers. Look for Green Bay to tote a strong veteran team who will compete for 1st place but be ousted by the Lions towards the latter part of the season.
Minnesota Vikings (10-6*)
*Assuming Teddy Bridgewater starts at Quarterback
Surprise, surprise—Minnesota is NOT as bad as you may think they are going to be. Their predicted record is based on Teddy Bridgewater assuming responsibilities sooner than later. There is a myth in the NFL that rookie Quarterbacks that are teetering on solid starters need an additional redshirt year in order to be ready. Teddy is perfectly capable of taking this team to the next level. He is what I like to call an Implementation specialist, also referred to as “Game managers” by many NFL analysts. I use the word “Implementation Specialist” because he implements the software (game plan/playbook) as it is intended to be used. There will be no improvising, no playmaking greatness, but he will execute the game plan, and minimize turnovers a la Alex Smith. There are plenty of weapons offensively for him to succeed, and a plus is the fact that weapons like Adrian Peterson and Cordarrelle Patterson are players you can get the ball to early and allow them to generate YAC (yards after catch).
Chicago Bears (7-9)
I totally believe the hype surrounding Jay Cutler, but that is not the problem. The problem is the defensive unit for the Bears is so regular, so average, that Cutler will have to be flawless game in and game out to have a legitimate playoff opportunity. These aren’t the same Lovie Bears of the past years. The front seven of the bears are either non-impact players, on the decline, or too young to have made a name yet. Lance Briggs, Jared Allen, and Tim Jennings will not be enough to contain the other high powered offenses in this division. Did I forget to mention they also lost the best return man of all time in Devin Hester--so much for special teams.
Cobb has already led the league in combined net yards, which is very difficult to do if you are a 3rd option-slot receiver and mainly return kicks. This guy is special, and now that James Jones, and Jermichael Finley is gone, Randall Cobb will be expected to show up and play are larger role in the offense. He has proven that he is completely capable of hauling in receptions; he had 80 in 2012, and was only 50 yards away from a 1,000 yard receiving campaign. Now after returning from an injury plagued season, Randall will completely let loose on the weak NFC north corners and also continue to make an impact on Special teams.
The Vikings playoff hopes lie on the maturation of Teddy Bridgewater and the immediate impact of Anthony Barr. The highly touted linebacker out of UCLA will play a vital role in not only the production of this teams’ defense but the leadership as well. Expect Barr to finally give some athleticism to this mundane Vikings defense, and be in the hunt for Defensive rookie of the year...neck and neck with Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney.
It is hard to bet against Aaron Rodgers, and I’m not. The Packers have arguably the best QB in the league which will automatically get them into the playoffs. But Matthew Stafford is poised to have a sensational season with the addition of Golden Tate and Eric Ebron. Detroit’s front line will bring controlled chaos under the leadership of Jim Caldwell. I give the edge to Detroit purely because of Caldwell’s extensive coaching experience and ability to improve the team in every aspect of the game. Detroit wins the tiebreaker for the division, and Rodgers and the Packers become a dangerous 5th seed wild card team. Minnesota will just miss out in a very competitive NFC playoff pool that is mostly dictated by tough defenses and Chicago surprisingly takes a step back with an aging defense
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