With the regular season bearing down on us, let’s take a look at the 2014 NFC North Predictions.
The NFC North teams have to play the AFC East and NFC South this season in addition to their divisional schedule.
I am making predictions as if injuries did not occur unless otherwise specified and each projected finish is from looking through each game over the course of the season and predicting each winner from each matchup.
For playoff predictions and award predictions, check out Football Fan Source’s 2014 NFL Season Preview!
1. Green Bay Packers
Projected Finish: 11-5
Last season, Green Bay limped into the playoffs, despite quarterback Aaron Rodgers missing a chunk of the season due to a shoulder injury. As we are in the business of making predictions and those must be made with the assumption Rodgers remains healthy this season, I have to imagine Green Bay is legitimate Super Bowl contender with Rodgers at the helm.
The offense begins with Rodgers, but the offense is flush with talent. Running back Eddie Lacy looks like the next star at the position with the power and quickness you need from a lead back. Frankly, he looks more like what we expected from fellow Alabama alumni, Trent Richardson, when he entered the NFL as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. Lacy is in for a big year. At receiver, the return of Randall Cobb is huge. Cobb is a great player who will be making a big name for himself this season after missing most of the season with a knee injury last season. Jordy Nelson is still a great player in his own right and the loss of James Jones is quickly remedied by young talent like Jarrett Boykin and Davante Adams. Tight end Richard Rogers is a rookie out of Cal who has been talked up all offseason and the Green Bay line looks solid.
The loss of nose tackle B.J. Raji is a major blow on defense, but there is still a lot of talent on that side of the ball. Datone Jones is a second-year defensive end who was drafted in the first round. Another year should give him enough time and teaching to make a greater impact this season. Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers are the outside linebackers and both will terrorize opposing quarterbacks this season. Green Bay has been looking for a running mate for Matthews for years and I think they finally have one in Peppers. Pepper is getting up there in years, but the talent is still there. Corners Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are solid, as are safeties Micah Hyde and Morgan Burnett. Rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could be a factor as the season progresses. The first-round pick this spring is very talented and could help Green Bay on the backend.
Green Bay is scary good when you consider their offensive firepower and the improvements on defense with Peppers. You have to assume we will see a full season of Rodgers, which makes Green Bay a decent choice for representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Player to Watch: WR Randall Cobb – Not going to lie, the guy was on my fantasy team last season and he was incredible until his injury. He is explosive and trusted within the Packers offense. A full year for him and Rodgers means big numbers.
2. Chicago Bears
Projected Finish: 11-5
Chicago always seems to be on the cusp. Many accuse quarterback Jay Cutler of holding the Bears back, but entering his second season under head coach and offensive guru Marc Trestman should result in good things for the veteran out of Vanderbilt.
The Bears offense could be scary this season. Cutler should finally put together the season we have expected from him with Trestman making the calls, but the real threat to opposing defenses are wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Both are dominant with the ball in the air and with Jeffery’s explosive 2013 season, you could make an argument that these guys easily crack the top-10 receivers in the game right now. Those sort of weapons can’t be discounted. Throw in Santonio Holmes, who may be a bit of a talented head case, and the passing attack shouldn’t be containable. You could do worse with a third receiver. Matt Forte remains the running back and after staying relatively healthy a year ago, he will look to build on that with his great running and receiving abilities. His backup, Kadeem Carey, is a heck of a football player and a solid backup. I don’t want to say the Chicago offensive line is set, but it looks better than it has. Guard Kyle Long was a great draft pick a year ago and will only get better with another year under his belt.
These aren’t the “Monsters of the Midway”, but Chicago figures to play solid, opportunistic defense all the same. Lamarr Houston comes over from Oakland after posting six sacks a year ago. The former Viking, Jared Allen, takes Peppers’ spot on the other side. Allen had a down season in 2013, but I think he will return to form. Jay Ratliff is a high-reward player with the skill to impact games. Maybe a little inconsistent. At linebacker, Lance Briggs remains timeless and while D.J. Williams mans the middle currently, I expect Jon Bostic to get an opportunity. Chicago really likes what the second-year player is capable of. In the secondary, Charles Tillman keeps playing at a high level, but his play will have to fade at some point. Tim Jennings is a solid corner on the other side.
Chicago is an interesting team with a lot of potential to shape the NFC playoff race, but they always seem to come up short, which makes you wonder what is the more likely outcome to their season. I like them to play well and earn 11 wins, leaving them right on the cusp of a playoff appearance. The NFC is so deep, 11 wins may not be enough though.
Player to Watch: WR Alshon Jeffery – Jeffery dominated last season. I want to see what he can do in his encore. He has an exceptional, “Calvin Johnson-like” quality about how he goes up for the jump ball at his size.
