You throw the rule book out of the window when the New York Jets face the New England Patriots.
X-Green Bay Packers 11-5
In the NFC North, it is the Green Bay Packers and everyone else. The Packers have won five of the last six NFC North Championships, while their eight-year playoff streak is tied with the New England Patriots for the longest active playoff streak in the National Football League. But since the Packers won the Super Bowl to conclude the 2010 NFL season, they have dealt with heartache during the playoffs. Two of the last three seasons have ended with the Packers losing in the NFC Championship Game this past January to the Atlanta Falcons. But as the Packers continue to be one of the better teams in the NFC, will they be able to put it all together in 2017 to claim another Vince Lombardi Trophy?
For Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, his job has been made easier over the last nine years with Aaron Rodgers as his starting quarterback. In 2008, Rodgers took on an impossible job in replacing Brett Favre as the Packers starting quarterback. And although that Rodgers will never be able to make the people in Green Bay forget about Favre, he has done a tremendous job in regards to writing his own story.
Aside from leading Green Bay to a Super Bowl victory, Rodgers is a two-time National Football League MVP and he is one of the most accurate quarterbacks that the game has ever seen. For his career Rodgers has completed 65.1% of his passes, while he has thrown 297 touchdowns passes to just 72 interceptions. And even at the age of 33, Rodgers is showing no signs of slowing down, while he should also rack up plenty of points in fantasy football.
Rodgers has always been one of the best in regards to spreading the football around and that’ll once again be the case this season. Since 2008, wide receiver Jordy Nelson has been one of Rodgers’ most dependable pass catchers. And after Nelson missed the entire 2015 National Football League season as he was recovering from a torn ACL, he returned last year to lead Green Bay in receptions (97), receiving yards (1,257), and receiving touchdowns (14). Nelson has some of the best hands for a wide receiver and he should continue be dependable in key situations; especially on third down.
In 2014, the Packers used a second-round pick on wide receiver Devante Adams and he continues to improve. Adams was on the verge of totaling 1,000 receiving yards last season, and he should be able to reach the mark this season in what will be an important year for him with his rookie contract set to expire.
But as good as Rodgers has been, he cannot mask the fact that the Packers have struggled to rush the football. Last year the Packers were 20th in the National Football League in regards to rushing as their running game was in shambles. As Green Bay dealt with several injuries at the running back position, they were forced to convert wide receiver Ty Montgomery to running back. And with no long term answer in sight, it appears that Montgomery will once get the bulk of the carries this year for Green Bay.
The past few years has seen as the Packers offensive line as a quiet, unassuming group which goes out and does their job which is to keep the uniform of Rodgers clean. The Packers offensive line is not comprised of Pro Bowl caliber players as they are more of a “no-name” group that has come together to be a solid unit. However the Packers offensive line should get a boost with veteran guard Jahri Evans joining the unit. Evans has spent the last 11 years with the New Orleans Saints where he was a six-time Pro Bowl selection, while also helping the Saints win their only Super Bowl Championship in franchise history.
For Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, his unit must find a way to improve after they were 22nd in the National Football League last year in total defense. The Packers desperately need outside linebacker Clay Matthews to regain the form that has made him one of the top defenders in the NFL. The Packers have been shifting Matthews around over the last three years playing him as both an inside and outside linebacker. However Matthews is at his best as an outside linebacker due to his edge rushing ability. And Capers must find a way to play Matthews as much as on the outside this season.
Green Bay has one of the best safety combos in the National Football League with strong safety Morgan Burnett and free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as both players have tremendous range, while neither is afraid to do some paint swapping in the run game. But the Packers will need some more consistency from their cornerbacks such as Davon House and Damarious Randall in order to be one of the better units in the league.
Once the Packers offense is able to get the football inside of an opponents 40-yard line they are in scoring range due to the leg of kicker Mason Crosby. Crosby connected on seven of his nine attempts from beyond 40 yards last season, and his powerful leg will once again be important; especially when the temperature begins to drop.
