The 2013 season was a down year for the NFC North. Only the Packers had a winning record last season, winning the division with just 8 wins. The NFC North had provided wild card teams the previous 4 years, The Packers in 2009 and 2010, the Lions in 2011, and the Vikings in 2012.
While the Packers have dominated the division the past few years, winning the North 2011-13, and making the playoffs every year since 2009, they may have strong competition from the Bears and the Lions, both of whom have made some potentially impactful additions this offseason.
With the start of training camp just around the corner, here is how I see the NFC North.
Green Bay Packers
2013 Record: 8-7-1
Important Free Agent Additions and Key Draft Picks: Julius Peppers, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Davante Adams, Richard Rodgers
X Factor: Health – The Packers are always among the most injured teams in the NFL, and if they hope to compete with the likes of the 49ers and Seahawks, that is going to need to change this year. The Packers are doing and saying all the right things this offseason, taking yoga classes, using a GPS monitoring system to try to help reduce injuries, but will these new strategies actually have an effect on the amount of injuries that the Packers sustain this year?
2014 Season Outlook: With the return of a healthy Aaron Rodgers, the Packers will again be the favorite to win the NFC North. And with the improvement the Packers have made in the running game, this could be the most balanced and explosive offense they have put on the field.
However, there are still questions surrounding the Packers defense. Julius Peppers is the best pass rusher Clay Matthews has played with while in Green Bay, but at 34, will he be as effective as he has been in years past? And while the safety play of the Packers has nowhere to go but up, will the Packers be able to find 2 effective starters among the trio of Morgan Burnett, Micah Hyde, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix?
2013 Record: 8-8
Important Free Agent Additions and Key Draft Picks: Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, Jared Allen, Adrian Wilson, Kyle Fuller, Ka’Deem Carey,Ego Ferguson
X Factor: Jay Cutler – Cutler is often talked about as a franchise quarterback, but after 8 years in the NFL, his teams have just one playoff berth. Cutler has the physical tools, and the talent around him to lead the Bears to the playoffs, but unless his decision making improves, and he is able to cut down on the amount of interceptions he throws, the Bears will likely miss the playoffs again.
2014 Season Outlook: Last year the Bears did an excellent job of making over their offensive line, and this year they set their sights on retooling their defensive line. The additions of Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, and Willie Young should help a defensive line that was last in the league in sacks in 2013.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Bears have a reliable back in Matt Forte, and arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. But the biggest question surrounding the Bears offense is Jay Cutler. Will he be able to limit his mistakes, or will he be the same Jay Cutler who throws nearly as many interceptions as he does touchdowns.
2013 Record: 7-9
Important Free Agent Additions and Key Draft Picks: Golden Tate, James Ihedigbo, Eric Ebron, Kyle Van Noy
X Factor: Jim Caldwell – On paper the Lions have had enough talent the past few years to be a contender, but with the exception of 2011, they have failed to make the playoffs. Much of the blame for the Lions’ underperformance was put on former head coach Jim Schwartz, who was fired this offseason. Can Jim Caldwell, whose only head coaching success came with Peyton Manning as his quarterback, get this talented, but undisciplined Lions team to reach their potential?
2014 Season Outlook: The Lions have a plethora of offensive weapons, and with the size of Calvin Johnson, Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria, and Kris Durham, they could be a hard to stop in the red zone. But like the Bears, the fate of the Lions likely rests on the shoulder of their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who is prone to making errors at the worst possible time.
Defensively, the Lions’ secondary still looks like a weakness, but with Nick Fairley, Ndamukong Suh, and Ezekiel Ansah up front, they should be strong along the defensive line.
2013 Record: 5-10-1
Important Free Agent Additions and Key Draft Picks: Linval Joseph, Captain Munnerlyn, Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater
X Factor: Teddy Bridgewater – The Vikings haven’t had a quality quarterback since Dante Culpepper left after the 2005 season (I like to pretend the Vikings Favre era never existed). 2011 1st round pick, Christian Ponder, was not the answer, and Matt Cassel is likely just a place holder until this year’s 1st round pick, Teddy Bridgewater, is ready to start. During pre-draft evaluations, Bridgewater was talked about as the top rated quarterback in the draft, but NFL scouts didn’t seem to have the same enthusiasm for Bridgewater that draft bloggers and writers did, and he fell to pick 32 in this year’s draft. Over the next couple of years we will find out if the NFL scout’s concerns about Bridgewater were justified, or if there will be teams who will regret passing on Bridgewater, much like they did in 2005 when Aaron Rodgers fell to the Packers at pick 24.
2014 Season Outlook: The Vikings added some nice pieces to their defense in Linval Joseph, Captain Munnerlyn, and rookie Anthony Barr, but it remains to be seen if Everson Griffen will be able to fill the void left by the departure of Jared Allen.
On offense, the Vikings still have the best running back in the league in Adrian Peterson, and there will be a lot expected out of second year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. But who will be under center for the Vikings? Whether it’s journeyman Matt Cassel, or rookie Teddy Bridgewater, the Vikings will still probably find themselves towards the bottom of the NFC North when the season ends.——————