Eight wins was good enough to win the NFC North last season, now Las Vegas went ahead and installed three of the four teams at 8.5 wins or higher. The big story within the division was Aaron Rodgers breaking his collarbone and missing seven games. Somehow, the rest of the division couldn’t take advantage, allowing Rodgers to return week 17 for a miraculous win at Soldier Field. This game sent the Packers to the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record and the Bears home for the winter. The Lions and Vikings enter the season with new coaches, Jim Caldwell and Mike Zimmer respectively. Marc Trestman is in his second year with the Bears, further exhibiting the lack of job security an NFL coach has these days, as the North is another division with short tenured head coaches. If Jim Caldwell is getting another shot, we’re wondering how Mike Singletary doesn’t have another head coaching job. The NFC North draws the AFC East and the NFC South this season. There’s a lot of skill player talent in this division, can it produce two playoff teams this season? Let’s take a look.
Win totals are from www.scoresandodds.com. Win total posted with juice on the over and under, respectively.
Detroit Lions 8.5 wins (-105/-115): Whoa. This number seems a little high, right? From 2000 to present day, Detroit has won 9 games twice. Looking back at 2013, we did find some glimmers of hope for Detroit. Amazingly, they were the only team in the North to outscore their opponents for the season. Shortly after Rodgers injury, they were 6-3 and looked like a lock for the playoffs. Then December happened. First, a crazy game in Philly played in the middle a white out blizzard. The following three games were lost by a combined six points. In the end, it was an 0-4 month where they committed nine turnovers.
This team has a lot to like. An offensive line that only gave up 23 sacks. Depth at RB and WR, with Golden Tate coming over from Seattle. An intriguing front seven that includes Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Matthew Stafford has shown a lot of flashes, but 49 touchdowns over 36 INT’s is not a ratio that’s going to cut it, especially when he’s not dealing with a ton of pressure behind that line.
Jim Caldwell is not a coach we trust enough to put any investment on. The Lions swung and missed on several coaching candidates and ended up with Caldwell this off season. There’s enough talent here to pull a few upsets, but the schedule is tougher than it looks in our opinion. We are bullish on the AFC East, plus the Lions have to travel to Chicago and Green Bay the final two weeks of the season. These are not outdoor cats.
Gun to head: Under. There’s something about this team we don’t trust. Plus the Caldwell hire.
Our own free will: Strong lean under. Seems like a high number that this franchise has a track record of not surpassing.
Green Bay Packers 10.5 wins (+100/-120): Our first double digit win total so far. The division champs took a very unconventional path to the title last season, losing Aaron Rodgers in early November and following that up with a five game stretch where they went 0-4-1. They built a QB bridge of Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace (!) to get to the other side: a one game winner take all match up with the Bears on week 17. Rodgers virtuoso performance was capped off with a frantic 48 yard scramble and heave to Randall Cobb, who strolled into the end zone and sealed a five point win.
This season, Rodgers should be back full healthy with another talented cast of skill players. Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson are a dynamic WR combo and Eddie Lacy is coming off a 1,200 yard rookie season. The Packers always seem to plug in young talent they find in the draft to add different wrinkles to the offense. Jarrett Boykin rang the bell last season; it wouldn’t surprise us if Davante Adams produced immediately this year. The kid left Fresno State after two seasons and was the nations leading receiver last year.
One concern with the offense, would be the loss of their center Evan Dietrich-Smith to Tampa. Dietrich-Smith was another homegrown guy who transitioned from guard to start some games at center for Green Bay in 2012. Last season, he started all 16 games at center. While he’s only started 25 games in his career, center is a vital position in the NFL. Whenever we’re looking over games, and a see a teams center is out, we feel there’s a good chance that team will struggle. They are integral for pre-snap reads as well as silent counts in loud road environments (GB opens at Seattle week 1). The loss of Dietrich-Smith is coupled with uncertain options to back fill that position. This will be the fourth straight season Rodgers has a new center, so at least he is used to the revolving door. The rest of the O Line looks to be pretty stout.
The defense picked up the best name in the draft, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix from Alabama. Clinton-Dix was thought by many to be the best safety in the draft and should start from day one. Julius Peppers was the splashy pick up for Green Bay, who came over from Chicago. Peppers is 34, but has been very consistent over his career. Teamed up with Clay Matthews and unheralded guys like Mike Neal, Green Bay could improve upon their 44 sacks from last year.
Green Bay didn’t turn the ball over a ton last year, but also didn’t generate a lot of turnovers. If Rodgers is back for the full 16 game season, you have to think the turnover margin will be in the black for the Pack.
It may sound crazy, but looking at the Packers schedule, we think it’s a lot harder than it looks. Three of the first four on the road (including the Seattle road opener), followed by a Thursday night game. Things do calm down in November when the Packers have a six week stretch that consists of a bye week, four home games and a road trip to Minnesota. Back to back road trips to Buffalo and Tampa in December poses a tough test, both teams have very talented front sevens.
Gun to head: Over 10.5 wins. This number might be spot on. 10-6/11-5 looks just about right. We don’t love the schedule and the defense has a lot of young, unproven players, but we just can’t go against Aaron Rodgers.
Our own free will: Strong lean over, could turn into a play. This number looks spot on, but Aaron Rodgers and that offense at even money? Looks too good to be true, which with the NFL is usually a losing proposition. Still, if Green Bay’s young defenders grow up quick, this play looks good. Very talented roster, but it’s never easy taking the over on a double digit number.
