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The Obstructed NFC North Preview-2018

Disclaimer: with all the LeSean McCoy troubles surrounding him, I’m revising my prediction to Buffalo being 6-10 in 2018 as regardless of the situation, the NFL will probably be suspending McCoy at some point.  Back to your regularly scheduled blog post….

The famed NFC Norris Division, the the Black-and-Blue Division, the physical and mean division…

We hear the division being called a lot of things over the years because of the long-standing rivalries the four teams have with each other.  And if you go to any one of the towns, there is disdain for their other three rivals like no other.  And while the NFC North to me isn’t the best division, it may be the fiercest one out of them in 2018 as four teams have plenty of Hope Springs Eternal going on.  However, all four teams have holes thus making it anybody’s division.

For years and even now many point to Green Bay as THE team to beat in that division because of one Aaron Rodgers.  Last year his injury knocked Green Bay out of playoff contention, sent the team to 7-9, a third place finish, and had been swept by the rival Lions for the first time since 1991.  Many view Green Bay with Rodgers as the team to beat in the NFC, but I think with holes on both sides of the ball that the Packers are in trouble, even in their own division.  The Lions despite going 9-7 last year, having back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1994-95, fired Jim Caldwell and hired Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to run things and have made a huge press to build the team on the lines.  They have the potential to be really good.  The Vikings added underrated quarterback Kirk Cousins to the mix to balance out a team with an assortment of good offensive weapons and a defense that is very physical and opportunistic.  And the Bears could be a sleeper in the division pending on how far young quarterback Mitch Trubisky takes them.  So the Packers division?  I don’t think so.  It will be a fight.

Minnesota

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

LAST SEASON: 13-3 (1ST PLACE, DEFEATED NEW ORLEANS IN THE DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF, LOST TO PHILADELPHIA IN THE NFC CHAMPIONSHIP)

KEY ADDITIONS: QB-Kirk Cousins (FA-Washington), DT-Sheldon Richardson (FA-Seattle), QB-Trevor Siemian (Trade-Denver), WR-Kendall Wright (FA-Chicago), CB-Mike Hughes (Draft-UCF), OT-Brian O’Neill (Draft-Pittsburgh)

KEY LOSSES: QB-Sam Bradford (FA-Arizona) CB-Tramiane Brock (FA-Denver), QB-Case Keenum (FA-Denver), RB-Jerick McKinnon (FA-San Francisco), WR-Jarius Wright (Released-Carolina), QB-Teddy Bridgewater (FA-New York Jets), G-Joe Berger (Retired), DT-Tom Johnson (FA-Seattle), DT-Shamar Stephen (FA-Seattle)

One of the most unexplainable things that happened in the playoffs last year was Minnesota falling on their behinds on defense starting in the second half to New Orleans.  The Vikings defense was rolling and then it just derailed the rest of the way.  Now they are trying to answer it by drafting Mike Hughes at corner and push the scrutinized Trae Waynes for that #2 cornerback spot.  If the secondary solidifies which they can, Minnesota will be a force in the NFC.  The Vikings made one of the bigger splashes in the off-season signing Kirk Cousins from Washington as he will end any quarterback controversy that had been rolling in the Twin Cities the last few years with Sam Bradford and Case Keenum.  Cousins threw for over 4,000 yards last year on a team that didn’t have an embarrassment of riches at receiver with the Redskins.  But he will have Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph.  Also, if Laquon Treadwell gets things going, watch out.  Adding on, Cousins will have Kyle Rudolph especially in the red zone and handing it off to Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook (whose season was cut short by an ACL injury).  Minnesota could have one of the strongest offenses to go with their physical defense and it could also be a memorable year in Minnesota. KEY QUESTION: Can Kirk Cousins guide the Vikings to a Super Bowl?  It’s possible, yes.  I think he is a far more effective QB than what they’ve had the last couple of years.  Minnesota can’t have defensive lapses though in January like they did.

MY PREDICTION: 12-4.  Vikings won’t miss a beat in 2018.  Their schedule is relatively favorable including an early road game in Green Bay which is more of an advantage to the road teams playing there as it doesn’t get bone-chilling.

