X-Green Bay Packers 11-5
The Green Bay Packers have been the model of consistency in the National Football League as their seven consecutive trips to the postseason are tied with the New England Patriots for the longest current streak in the league. For Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, the last two Januarys have ended in heartbreaking losses on the road against teams from the NFC West. In January 2015, the NFC Championship Game saw the Packers in control for the majority of the game until the very end when they lost to the Seattle Seahawks. And this past January saw the Packers scrap and claw to force overtime against the Arizona Cardinals before coming apart at the seams during the extra frame. Now the Packers are looking to put all of the playoff disappointment of the recent years behind them and get back to the Super Bowl.
Luckily for the Packers, they still have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. Rodgers is a two-time National Football League MVP that is one of the best signal callers in the business. But recently Rodgers ability has masked some of the Packers flaws on offense which can no longer be the case if Green Bay wants to get back to the Super Bowl.
Last year weight issues plagued running back Eddie Lacy as he is an important part of the Packers offense. Lacy only gained 758 rushing yards as he drew the ire of Packers head coach Mike McCarthy due to his conditioning. This off-season has seen Lacy dedicate himself to getting in better shape, and the slimmed down running back should become a bigger contributor in Green Bay’s offense.
Rodgers had to go all of 2015 without the services of wide receiver Jordy Nelson who has been his most reliable pass catcher. Nelson tore his ACL last summer, and although that he is back on the Packers roster, it is going to take him some time to regain the form that he had in 2014 when he tallied 1,519 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. In the Packers receiving corps, they also have Randall Cobb, Ty Montgomery, and Davante Adams, but somebody needs to step up from this trio and become more consistent.
The Packers offensive line isn’t full of Pro Bowlers or household names, but they have been together for awhile. However Rodgers was sacked 46 times last year which isn’t going to cut it in 2016 if Green Bay wants to win the NFC North.
For Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, he must find a way to get more usage of outside linebacker Clay Matthews as a pass rusher. In 2014, injuries to the Packers defense forced Matthews to play inside linebacker. Matthews tends to line up at different spots defensively for Green Bay, but he is a better player as an outside linebacker. The Packers used a fourth-round draft pick on inside linebacker Blake Martinez this past April, and if he is ready to fill Green Bay’s void at that position, Matthews should be able to see more time as a pass rusher. Outside linebacker Julius Peppers is 36-years of age, but he still can put plenty of fear into opposing quarterbacks. Peppers is a freak of nature and there is a strong possibility that when this season is over, he will be in the top-five on the National Football League’s all-time list for sacks.
There is plenty of potential for the Packers in their secondary, but it is just a matter of whether or not that cornerbacks Sam Shields and Damarious Randall, along with free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and strong safety Morgan Burnett will come to play on a weekly basis.
Kicker Mason Crosby can be shaky at times on field goals, but he is still a player that McCarthy relies on, while punter Tim Masthay has the strong leg needed for when the temperature drops during the Wisconsin winter.
The Packers have a chance to set the tone for themselves early as three of their first six games will come against the foes from the NFC North as they know that they must scrap and claw to win this division.
Y-Minnesota Vikings 11-5
Last year saw everything beginning to come together for the Minnesota Vikings as they won the NFC North for the first time since 2009, but they suffered a heart breaking loss in the NFC Wild Card Game to the Seattle Seahawks. The Vikings are hopeful that they can learn from that experience as they look to make it consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since 2009 as they are set to begin life in their new home of U.S. Bank Stadium in Downtown Minneapolis.
For Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer it has not taken him that long to make Minnesota a contender once again as he has two years under his belt. Zimmer has always preached having a strong defense, while he also has an offense that can take care of the football.
Running back Adrian Peterson is set to begin his tenth season in the National Football League. But unlike most 31-year old running backs, Peterson isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Peterson gained 1,485 yards last year, however he led the league in carries with 327 as it marked the fourth time in his career that toted the rock at least 300 times in a campaign. Peterson is still extremely vital to the Vikings offense as his running ability sets up the pass. And as Peterson will look to keep his legs churning, another 1,000-yard campaign on the ground will put him in the top 10 on the NFL’s all-time rushing list.
But as Peterson is still important to the Vikings offense, is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater ready to take the next step? From the early stages of Bridgewater’s National Football League career, he doesn’t appear to be a quarterback that is going to be hot commodity in fantasy football, but he has been accurate to the tune of completing 65.3% of his passes last season. However Minnesota’s passing offense was 31st in the NFL in 2015 as they have been know to shy away from taking chances down the field which is something that must change if the Vikings want to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. And that will come down to whether or not that Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turnver is ready to take the kid gloves off of his young quarterback.
Last year as a rookie, wide receiver Stefon Diggs showed promise as he averaged 13.8 yards per catch, but he will need to develop more consistency with Bridgewater. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is still a very dependable pass catcher at his position while the Vikings have high hopes for rookie wide receiver Laquon Treadwell.
But make no mistake about it that Minnesota’s team has a blue-collar feel to it which starts with their defense. Defensively the Vikings were 13th in total defense as they have a unit that can get after opponents.
