Another competitive division featuring Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers are a perennial playoff team with QB Aaron Rodgers at the helm. The departure of WR James Jones won’t hurt, Rodgers will make stars of Jarrett Boykin and 2014 second round draft pick Davante Adams while Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb will star in fantasy football leagues. Second year RB Eddie Lacy becomes a premiere every down back and Rodgers marches this team into the playoffs in January behind a resurgent defense ranking 25th overall in 2013. 12-4
The Bears look good in 2014 with the key question Can Jay Cutler stay healthy? Or, can Cutler stay healthy for enough games for Chicago to make the playoffs and contend once they start? Gone is backup savior Josh McCown, who guided Chicago to a 3-2 record during Cutler’s seemingly annual absence for a few games. Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett, a hopefully serviceable offensive line that keeps Cutler from getting sacked and hurt, the defense can’t be much worse than 2013, finishing 30th overall, and the offense has the potential to be even more explosive. A tough route with games @ San Francisco, @ New England, plus both games against Green Bay in the first 8 weeks will have this team around .500 heading into Week 11. Will Cutler be healthy Week 11 through Week 17? Cutler marches the Bears to another 10 win season and for the second time in 3 years for Chicago, and the third year in a row in the NFC, 10 wins misses the NFC Playoffs. 10-6
I predicted Matt Cassell to lead the Vikings to the playoffs in 2013, another miss. He was certainly a better option at QB than 2011 First Round Pick Christian Ponder and the Vikings have moved on trading into the first round in 2014 for Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater. The past 3 drafts have been outstanding, besides the bust on Christian Ponder. In 2011, Kyle Rudolph was selected in the second round and in his fourth year, with Norv Turner at the offensive controls, Rudolph is expected to elevate his game. 2012 saw the Vikings select LT Matt Kalil who figures to protect Bridgewater’s blindside for the next several years and S Harrison Smith, who’s return from injury limiting him in 8 games in 2013 and figures to bolster a Vikings defense finishing 31st overall in 2013. 2013 yielded three strong draft picks, DT Shariff Floyd, CB Xavier Rhodes, and WR Cordarelle Patterson (all first round draft picks). Gone are defensive stalwarts Jared Allen and Kevin Williams, they didn’t seem to help much in 2013 and who plays defense, besides Seattle (the only team to allow under 300 yards per game in defense), in the New NFL. Adrian Peterson will lead a dynamic offense. Greg Jennings will benefit from emerging star Cordarelle Patterson, a game breaker, Norv Turner will get the most from Kyle Rudolph (think Jordan Cameron from Cleveland in 2013), and an experienced healthy Matt Cassell has the potential to lead this team to a competitive season, however, he may not get the chance. A tough first 5 weeks featuring games @ St. Louis, @ New Orleans, @ Green Bay, plus New England and Atlanta at home could have the Vikings turning to Bridgewater sooner than later. The schedule is more favorable mid season, Detroit, @ Buffalo, @ Tampa Bay, Washington then the bye week in Week 10 followed by an epic showdown against Chicago in Week 11. This team could find a way to be around .500 because the offense is able to keep games close and the defense can’t be much worse than it was last year. The Vikings fall short in the end. 8-8
Expectations in Detroit once again in 2014 for a dismal Lions franchise. Along with the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns, the Lions as a franchise are in a dire state of affairs. Since their playoff appearance in 2011, there seems to be expectations every year, and maybe rightfully so with the play of Matthew Stafford and the absolute dominance of Calvin Johnson. Golden Tate is an upgrade over Nate Burleson opposite the most physically dominant receiver in the history of the NFL, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell offer options from the backfield, and 2014 first round pick, selected 10th overall, TE Eric Ebron could be the next Jimmy Graham. In 2012, fresh off their first playoff appearance in 13 years, the Lions went 4-12. In 2013, the Lions were 7-5 heading into Week 14 and with injuries to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, the Lions were unable to take advantage and win the NFC North (formed in 2002 when the NFL became The New NFL) or their first division title since 1993. They promptly lost 4 in a row, finished 7-9, and Green Bay won the division with 8 wins. It’s been woeful for Lions fans and it continues for a franchise with a Top 5 offense and a Top 15 defense in 2014, yet somehow it does not translate into the win column. 5-11