|If Stafford ever appeared on the cover of Madden, would he be tragically killed the next day?|
Continuing with our 2011 NFL Preview, let's be careful to avoid all pubic bathrooms as we preview the AFC North. In case you missed them, here are the other division's I've previewed.
It just doesn't seem like the old NFC North without Brett Favre, now does it? Oh yeah, I almost forgot, he's still coming back. How about this one...Stafford goes down in the preseason (likely) and the Lions panic-sign Favre for the year. That sounds great! Anyways, this division projects to be a very competitive one, but I think 3 of the 4 teams are going to be disappointments this year. The funny thing about predictions is that everyone seems to think every team is going to win more games than they are projected to win. That's about as dumb as possible. One team must win and one team must lose. If one team is a surprise, one will be a disappointment. It's just the way it is. Apart from Green Bay, I have a feeling this division will be a mess.
1. Green Bay Packers: 13-3
Biggest Addition: Live bodies - According to Football Outsiders, Green Bay was 2nd in the NFL with 83 games missed by starters. That's a lot of games. Heck, they lost a couple guys to weird, out-of-nowhere "sniper" injuries in the Super Bowl! RB Ryan Grant and LB Nick Barnett were especially key injuries for a team that barely limped its way to the playoffs. The fact that they could even field a team, must less WIN the Super Bowl, is a miracle.
Biggest Loss: They lost a few guys, but I'll say G Daryn Colledge. Aaron Rodgers was sacked 50 times in 2009, but that number went down to a respectable 31 times in 2010. The line obviously isn't responsible for every sack, but 19 less is pretty clear proof that things got better. Colledge was a key piece of the interior of that line. The Packers feel like they have some good options to replace him, and who am I to doubt them? They always seem to make good personnel decisions and they do a fantastic job of identifying and developing young talent. Still, it's a bit of a concern given the past problems.
Biggest Question: To give you an idea of where the Packers are at, the one big question that NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert could come up with was, "Where will QB Aaron Rodgers find new motivation?" Is he serious? What a dumb question to ask! Where will Rodgers find motivation? You mean, you think he's just going to quit now that he's got ONE Super Bowl? So stupid. The point is, the Packers are pretty loaded. My one question is about the run game. It was bad last year...like 24th overall bad. Getting Ryan Grant back is huge, but a 29 year old RB with significant mileage and coming off a major injury is no sure thing.
Summary: At gunpoint, I'd pick the Packers to repeat in the NFC. To put it simply, they have Aaron Rodgers, who might be the best QB alive at this point (probably Tom Brady actually...allow me at least some hyperbole!). I don't see any way they have injury problems like last season, and that seems to be the only thing standing in their way. Unless, of course, you buy into the whole Eagles "Super Team" thing...
2. Chicago Bears: 8-8
Biggest Addition: T Gabe Carimi - Some people criticized Chicago for taking him too early (also for screwing over the Ravens...which they should have been punished for), but I thought this was a savvy pick by Jerry Angelo. There are definitely things that Carimi doesn't bring to the table, but he brings more than enough to be a solid starter in the NFL. Throughout his Big Ten career, Carimi held his own against several first round pick talents, including Adrian Clayborn, Ryan Kerrigan, and Cam Heyward. He's versatile, tough, and hard working. Chicago could do a lot worse than add one of those types to their offensive line.
Biggest Loss: C Olin Kreutz - Easiest pick yet! Kreutz isn't even near the player he used to be, but he was still a competent offensive linemen, which makes him a HUGE loss for the Bears. Beyond that, he, along with Brian Urlacher, was the heart and soul of this team. I know that sounds like a 'romantic' thing to say, but it makes a difference in a team sport. You need leaders, you need guys who set examples...Kreutz set the tone with his toughness and leadership. They will definitely miss that.
Biggest Question: How badly will the new kickoff rules hurt the Bears? I didn't realize this until I looked it up, but Chicago finished 30th in the NFL in total offense. Behind the Browns! Barely ahead of the Cardinals! Yet, they finished a more respectable 21st in scoring offense, averaging just over 20 points per game. That doesn't make them the '99 Rams or anything, but it gives them a chance to win. Utilizing a little math, and a lot of common sense, it's not hard to figure out that Devin Hester is pretty darn important to this team. His 17.1 Y/R on punts and 35.6 Y/R on kickoffs helped Chicago dominate the field position battle. For the most part, teams were terrified to kick to him, causing them to essentially cede field position in order to keep the ball out of Hester's hands. Chicago made small improvements to the offense, but it will be interesting to see if Hester can continue to give them the type of initial advantage they are so accustomed to.