The schedule makers weren’t kind to the Packers as they’ll begin the upcoming season by hosting the Seattle Seahawks before they visit the Falcons who eliminated them from the playoffs this past January. However with the NFC North expected to weak, Green Bay should once again be able to coast to another division title.
Minnesota Vikings 7-9
The 2016 National Football League was set to begin with the Minnesota Vikings as a legit Super Bowl contender, but things would unravel rather quickly. In last August 2016, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a torn ACL during a non-contact drill which changed the outlook for Minnesota. The Vikings would scramble as they would acquire quarterback Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles. The Vikings still had strong defense which propelled them to a 5-0 start, however the wheels would quickly fall apart as they would lose eight of their final 13 games to finish 8-8.
Aside from the Bridgewater injury, veteran running back Adrian Peterson only appeared in three games for the Vikings last year due to a knee injury of his own. And thus when the off-season rolled around,the Vikings deciding to not exercise an option on his contract which made him a free agent as he would go on to sign with the New Orleans Saints.
Peterson left Minnesota as the Vikings all-time leading rusher with 11,747 yards, while he had been the face of the franchise for the last decade. And now that Peterson is gone, while Bridgewater still isn’t fully back from his ACL injury, how will Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer handle the upcoming season for his team?
With the Vikings parting with Peterson, it left a void for this team as they use a second-round pick on running back Dalvin Cook. During Cook’s collegiate career with the Florida State Seminoles, he was a two-time All-American as at times he was a runaway freight train. Cook is 5’10”, 213 lbs., but he runs over opponents like a fullback, while possessing the speed of someone smaller than him which makes him a logical candidate to the Offensive Rookie of the Year this season in the National Football League.
Bradford doesn’t have a reputation for being a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback, but he is coming off of the finest season of his professional career. Bradford completed 71.6% of his passes last year which was tops in the National Football League. Even though that Bradford was in his first year with the Vikings, he had familiarity with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur when they worked together with the Eagles as Bradford made it his business to not force the football.
Minnesota has plenty of speed with wide receivers such as Laquon Treadwell and Stefon Diggs, but the biggest question will be whether or not that Bradford who is not known for the deep pass will be able to get them the football consistently? However whereas Bradford doesn’t get the football down the field with regularity, one of his favorites options in the passing game last year was tight end Kyle Rudolph. Rudolph continues to improve in each season with the Vikings and his 6’6″ frame is a matchup nightmare for opposing safeties and linebackers. Rudolph will be Bradford’s go-to-guy once again this season; especially on third down as he knows how to move the chains.
But with Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer being a defensive minded coach, Minnesota’s bread and butter is defensive football. Last year the Vikings were third in the National Football League in total defense which included holding nine opponents under 20 points. Defensive end Danielle Hunter is rapidly emerging as a force for the Vikings which was evident by him recording 12.5 sacks last year. A knee injury could force defensive tackle Shariff Floyd to retire, but Minnesota still possesses plenty of depth on the defensive line with defensive tackle Linval Joseph and defensive end Brian Robison.
Detroit Lions 6-10
The 2016 National Football League season was full of surprises which included seeing the Detroit Lions reach the postseason. Lions head coach Jim Caldwell was able to rally his team as Detroit was seeking to replace a legend in wide receiver Calvin Johnson who had retired following the end of the 2015 NFL. However although that the Lions made the playoffs last January, they finished the season on a four-game losing streak which included blowing an opportunity to win the NFC North for the first time in franchise history. And as the Lions are set to embark on a new campaign, will they be able to do something which they’ve been unable to do since 1995 which is to make the postseason in consecutive years?
For Caldwell and Lions general manager Bob Quinn, they have attached their wagon to quarterback Matthew Stafford. In 2009, the Lions made Stafford the first overall pick of the National Football League Draft in the hopes that he would help to reverse the fortunes of their franchise. Stafford has not always had the best team around him, but by 2011 he was able to help Detroit reach the playoffs. Stafford has made one Pro Bowl appearance and he has rapidliy become one of the better quarterbacks in Lions franchise history which is evident by him passing for at least 4,000 yards in each of the last six years. The Lions have committed to Stafford as last month they gave him a five-year, $136 million extension which made him the highest paid player in NFL history.