Matthew Stafford

DETROIT LIONS

LAST SEASON: 9-7 (2ND PLACE)

KEY ADDITIONS: CB-DeShawn Shead (FA-Seattle), LB-Christian Jones (FA-Chicago), LB-Devon Kennard (FA-New York Giants), G-Kenny Wiggins (FA-Los Angeles Chargers), RB-LeGarrette Blount (FA-Philadelphia), TE-Luke Wilson (FA-Seattle), DT-Sylvester Williams (FA-Tennessee), TE-Levine Toilolo (FA-Atlanta), QB-Matt Cassel (FA-Tennessee), C-Frank Ragnow (Draft-Arkansas), RB-Kerryon Johnson (Draft-Auburn), S-Tracy Walker (Draft-Louisiana)

KEY LOSSES: TE-Eric Ebron (Released-Indianapolis), S-Don Carey (FA-Jacksonville), CB-DJ Hayden (FA-Jacksonville), TE-Darren Fells (FA-Cleveland), Haloti Ngata (FA-Philadelphia), LB-Tahir Whitehead (FA-Oakland), C-Travis Swanson (FA-New York Jets)

If anybody who knows me knows I grew up in the Detroit area and have followed the Lions.  They also know that I never have high hopes for the team especially when Detroit had Barry Sanders and failed to win in January football games.  And I jokingly go in denial whenever the Lions have made the playoffs with Matthew Stafford as the quarterback.  However, Detroit is an interesting squad.  Stafford is a quarterback I think that probably doesn’t get enough respect for what he’s done over the years.  Of course, his big-game/playoff woes have come to the forefront as well.  But he’s still one of the game’s top quarterbacks and one of the toughest ones around.  And he will have an offensive line that has been built and re-committed I think, which could make him very scary and a possible MVP candidate if things go well.  He has weapons of Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, TJ Jones, and Kenny Golladay as Detroit’s receiving corps is pretty strong (key note: Tate and Jones both had 1,000+ receiving yards).  Detroit looks to be very committed to the run game with adding LeGarrette Blount and drafting Kerryon Johnson this off-season to go along with Theo Riddick.  They may once again not have a 1,000 yard rusher but I think somebody will end up with a couple of 100 yard rushing games.  Defensively there were some issues last year against the pass (27th in yards allowed-ouch) which is strange given the Lions pass rush was a solid one with Ezekiel Ansah and Anthony Zettel came on strong while the secondary has two pro bowlers in Glover Quin and Darius Slay.  Some of the issue resided on injuries to Tavon Wilson and whoever was the opposite of Slay (Nevin Lawson, though his play improved as the season continued).  The other issue was the linebacking corps was addressed when Detroit signed Devon Kennard and Christian Jones in the off-season.  Kennard had 4.5 sacks in 12 games while Jones registered 90 tackles as they join young linebacker Jarrad Davis to solidify that area.  So I think Detroit on defense will be stronger and the Lions improved on the two key things this off-season, which was the defense and the running game.  It may carry them to their first division title since 1993. KEY QUESTION: Can Detroit’s running game finally take off with Blount there now?  Not the ideal of running backs, but Blount does bring a seasoned veteran Detroit sorely misses in the backfield.  If the Lions have any kind of run game, it will add a dimension to the offense that can make them a top 3 offense in the NFL.

MY PREDICTION: 11-5.  Detroit doesn’t have the easiest of schedules including a stretch of seeing the 49ers, Patriots, and Cowboys early on, but it starts to ease up after their bye week and can make a strong run after.  They have a road trip of being at Arizona and Buffalo late, which could be a blessing if they are in the thick of a playoff push.

Green Bay

GREEN BAY PACKERS:

LAST SEASON: 7-9 (3RD PLACE)

KEY ADDITIONS: DE-Muhammad Wilkerson (FA-New York Jets), TE-Jimmy Graham (FA-Seattle), CB-Tramon Williams (FA-Arizona), TE-Marcedes Lewis (FA-Jacksonville), OT-Byron Bell (FA-Dallas), QB-DeShone Kizer (Trade-Cleveland), CB-Jaire Alexander (Draft-Louisville), CB-Josh Jackson (Draft-Iowa), LB-Oren Burks (Draft-Vanderbilt)

KEY LOSSES: S-Morgan Burnett (FA-Pittsburgh), WR-Jeff Janis (FA-Cleveland), TE-Richard Rodgers (FA-Philadelphia), LB-Joe Thomas (FA-Dallas) WR-Jordy Nelson (Released-Oakland), S-Damarious Randall (Trade-Cleveland)