Summary: I think a lot of people assume Chicago will role through another 10 or so wins, but there are definite signs of trouble. The offensive line is always a huge concern, and the lack of offensive efficiency is alarming. Beyond that, age and injury have slowly eroded what used to be one of the league's top defenses. They still ranked in the top 10 in total defense, but another slight slip wouldn't be surprising...though it would be tough for them overcome. All in all, Chicago is the type of team that could put it together and make it back to the playoffs, but everything needs to break just right. Hanging over all this is the interesting Jay Cutler situation. After what happened in the NFC Championship Game, it will be interesting to see how he is received and how he reacts. If he's good, and he gets enough protection, and Roy Williams can be a viable target...well, let's just assume those things won't happen. The more I look at this team, the more I see disaster.
3. Minnesota Vikings: 7-9
Biggest Addition: QB Donovan McNabb - The way I see it, this will either turn out absolutely amazing or it will end up being a massive disaster. No middle ground. Clearly, after selecting him 12th overall, the Vikings plan for Christian Ponder to be their guy down the road. McNabb was brought in as a veteran bridge to win this year, and mentor Ponder for the future. The problem is, McNabb hasn't always been known as the best teammate, having garnered a reputation as sensitive and selfish. Perhaps this isn't true, but it's there nonetheless. Personally, I think it was smart to get him. He cost Minnesota next to nothing, and he was probably the 2nd best available QB out there. I'm obviously not predicting the Vikings to win anything, but he actually gives them a fighting chance. And if it starts to head south, you can always cut ties and turn it over to Ponder.
Biggest Loss: WR Sidney Rice - If Bryant McKinnie was anywhere near the same player he was a few years ago, I'd pick him, but that clearly isn't the case. Rice, of course, missed nearly all of last season, so we have a decent idea of what his value to the team is. Two seasons ago, he was arguably the best receiver in football. In that season, Brett Favre had his career year (at 87!) and the Vikings had an explosive offense that finished 2nd in the NFL at 29.4 points per game. Last season, he missed 10 games and wasn't totally healthy when he came back. No surprise then, that Favre had the worst season of his career and Minnesota's offense regressed to a meager 17.6 poinst per game. Rice isn't responsible for the entire difference, but his value is undeniable. It's a tough blow for the team to lose him, especially so soon after bringing in McNabb.
Biggest Question: How much production can they get out of their front lines? The offensive line is a well known question mark that probably didn't improve much in the offseason, even with the signing of Charlie Johnson. McNabb isn't anywhere near as mobile as he used to be, so it will be important to give him some time back there. The defensive line, on the other hand, has long had a reputation of being the class of the NFL. With Jared Allen and the Williams Wall manning the front, the Vikings have had plenty of success against the run and at getting to the QB. Unfortunately, that period of dominance seems to be over. With Pat Williams leaving/retiring(?) and Ray Edwards walking in free agency, the line will undergo some big changes. In addition, it looks like Kevin Williams will finally have to serve his suspension in the StarCaps incident. And if that weren't enough, there is the curious case of Jared Allen. He ended up with 11 sacks last season, but he clearly struggled to get to the QB like he used to. If Allen returns to form and either Brian Robison or Everson Griffen steps up in place of Edwards, then the line will probably be OK. It's still an interesting thing to watch however.
Summary: This is a Vikings team in a bit of a tough situation. They have too many good veteran players to begin rebuilding, but probably not enough to actually compete. Running the ball with Adrian Peterson is obviously the only real way to success, but even a stud season by him might not be enough. With McNabb in place, it wouldn't be a stretch to see them land the final wild card spot, but considering the holes on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary, it does seem to be an uphill battle. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Christian Ponder era start by the end of the season. Sorry Prince...
4. Detroit Lions: 5-11
Biggest Addition: QB Matthew Stafford - They have got to keep him on the field if they're going to have any chance at winning. Period.
Biggest Loss: QB Matthew Stafford - I'm assuming Mr. Glass here will get hurt within the first six weeks of the season. End of season. Period.
Biggest Question: Can Matthew Staff...well, you know.
Summary: It seems like everyone is jumping on the Lions bandwagon...which obviously means they're going to have a rough year. Remember when everyone jumped on the 49ers bandwagon? Yeah, that turned out well. The thing is, I can't see a single reason why everyone thinks their going to all of a sudden turn it around. Stafford gets all kinds of hype, but he has yet to play at a high enough level to prove he's really a franchise QB. With major question marks at QB, RB, and all over the defense, it's unreasonable to expect them to make the playoffs. Unless of course you think Ndamukong Suh can notch 50 sacks...and 1000 yards rushing. Honestly, I wouldn't put it past him.