NFC North preview: It's Green Bay and then everyone else
Outside of Green Bay, the frustration level has to be growing in the NFC North. If the Bears, Lions and Vikings couldn’t knock the Packers from their NFC North perch the past three seasons, how is it going to happen now?
The Packers won the Super Bowl to close the 2010 season, then ripped off a 15–1 mark the following year. Since then, they have been more vulnerable—a 2–3 start in 2012, Aaron Rodgers’s multi-game absence in 2013, a winner-takes-all Week 17 matchup with Detroit last season—but nothing has slowed them down en route to four consecutive division titles.
The status quo has not changed headed into this year: It’s Green Bay, and then everyone else.
What little gap there was the past few seasons, though, may be shrinking further in 2015. The Lions lost Ndamukong Suh to Miami but plugged in Haloti Ngata, and still boast an explosive, Calvin Johnson-led offense. The Vikings are an up-and-coming threat, with Adrian Peterson returning to join Teddy Bridgewater in the backfield. And the Bears are, well ... OK, the rebuilding Bears have work to do after an off-season coaching change.
One question for the North: Is there a difference between a multi-playoff bid division and a division with multiple Super Bowl threats? The Lions joined the Packers in the 2014 postseason, so did that alone make them a title contender?
Green Bay is an unquestioned threat to walk off with the Super Bowl 50 crown. Should one or two of its closest rivals also look the part out of the gate, this division could emerge as the NFL's toughest. Considering how the rest of the NFC stacks up, the North might have enough talent to swipe both wild cards. The Bears, Lions and Vikings would love to see Green Bay settle for one of those wild-card spots, thereby relinquishing its hold on the division. But it is a shot in the dark to predict such an outcome given how the past few seasons have played out.
The Packers' approach is often imitated, never duplicated. Every team in the league would be thrilled to have the patience and football acumen to pull off Green Bay's draft-and-develop model. Remember how Aaron Rodgers rode the pine for three years while Brett Favre started? Or how Jordy Nelson eased his way into the lineup behind Greg Jennings and Donald Driver?
Of the Packers' projected starters this season, just two—Letroy Guion and Julius Peppers—have played a snap for another team during their careers. (The count increases to three if we add in fullback John Kuhn, who was once a Steeler.)
It helps, of course, that Rodgers has become the gold standard among current NFL quarterbacks. Last year's MVP seems to be getting better with age, if slightly more fragile. He threw 38 touchdown passes and just five interceptions last year; he last threw an interception at Lambeau Field on Dec. 2 ... of 2012.
Green Bay topped the league in scoring offense last season and should come close again, provided Rodgers stays healthy. GM Ted Thompson managed to re-sign receiver Randall Cobb, keeping him together with Jordy Nelson and up-and-comer Devante Adams. Running back Eddie Lacy added his own 1,500-plus total yards last season.
The defense is less of a certainty. The Packers were above-average overall on that side last season, but they're still tinkering headed into 2015, mainly with where Clay Matthews lines up. Tramon Williams's departure will toss more responsibility on Casey Hayward's plate, but true to form, this team has youngsters waiting in the wings.
Provided the defense carries its weight, this is a championship-caliber squad.
Dark horse: Vikings
The Vikings have become such a popular pick to pull off a breakthrough season that they may not quite fall under the “sleeper” umbrella anymore. Detroit arguably has as much claim to the title at this point—a year removed from nearly leapfrogging Green Bay, the Suh-less Lions are being a bit overlooked.
That said, from a realistic standpoint it would register as a significant upset for Minnesota to walk away with the NFC North this season.
A Vikings division title would accelerate the expected timeframe for Mike Zimmer to complete his vision. Zimmer managed a 7–9 mark as a rookie head coach last year, despite the on- and off-field issues that came with losing Adrian Peterson following Week 1. Finishing above .500 should be the expectation with Peterson back in the fold.
However, this is a team with several unknowns, the most pressing being along the offensive line. Phil Loadholt's season-ending Achilles injury made matters worse. Zimmer must shore up that unit and continue to transition his defense from solid to dominant if the Vikings are going to be ready for a run.