But Stafford’s extension with the Lions has been met with criticism as he has a career record of 51-58, while he has never won a playoff game. Stafford did show maturity last year as without Johnson as his security blanket, he had to focus on getting the football to other wide receivers, but will he be able to take the next step and get the Lions a playoff victory?
A big reason why the Lions have had to rely on Stafford’s arm so much is that they have struggled mightily in regards running the football. The Lions leading rusher in 2016 was running back Theo Riddick with just 357 yards, and as a team, Detroit was 30th in the National Football League in rushing. And with Riddick as the Lions best option at running back heading into the new season, I don’t see the Lions problems in regards to running the football going away; especially with a patchwork offensive line.
Last year the Lions defense lacked sizzle, but they had substance. Seven of Detroit’s opponents in 2016 were held under 20 points as points came at a premium against them. But as the Lions were only able to tally 26 sacks, they lacked the ability to make big plays in key situations which is a big reason why they were swept by the Packers.
A big reason for the Lions lack of a pass rush was due to the fact that defensive end Ziggy Ansah was plagued by an ankle injury as after recording 14.5 sacks in 2015, he was limited to just a pair of sacks last year. Aside from Ansah, the Lions don’t have a pass rusher who can consistently put fear into opponents which makes it paramount that he is healthy to be an anchor of Detroit’s defensive line.
The Lions won’t be confused with having an easy schedule as they have road games with the New York Giants and New Orleans, as well a pair of divisional meetings with the Packers. The Lions have not had consecutive winning seasons since 1995 and Caldwell and his club have their work cut out for them in order to make that a reality in 2017.
Chicago Bears 5-11
It’s hard to believe, but the Chicago Bears have not made the playoffs since 2010, while they have not had a winning record since 2012. Over the last three seasons the Bears have lost a combined 34 games for their worst stretch since 1997-2000 as this organization has been plagued by numerous bad personnel decisions. General manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox are each set to begin their third year with the Bears and as Chicago is in the midst of rebuilding, there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight in regards to the futility in the Windy City.
In 2009, the Bears acquired quarterback Jay Cutler from the Denver Broncos and he was expected to be a savior as he was expected to finally solve Chicago’s long time issues at the position. Cutler had an up and down career with the Bears as he was 51-51 as a starter while throwing 154 touchdowns to 109 interceptions.
At the conclusion of the 2016 National Football League season, Cutler announced that he was going to retire after 11 years as a professional. But when Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered a knee injury during training camp, Cutler decided to unretire to take his spot in South Florida.
Pace and Fox have spent this off-season attempting to find Cutler’s replacement with the Bears. The first move by the Bears was to sign quarterback Mike Glennon. Glennon spent the last four years as a backup quarterback. Glennon has 18 starts under his belt in the National Football League and he has a career record of 5-13. However the Bears saw enough and they decided to sign Glennon to a three-year deal for $45 million.
The Bears would not stop there as they made a trade with the San Francisco 49ers to move up to the second overall pick in the National Football League Draft this past April to select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The jury is still out on Trubisky who only had one year as a starter collegiately for the North Carolina Tar Heels. But this was enough for Pace and Fox to be convinced that Trubisky will be the Bears quarterback of the future.
But whereas the Bears were only able to go 3-13 last year and that they are in the process of rebuilding, it means that there have been plenty of opportunities for young players to earn roster spots. Last year as a rookie, running back Jordan Howard exploded for 1,313 yards, while he also made the Pro Bowl. Howard did have 252 carries last year and as there is plenty of wear and tear on running backs in the National Football League, the Bears must make sure that he stays fresh here in 2017.
