X-Green Bay Packers 12-4
This off-season began quicker than expected for the Green Bay Packers. For the first 55 minutes of the NFC Championship Game, the Packers did everything right in order to secure a berth in Super Bowl 49. But the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and in the few moments of overtime, the Packers fell apart and lost to the Seattle Seahawks. And now all that the Packers can do is reassemble and prepare for the 2015 National Football League season.
But luckily for the Packers, they still have Aaron Rodgers as their starting quarterback. Rodgers is set to enter his eighth season as the Packers starting quarterback and he is one of the best field generals in the NFL. Rodgers threw 38 touchdown passes last season to only 5 interceptions en route to being named as the NFL MVP for the second time in his career. Rodgers has that rare combination a strong throwing arm, precision, and overall awareness on the gridiron which makes the job of Packers head coach Mike McCarthy that much easier.
Around Rodgers, the Packers have talent as in a very short period of time, running back Eddie Lacy has proven himself to be very dependable. The Packers have taken care of Rodgers in the last two off-seasons as they re-signed his top two wide receivers in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb while Davante Adams has the ability to emerge as a bigger part of the passing game in 2015. But whereas Nelson has been Rodgers most dependable target in recent year, things will be different in 2015 due to the fact that Nelson suffered a torn ACL in the preseason. The Packers offensive line might not be full of Pro Bowl caliber players, but they have played together for quite some time and they now have that cohesion which is important to any unit.
Defensively, the Packers have the potential to be really good in 2015 under defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Nose tackle B.J. Raji is returning after missing the entire 2014 NFL season with a bicep injury. And anyone that has followed Raji’s career knows that he is difficult to stop on the interior defensive line as he constantly commands a double team.
Last year injuries forced outside linebacker Clay Matthews III to play middle linebacker, but he is once again expected to mainly concentrate on being an edge rusher this year and he’ll have his tag-team partner back on the opposite side of him in outside linebacker Julius Peppers.
The Packers secondary took a ton of criticism following Green Bay’s loss in the NFC Championship Game, but they do return some talent there as strong safety Morgan Burnett and free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix each has the potential to be All-Pros this season.
The Packers will begin the season with a very familiar foe as they’ll travel to meet the Chicago Bears while they’ll host the Seahawks in Week 2. And a quick start could be just what the doctor ordered for the Packers as far as them securing home-field advantage in the NFC which could be the difference in them making the Super Bowl this year.
Y-Detroit Lions 10-6
2014 was a good year for the Detroit Lions. The Lions went 11-5 in their first season under head coach Jim Caldwell as they had one of the better teams in the National Football League. The Lions had the second ranked defense in the NFL and they saw quarterback Matthew Stafford enjoy his fourth consecutive season in which he passed for more than 4,200 yards. But we’ll see a different Lions team when they take the field this season.
The Lions didn’t go overboard in attempting to keep defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in spite of his immense production on the field. Suh left the Lions as a free agent to join the Miami Dolphins while defensive tackle Nick Fairley left Detroit to join the St. Louis Rams. To offset the loss of Suh and Fairley, the Lions were able to acquire defensive tackle Haloti Ngata this off-season in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Ngata is a five-time Pro Bowl selection at defensive tackle, but up until this year he has spent his entire NFL career in a 3-4 defensive scheme which will make it interesting to see how he will be able to transition to the 4-3 in Detroit.
The Lions also have talent at linebacker in the form of outside linebackers Kyle Van Noy and DeAndre Levy along with middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch as each player can hit along with cover.
Offensively the Lions still possess one of the best units in the game as explosiveness is what they are all about. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is coming off of his fourth consecutive year in which he threw for at least 4,000 yards and folks that love fantasy football covet the opportunity to have him put up big numbers for them. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson was limited last year due to a bum knee, but the Lions are hopeful that is ready to re-emerge as one of the better receivers in football. Johnson’s injury gave wide receiver Golden Tate the opportunity to prove his worth and the combination of him and “Megatron” aka Johnson could be tough on secondaries in the NFC North.
The Lions were 28th in the National Football League last season in rushing, but a change could be on the way. The Lions drafted running back Ameer Abdullah in the second round of the NFL Draft this past spring and he is a home-run hitter at the tailback position as he has the potential to be the team’s first consistent threat at that position in a very long time.
The Lions will be on the road for the first two weeks of the upcoming National Football League season as they’ll take on the San Diego Chargers and the Minnesota Vikings. But Detroit’s biggest test of the year will come during a four-game stretch in the second half of the year where they will meet the Green Bay Packers twice. And if the Lions want to win the NFC North for the first time in franchise history, they are going to have to find a way to defeat the Packers.