Editors Note: If it’s all things Packers you crave, you must check out my friend Scott McKenna’s Packers blog. This is really in depth coverage from a Wisconsin native and lifelong fan who has family ties to the organization: http://talkins-mac.blogspot.com/
Minnesota Vikings 6 wins (-150/+130): We mentioned in our recent column on the 2014 Orioles that Nelson Cruz was a man without a home as Spring Training commenced for the O’s. Well the Vikings are a team without a home in 2014. The Metrodome is gone, and its replacement won’t be built until next year. So this season they will call the University of Minnesota home, an outdoor stadium in downtown Minneapolis. The new stadium looks like it will be awesome, and the NFL was impressed enough to award Minnesota the Super Bowl in 2018. In the meantime, the Vikings will be semi-orphans this season.
The Vikings are coming off a 5-10-1 season where the only game they won outside of Minnesota came in London. Christian Ponder came in as the starting QB, but after very ineffective play and an injury, Matt Cassel would end up starting six games. Josh Freeman was brought in mid season and had one start Vikings fans would love to forget, a dreadful effort on MNF in The Meadowlands versus the Giants where the only Vikings points came on a punt return. The offense does have some hope, and if first round pick Teddy Bridgewater turns into an NFL caliber QB, things will move forward even quicker. Everyone know Adrian Peterson, and coming off a 2,000 yard season it was no surprise he regressed back to a 1,200 yard campaign last season. Having just turned 29, he should hopefully have a couple more productive years. After what he did following his brutal knee injury in 2012, it’s tough to doubt this guy on a football field. The real bright spot last year was Cordarrelle Patterson, the rookie from Tennessee. Sporting Randy Moss’ old number 84, Patterson contributed through the air (45 grabs at 10 yards/catch) on the ground (3 rushing TD) and in the kick return game (2 TD and 32 yards/return), all while being subject to the lackluster QB carousel in Minnesota.. If Bridgewater becomes the solution at QB, Patterson could explode this season. Minnesota has also done well making the offensive line a point of emphasis. Phil Loadholt is a key in blocking for AP and spending a high pick on Matt Kalil has paid off. They did give up 44 sacks last year, but when you are constantly losing games and have statues like Matt Cassel behind center, that sack total is going to rise.
Defensively, Jared Allen is now gone. That’s a big loss, but Minnesota brought in some good pieces with Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn. They are going to have keep themselves in games longer, because playing from behind is no way to make an opposing offense become careless with the ball. The Vikings only had 20 takeaways last season.
We like pieces of this Vikings team, but playing in a college stadium is a strange set of circumstances. The betting public must really like what they see, because they’ve bet the over to -150. New coach Mike Zimmer is a first time head coach, after serving as a Defensive Coordinator for several different teams starting in 2000. He is just one of several unknowns for this team. How will they take to playing in a college stadium? What will happen at QB? Can Peterson hold up again? The schedule is pretty tough early with road trips to Green Bay and New Orleans. Will they lose early and put Bridgewater in? It sounds like Cassel gets the nod week 1 at least.
Gun to head: Another pretty sharp line. We’ll pay the juice and go over this short number. Complete roll of the dice on Bridgewater stepping in and having a successful first season.
Our own free will: Pass. Way too many unknowns.
Chicago Bears 8.5 wins (-175/+150): The Bears follow the mold of the other NFC North teams, lots of offensive weapons and suspect defense. The Bears defense was more than suspect, it was terrible. They gave up 20+ points EVERY SINGLE GAME last season. In seven of those games, they gave up 30+. They somehow only turned the ball over 22 times, which you could say is impressive considering Jay Cutler missed 5+ games with an injury. Look closer, and you see backup Josh McCown was actually more careful with the ball than Cutler. McCown proved to be one of the leagues best backups, which is why he’s a starter this year in Tampa (did every free agent go to Tampa?).
The Bears have one of the more impressive sets of skill players in the league. Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey and Matt Forte give Cutler lots of options. Martellus Bennett also had 65 grabs last year. The front office focused on the defense this off season, bringing in a plethora of defensive linemen, including Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston. As discussed earlier, Julius Peppers did cross over within the division to Green Bay. Kyle Fuller was unceremoniously welcomed to the NFL by Bennett recently at training camp, but having seen him play a lot at Virginia Tech we really like his prospects of transitioning into the NFL as a strong addition to the Bears secondary. Hokie D Backs have done well in the NFL and Fuller was a big time contributor for them during his career in Blacksburg.
Logistically, the schedule is a doozy. From week 1 through November 9th, the Bears only have three home games. Sandwiched into that stretch are back to back trips to San Francisco and New York (Jets) and a six week stretch where they play four road games but thankfully get their bye week as well. Trips to New England and Green Bay are in that portion of the season. If they can navigate that run and still find themselves in the playoff race, the last seven games opens up for them and includes the Lions and Vikings twice and five games at home.
Much like the Lions, this is a team we just can’t consistently trust. Cutler can be reckless with the ball and no lead is safe with that defense. They do have some major weapons and if they can stay above water in the first half of the season, things look pretty manageable in the second half.
Gun to head: Being a Bears fan must be torture. What a complete mystery these guys are. That price on the over is really steep so we’re going under. This looks like a .500 team.
Our own free will: Run away from this one quickly. Pass.
Next up, the AFC East, a division we have some very strong opinions about.
Las Vegas Win Totals:
Dolphins 7.5 wins (+105/-125)
Bills 6.5 wins (-185/+160)
Patriots 10.5 wins (-215/+180)
Jets 7 wins (-155/+135)