There is potential in the Bears receiving corps, but potential is only go on paper. In 2015, Chicago used the seventh overall pick of the National Football League Draft on wide receiver Kevin White. However through two seasons, White has only appeared in four games for the Bears. White’s absence gave wide receiver Cameron Meredith the opportunity to be “the guy” last year, but he’ll miss the entire upcoming season as the result of a torn ACL. Wide receiver Kendall Wright was first-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2012, but in five seasons in Nashville he was never able able to reach his potential. Now after Wright signed a one-year deal to join the Bears, he will get a shot at redemption, however it won’t be easy as he’ll have to rely on a rookie quarterback in Trubisky to get him the football.
Like the Bears receiving corps, the defense in Chicago has potential, but it is just a matter of everyone staying healthy for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Outside linebacker Danny Trevathan has been out of action since he suffered a torn patellar tendon last November. In 12 games as a rookie in 2016, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd was able to record 7 sacks, and I can see Fangio using him in the same role that he used outside linebacker Aldon Smith in when he was the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. Floyd missed four games last year due to injury, and the Bears are going to need the combination of him and Trevathan to be healthy in order to consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Right out of the chute the Bears are going to have to deal with some heavy hitters as they will face the Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers, and Pittsburgh Steelers in their first four games. Only the Buccaneers didn’t make the playoffs last season, and as the Bears have questions surrounding their quarterbacking situation, this could be a long season in the Windy City.
Green Bay Packers
First-Round Pick: (N/A)
Best Pick: Round Seven-Malachi Dupre-Wide Receiver-LSU
The Green Bay Packers are hardly ever in contention when it comes to signing the top-tier free agents which means that their focus is always on the National Football League Draft in regards to making roster upgrades. That was once again the case this year as Packers general manager Ted Thompson sought to make things happen for his team at the NFL Draft and maintain their status as the team to beat in the NFC North.
After making a deal with the Cleveland Browns, the Packers traded out of the first round, but they would obtain the first selection of the second round which is where Thompson began to go to work.
After the Packers secondary was torched in their NFC Championship Game loss to the Atlanta Falcons, upgrading the unit became a top priority here in the off-season. The Packers used their first choice of the draft on Washington Huskies cornerback Kevin King which was followed by using their second pick of the round on North Carolina State Wolfpack safety Josh Jones. The Packers would keep the defensive theme going in the third round when they selected Auburn Tigers defensive tackle Montravius Adams, but they may have found a steal in the fourth round when they selected Wisconsin Badgers outside linebacker Vince Biegel.
At Wisconsin, Biegel played opposite of outside linebacker T.J. Watt who went on to be a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Biegel has a motor like no other, and that determination should see him crack the Packers linebacker rotation rather quickly.
Later in the fourth round the Packers selected BYU Cougars running back Jamaal Williams who won’t completely solve Green Bay’s issues at running back, but he can provide them with a player who will be good in short yardage situations as he continues to familiarize himself with the nuances of the team.
The Packers got themselves a steal in the seventh round when they selected LSU Tigers wide receiver Malachi Dupre. Dupre entered college as one of the nation’s top prep players, but a stagnant passing game at LSU didn’t allow him to shine. And now it will be interesting to see if Dupre will be able to take his game to the next level in the National Football League in the same fashion that former LSU Tigers wide receivers in Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants and Jarvis Landry of the Miami Dolphins are currently doing.
If you want to question how and why the Packers have made the playoffs in each of the last eight years, just look at what Thompson has been able to consistently do at the draft as he goes in with a plan of attack, and more importantly he sticks with it.
First-Round Pick: Jarrad Davis-Linebacker-Florida
Best Pick: Jarrad Davis
It was going to be interesting to see what the Detroit Lions would do to build off of their surprising trip to the postseason last season as all signs pointed to them attempting to fix the defense. But the Lions main issue on defense in 2016 were a lack of sacks as they were only able to tally 26. And when the Lions were ready to make their first choice of the 2017 National Football League Draft, they had both Missouri Tigers defensive end Charles Harris and Michigan Wolverines defensive end Taco Charlton sitting there for the taking. However Lions general manager Bob Quinn decided to taking Florida Gators inside linebacker Jarrad Davis. Davis does fill a need for the Lions at middle linebacker, but if Davis was their guy they probably could have gotten him in the second round, while still being able to pick up a pass rusher in the first.
