2011 NFC North Division Preview and Predictions

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By Mike Ivcic

1) Green Bay Packers
Here’s the one thing I don’t understand about preseason predictions – why do we all assume that the team that won the year before is automatically the favorite to win again the following season? Only eight times has a team won back-to-back Super Bowls, and it has NEVER been done three times. That means the odds of repeating are no better than 18%, and it goes to a virtual 0% after a team wins two titles in a row. So while I’m all aboard with the idea that the Packers should be among the NFL’s top teams this season, I’m not anointing them as the team to beat just yet – even in the NFC. For now, let’s just say they’re the class of the NFC North, they’ll win the division and probably earn a first-round bye, they have a top five quarterback in Aaron Rodgers who’s proven he can win big games under the biggest pressure, and a first-ballot hall-of-famer in Charles Woodson on the other side of the ball who, along with all-world linebacker Clay Mathews, leads a defense that can go toe-to-toe with any offensive unit in the NFL. In 2011, that’s the recipe for success, so they’ll be in it to the end, but I don’t think they win the NFC (more on that on Friday).

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 – 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 – their week two opponent? Carolina.

2) Detroit Lions
Mark it down – 2010 is the year the Detroit Lions will ALMOST capture their first playoff berth this decade. Almost. The Lions are finally on track to at least be included in the playoff discussion this season, and will likely finish with a record good enough to be in the top half of the NFC, but Matt Stafford still has to prove he can stay healthy for a full, 16-game season before Detroit will be able to finally make the leap to the playoffs.

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
Congratulations, Chicago, on winning the 2010 NFC North division title. Your reward? How about a three-game opening stretch that reads Atlanta, at New Orleans, Green Bay. Hello, 0-3! It’s precisely that three-game start that led me to take Detroit second and Chicago third, because by the time the Bears visit Detroit on Monday night in week five, thoughts of repeating as division champs might already have vanished from the minds of the Chicago players. Jay Cutler is a solid and, at times, spectacular quarterback, and you can put me in the camp of thinking that all of the media speculation on his injured knee during the NFC Championship Game is a lot more hype than anything else. Sure, if I were a Bears fan I would probably have been upset that he wasn’t able to play in that game, but I really struggle with the idea of a “soft” football player, and there’s NO way I’m challenging anything that Brian Urlacher says, so I’ll believe he was hurt. That said, there simply aren’t enough weapons at the receiver spot for Cutler and offensive coordinator Mike Martz to be able to really do the things they want to on offense. Plus, Lovie Smith has lost two home playoff games in his tenure, so there can’t be a whole lot of confidence in the Bears winning the big game when it matters most. They haven’t earned a wild card berth since 1994, so it’s division or bust for this crew.

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
Contrary to popular belief, the Minnesota Vikings will not stink. In fact, they will likely be the best last-place team in the league, and depending upon the play of incoming QB Donovan McNabb could even challenge for a playoff spot. Remember, this is a team that’s just two years removed from reaching the NFC championship game, and one bad Brett Favre pass away from having a shot to kick a game-winning field goal and silencing that raucous Superdome crowd. The offensive QB-RB-WR trio is extremely talented (McNabb-Adrian Peterson-Percy Harvin) so scoring points shouldn’t really be an issue. The problem here is depth, so if the key players aren’t able to stay healthy, any outside shot the Vikings have of pulling off a minor shocker will almost instantly disappear.

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
Monday, September 5: NFC North
Tuesday, September 6: AFC South
Tuesday, September 6: NFC South
Wednesday, September 7: AFC East
Wednesday, September 7: NFC East
Thursday, September 8: AFC West
Thursday, September 8: NFC West
Friday, September 9: Playoffs and Super Bowl

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