The Green Bay Packers flirted with perfection last year, winning the division in a walk at 15-1. Now a retooled Bears team, and the rising Lions will try to dethrone the Packers this year. Green Bay remains the team to beat in this division, and the oddsmakers agree as you can see in the odds comparison below.
Turning these odds into percentages we see that oddsmakers expect Green Bay to win the division about seven out of 10 times. Chicago’s retooled offense still has the team neck-and-neck with the Lions, who I expect to regress this year.
The Packers are the favorites to win the division once again, and for the second straight year there was very little turnover on the team’s roster. Ryan Grant is gone, but Cedric Benson should provide an upgrade at running back on the rare occasions the Green Bay offense decides to run the ball. Greg Jennings suffered a concussion in the preseason, but he’s expected to be ready for Week 1. If not, James Jones and Randall Cobb will gladly and easily step in. Regardless of Jennings’ situation, the Packers offense shouldn’t miss a beat because of the game’s best quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. His tendency to scramble may give Mike McCarthy an ulcer, but Rodgers is as durable as they come, missing only one game due to injury in four seasons as a starter. Rodgers missed the 5,000 yard boat last season, but it’s likely that he’ll climb aboard this year.
On the other side of the ball, Green Bay’s defense ranked last in the league in 2011, which leaves much to be desired heading into this season. The unit remains largely unchanged from the group that allowed 15.0 points per game in 2010, and 18.6 points per game in 2009. If all goes right, the Packers can expect a return trip to the Super Bowl.
The Chicago Bears won the NFC North with an 11-5 record in 2010. The team signed Michael Bush in the offseason to complement Matt Forte, while the additions of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery will give Jay Cutler more weapons to work with. Add onto that the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who Cutler never quite gelled with, and the fact that he will be reunited with quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, and the Bears offense appears ready to climb to the next level.
When the Bears compiled an 11-5 record in 2010, they allowed 17.9 points per game, fourth fewest in the league. That was the team’s only winning season among the three years Cutler’s been in Chicago. In Cutler’s other two seasons, the team allowed more than 21 points per game and finished .500 or worse each time. The defense’s heart and soul, Brian Urlacher, has dealt with knee issues all summer and his status for the season opener is up in the air. As this defense ages and struggles to adapt to the NFL’s transition into a passing league (Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford combined for 11 touchdown passes in four games against them last season), the team will become more and more reliant on its offense, and that’s never a recipe for success in Chicago.
The Detroit Lions had a lot go right for them last season. The team ended its long playoff drought, finishing 10-6 and earning a wild card spot in the NFC. They were able to torch opponents through the air, with Stafford one of three men to throw for more than 5,000 yards on the season. Calvin Johnson was on the receiving end of many of those throws, and it earned him a distinction that has sabotaged the careers of better men than him: a spot on the cover of the new Madden video game. No matter how high Megatron can jump, he won’t be able to get away from the Madden Curse.
All kidding aside, a regression has to be expected after he caught 16 touchdown passes last season. Titus Young should step up and fill in on some of those catches, but the team has too many question marks in the backfield to be as successful offensively as they were last year. Jahvid Best will start the year on the PUP list and there are rumblings that he may not see the field this year. Meanwhile, Kevin Smith’s ankles clearly can’t handle the rigors of NFL life, and Mikel Leshoure still has a long road back after a torn Achilles cost him his rookie season.
The defense overachieved like the rest of the team did last year, so you can expect fewer than the 21 interceptions that they recorded a year ago. Their seven defensive touchdowns are not likely to be replicated this year either. Also, expect Roger Goodell to keep Ndamukong Suh away from the team for a good long while the next time he does something stupid, and believe me, he will do something stupid. The Lions will be competing for another wild card spot come December, but this team has too many flaws to make a run at the division title.
The Minnesota Vikings are a mess right now. Adrian Peterson is being eased back from a torn ACL, and the offense isn’t packing a punch without him. Toby Gerhart and Percy Harvin shouldered the rushing duties in his absence last season and the team wasn’t the same, going 1-7 in the second half of the season. Minnesota added Jerome Simpson in the offseason to help in the development of Christian Ponder, but without a reliable running game,the Vikings will be adding their newest asset in the early stages of the NFL Draft next spring.
Defensively, Minnesota led the league in sacks last season while also giving up the second-most points. They added some depth in the secondary through the draft, but in a division that features three dynamic offenses, the Vikings are years away from competing.
Here’s how I see the NFC North breaking down:
1. Green Bay (13-3) – Super Bowl contender; expect the defense to bounce back after a down year.
2. Chicago (10-6) – New offensive weapons make them more competitive; the defense is aging.
3. Detroit (9-7) – Too much went right for them in 2011; a regression is in order.
4. Minnesota (5-11) – Will feast on easy non-division schedule but get clobbered in division.
Of the heavy division favorites, Green Bay may offer the most value. Chicago has improved, but not to the extent that they can threaten the Packers, and I really feel that Detroit is in for a down year. The Packers can be taken at -210 on Pinnacle, which is a good price for a team that is playing at a higher level than its competition. I advise a wager of a full unit on Green Bay at -210 to win the NFC North.