Three of the Lions first four picks in the draft were used on defense which included taking Davis’ college teammate in cornerback Teez Tabor in the second round. Tabor had first-round potential, but he slipped to the second and only time will tell if the Lions got themselves a steal.
The Lions didn’t take a pass rusher until the sixth round when they selected Arkansas Razorbacks defensive end Jeremiah Ledbetter which is not going to help their issues as far as getting to the quarterback. And until the Lions find a way to consistently put pressure on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, they will continue to play second fiddle to them in the NFC North.
First-Round Pick: (N/A)
Best Pick: Round Two-Dalvin Cook-Running Back-Florida State
After the Minnesota Vikings acquired quarterback Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles last year, they knew that they wouldn’t be picking in the first round of this year’s National Football League Draft. But that didn’t prevent Vikings general manager Rick Spielman from coming out of the draft smelling like a rose. The Vikings watched the first round train pass them by, but they struck it rich in the second round with their selection of Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook.
Cook enters the National Football League as a two-time All-American, while also being one of the most decorated ball carriers in the history of the Florida State program. The Vikings needed to replace running back Adrian Peterson who joined the New Orleans Saints and their rushing attack shouldn’t skip a beat with Cook as the feature ball carrier.
This draft was all about getting better in the trenches for the Vikings which saw them make a run through Big Ten country as in the third round they would select Ohio State Buckeyes center Pat Elflein, while taking Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson and Michigan Wolverines inside linebacker Ben Gedeon in the fourth round.
In all the Vikies made 11 selections in the draft as they added depth. And whereas that Cook will rightfully grab the headlines of this draft class, there will be other impact players who’ll emerge from this group.
First-Round Pick: Mitchell Trubisky-Quarterback-North Carolina
Best Pick: Round Four-Eddie Jackson-Safety-Alabama
The last three years have seen the Chicago Bears combine to lose 34 games and after their performance at the National Football League Draft, they aren’t any closer to turning things around. This off-season has already seen the Bears sign former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon to a three-year deal that is worth $45 million with $19 million guaranteed. The Bears entered the draft with the third overall pick with all signs pointing to them improving their defense. However Bears general manager Ryan Pace got trigger happy when he made a trade with the San Francisco 49ers to move up one slot to select North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
In making the deal the Bears sent three additional picks to San Francisco this year, while also parting with their third-round pick next year for a player in Trubisky who some people feel might be a one-year wonder. The Bears bet against themselves since there wasn’t going to be another team that was seeking to move up to select Trubisky and have now mortgaged their future in the process.
The Bears failed to address their issues in the secondary until the fourth round when they selected Alabama Crimson Tide free safety Eddie Jackson who missed the majority of the 2016 college football season due to an injury.
In all the Bears only had five picks as they failed to properly address their needs on the offensive and defensive line, as well as in the secondary. And thus it could be another long season in Chicago for the Bears and their fan base.
At the conclusion of Super Bowl XI on January 9, 1977, little did the Minnesota Vikings know what was waiting for them. The 32-14 loss to the Oakland Raiders marked the Vikings fourth Super Bowl loss in eight years with each defeat being more painful than the previous one. By this time the Vikings were an aging team with a core that included future Hall of Famers such as quarterback Fran Tarkenton and defensive tackle Alan Page. That era of Vikings football would be remembered for producing quality teams who couldn’t win it all. However since then the Vikings would love to have that problem.