The Vikings defensive line might not be “The Purple People Eaters” of the 1970’s, but they can still bring the noise. The combination of defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison, along with defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd have the potential to combine for 25 sacks, while at least one member of the quartet could end up in the Pro Bowl.
Minnesota has solid corner linebackers in Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway, but their secondary is littered with play makers such as free safety Harrison Smith which is important in a division such as the NFC North that has Pro Bowl caliber quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers.
Since joining the Vikings in 2012, kicker Blair Walsh has been one of the more accurate kickers in the National Football League, but he must put last year’s meltdown in the playoffs behind him. Last year Walsh had a field goal percentage of 87.2 which included making six kicks from beyond 50 yards and his strong right leg will have an impact on the upcoming season for the Vikings.
It won’t take us long to see if the Vikings are for real as in Week 2 they will host the Packers which will be followed by a trip to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers who are the defending NFC Champions. But comes Christmas, Minnesota should still have plenty to play for.
Chicago Bears 9-7
2015 was an up and down year for the Chicago Bears as they finished with a record of 6-10. It marked the fifth consecutive season in which the Bears failed to qualify for the postseason which is their longest stretch since 1995-2000. And during the Bears current streak, they have employed three different head coaches over that stretch. But however the Bears appear to be committed to their current head coach in John Fox. Fox is coming off of his first year in Chicago and he knows a thing or two about turning around struggling franchises from his previous work as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos respectively.
After leading the National Football League in interceptions in 2014 with 18, quarterback Jay Cutler threw just 11 in 2015. Cutler improved under offensive coordinator Adam Gase last year. But Gase is now the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Dowell Loggains was the Bears quarterbacks coach last year and he will now take over the play calling duties with Gase being in Miami and he must continue to build off of what Chicago’s former offensive coordinator was able to accomplish with Cutler last season.
What helped Cutler improve as a quarterback in 2015 was the fact that he began to trust throwing the football to his running backs as opposed to simply trying to force his passes down the field. Last year Bears running backs accounted for nearly 70 receptions and Jeremy Langford could once have a big impact in Chicago.
After the Bears parted with longtime running back Matt Forte this off-season, Langford should take a bigger role in Chicago’s offense this year. Langford only averaged 3.6 yards per carry as a rookie in 2015, but I expect him to be a guy that gets at least 20 carries per game, and he can also be a solid contributor on swing and screen passes.
Last year saw the Bears use a first-round pick on wide receiver Kevin White, but a shin injury prevented him from taking the field. Now 2016 will be White’s de facto rookie season as he theoretically gives the Bears another first-round pick this season. White’s presence should take some of the pressure off of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery as the Bears look to open up the passing game some more.
As Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio are in their second year with the Bears, they’ve gone about putting more play makers on that side of the football. The Bears have high hopes for outside linebacker Leonard Floyd who was their first-round pick this past spring. At 6’6″, 240 lbs., Floyd has a slender build, but the Bears are optimistic that he will have a smooth transition to the National Football League. The Bears also have outside linebackers that can rush the passer in Willie Young and Lamarr Houston as this is a part of their arsenal that will be needed as they look to compete with the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.
The Bears first six opponents this season did not make the playoffs last year, and a quick start could be just what the doctor ordered as they look to sneak up on the Packers and Vikings in the NFC North.
Detroit Lions 6-10
Last year was an up and down one for the Detroit Lions as they began the season with a record of 0-5 only to rebound and finish 7-9. Assistant coaches were dropping like flies while general manager Martin Mayhew was also relieved of his duties and replaced by Bob Quinn. But somehow Jim Caldwell was able to maintain his post as the Lions head coach. And although that Caldwell was able to avoid the chopping block this past January, he is still on the hot seat and he’ll be fighting an uphill battle to get the Lions back to the postseason after missing out on it in 2015.
It is going to be difficult for the Lions to replace the contributions of wide receiver Calvin Johnson who decided to retire after nine seasons in the National Football League as his presence alone caused matchup issues for opposing defenses. And in Johnson’s final season with the Lions, he led the team in receptions (88), receiving yards (1,214), and touchdowns (9) as quarterback Matthew Stafford is going to now have to rely on committee of wide receivers where nobody stands out.
One of the Lions biggest issues in 2015 was their inability to run the football. The Lions were last in the National Football League in rushing with rookie running back Ameer Abdullah being their leading rusher with just 597 yards. Abdullah’s struggles summed up the Lions issues on offense which began with their offensive line. The Lions were never able to get the right combination on their offensive line which made their offense one dimensional, while Stafford was running for his life in the pocket.
Defensively the Lions do have a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in defensive end Ziggy Ansah who had 14.5 sacks last year, but overall this is a unit that lacks play makers as they could once again be fighting an uphill battle in the NFC North.
Three of the Lions first four games here in 2016 will be on the road, with two of those contests coming against NFC North foes in the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears as another slow start will get the folks in Motown gearing up to run Caldwell out of town.
Y-Clinched Wild Card