The Green Bay Packers have either won the Super Bowl or the NFC North in each of the last 5 seasons. It has been an incredible run. In Game of Thrones parlance the Packers are the Kings in the North. The Packers are prohibitive favorites to win the North again, requiring a $300 bet to win $100. Admitting that the Packers are the clear favorite is easy, but identifying the #1 contender for the title is a little more difficult.
Each of the Packers’ NFC North mates have finished second during this half decade of dominance. The Vikings scrapped their way to a 10-6 record in 2012 behind a monstrous season from Adrian Peterson, the Bears fell victim to “4th and great” in 2013 and Detroit came in second during the Packers’ 15 win season of 2011 and their 12 win season last year.
2015, from what I can tell, is going to be very interesting. Last season’s #1 contender, the Detroit Lions, have lost what defined them as a team. Ndamakong Suh and Nick Fairley are gone. Everything that they did on defense was predicated by those two occupying between 3 and 3.5 blockers on every play and freeing up everyone else on the defense to make plays. The 3rd place finisher in Minnesota certainly appears to have the arrow pointing up. The Bears Still Suck.
Contender #1: Minnesota Vikings
Why they’ll be the #1 contender: Teddy Bridgewater. I said before the 2014 NFL Draft that I didn’t care what happened as long as the Vikings didn’t find a way to get Teddy Bridgewater. Well, they did. Bridgewater brings legitimacy to the quarterback situation that doesn’t often happen in Minnesota. I remember predicting Matt Ryan’s career for him before he entered the league and I don’t see anything different now. The big hope for Packers fans is that, like Ryan, Bridgewater somehow also ends up ringless.
When you add Adrian Peterson to last year’s Vikings offense and project the first-year-to-second-year jump for Bridgewater the Vikings have the ability to be an average-to-above-average offense. If that’s the case it greatly supplements the reason that the Vikings brought in Head Coach Mike Zimmer in the first place, to fix the Vikings defense.
In 2013, the Vikings were 27th in defensive DVOA and 32nd (that would be last) in scoring defense. Since that time the Vikings let go stalwarts that were washed up (Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield) and maybe one that wasn’t (Kevin Williams) but have begun to rebuild the defense. Thanks to the additions of Anthony Barr and Shariff Floyd and the development of Everson Griffen and Harrison Smith the Vikings rose to 23rd in defensive DVOA. They added Trae Waynes and Eric Kendricks in the first 45 picks in the 2015 draft to continue to build that unit.
The basic concept here is simple. Last year’s team went 7-9, this year’s team adds a former NFL MVP and didn’t really lose much. If they win a few more games and the Lions come back a little bit, they should be the #1 contender to the Packers’ NFC North title.
Why they’ll be the #1 pretender: Last year was an empty 7-9 and Adrian Peterson at 30 years old isn’t as important to winning football games as you think he is. Without Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson’s best record in a single season is 10-6. The Peterson-less Vikings’ record of 7-9 last season was actually better than 3 of the 7 seasons in which Peterson led the team in rushing. In fact, in seasons with Peterson and no Favre, the Vikings are 36-43-1. Peterson is one of the 5 or 6 best backs of all time and the clear #1 back of the post-LaDanian era, but having him on the Vikings hasn’t actually equated to wins. It’s a passing league now. The Wins Above Replacement for any running back, even Adrian Peterson in this day and age is one probably and two if it’s a near 2,000 yard Herculean effort.
Not only that but go back and look at last year’s 7-9 squad. Yes a team that almost got to .500 that has a young nucleus should be a trendy pick for an ascension, but did the Vikings really beat anybody? No. They didn’t beat a single team with a .500 record or better. The opponents they defeated had a .306 combined winning percentage, featuring the Bucs, who picked first, the Redskins, who picked 5th and the Jets who picked 6th.
