A Totally Biased Way-Too-Big NFL Preview: The NFC North

The Packers have been the class of the NFC North since Aaron Rodgers took over for the Lambeau Legend. Can Adrian Peterson change that, or will it take big plays from Cutler and Stafford to dethrone the Pack?

The NFC North was way more of a wild-card than fans and experts had expected it to be before kickoff last season. There were so many question marks for each team, it seemed as if the Packers were all but guaranteed another deep run.

Was Adrian Peterson going to be even remotely effective enough to help the Vikings? Would Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler team up once again for fantasy points galore? And what about Detroit? Coming off a 10-win season in 2011, and Matthew Stafford removed from his best season in his young career, they were sure to threaten the Pack for the division lead.

Of course, Peterson would go on to have one of the best season’s for any runningback in NFL history, and Minnesota would finish a very strong 10-6, winning their last four games. The Lions would lay a total egg and stumble to a 4-12 record, even with Calvin Johnson electrifying the league week in and week out. The Bears and Brandon Marshall took leaps and bounds forward, with their defense bringing in 29 interceptions and 20 fumble recoveries, good for a league high 49 turnovers.

The Packers? Pretty much status quo, with the NFL’s most storied franchise going 11-5 and bringing in another NFC North title.

There were plenty of moves in the off-season, highlighted by Chicago’s hiring of Marc Trestman, the Lions signing veteran speedster Reggie Bush, and the Vikings stealing Greg Jennings from Rodgers and Company. Which move will prove to be the biggest, and help one of these squads make a run at Green Bay’s division title? Let’s dive in.

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Green Bay Packers

2012 Recap: The Packers once again put up one of the leagues best offenses in 2012, with A-Rod tossing 39 TD’s and a tick under 4300 passing yards. Young wide receiver Randall Cobb really turned a corner, posting a team high 954 receiving yards. One of the biggest challenges facing Green Bay was their ineptitude to get the running game going. Alex Green led the team in rushing yards, with only 464. That is something that will need to be upgraded for Mike McCarthy to  expand the playbook, and open up the play-action pass game. The Packers were all but forced to make a move in free-agency, or the draft. 

Biggest Off-season Move: Drafting Eddie Lacy. In typical Green Bay fashion, they plugged their biggest hole right from the get-go. Lacy, an absolute bruiser of a back out of Alabama fell to the Pack in the second round, all the way down to pick #61. It was rumored that teams may have let Lacy slip due to his aggravated toe problems. The Packers are the perfect team to take the risk, and they hedged their bets by also selecting Jonathan Franklin, another top 5 back on big boards. If Lacy is able to stay healthy, and bowl over a linebacker or two, he should be good for 1000 yards and 10 scores, especially in the potent Green and Yellow offense.

Breakout Player: Randall Cobb. Even with Cobb having a coming-out party last season, he is primed to take over the game in 2013. With Jennings landing in Minnesota, the spot as Rodgers favorite target is up for grabs. Or is it? Wasn’t Cobb already Rodgers go-to guy last season? On 104 targets, a team high, Cobb hauled in 80 receptions. That’s good for an unreal 82% catch-rate. Cobb is almost a mortal lock for 100 catches and 1000 yards, provided he can stay healthy, which shouldn’t be a problem. Cobb has played in 15 games each of his first two seasons, 

Crucial Match-up: vs Atlanta, Sunday Night, December 8th: The Packers schedule is loaded with block-buster match-ups, the first of which comes in week one when they travel to Candlestick Park to take on the NFC Champion 49’ers. 

Minnesota Vikings

2012 Recap: In the 15th game of the 2011-2012 season, Vikings fans everywhere dunked their head into their open hands, and some of them probably even shed a tear. Not only were the Vikes a dismal 2-12, but on the first play of the second half, Adrian Peterson crumbled to the turf as ligaments in his knee pulled apart like wet tissue paper. Nearly 8 months later, Peterson did the unthinkable and not only played in all 16 games, but he led his team to the playoffs with a 10-6 record, and came within 9 yards of breaking Eric Dickerson’s all-time single season rushing record. Fresh off of recent success, and three first round picks, the Vikings are looking to de-throne the Pack Attack in 2013.

Biggest Off-season Move: Signing Desmond Bishop. Any time that you can steal a player that your rival has let-go, it’s always a good call, should the team need his services. This is far from new for the Vikes, who have gone after an insane amount of Packers cast-offs in the last decade. Ryan Longwell, Darren Sharper, Javon Walker, and who could forget Brett Favre, have all turned in the Green and Gold for a more unique color-way in Minny. Bishop shined in his last full season, pulling in a personal best 142 tackles in 2011, but suffered a torn hamstring in pre-season last year, and never saw the field. If Bishop can return at 100%, he and Chad Greenway could become quite the tandem.

