The NFC North had two teams make the playoffs in 2012 (Packers and Vikings), a third team that almost made them (Bears), and a fourth that had playoff-caliber, record-breaking talent (Lions) but ultimately underperformed. This is a division full of some of the biggest names in football, including Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson, and Adrian Peterson. It could be said that those three players are the best in the league at their respective positions, and having them all in the same division makes for some very good football. While the Green Bay Packers are the undisputed kings of the NFC North, the remaining teams have a legitimate shot at the wild card, and I know I’ll enjoy watching them fight for it.
As for the schedule, each team in the NFC North will play their 6 divisional games, along with playing each team from the AFC North and the NFC East. That’s a decent draw, considering there’s only one team in that mix that I’d call “Elite” from last year (Ravens). The two unique games will be from the NFC West and the NFC South, based on divisional ranking. With that, let’s start at the top.
Green Bay Packers
2012 Record: 11-5 (1st in NFC North)
- Passing Offense: 9th
- Rushing Offense: 20th
- Passing Defense: 11th
- Rushing Defense: 17th
Key Additions: RB Eddie Lacy, RB Johnathan Franklin, DE Datone Jones
Key Losses: LB Desmond Bishop, S Charles Woodson, WR Donald Driver, WR Greg Jennings, C Jeff Saturday
Their Season Depends On: Better pass protection, striking gold in the draft, and ensuring the defense doesn’t slip after losing key players.
We know Aaron Rodgers is great. We called 2012 a “down year” for him when he threw for 4295 yards, 39 TD, and 8 INT. When you ask why his numbers were so “terrible” (I can’t even write that without rolling my eyes), the answer comes easily: Aaron Rodgers was sacked a league high 51 times in 2012. Taking that into consideration, I think we can declare Rodgers a demigod for putting up numbers like that under such an onslaught. To be fair, he’s got plenty of weapons to throw to. Even without Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, he still has an incredible trio in Randall Cobb (954 yards, 8 TD), James Jones (784 yards, 14 TD), and Jordy Nelson (745 yards, 7 TD). Amazingly, those three receivers had ZERO fumbles in 2012. Talk about reliability. So why the sacks? One word: Injuries. Last year the Packers were missing Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod, both former first round picks on the O-Line, due to injury. Bulaga is out for the season in 2013 for knee surgery, and Sherrod is on the PUP list for now, though it’s believed he’ll be back this season. The Packers did add a couple more offensive linemen in the draft to help out as well, so it’s unlikely that the O-Line will be as terrible as they were last year. That should at least help Rodgers get back to his “normal” bajillion yard seasons.
You may have noticed that the Packers had quite a few “Key Losses” and their only “Key Additions” are rookies. The Packers are relying heavily on this draft class to fill their needs and replace their losses. Specifically, they drafted two of the better running backs in the draft this year with hopes of solving their rushing woes. As you may have heard, the Packers haven’t fielded a 1000-yard rusher since 2009 with Ryan Grant. Their leading rusher in 2012 was Alex Green with 464 yards and zero (count ‘em, ZERO) touchdowns. By drafting two RBs early, the Packers are hoping to find at least one guy they can plug right in as a starter and have him run all over people. They also brought in DE Datone Jones to help on defense. Why would they do that?
Because they lost two BIG pieces of their defense, that’s why! Everyone knows the loss of Charles Woodson is huge. His experience and talent will be sorely missed, and the Packers don’t really have a viable replacement for him. The two players competing for the job are relative unknowns Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings. If one of them can manage to somewhat fill those shoes well, they won’t be unknown for long. The less talked about loss on defense, however, was LB Desmond Bishop. He led the Packers in tackles with 121 in 2012, which is pretty damn impressive. With Bishop gone, the focus now sits on Clay Matthews and his health. Matthews only played in 12 games last year, and he still managed 13 sacks. Green Bay needs Matthews on the field more than ever in 2013.
Prediction: The Packers earned a VERY tough schedule this season, as their unique games will be against the 49ers and the Falcons. Given that rough road, and some question marks on defense, I’ll guess the Packers repeat at 11-5. Still on top of the NFC North.
2012 Record: 10-6 (2nd in NFC North)
- Passing Offense: 31st
- Rushing Offense: 2nd
- Passing Defense: 24th
- Rushing Defense: 11th
Key Additions: WR Greg Jennings, WR Jerome Simpson, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, LB Desmond Bishop
Key Losses: WR Percy Harvin, CB Antoine Winfield
Their Season Depends On: Christian Ponder taking a giant step forward, Adrian Peterson being himself, and the youth on defense growing up fast.