If you’re reading this and about to go out of your mind that I have the Packers 3rd, or at least the Packers behind Detroit, don’t.  Just don’t.  I’ve heard all the comments in response to why I don’t think Green Bay is higher than the Vikings or Lions even with a healthy Rodgers.  Yes, the defense should improve, at least the corners, but remember, Green Bay will still start two rookie corners to begin the year and to think they will just take the league over by storm in 2018, you’re kidding yourself.  Secondly there is still no pass rush on the defense and Clay Matthews isn’t the same guy he was 8 years ago.  It will also put more pressure on the corners if there is no pressure on the QB.  So I still expect the Packers to struggle defensively despite the secondary upgrades and a new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who will be a welcome addition but it may take a year or two before Green Bay’s defense is up to snuff with their NFC North counterparts.  Secondly, there is still problems with the running game, as in not upgraded in the off-season or the draft.  Aaron Rodgers will have a tight end to throw at in Jimmy Graham, who is still a force when used right and will still have the likes of Davante Adams and Randall Cobb.  And Rodgers does have a knack of making a WR out of nothing so the passing game will be fine.  But another thing is a concern is that the Packers have an unhappy Rodgers as he wasn’t keen to some of the coaching changes, notably Alex Van Pelt and Edgar Bennett being dismissed.  And it also sounds like he is unhappy Green Bay cut his favorite target for years in Jordy Nelson.  And now talk of Rodgers wanting a contract extension is going on.  Now I have heard arguments “well, Rodgers has every right to complain.”  If he wants to complain, fine.  But don’t air it out to the media like he’s been doing.  Not even Brady or Brees has done that.  And I have a view where if you have a franchise QB who is an unhappy camper like Rodgers, only bad things happen for the franchise.  KEY QUESTION:  Will Rodgers be more of a drop-back passer given his moving around got him injured?  I don’t think it will, but Mike McCarthy may tell Rodgers to cool it.  Whether Rodgers listens to McCarthy or not is another issue in its own right.

MY PREDICTION:  9-7.  I don’t want to hear “Rodgers is great enough Green Bay can’t finish worse than 10 wins!”  How many years have we seen Drew Brees put up numbers galore in New Orleans and the Saints finish at 8-8 or 7-9?  The Packers still have holes, but I do like the upgrades in the secondary.  They aren’t as strong as the others in the NFC in general, not just the North.

Chicago

CHICAGO BEARS 

LAST SEASON: 5-11 (4TH PLACE)

KEY ADDITIONS: WR-Allen Robinson (FA-Jacksonville), WR-Taylor Gabriel (FA-Atlanta) TE-Trey Burton (FA-Philadelphia), QB-Chase Daniel (FA-New Orleans) OG-Earl Watford (FA-Arizona), LB-Roquan Smith (Draft-Georgia), C-James Daniels (Draft-Iowa), WR-Anthony Miller (Draft-Memphis)

KEY LOSSES: OG-Josh Sitton (FA-Miami), LB-Pernell McPhee (Released-Washington), S-Quentin Demps (Released), LB-Willie Young (Released), LB-Christian Jones (FA-Detroit), K-Cairo Santos (FA-New York Jets), DE-Mitch Unrein (FA-Tampa Bay), C-Andrew DePaola (FA-Oakland), OT-Tom Compton (FA-Minnesota), WR-Cameron Meredith (FA-New Orleans)

Well, the off-season was a simple one for Chicago: give Mitch Trubisky weapons.  They gave a lot of money to former Jags #1 receiver Allen Robinson and Falcons slot receiver Taylor Gabriel while bringing in Eagles tight end Trey Burton.  Trubisky showed flashes of being an NFL QB but had issues in his rookie season.  But he will have one of the best one-two punches in the NFL at running back to give him some help.  Even though it will be his 2nd season, any regression will make Bears fans wonder the high price they paid to get Trubisky in the 2017 draft.  Chicago’s defense is trending up and may have the best defense in the division from that standpoint and they added Roquan Smith at LB, thus giving hope he may be the next great Bears linebacker following Urlacher, Singletary, and Butkus.  If you saw Smith play at Georgia, you have to think Chicago got a steal.  But the Bears offense needs to step up and I’m still not sold on Trubisky at QB though.  He will have to step up in a division that has Rodgers and Stafford in there and it may be tough.  KEY QUESTION: Is Mitch Trubisky the right guy in Chicago?  No, but the Bears will die trying to see if he is.

MY PREDICTION: 6-10.  Trubisky I think will still be turnover prone but I think Chicago is taking the right steps to contend.

 

-Fan in the Obstructed Seat

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