Since that time the Vikings have never been able to get back to the Super Bowl as they’ve been denied a trip back to the big game in five NFC Championship Game appearances. In 1977, the Vikings were no match for the precision of the Dallas Cowboys who won 23-6. In 1987, Minnesota was five yards away from a potential game-tying touchdown against the Washington Redskins when running back Darrin Nelson dropped an intended pass. In 1998, the Vikes were 15-1 and appeared to be destined for a Super Bowl Championship. But at home in the NFC Championship Game, kicker Gary Anderson who hadn’t missed a field goal or extra point all season long failed to connect on a 38-yard field late in the fourth quarter which would have sealed a win over the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons would score a touchdown to tie the game at 27, and subsequently win in overtime on a 38-yard field goal from Morten Andersen to send the Vikings home heartbroken. Two years later the Vikes made it back to the NFC Championship Game where they appeared to be the better team against the New York Giants. However the Giants would win the opening kickoff and march down the field on a touchdown and never look back as they won 41-0. In 2009, the Vikings would once again make the NFC Championship Game; this time as they were led by former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre and running back sensation Adrian Peterson as this appeared to be their year. And with the game tied at 28 late in the fourth quarter, Minnesota had a chance to win. However with the Vikings on the edge of field-goal range, Favre was intercepted by New Orleans Saints cornerback Tracey Porter. The game would go to overtime and after the Saints won the coin toss, they marched down the field as their kicker Garrett Hartley would connect on a 40-yard field goal which once again denied the Vikings a chance to play in the Super Bowl.
But all of the Vikings heartache hasn’t necessarily been saved for the NFC Championship Game. In 2003, Minnesota began the season with a record of 6-0, however they would fail to make the playoffs as that year will always be remembered by them allowing the Arizona Cardinals to complete a touchdown pass on 4th and 25 to defeat them in Week 17. During the 2015 NFC Wild Card Game, the Vikes welcomed the Seattle Seahawks to town with a game-time temperature of minus-six at TCF Bank Stadium. Late in the contest the Vikings were trailing 10-9, but they would have a chance to win. However kicker Blair Walsh would miss a 27-yard field goal. And how could we forget about last season when there was a consensus that the Vikings could make the Super Bowl. But late in training camp, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a torn ACL and this team never recovered.
Since the Vikings lost to the Saints in the NFC Championship Game, they have failed to win a playoff game and in the process they’ve wasted to play making ability of Peterson.
Aside from being of the better players of this era, Peterson is arguably one of the better running backs in National Football League history. Through ten seasons in the NFL, Peterson’s 11,747 career rushing yards are 16th all-time, while his 97 rushing touchdowns are tenth. Peterson is a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, while he was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2007. But what solidified Peterson’s legacy was in 2012 when he gained 2,097 rushing yards after suffering a torn ACL in the previous season. However Peterson isn’t immune to age, or the NFL’s salary cap crunch catching up to him as he was limited to just three games last season, and thus the Vikings weren’t willing to pick up the $18 million option for the 31-year old running back heading into the 2017 campaign. There is still the possibility that Peterson could return to Minnesota on a reduced salary. However I see Peterson going to a team that’ll give him a chance to win the Super Bowl, which would lead a huge hole for the Vikings to have to fill.
The Vikings had a championship defense last year under head coach Mike Zimmer, but they could not win games without a consistent offense which could see them take a turn for the worse during the upcoming season.
Aside from potentially losing Peterson, the Vikings have questions at the quarterback position once again which could cast doubt over the upcoming National Football League season before it starts. It’s not a guarantee that Bridgewater will be ready when the regular season rolls around. And even though that quarterback Sam Bradford who was acquired by the Vikings last year from the Philadelphia Eagles was able to complete 71.6% of his passes while only throwing 5 interceptions in Bridgewater’s place, he isn’t a signal caller that you envision ultimately being able to lead Minnesota to a Super Bowl Title as he has never appeared in the postseason.
The Vikings were desperate for a quarterback last year and thus they surrendered a first and fourth-round pick in the upcoming National Football League Draft to the Eagles in order to obtain Bradford which could hurt them this April when the league’s selection process rolls around. The Vikings want to compete, but with questions at the quarterback position, along with having a tough chore in potentially replacing Peterson, the term rebuilding might have to be thrown around with this franchise that has been so close in the past to glory, only to always fall short.
And with U.S. Bank Stadium set to host Super Bowl 52 next February, I will go out on a limb and state that the National Football League’s streak of the host team not making it to the big game will remain in tact.