Thursday, August 30, 2012

2012 NFL Preview: NFC North

He may not have won the Super Bowl, but he easily won
Mustache Madness.
With just a couple short weeks until the opening kickoff of the 2012 NFL season, it’s finally time to make my official predictions, knowing full well they will be shot to pieces faster than Carson Palmer can throw 10 INT’s. Still, gotta fill the time somehow, right?

In case you missed them, here are the divisions we’ve already previewed:

AFC West
NFC West
AFC South
NFC South
AFC North

We stay up north today to examine what very well may be the best division in football. 

NFC North

Seriously, if I said the NFC North was the best division in football, would you argue? The Packers nearly went undefeated in the regular season, the Lions turned into an offensive juggernaut, and the Bears were arguably one of the top teams in the conference before Cutler and Forte went down. If they can avoid beating each other up – as opposed to just ganging up and beating the mess out of the Vikings – the division could theoretically put three teams in the playoffs.

Here are my predictions for 2012:

1. Green Bay Packers: 13-3

Biggest Addition:  Nick Perry – Age and injury caught up to the Packers defense last season, resulting in one of the league’s most porous units. Ted Thompson responded by using his entire draft on defensive help. Smart move. As the team’s first round pick, Perry is the face of the group and he offers the most heavily needed skill, pass rushing. Clay Matthews produced a career low sack total last season, not due to poor performance, but due to an unbelievable amount of attention resulting from the utter lack of a pass rush opposite him. Perry will get first crack to be that guy, and reports are that he has looked very good in the early going. Even a moderate impact from him would have huge implications for this defense. 

Biggest Loss:  Nick Collins – He only played two games last season before suffering a season ending neck injury, and if you’re looking for a big reason why the 2011 defense was so much worse than the 2010 defense, you have one right there. From 2008-2010, Collins totaled 17 INT’s and made the Pro Bowl three straight times. He, along with Charles Woodson, was what made that defense go. It’s sad that, at just 29, his career might effectively be over. 

X-Factor:  Sam Shields – Last year was supposed to be Shields’ breakout season, but it just didn’t happen. He was beat far too many times and didn’t appear ready for an increased role. Talent-wise, it’s there for him, and the Packers really need him to figure things out this season. Charles Woodson isn’t getting any younger, and he’s not even playing CB full time thanks to the gaping hole at safety. If Shields can break out and put a stranglehold on the starting CB spot opposite Tramon Williams, it would provide Green Bay with the type of stability they need to get the ship righted.

Biggest Question:  Can they get Clay Matthews some help? Like I said before, there just wasn’t enough pressure coming from Packers’ not named Clay Matthews. Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy…somebody has to step up and help or they’re going to give up a ton of points again.

Forecast:  This is the exact same team from last year. Dominant offense, suspect defense. I don’t think they’ll threaten to go undefeated again this year, but there’s really no reason why they shouldn’t end up with home field advantage in the NFC. With Aaron Rodgers and those receivers, they might not even need the defense to improve to win the whole thing.

2. Detroit Lions: 12-4

Biggest Addition:  Jacob Lacey – Detroit wisely focused on retaining in-house talent (Calvin Johnson, anyone?) this offseason, aiming to tweak their roster rather than pursue impact free agents. Not that they needed to overhaul things, considering the glut of young, emerging players on the roster. Jacob Lacey was one such tweak when he signed several months back, but his addition is suddenly much more important after the release of Aaron Berry. Before, Lacey was, at best, a candidate to play in nickel packages. Now, he might be starting. He wasn’t horrible in Indy, and that’s really all the Lions can hope for at this point. Just don’t be awful.

Biggest Loss:  Aaron Berry – Detroit allowed Eric Wright to walk without a fight because they felt Berry was ready to emerge. Perhaps he was…we’ll never know. His constant legal issues forced Detroit to cut him, leaving Berry at a crossroads and leaving the Lions with some serious problems in the defensive backfield. 

X-Factor:  Titus Young – What could elevate the Lions offense from 10th best in the league (in terms of DVOA) to Green Bay/New Orleans/New England territory? That’s right, a #2 WR who isn’t Nate Burleson! Burleson wasn’t bad last year, but his 10.4 Y/C certainly isn’t going to scare anyone. Young, however, could be scary. He runs all the routes, has terrific hands, is adept at making plays after the catch, and can definitely stretch the field vertically. Though there were some growing pains, Young closed out his rookie season in strong fashion and appears poised to break out in 2012. If he can, the Lions offense could go from ‘predictable but really hard to stop’ to ‘HOLY CRAP, HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO COVER EVERYBODY?’  

Biggest Question:  Who is the second cornerback? I’ve kinda covered this already, so I won’t rehash everything. The battle is coming down to Lacey, Alphonso Smith, Kevin Barnes, Bill Bentley, and Jonte Green. Honestly, I’m not sure the word ‘winner’ can be used given the choices. Lacey, Smith, and Barnes are all talented but fairly disappointing players that are probably better suited to nickel and dime packages. Bentley and Green are rookies…and not first rounders either. One of these guys is going to have to step up and not be an utter disaster, because the Lions have to go through some pretty good QB’s to make it to the Super Bowl. 

