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2013 NFL Previews: NFC North

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Chicago Bears

The Bears lost two key figures this off-season: head coach Lovie Smith and long-time franchise cornerstone and defensive anchor in their famed Tampa-2 system Brian Urlacher. Urlacher retired this off-season after the Bears failed to budge on their offer of $2.5 million for last season with Urlacher and Smith was fired after nine seasons of defensive brilliance and offensive apathy.

While his offenses were always comically incompetent, Smith’s defenses were consistently great, ranking #1 in both pass and rush defense last season by a wide margin according to Football Outsiders. The defense should be tremendous again this season under new head coach Marc Trestman, whom the Bears plucked from the CFL, but you have to wonder how good the Bears could have been had they ever found an offensive coordinator that could complement Smith’s defensive units with a productive offense.

Similar to soon-to-be-televangelist Ray Lewis, Urlacher’s loss will likely have a larger effect on the team’s culture rather than their play on the field. The Bears did a solid job re-stocking the linebacking core by signing D.J. Williams away from the Broncos and drafting Jon Bostic out of Florida in the second round to complement Lance Briggs. Nick Roach was the bigger loss for the Bears defense this off-season; Roach was iffy against the run last season but few outside linebackers around the league held up better in the pass game than Roach did last season.

On the other side of the ball, this is a make-or-break year for Jay Cutler. A big reason Cutler was so bad last season was his awful offensive line not giving him any time to make proper reads or even getting fully into his drops, but he still shows flaws for a veteran quarterback. To help give Cutler a cleaner pocket the Bears went out and got Jermon Bushrod from the Saints, drafted guard Kyle Long with their first round pick and took projected starting right tackle Jordan Mills in the fifth round.

If Cutler has time to throw, he’s bound to find someone that can make plays on the outside. Brandon Marshall is one of the most reliable receivers in football, Alshon Jeffery has flashed potential as a great number two receiver opposite of Marshall, even if he’s more of a possession guy than a defense stretching speedster, Martellus Bennett will give the Bears a big target up the seams and few running backs can hurt defenses in as many ways as Matt Forte.

The tools are all there for Cutler to utilize, and if his line protects him this season, it’s up to him to prove he’s an elite quarterback, or Chicago may be in the market for a signal caller next summer.

Best-case scenario: 11-5, Cutler has a career year and the defense dominates

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Cutler fails to deliver and the defense struggles to find a new leader

Prediction: 7-9 and a quarterback search in the summer

Detroit Lions

The Lions are one of the sexiest teams in the league entering the 2013 season, which is odd for a team coming off of a 4-12 season. But Detroit was subjected to some bad luck that isn’t likely to beset them again and they’ve made some improvements to cover up the major blemishes that cost them big last season. They’ve rotated some new lineman in to infiltrate what was an underproductive group in 2012, they drafted Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor to help make up for the loss of Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch and they drafted cornerback Darius Slay out of Mississippi State and signed safety Glover Quin away from The Texans to help sure up the secondary.

To be sure, those aren’t perfect remedies and Detroit will be far from perfect on the offensive line and against the pass this year, but they also have one of the best defensive lines in football and an offense that should rank amongst the best in the league at scoring points.

Last season Matthew Stafford essentially replicated his monstrous 2011 season according to the all the advanced metrics, leaving behind just one incredibly large discrepancy between the past two seasons: 21 touchdowns. A lot of this has to do with that bad luck I mentioned, but it was still odd to see Stafford go from 41 touchdowns in 2011 to 20 touchdowns while throwing for roughly the same amount of yards and without a jump in interceptions. As I’m sure anybody that owned Calvin Johnson in their fantasy league would know, Johnson was tackled at the one-yardline six times last season, an unfathomable stat for a 6’5″ guy that could probably gain five yards just by falling forward.

The Stafford-Johnson duo, with a little Ryan Broyles and Brandon Pettigrew (Bedlam!) mixed in, helped lift the Lions to a top 10 finish in total offense despite the lack of a clear-cut number one running back. That said, Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure were not all that bad last season, and they provide excellent depth for Detroit now that the Lions have Reggie Bush as the starter. Bush is not an every down back but the Lions don’t need him to be with Bell and Leshoure behind him, and Bush acts as a dynamic playmaker that can catch the ball out of the backfield and operate well as a fluid cutter in a spread offense.

The Lions are very much a boom-or-bust team with the way they like to sling the ball around the field and with the iffy state of their secondary (although I’m a big Chris Houston fan), and also in regards to their, shall we say, “interesting” personalities and firecracker (but probably not good) coach. But of all the risks you are taking with the Lions, health is the number one issue. If Stafford, Bush and the key players on defense can stay healthy, this team has a chance to have a dominant offense and a scary, if overall average, defense because of their front four of Ansah, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Jason Jones.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Bush gives the offense a dynamic dimension and the passrush helps out the secondary

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Bush and Stafford miss a few games and the Vikings are suckered into giving Ponder another year because of his two games against the Lions (remember Matt Flynn?)

Prediction: 9-7 and I’m not totally sure Jim Schwartz doesn’t get fired anyways

Green Bay Packers

Because of how entertaining the new class of young quarterbacks is and because of how entertaining the hip new offenses those guys are running are, the Packers have rolled under the radar this off-season. Part of it is because of the disheartening way that the 49ers handled them both in the regular season (when Alex Smith was the starter) and in the post-season (when Colin Kaepernick made a mockery of their defense), leaving us with a sour taste in our mouths regarding the Packers, and part of it is because Tom Brady’s imploding supporting cast has dominated the headlines amongst long-standing superstar quarterbacks.