Breakout Player: Cordarelle Patterson. The biggest off-season trade came in March when the Vikings dealt talented-yet-trouble wideout Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks for a couple draft picks, including Seattle’s first-round pick in last April’s draft. To replace the lost talent, the Vikings traded their 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 7th round selections to the Patriots to land the Tennessee stud, Patterson. Rookie wideouts are fickle, often times not breaking out until their second season. Coach Leslie Frazier is hoping Patterson’s clock is sped up, and that he’ll be able to impact the passing game as early as week one. With the talent that Patterson has, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

Crucial Match-up: @ Green Bay, Sunday, November 24th. Aaron Rodgers has made a living of absolutely crushing the Vikings, with 30 TD’s and only 4 INT’s in 10 games. However, in those 10 tilts the Packers have only come away with six victories. A game late in the season, in the November cold of Lambeau, this contest should be a beat-down-drag-em-out-brawl. 

Chicago Bears

2012 Recap: The Bears have been more than an up-and-down story in the last few years, and 2012 was no different. The defense was absolutely terrorizing, causing a league high 49 turnovers. Jay Cutler and the offense we’re on fire some weeks, as evidenced by their 41-3 blowout of the Jaguars in week 3, and looked like a pee-wee squad in some games, on full display in their 32-7 defeat against San Fran. The good news is, all of the Bears six losses came to playoff teams, omitting even a single “bad” loss on their schedule. After hiring new Head Coach Marc Trestman Chicago will look to follow up a strong 2012 campaign with a 2013 version that brings them to the post-season.

Biggest Off-season Move: The reshaping of the linebacker core. As a Giants fan, I was eager to see what pieces we could add to the position in the draft, which of course ended up being absolutely nobody. Two guys I was a huge fan of were Jon Bostic from Florida and Khaseem Greene from Rutgers. Both of them landed in Chicago as the heir apparents to the departed Brian Urlacher. Bostic has already proven to be a huge hitter, who could rack up over 75+ tackles if he continues to impress coaches. Greene works on all four facets of special teams, and had been playing defense in the pre-season, so keeping his conditioning up is a must. With these two bodies on the other side of the ball, expect the Bears defense to be just as ferocious as last year.

Breakout Player: Alshon Jeffery. Jay Cutler is on record saying that Jeffery has had the best camp of anyone on offense. Considering #6 is the one throwing the ball in Chi-City, I would say that’s pretty damn important. I know that Cutler technically could target Brandon Marshall on every single pass attempt, but I’ll go out on a limb and say: not likely. Jeffery is a big body, and could be a red-zone threat opposite Marshall. Jeffery should come close to 1000 yards if he puts it all together, and from the mouth of his QB, it sounds like he already has.

Crucial Match-up: @ Green Bay, Monday, November 9th. This rivalry is so big, I could’ve stopped after “November 9th”, and it would’ve been perfectly acceptable. The Bears will be coming off their bye week, and ready to stun the Pack in Lambeau on Monday Night Football. Trestman and his players will be looking for a coming-out party to strut their improvements in front of the entire country, and what better place than MNF against your biggest rival? Trick question. There is no better place.

Detroit Lions

2012 Recap: Matt Stafford threw for nearly 5000 yards [again], and only had 20 TD’s. Megatron had 1964 yards (yes, an NFL record), and… 5 TD’s? That’s the kind of season that Detroit had. Big numbers, with few results. The Lions took three teams to OT, winning only one of them. In games decided by a touchdown or less, the Silver and Blue were 3-7, four of the losses coming in divisional match-ups. The aforementioned gunslinger, Stafford? He had TWENTY-THREE receivers get tackled inside the five yard line. Let’s say he only threw a TD following 11 of those 23 drives. That’s still 12 TD’s left on the table. Simply put, the Lions were a little unlucky.

Biggest Off-season Move: Signing Reggie Bush. The Lions are one of a handful of teams who are fully embracing the pass-happy trend taking over the NFL, with Matthew Stafford putting up a single-season NFL high 727 attempts last year. The Lions were wise however, when they locked up Bush to a 4-year deal for 16 million. Bush has thrived since leaving New Orleans, and he flashed some great numbers in his season with Miami last year. Stafford targeted runningbacks 109 times last season, and Bush is a more accomplished receiver than both Joique Bell and Mikel LeShoure. Look for Bush to break a few ankle in 2013.

Breakout Player: Ryan Broyles. The all-time leader in catches in the NCAA, Broyles has had his fair share of bad breaks. In his final season at Oklahoma, Broyles tore his ACL, ending his storied college career. Broyles didn’t play for Detroit until October, but he flashed plenty of potential when given the chance, finishing with 22 catches for 310 yards and 2 TD’s before, you guessed it, another torn ACL. Broyles says he is mentally 100%, and he even played a handful on snaps against Cleveland in the Lions second pre-season game. Broyles at most will take a couple weeks to get back in the groove. When he does, provided he can stay healthy, Broyles can be a valuable asset to Detroit.

Crucial Match-up: @ Chicago, Sunday, November 10th. Not only is this is a huge contest for Detroit, but the Bears will be coming off a big game with Green Bay, and the result of that one could carry over to this game. Regardless, Detroit desperately needs to put up a better record in the division if they want any chance of hanging on. Hopefully Stafford and Calvin can do what no Lions team has done since 2007, when Jon Kitna was throwing the pigskin. Win in the Windy City.

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