Christian Ponder is a QB who is being managed by his head coach. I mean, he threw for 2935 yards, 18 TD, and 12 INT in 2012. His 53.8 Total QBR isn’t too shabby, but it’s nothing to write home about. A huge part of Ponder’s semi-success (considering he made the playoffs last year) has been Leslie Frazier’s tendency to keep the pressure off his QB. Christian Ponder was rarely asked to carry his team last year. Fortunately for him, he didn’t need to. The chances of Adrian Peterson busting out another 2000+ yards this year are slim, however, and defenses are eventually going to make Christian Ponder throw. If the Vikings want to see the postseason again this year, they need Ponder to use all his new weaponry (Jennings, Simpson, and rookie Patterson) and make some big throws. Let’s remember that they brought in Matt Cassell to back up Ponder if he falters. Suddenly I’m worried about the Vikings.
The one thing the Vikings can rely on, though, is Adrian Peterson. After last year, I can’t even argue against his bold predictions about single-season records and Emmitt Smith’s all-time rushing record. He’s Adrian Peterson, man. 2097 yards, 12 TD, and a stunning 6.0 yards per carry along the way. BOOM. Does he need to repeat that performance this year? Probably not, other than the yards per carry. For the Vikings to win this year, they need to move beyond being one-dimensional and open up that passing game (if Ponder is up for it). This could result in a drop in AP’s numbers, but 1800 yards wouldn’t be unreasonable. If Peterson gets injured, though… they’re gonna have a bad time.
On defense, something should be made perfectly clear: Antoine Winfield was incredible for the Vikings last year. Sure, he’s 36 years old, but his 3 INTs (leading the team) and 101 tackles in 2012 were impossible to ignore. What did the Vikings do? They sent him away! Now the Vikings are betting on youth to be the answer in 2013. With their three (THREE?) first round picks, two of them were spent on defense (DT Sharrif Floyd and CB Xavier Rhodes). 2nd year standout Safety Harrison Smith is looking to contribute as well. Still, this means the projected starters for the four Defensive Backs add up to 6 total years of experience. Yikes.
Prediction: The Vikings loaded up on receivers, but it might take more than that to turn Christian Ponder into a franchise QB. That defense will likely be excellent in a couple years, but it’s looking pretty raw right now. Finally, AP is going to be hard pressed to repeat his 2012 performance, so I’m guessing the Vikings take a big step back this year. Their unique games against the Seahawks and Panthers won’t make their road any easier. I say 6-10, landing at the bottom of the NFC North.
2012 Record: 10-6 (3rd in NFC North)
- Passing Offense: 29th
- Rushing Offense: 10th
- Passing Defense: 8th
- Rushing Defense: 8th
Key Additions: LB D.J. Williams, TE Martellus Bennett, OT Jermon Bushrod
Key Losses: OT Gabe Carimi, WR Johnny Knox, LB Brian Urlacher
Their Season Depends On: Jay Cutler having enough time to throw, retaining the heart of the Chicago Defense, and having ZERO fallout from the shocking removal of Lovie Smith.
I have always been really high on Jay Cutler as a talent. Say what you will about his attitude and demeanor (and you can say a lot), but Cutler has one of the strongest arms in the NFL. The problem in Chicago is that Jay isn’t getting enough time to use that cannon of an arm to its fullest extent, and he doesn’t have a lot to throw to either. He was one of the most pressured QBs in 2012, suffering 38 sacks and plenty more hurries and hits. When being rushed like that, it’s understandable that Cutler isn’t able to perform like he did in Denver. Instead of 4500+ yard seasons, he’s barely cresting 3000 yards over 15 games played. 19 TD, 14 INT, and 58.8% completion rate is not impressive. It’s not like the Bears front office is doing much to help Cutler either. While they’re trying to bulk up their O-Line with Jermon Bushrod, they didn’t start addressing their lack of receiving talent until the 7th round of the draft. Sure, Cutler’s got his safety net in Brandon Marshall (118 receptions, 1508 yards, 11 TD in 2012), one of the best WRs in YAC (yards after catch) in NFL history. Martellus Bennett will help too, but other than that there’s Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, and Alshon Jeffery, all unproven as true #2 WRs. None of this is reassuring for Cutler.
The big bright spot for the Bears in 2012, however, was that incredible defense. The only reason the Bears were contending for the playoffs AT ALL last year was because several games were literally won by the defense alone. This year’s Bears defense is not the same as last year’s, though. Brian Urlacher has been replaced by D.J. Williams, who definitely has the chops to step in and lead the defense. He’s entering his tenth season, and he anchored the Broncos defense for a long time, posting four 100+ tackle seasons in that stretch. The downside is that he was injured for most of last year… and he’s injured again right now. Word is that he’ll be healthy week one, but durability is now a concern for him. Outside of Urlacher, though, all the key players are returning. Charles Tillman had 10 forced fumbles and 3 Pick 6’s last year. Tim Jennings had 9 INTs. Julius Peppers chipped in with his 11.5 sacks. This was the 5th ranked defense in the league in total yards allowed. Can this performance be repeated in 2013?