3. Detroit Lions
Projected Finish: 7-9
Detroit is all about offense. This season should be no different with their offensive attack looking better than ever. The problem still remains that they can’t seem to limit opposing teams, which – in a brutal NFC landscape – I think is just enough to push them down the NFC North totem pole.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford should play very well this season. His running game returns with Joqiue Bell and Reggie Bush. Bush has shown that he is capable of being a starting running back, but Bell is a wonderful compliment. The biggest asset to Stafford will and has always been wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Even at the pro level, he plays like a man among boys and with reports surfacing that he fought injuries last season, I think Johnson will be back and better than ever. The addition of Golden Tate from Seattle gives Detroit their first, legitimate number two option on the passing game. That should free up Johnson… slightly (defenses will still do everything to stop the guy) and will give Stafford another solid weapon.
The big question with Detroit has always been defense, but, interestingly enough, they have a litany of talent on the defensive line. Between defensive ends Jason Jones and Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit can bring pressure from the outside, but their strength has to be Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh at defensive tackle. Suh, if he can stop getting in trouble with the league office for dirty play, and Fairley, if he keeps his weight down, can dominate games and control the trenches. That is huge for a defense. The problem is, that aside from that, the Detroit defense is thin. Stephen Tulloch is a solid linebacker at middle linebacker, but the secondary is a little bare with Rashean Mathis, Darius Slay, James Ihedigbo and Glover Quin as starters. The pass defense is a weakness in Detroit if they can’t get enough pass rush on a consistent basis to throw off opposing offenses.
Detroit is going to be like they have been. A dynamic offense with the Stafford-Johnson connection and a solid run game with Bush and Bell. The defensive line is strong, but the secondary will have trouble slowing down solid air attacks. In a division with Chicago and Green Bay, that is a problem. In addition, matchups with the NFC South and AFC East don’t bode well for a team who can’t defend the pass.
Player to Watch: WR Golden Tate – Tate developed into a solid receiver in Seattle and now has a chance to benefit greatly from the attention Johnson draws. Defenses likely won’t suddenly start changing their attempts to slow Johnson, so Tate should benefit greatly.
4. Minnesota Vikings
Projected Finish: 7-9
This may come as a bit of a surprise, but I like Minnesota this season. I don’t think they can push for a playoff spot in the crowded NFC, but the direction is pointing up for the Vikings as they usher in a new head coach in Mike Zimmer.
Matt Cassel is the starting quarterback for the opener, but I think rookie Teddy Bridgewater gets a stab at the spot sooner rather than later. Bridgewater has the makings of a franchise quarterback and Minnesota has the skill players around him to ease him into regular season football. Running back Adrian Peterson came back down to earth last season after nearly breaking the single-season rushing record in 2012, but I don’t think that means he is declining for good. Peterson will be great this season, especially with the development of wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson on the outside. Greg Jennings is the current number one on the outside, but Patterson is another guy with the physical tools to be a star receiver in the NFL. His speed is off the charts and his size is hard to matchup with. Big things are expected from Patterson, regardless of who starts at quarterback. The same can be said for tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has always flashed some of his potential, but hasn’t been properly utilized. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner could make all the difference with this offense. After all, he is a huge reason why Brian Hoyer entered Cleveland’s training camp as the starter.
Defensively, the Viking have quietly assembled some intriguing young talent to utilize under Zimmer. Zimmer comes from Cincinnati where he created a top-five defense. Minnesota won’t reach that point overnight, but Zimmer has always created a great defense wherever he has been. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd enters his second-year at defensive tackle. He was widely considered a top draft prospect a year ago before he fell to Minnesota’s second first round pick. The first pick of that 2013 draft was cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes had his share of bumps as a rookie, but should be improved in his second-year and under Zimmer’s guidance. Harrison Smith is at safety and he has quietly developed into a very good player. Rookie outside linebacker Anthony Barr was another top draft prospect that Minnesota was able to nab in the first round with Bridgewater. This is young, talented group that will improve as the season goes along. The thing with youth, is that it is heavily influenced by momentum. If Minnesota’s defense gets off to a fast start, or gets into a rhythm, they could be hard to move the ball on.
The Vikings aren’t a trendy pick to make the playoffs and I may even be reaching with them hovering around .500. That said, Minnesota is a young, talented team with a bright future. Zimmer is a great coach who will get the defense playing well with time and I expect to see the “Bridgewater-era” take over early into the season.
Player to Watch: WR Cordarrelle Patterson – Patterson is a player with exceptional gifts. He should be a star in due time. General consensus is that it begins this season.