Division MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Rodgers is on another planet.
“He can throw on the run, he can throw standing still,” said Eagles LB Connor Barwin of Rodgers on the NFL Network's “Top 100 of 2015” countdown. "Any way he is throwing it, he's throwing it exactly where he wants it to go. It's just pinpoint accuracy.”
All four teams in this division—and most teams around the league—would be doomed if they lost their starting quarterback. The Packers have seen firsthand just how massive the drop-off from Rodgers to a second-stringer can be. That dip nearly cost Green Bay the 2013 division title, and only Rodgers's return from an early calf injury against the Lions in Week 17 last year prevented Detroit from stealing the NFC North.
Breakout player: Shea McClellin, LB, Bears
McClellin disappointed with Lovie Smith as his head coach in 2012, and he could not break through during Marc Trestman's two-year tenure, so the former first-round pick became something of an afterthought as Chicago transitioned to John Fox and the 3–4 scheme of new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio this off-season.
Skip ahead to the first week of preseason action. McClellin not only started for the Bears as an inside linebacker, he wore the headset as his defense's designated play-caller against Miami.
“He’s getting better every day,” Fox said after the game. “He’s a kid who cares. He works very hard at it. It was a position switch for him early on, I think a good position switch at this point. But he continues to improve like we expect him to.”
The Bears are in dire need of athleticism for Fangio's scheme to function. McClellin gives them a hint of it, plus some versatility. Should he hang onto a starting job, he could top his 36 career tackles within the first few weeks of this season.
Rookie to watch: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Lions
Abdullah needed all of three carries in Detroit's preseason opener to electrify the home fans. On his second attempt against the Jets, Abdullah juked safety Calvin Pryor in the hole to pick up a few extra yards. Later in the first quarter, he left linebacker Demario Davis in his wake on a highlight-reel 46-yard scamper.
While the Lions still plan to use Joique Bell and Theo Riddick also is stating his case for playing time, Abdullah's presence as a three-down option could be just what this offense has been missing. It's what GM Martin Mayhew hoped to get from Reggie Bush. And he did, at times—Bush totaled 1,500 yards from scrimmage in 2013, before settling for 550 during an injury-plagued 2014.
Abdullah's talent catching passes out of the backfield should get him on the field early. But he is far more than a change-of-pace back. Don't be surprised if Detroit turns the run game over to him before long.
Coach with most to prove: John Fox, Bears
The NFC North is the rare division where every coach will head into the season on relatively stable ground, but Fox's challenge is unique compared to his divisional counterparts.
Despite a 46–18 regular-season record in Denver, Fox and the Broncos front office agreed on a mutual split following a humiliating home playoff loss vs. Indianapolis. Fox is 8–7 in the playoffs for his career, with a pair of Super Bowl berths, but he never finished the job for the Broncos.
The expectations will be far lower, for starters, in Chicago. Which is the reason Fox finds his name here.
The Bears finished just 5–11 last season and Fox, GM Ryan Pace and their coordinators will need time to find the right pieces for their schemes. The fans, though, are growing increasingly restless—this storied franchise has all of one playoff bid the past eight seasons. Fox will be granted a grace period, but a short one. Given the ground he has to cover to make this team a contender again, it might not be enough.
Can't-miss divisional game: Green Bay at Detroit, Dec. 3
Thanksgiving sets the stage for a unique scheduling quirk involving these two teams, as both will play on back-to-back Thursdays in Weeks 12 and 13. The Lions host Philadelphia in the holiday opener, while the Packers welcome in the Bears to close the day. The typical week off then bridges the gap until this NFC North showdown.
It's a must-win for the Lions if they want to take the division, especially since their last win at Green Bay came in 1991. (The two teams meet at Lambeau in Week 10.) Detroit also then closes with three of four on the road.
For the Packers, the trip to Detroit completes a stretch of four straight games within the division that begins vs. Detroit, at Minnesota, vs. Chicago. A 3–1 or 4–0 mark could turn the North green and gold for a fifth straight season. Should they stumble at all, the Lions will have a chance to pounce, with the Vikings waiting for their second shot in Week 17.
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