A big part of the answer to that question lies in the team’s response to the loss of Lovie Smith. It was no secret that many Bears players were shocked that Lovie was let go after all he’s done for that franchise. In his last 3 seasons he boasted records of 11-5 (lost NFC Championship), 8-8, and 10-6. During his 9 years as the Bears head coach, he posted three division championships, leading to three playoff runs, including one trip to Super Bowl XLI. Last year he fielded one of the best defenses in the league and was one game from the playoffs… and he was fired. Brian Urlacher made it very clear that he left the Bears because Lovie was gone. Most other players don’t have the ability to do something so bold without harming their careers, but they can still be affected by the loss of their head coach. Will Marc Trestman be able to bridge the gap and connect with his team in the offseason? My guess is there will be at least a few players feeling the loss of Lovie Smith beyond Week 1. Unless the Bears start hot, Trestman will lose clout in that locker room fast.
Prediction: I just don’t think enough has been done to help Jay Cutler be successful in Chicago this year, and I don’t think the defense will be able to repeat its incredible performance from last year. They will clearly be a good defense, but I doubt they’ll be able to blatantly win as many games on their own as they did in 2012. The offense will need to step up, and I don’t see that happening often enough. With the Saints and the Rams on their schedule (both looking better than they did last year), I say the Bears slide to 6-10 this year, 3rd in the NFC North.
2012 Record: 4-12 (4th in NFC North)
- Passing Offense: 2nd
- Rushing Offense: 23rd
- Passing Defense: 14th
- Rushing Defense: 16th
Key Additions: RB Reggie Bush, DE Jason Jones, DT C.J. Mosely
Key Losses: RB Jahvid Best, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, DE Cliff Avril, WR Titus Young
Their Season Depends On: Matt Stafford making less mistakes, Reggie Bush being the answer at RB, and the defense taking the ball away.
In the past two seasons, Matt Stafford has been impressive with his arm. In 2011, he eclipsed 5000 yards, and last year he almost repeated that feat. In 2012 he managed 4967 yards and 20 TD. That performance was marred, however, by an imperfect 59.8% completion rate and 17 INT. Compare that to 2011’s numbers: 5038 yards, 41 TD, 16 INT, and 63.5% completion rate. Stafford simply didn’t make his throws count last year. Fewer touchdowns, less accuracy, and one more INT. The answer is easy: Get the ball to Megatron in the end zone. Calvin Johnson’s record-breaking season was impressive, and Stafford deserves some credit for helping him get there. Getting 1964 receiving yards in a single season with an injured hand is astounding. The downside was Megatron’s measly 5 TDs last year. With his hand healthy, Johnson will be ready to help pad Stafford’s numbers and get this team back to relevance.
Another thing that will help Matt Stafford will be improvement from the run game. While Mikel Leshoure had some good numbers (798 yards and 9 TD), his 3.7 yards per rush wasn’t great. The addition of Reggie Bush could do a lot to improve this team. Last year he had 986 yards on the ground, with 4.3 yards per rush. Bush also brings a lot to the passing game, and he comes into a better situation than he had in Miami. With Calvin Johnson eating up a lot of coverage, and Matt Stafford being better than a rookie Ryan Tannehill, we could see a career season out of Reggie Bush this year. He also could be the answer to the Lions recent woes at RB.
Finally, the Detroit defense was good last year. It was difficult to gain yards against a stout group that includes the impressive pairing of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley up front. They actually were 13th in the league in total yardage allowed. Unfortunately for them, they were among the worst in points allowed and turnovers forced. The Lions had a -16 turnover differential last year, which made it very hard for them to win games. A large part of getting turnovers is luck, and the Lions had very little luck in 2012. Even losing their team leader in sacks, Cliff Avril (9.5), this defense is still tough. They improved in the draft, snagging DE Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah and CB Darius Slay. I think it’s unlikely for the Lions to repeat a season of minimal turnovers created. These guys will be hungry for the ball.
Prediction: I really think this team is still a playoff contender, despite their atrocious record from last year. They get softball games this year against Tampa Bay and Arizona, and their division opponents look ripe for the picking, other than Green Bay. I’m guessing a huge comeback year for Detroit (something that city really needs right now), as they go 10-6, 2nd in the NFC North.