The Vikings actually still have a lot of issues. They might have had the worst left side of an offensive line in football (Matt Kalil and Charlie Johnson/Vlad Ducasse) a season ago and the only thing they’ve done to fix it is possibly move Brandon Fusco (an almost exactly average guard) from the right side to the left. Kyle Rudolph, despite all the nice things said about him, has never amassed more than 493 yards in a season because he’s hurt a lot. The Vikings’ best receiver is a 2013 7th round pick by Ted Thompson by the name of Charles Johnson.
They also have major issues on that defense. Despite all the nice things everyone says about it, it still finished as the 23rd best unit in the league according to DVOA (FootballOutsiders). Brian Robison isn’t very good and because of that they consistently (more than 25% of passing downs!) blitz Anthony Barr. This leaves Chad Greenway (also really not very good) in space a lot. Rick Spielman spent a lot of money to sign Captain Munnerlyn last season and is either disgusted with him or with Josh Robinson because he drafted a corner 11th overall and signed Terrence Newman. They also seem to be in a perpetual search for a safety to pair with Harrison Smith (my favorite guy on their defense who I wish was a Packer instead of Nick Perry).
The bottom line is that the Vikings are a thin team because of Rick Spielman’s insistence on trading back up into the 1st round all the time. Sometimes it works (Harrison Smith, Teddy Bridgewater), and sometimes it doesn’t (Cordarelle Patterson). Even when it does work it hurts the depth of your team. We’ll see if they can stay healthy, if they’re record last year was legit, and if Adrian Peterson means more than I think he does.
Contender #2: Detroit Lions
Why they’ll be the #1 contender: Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Stafford is still the 2nd best quarterback in the division. The league isn’t quite as simple as he with the QB wins the game, but it’s close. The Lions offense should pretty clearly be the second best unit in the NFC North. They have always had the skill players, and they still do. Joquie Bell, Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Brandon Pettigrew and Eric Ebron rival even what’s going on in Green Bay. The issue was always the offensive line. The Lions added Manny Ramirez and Laken Tomlinson to shore up the interior and already have ascending LT Riley Reiff. Once the line gets figured out everything gets easier.
Defensively the Lions were absolutely elite a season ago, and not everyone is gone. They still have Ziggy Ansah, Glover Quin and Deandre Levy. They are getting back Stephen Tulloch. They added Haloti Ngata. The hope is that the addition of Ngata and the return of Tulloch allows them to use some of the same run stopping principles that made them elite in that category. They also have to hope that Rashean Mathis doesn’t turn in to a pumpkin this season at 34 years old.
There was a 3 game split between the Lions and Vikings a season ago. If you’re a Lions fan you’re hoping that the development of the offense covers for the losses on defense. You’re hoping that the Vikings really WERE an empty 7-9 last season and that the handcuffs are put on Teddy Bridgewater’s development in an attempt to get Adrian Peterson the ball.
Why they’ll be the #1 pretender: They lost their identity. The Lions had a top 3 defense a season ago, and the #1 run defense by a wider margin than you would think. The problem is that that man is gone. Ndamokung Suh is the most disruptive run defender in the league not named JJ Watt. His running mate, Nick Fairley, was pretty freakin’ good as well. Haloti Ngata is one of my favorite non-Packers in the league, but he’s 31 years old. He’s not going to give the Lions what Suh did, and probably not even what Fairley gave them. If the new Lions DTs can’t cause issues in the backfield and occupy blockers like the old ones, the Lions have to do things differently on defense to succeed.
The Lions’ roster on offense is “sexy”. It seems like it always is. With that said, they’ve been the 19th ranked offense in DVOA in both 2013 and 2014. They have to get better. The defense probably isn’t going to be elite this seasons so the Lions can’t be below average on offense if they’re going to have a winning record, and they’re going to have to have a winning record if they’re going to finish second in the division.
It’s all on Matthew Stafford. He’s been in the league for 6 years, if he’s going to do it he needs to do it.
Chicago Bears: It just isn’t going to happen this season. They weren’t very good last season and they probably got worse. They still have to play Jared Allen a lot, they are moving an All Pro Guard to tackle in Kyle Long and Brandon Marshall is gone to the Jets. The Bears roster just isn’t very talented and Jay Cutler is not the type of player to elevate that.