But that doesn’t mean that Aaron Rodgers isn’t still the best quarterback in football, and it doesn’t mean that the Packers aren’t still one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC. I’m not totally sure that the Packers present as dynamic and dangerous of an attack as the Seahawks and Niners do and I’m pretty sure their defense is a notch below (though still very good), but what I am certain of is that Rodgers is the kind of guy that’s going to look back on the past two seasons as total failures and comeback strong this season, desperate to remind people that he’s the best in the business.

And he’ll be well equipped to do that. Despite the loss of Greg Jennings, the Packers still have Jordy Nelson and James Jones on the outside, Jermichael Finley at tight end and Randall Cobb in the slot. Cobb is the key here, as his versatile skillset makes him an asset in every facet of the game. Green Bay has a package filled with plays just for Cobb, lining him up in various different spots on the field and finding ways to get him the ball in space to allow him to work. Just about every receiver the Packers put on the field is capable of getting open on their own merit, but Green Bay also schemes their players open extremely well, which means they can plug-and-play just about anybody and expect Rodgers to make them a threat.

Green Bay was able to put up the third best passing offense in the league last season (according to Football Outsiders) despite a running game that was just average. To change the equation and to give themselves a multifacted attack, the Packers used second and fourth round picks on Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin. While Lacy has the bulky frame of the duo, Franklin is also a physical back, giving the Packers a pair of punishing groundhogs. Lacy will be the starter this season and he’s the better player. While Franklin has a bit more speed, Lacy is far from a snail and his ability to catch the ball will surely make Rodgers happy to finally have a reliable dumpoff option coming out of the backfield.

With a sturdy defense that has only fallen short over the past few years because of injuries, the Packers should dominate their division this season. The only question left is whether or not they have the personnel and the scheme to slow the dual-threat quarterbacks like Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III they are sure to see in the post-season. If they can hold up against the mobile QBs, they’ll have a spot in the Super Bowl waiting for them.

Best-case scenario: 12-4, The running game flourishes and the defense establishes continuity

Worst-case scenario: 8-8, Injuries overcome the roster and sideline Rodgers for a few games

Prediction: 11-5 and a meeting with Kaepernick and company to decide who will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl

Minnesota Vikings

Here’s how good Adrian Peterson was last season: Each week I’d go back and re-watch every Vikings game to see him play even though I knew there would be some Christian Ponder plays mixed in. In all seriousness, Peterson looked like one of the best running backs of all-time last season, ripping off a ridiculous six yards a carry despite the fact that everybody knew he was getting the ball and loaded the box to stop him.

He was elusive and nimble when he needed to be, picking his gaps with the surgical precision of Dr. James Andrews, and a powerful brute when he was man-on-man with a linebacker. He came ever so close to setting the record for rushing yards in a season, all just months removed from watching his knee snap like a broken pencil. It’s pretty crazy that Peterson could have a 2,097 yard season and then set his goal at 2,500 yards for the next season as if he was disappointed. And it’s even more crazy that it’s not a total impossibility.

The only thing standing in his way is a lackluster passing game once again subjecting him to more loaded fronts and specially prepared schemes. Minnesota attempted to make life easier on Peterson by re-signing right tackle Phil Loadholt and fullback Jerome Felton (Peterson owes Felton a nice Rolex for the tremendous work he did in the trenches last year, somewhat offsetting the numbers advantage that defenses would have) and by acquiring a pair of talented wide receivers. Of course, as good as Greg Jennings was with the Packers, Percy Harvin is inarguably a better football player, and as tantalizing as Cordarrelle Patterson’s frame and footspeed make him, I’m not confident in Ponder’s ability to consistently find either one of them downfield. Ponder only excelled when making short, quick passes to Harvin and getting the ball to Kyle Rudolph in the redzone last season, and hasn’t show the ability to toss the ball past the first down marker with accuracy.

Minnesota’s expectations for this season were raised when Peterson put the team on his back and carried them to an improbable playoff appearance, but it’s more likely that this is another transition year for the Vikings rather than a step towards Super Bowl contention. The defense will be better with the addition of rookies Xavier Rhodes and Jacob Lacey to the secondary and first round pick Sharrif Floyd should look great at the defensive tackle spot in Minnesota’s 4-3, but this unit is not yet complete enough to be considered a strength. And even if the defense did take a major step forward in 2013, it would all be for not if Ponder doesn’t exceed expectations. Unfortunately, the question, at least in my mind, is not ‘Will Ponder ever become an above average starter?’ but instead ‘Will the Vikings realize Ponder isn’t the answer sooner rather than later?’.

Best-case scenario: 9-5, Peterson has another monster season and the defense creates turnovers

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Ponder doesn’t connect with either of his vertical threats and the secondary gets burned in a pass-heavy division

Prediction: 6-10 and more flirting with the history books from Peterson

Mark Travis is a 22-year old sportswriter that is currently majoring in Sports Media at Oklahoma State University. He started his own website, But The Game Is On, in 2008 as an outlet for his praise of Michael Crabtree and has since been credentialed by major organizations like the NBA, NFL, MLB, Nike and Team USA Basketball. He also covered the past two NBA Finals for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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