2011 NFC North Division Preview and Predictions ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
By Mike Ivcic
1) Green Bay Packers
Like their AFC North counterparts, the Packers and the rest of the NFC North will get a schedule bump by playing the “almost-as-bad-as-the-NFC-West-but-just-not-quite-as-horrific” AFC West. Also, don’t overlook the advantage of playing the Thursday night opener against New Orleans â no one plays their starters the final week of preseason anyway, so there’s no less preparation time for week one than any other team, but both Green Bay and New Orleans will get an extra three days to game plan for week two. Plus, they’ll get to watch their week two opponents live in week one without any thoughts to playing or having just played their own game that day. It’s basically advanced scouting for both teams, though the Packers won’t get too much of an advantage â their week two opponent? Carolina.
2) Detroit Lions
After years of futile drafts, the Lions have finally connected on two lottery picks in Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh who have helped to transform this organization. Give credit to Tom Lewand, Martin Mayhew, and Jim Schwartz, who have worked to build a competitive roster for the first time in a decade. Success in the salary-capped NFL is tied almost entirely to success in the draft because it’s the single biggest way to improve a team at the lowest cost to the organization. The Lions are still in need of a game-changer in the backfield to take some of the pressure off of Stafford and Johnson, but in the pass-happy football world, a premier running back isn’t necessary, just a capable one, so the Lions are hoping someone on the current roster can fill that “capable” role enough to keep defenses honest.
Circle Monday, October 10 on your calendar, as the Lions will appear on Monday Night Football against the Chicago Bears. Detroit has still yet to appear on NBC’s Sunday Night Football since its inception since 2006, joining the Houston Texans as the only two teams that have yet to be featured in the NFL’s highest-rated game each week. The Lions will be tested early with road games to Tampa Bay and Dallas, two teams that should be neck-and-neck with Detroit all season long in the hunt for the second wild card, so tiebreakers could become a factor quite early in the schedule. If it comes down to week 17 for the Lions, though, they better hope that Green Bay is resting their starters, because a do-or-die game in Lambeau against the defending world champions won’t bode well for this untested Detroit group.
3) Chicago Bears
There is one beneficial scheduling note with the Bears. From weeks 11-14, the Bears will play all four of their cross-conference games against the AFC West teams. Chicago might already be out of the playoff picture by then, but with a week 15 game against the Seahawks following their jaunt through the junior conference, it’s possible the Bears could get hot and leapfrog themselves back into contention ahead of their week 16 primetime showdown against Green Bay at Lambeau Field on December 25. The Bears are probably still kicking themselves for not beating the Packers in last year’s finale on the frozen tundra, allowing the Pack to earn the six seed and ultimately capture the Super Bowl, so that could be a huge game if Chicago can pick up enough wins to still be in the hunt come Christmas Day.
4) Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota might also be one of the few teams that has what one could call a “balanced” schedule. There are really no tough stretches, nor is there a string of easy games to pile up wins. Both of their primetime appearances are on the road (week 6 at Chicago, week 10 at Green Bay) and they have to go to both Kansas City and San Diego, but in return they get to host New Orleans and Tampa Bay. This team is quite capable of going 10-6, but a much more likely 6-10 record awaits for the last-place team in the NFL’s toughest division.
Monday, September 5: AFC North