Minnesota Vikings 9-7
The Minnesota Vikings were fighting an uphill battle in 2014 under head coach Mike Zimmer, but they found a way to get through it. The Vikings started a rookie quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater while they only had the services of running back Adrian Peterson for one game as the National Football League didn’t allow him to play as the result of off-the-field issues. The Vikings were able to survive as they went 7-9 and in 2015, Minnesota feels that they can make the playoffs.
For Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, he can take solace in knowing that Bridgewater showed fight and resolve as he improved as his rookie campaign went along. Bridgewater was able to put the notion to bed that his throwing arm wasn’t strong enough for the brutal elements of Minnesota as the Vikings appear to have their franchise quarterback. And under the tutelage of Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Bridgewater could flirt with completing nearly 70 percent of his passes this year.
The Vikings passing game should also receive a boost after the team acquired wide receiver Mike Wallace from the Miami Dolphins this off-season. Wallace is one of the fastest players in the National Football League, but it is just a matter of him being motivated on each play.
But the Vikings offense will come down to Peterson. It seemed as if the Vikings and Peterson were heading towards a messy divorce, but cooler heads have prevailed which is a good thing for Minnesota and bad for every other team within the NFC North. Even with the return of Peterson, the Vikings running game game suffered a blow in training camp when offensive tackle Phil Loadholt ruptured his Achilles tendon and his absence will leave a big void to be filled.
Prior to becoming the head coach of the Vikings, Zimmer made his name in the NFL on the defensive side of the football which included stints as the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, and Cincinnati Bengals. And whereas the NFC North features high-profile quarterbacks in Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, and Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears, Zimmer knows that he needs a strong defense that is going to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks in order to win games.
The Vikes were 14th in the National Football League last year in total defense and that number has the potential to improve this year being that their defensive line can disrupt things. Defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph can plug up the middle while defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison could both be in the running to be selected to the Pro Bowl which should make life a bit easier for the back seven in the Vikings defense.
If the Vikings are able to remain relevant in the playoff picture until November when the temperature begins to drop, they can become a very formidable team as opponents won’t be thrilled to have to play them in cold of Minnesota.
Chicago Bears 7-9
The past few years have seen a tremendous overhaul in the front office of the Chicago Bears and the result has been an unsuccessful football team. Ryan Pace is the Bears third general manager since 2011 while John Fox is the third head coach in Chicago since 2012. The Bears are Pace’s first shot at being a general manager in the National Football League while this will be Fox’s third stop as far as being a head coach. Fox has a career record of 119-89 in 14 seasons with the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos. And at each stop along the way, Fox was able to take his team to the Super Bowl at least once. Fox is still one of the best defensive minds in the NFL, but his time in Chicago will be defined by what he will be able to do with Bears starting quarterback Jay Cutler.
Cutler has all of the physical tools to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and to also lead the Bears to a Super Bowl Title, but it comes down to whether or not that he’ll be dialed in mentally. Part of Cutler’s problem is that 2015 will be his seventh year in Chicago and new Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase will be the fifth different offensive coordinator that he will be working with in the Windy City. And Cutler is also coming off of his second season with the Bears in which he led the NFL in interceptions.
The Bears played the old switcheroo this off-season when wide receiver Brandon Marshall was traded to the New York Jets. Pace didn’t waste any time in replacing Marshall as he used the Bears first round pick at the 2015 National Football League Draft on wide receiver Kevin White. At 6’3″, 215 lbs., White has the physical tools to be good, it is just a matter of him getting adjusted to the professional game. But the bigger problem for the Bears and White right now is that a shin injury has kept him on the sidelines during training camp which could carry over to the regular season. The Bears still have wide receiver Alshon Jeffery who will be looked at as being the go-to-guy for Cutler in the Bears passing game now that Marshall is no longer with the team.
But the best thing that can help a struggling quarterback is a strong running game. And when Fox was with both the Panthers and Broncos, he had teams that were able run the football effectively. Since joining the Bears in 2008, running back Matt Forte has been one of the better and more reliable players at his position in the NFL. And only Walter Payton has rushed for more yards in a Bears uniform than Forte. Forte has been durable as well and you can expect him to carry the football at least 200 times this season.
But for both Cutler and Forte, this will be a very young offensive line that will be blocking for them in 2015 and with that it will be important to get some cohesion early on if this offense will be able to enjoy any success this season.
The Bears finished last season ranked 30th in total defense which means that there will be some changes on that side of the football in Chicago. Fox has allowed new Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to switch the Bears from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive scheme which will ask more of the linebackers. Fangio spent the last four seasons as the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers where he coached some of the best defensive players of this era. The Bears don’t have any defensive play makers currently as this scheme will be a work in progress for both Fox and Fangio.
The Bears first three games of 2015 will be against playoff teams from last season in the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, and Seattle Seahawks as Fox, Cutler, and crew can ill-afford to begin the new season in the basement of the NFC North.
Y-Clinched Wild Card