Forecast:  In another division, the Lions would probably be favored to claim the crown and potentially secure a first round bye. Their offense should be that good, not to mention the strength and ferocity of their defensive front. Make no mistake; this is not Matt Millen’s Lions anymore. This is an extremely talented team full of fire and swagger, and I have no doubt they’re ready to take on the big boys. But taking on the big boys and actually taking down the big boys is a big step to take. For now, holes in the secondary, so-so talent at offensive tackle, and discipline issues put them squarely behind Green Bay in the NFC North. For now.

Of course, none of this actually matters, because Calvin Johnson threw away his season to be on the cover of Madden. He’s getting hurt, people. They all do…they all do. 

3. Chicago Bears: 10-6

Biggest Addition:  Brandon Marshall – Quick, name the last “star” receiver the Bears have had! That’s a trick question, of course. Fact is that Walter Payton – the running back! – leads the franchise in receiving since the AFL-NFL merger. Marshall is immediately the best receiver the Bears have ever had, a true #1 that will dynamically change this offense. His size and physicality make him a perfect fit for Bears-style football, and his existing chemistry with Jay Cutler should minimize any transitional struggles. (Don’t forget, those two were reeeeeeally good together in Denver) Assuming he doesn’t beat up any women, this should be one of the offseason’s more impactful moves.

Biggest (Potential) Loss:  Brian Urlacher – Chicago lost nothing they wanted to keep, so I’m going to get creative. Urlacher tore up his knee in the final game of 2011, and while reports are that he will be ready to go Week 1, it’s not a stretch to imagine a 34 year old, 12 year veteran struggling to make it back 100%. Even if he plays, he might not be Brian Urlacher anymore. That would put the rapidly aging Bears defense in a tough spot, as they’re clearly not the same unit without him. 

X-Factor:  Gabe Carimi – Stop me when this starts to sound familiar…the Bears line is really going to struggle this year. Despite having one of the league’s most embarrassing units, Chicago did absolutely nothing to solve the problem. Literally the only card they have to play is Carimi, the team’s first round pick from last year. He’s finally back after tearing up his knee last year, and appears to have won the starting job at RT. While it’s a stretch to think he’ll dominate in what is essentially his rookie season (and after a major knee injury), he very well might be the team’s most talented lineman. A solid showing won’t solve the bigger protection issues, but they’ll at least allow Cutler to focus his fear/anxiety in a more concentrated direction.

Biggest Question:  Protection, protection, protection. Wait, that isn’t a question. Protection, protection, protection? Better?

Forecast:  At the time of Cutler’s and Forte’s injury, I thought Chicago was, perhaps, the fourth best team in the NFC. Even if you’re unwilling to go that far, it’s pretty clear they were going to be a playoff team. Not only are they both back, they’ve added a significant weapon in Brandon Marshall. Needless to say, this should be one of the more impressive offensive teams in Bears history. Not everything is roses, however. Protection issues once again threaten to undermine the season, the defense is not exactly young, and the NFC North is a house of horrors. They’ll win games and stay in contention, but with the NFC being as deep as it is, I’m just not sure they can overcome their deficiencies. 

4. Minnesota Vikings: 3-13

Biggest Addition:  Matt Kalil – My goodness the offensive line was bad last year, and LT Charlie Johnson was as bad as any of them. As a result, it’s hard to really judge the progress of Christian Ponder considering how often he was flushed out of the pocket. Given that, Minnesota was smart to draft Matt Kalil. I’m not going to call him “can’t miss,” because those players don’t actually exist…let’s just say he’s literally everything you’d want in a franchise left tackle. Big get for a team that needs to find out what it has at QB. 

Biggest Loss:  Adrian Peterson’s prime – This is seriously sad. Peterson wasted away his ages 25 and 26 seasons on bad Vikings teams, and then topped it off by tearing his knee up late last season in a meaningless game. Even if he comes back 100% this year, he’d likely be 29 or 30 before Minnesota was competitive again. Sad. 

X-Factor:  Everson Griffen – I’m never going to stop talking about him until Leslie Frazier finally puts him in at DE. He’s insanely talented and could blow up opposite Jared Allen. Plus, at just 25, he’d be a much bigger piece of their future than Brian Robison. Keep an eye on this guy.

Biggest Question:  Is Christian Ponder any good? Look, Minnesota is severely undermanned this year, so success really can’t be measured by wins and losses. The only things that matter are developing young players and finding out if Ponder is the guy. He had moments last year, but he has to start delivering more consistently.

Forecast:  This is a really bad football team with almost no strengths. The defense, in particular, is embarrassingly bad. They honestly might make the Bucs look like the Steel Curtain. But again, wins aren’t really going to define the 2012 season. It’s all about seeing what Ponder can do, and getting reps for young guys like Griffen, Harrison Smith, and others. All Vikings fans can hope for this season is enough progress from Ponder to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Either that, or enough losses to draft Matt Barkley.  

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