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Schultz: NFC North is still the Packers' to lose

Chris Schultz
9/2/2013 2:07:20 PM
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Green Bay Packers

Reason for Pessimism:  For the Packers, there are three key areas of concern. First, do they have a dominant running back to lead an effective running game?  The Packers have options -- Alex Green, DuJuan Harris, James Starks, number two draft pick Eddie Lacy, and number four draft pick Jonathan Franklin. But are any of them going to be able to dominate and be the lead back the team can rely on consistently?  Next, offensive line depth is a trouble spot. The absence of injured left tackle Bryan Bulaga is significant, especially because 4th Round rookie David Bakhtiari is the projected replacement. If Bakhtiari does not produce, who will protect Aaron Rodgers? And finally, the entire defense is a question mark. Colin Kaepernick ran for 181 yards against the Packers in a playoff game. With Adrian Peterson, Reggie Bush and Matt Forte in the division, run defense has to be an issue.  Then there is the matter of replacing the veteran leadership of Charles Woodson in the back four and an inconsistent kicking game.

Reason for Optimism:  The Packers have the best quarterback in football and Rodgers had 39 touchdowns against eight interceptions -- and he's tough, as is evidenced by the 51 sacks he took.  Jordy Nelson should be okay and is one of many talented receivers, so there is no reason Green Bay can't put up big numbers if it has too.  The Packers are 53-27 since Rodgers took over as the starter. To help the defence, Mike McCarthy sent his whole defensive staff to Texas A&M to explore the read option offense that the 49ers used so easily against the Packers. The organization will see if it was money well spent right away, as Green Bay plays San Francisco in Week 1. McCarthy has a career record of 74-28, which is very good for any head coach at any level. Whatever the problem is, he will find the answer.

Reality:  This Packers team could be three touchdowns behind in the 4th quarter and their passing offense will find a way to score four. The running game will improve. Green Bay addressed that need and a new good back will be found in that mix. Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit have all improved, but the NFC North is still the Packers' to lose, and I don't think they will.

Prediction:  First in the NFC North.

Chicago Bears

Reason for Pessimism:  This will be interesting.  Marc Trestman is the new coach for the Bears and his number one priority is to make Jay Cutler into a top NFL quarterback.  Trestman is not Lovie Smith in personality. I had the impression that players enjoyed playing for Lovie Smith (see Brian Urlacher), and playing for Trestman will be different. Not better or worse, just different, so the players will have to adjust to his style. Last year's Bears team was 10-6, so the Bears need to be 11-5 to say the coaching move was the right one. In a division as good as the NFC North, 11-5 will be tough but it would also mean a playoff spot.  It will be difficult to improve upon that won loss record without Urlacher at middle linebacker. I am glad the future Hall of Famer did not sign with another team and left the game as a career Bear. But that is a huge leadership void to be filled. Even with Urlacher gone, age is an issue in Chicago. Julius Peppers is going into his twelfth year. Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman are in year 11.  That's three key starters needing to have the energy of a young player for 16 games and stay healthy.

Reason for Optimism:  I think Cutler will have a great year for several reasons. First, it is his contract year. Every pro football player knows if there is a time to turn it on it is in your contract year. With the money given to Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo and Joe Flacco, Cutler knows that an opportunity of a life time is in front of him and it will never appear again. Also, Trestman is a very good teacher and play caller. The association will work intellectually because of the clarity Trestman will provide. Another reason is this will be the best offensive line the Bears will have had in a long time. Jermon Bushrod can athletically compete with any explosive defensive end in football.  Former Jet Matt Slauson is underrated because Nick Mangold took a lot of the attention in New York.  And Kyle Long will improve and contribute due to his physical skills and blood lines. The talent in Chicago is there, it just needs to be focused, disciplined and progressively improved.

Reality:  I think the Bears can win the division expect for one obstacle -- Aaron Rodgers. The Bears would need to beat the Packers twice to win the division and I just don't see that happening.

Prediction: Second in the NFC North.

Detroit Lions

Reason for Pessimism:  The Lions dropped from 10 wins and a playoff appearance to four wins and a re-building label in just one season. They probably overpaid on the extension of quarterback Matthew Stafford but that was a salary cap management move as much as anything else. Breaking NFL records usually is considered a unique and wonderful accomplishment, but last year Stafford broke the NFL record for pass attempts with 727. That's an amazing number, but it suggests that there is no balance in the offense. Just pass, pass and more passing. The defensive line, formerly a strength, is now being re-built.  The tackle position is good with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, but the defensive ends are not proven.  Number one pick Ziggy Ansah has exceptional potential, but he is very limited in terms of experience. In 2011, the Lions had perhaps the best defensive line in football, with assistance from the noise inside Ford Field when opponents were in third and long. Not anymore.

Reason for Optimism:  The Lions may have the single best football player on the planet in Calvin Johnson.  When you have that talent at that position you can dictate to a defense every play. Then they added Reggie Bush through free agency. With a rejuvenated career and confidence, Bush will see seven man fronts because of Johnson's presence. Stafford might be the second-best thrower in football after Aaron Rodgers.  He only connected for 20 touchdowns but threw for almost 5,000 yards.  Red zone efficiency is a priority for the Lions offense in 2013.

Reality:  Are the 2013 Lions going to resemble the 2011 version that won 10 games or the 2011 squad that lost 12?  About 50 per cent of last year's losses were by three or four points and this year they should be able to win more of those close games, but it won't be good enough.

Prediction: Third in the NFC North.

Minnesota Vikings

Reason for Pessimism:  It is hard to believe that Adrian Peterson can top or duplicate what he accomplished last year. Peterson ran for more yards than 24 other NFL teams and finished nine yards short of Eric Dickerson's single-season record. In the last 10 games, Peterson totaled almost 1,600 yards -- and all with a recently rebuilt knee.  So Peterson's greatness is established, but do the Vikings have a quarterback? In the month of November, Christian Ponder had four turnovers in three games and totaled just 443 yards passing. The Vikings lost three of those four games. With the second-worst passing offense, can the Vikings win 10 games in 2013 the way they did it last year -- all AP, all the time? The Vikings must also improve their pass defense after finishing 24th last year.  They have to face Aaron Rogers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford twice a year each, so defending the pass is a must. This division is also a cornerback's nightmare as James Jones, Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson all reside in the NFC North. Leslie Frazier did remarkable things, taking a three win team and turning them into a 10-6 winner, but I'm just not sure he can do it again.

Reason for Optimism:  When you have Adrian Peterson on your team you can dictate to a defense. Any time that defense brings a defensive back close to the line of scrimmage you simply find the best 1-on-1 matchup and make it happen.  If they don't bring anyone up to the line, you just run Peterson all day -- football at its simplistic best.  No deep thinking. What was good about the Vikings last year is that they started fast and finished strong. They won four of their first five and five of their first seven. Then they finished by winning their last four. With two good offensive tackles in Phil Loadholt and Matt Kahlil, the Vikings may be the best power team in the entire league.

Reality:   The other three quarterbacks in the division have a higher skill set than Ponder. If he has a breakthrough year, the Vikings are a playoff team again but that's a big ask.

Prediction: Fourth in the NFC North.

Chris Schultz

Chris Schultz

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