NFL preview: Green Bay Packers again look the pick of the bunch in the NFC North
By Alex Williams
Last Updated: 31/08/14 12:46pm
The NFC North has been one of the strongest in the NFL in recent years but last season a number of its teams were left disappointed as only Green Bay Packers - with a modest record of 8-7-1 - managed to qualify for the playoffs.
Both the Packers and Chicago Bears, who lost out in a playoff eliminator against Green Bay on the final day of the regular season, had to deal with injuries to their starting quarterbacks last year and will be hoping that more stability at the position can improve their fortunes this time around.
Detroit Lions finished a disappointing 7-9 and as a result parted ways with head coach Jim Schwartz, with Jim Caldwell now the man tasked with turning around the fortunes of an underachieving roster.
Minnesota Vikings also have a new coach at the helm, Mike Zimmer replacing Leslie Frazier at a team which is hoping to build a more rounded offence to take some of the strain off star running back Adrian Peterson as well as improving a porous defence.
Green Bay Packers
NFC North prediction
1. Green Bay
The Packers should have things in hand if Rodgers stays fit, while the Lions are long overdue a season befitting of the talent on their roster. The Bears and Vikings may not be able to cure their defensive woes.
The Packers once again suffered playoff heartbreak against San Francisco 49ers last season, dramatically qualifying for the post-season with victory at Chicago before being edged out by the 49ers at a frozen Lambeau Field on Wildcard Weekend. Before the emergence of the NFC West it was the Packers who had the most realistic dynasty potential and they now need to show that they can still hang with the best in the conference.
If all the important parts stay healthy, there is no reason why Green Bay cannot become the NFL’s leading offence this season. Rodgers is still viewed as the best quarterback in the league in some quarters and, in second-year running back Eddie Lacy, they have finally found a reliable runner. They may lack a genuine receiving star, but Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are serviceable starters. The defence was ranked only 25th last season and the Packers will hope the acquisition of Julius Peppers from arch-rivals Chicago will help them improve in that area.
Key man: It is easy to forget the accolades which were being given to Aaron Rodgers three years ago. At the end of 2011 he was a Super Bowl winner and had just led his team to a 15-1 regular season campaign, netting the MVP award as a result. He has stagnated slightly in the subsequent years, partly due to injury, and the 30-year-old will hope to use this season to re-establish himself as the best quarterback in the NFL.
New head coach Marc Trestman revolutionised the Bears’ offence last season, with his system allowing quarterback Josh McCown - filling in for the injured Jay Cutler - to post the third-highest passer rating over the course of the season. McCown departed during the off-season and all hopes rest again on Cutler, whose new contract means he is firmly tied to the Bears for at least the next three seasons.
Receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are both bona fide stars, while running back Matt Forte is once again likely to be near the top of the all-purpose yardage charts. The major problem last season was the 30th-ranked defence and this needs to be improved to stand any chance of making a mark in the playoffs. The defensive line has been revamped with pass rushers Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston being recruited while two of the Bears' first three draft picks were spent on defensive tackles.
Key man: Matt Forte has had an up-and-down career in the NFL but thrived under Trestman last year, finishing second in the league in rushing. He is also a potent passing weapon out of the backfield and if he can stay consistent this year he will take a lot of pressure off Cutler.
There is no doubting the talent the Lions have on their roster, but since the current era began with the drafting of Matthew Stafford in 2009 they have reached the playoffs just once. Head coach Jim Schwartz paid with his job at the end of the last campaign and now it is up to Jim Caldwell to turn things around. Questions have been raised about his suitability for the role given his failings with the Indianapolis Colts once Peyton Manning was unavailable, so a bad start will likely put him under big pressure.
Stafford has suffered with injury and consistency problems during his NFL career and running back Reggie Bush is also a player whose performance can vary from fantastic to feeble. Calvin Johnson is a more reliable weapon and the best wide receiver in the NFL, with there being no reason to believe he will not once again post monster statistics this year. On the defensive side, lineman Ndamukong Suh will be the main attraction but the secondary does not seem to have been given the boost it needed during the off-season.
Key man: Calvin Johnson is widely regarded as the best receiver in the NFL but his statistical heroics have not yet translated into long-term success for his team. Stafford will continue to go to his main pass-catcher early and often and, if the rest of the team does improve, the brilliance of ‘Megatron’ could be the difference between winning and losing in the playoffs.
The Vikings also go into the season with a new head coach, Leslie Frazier having been shown the door following his second losing season in three years as permanent boss. Experienced defensive mind Mike Zimmer makes the step up and will have a new-look stop unit at his disposal. Jared Allen and Kevin Williams are gone and Everson Griffen and Brian Robison will now have to take on the responsibility for the pass rush. Linval Joseph bolsters the interior of the defensive line, Captain Munnerlyn is the main addition to an awful secondary and pass-rushing linebacker Anthony Barr was the top draft pick at No 9 overall.
Running back Adrian Peterson was able to single-handedly drag the Vikings into the playoffs in 2012 but could not keep up that amazing form last season. He will look to his quarterback to help carry the burden, whether that be Matt Cassel or rookie Teddy Bridgewater, with new offensive co-ordinator Norv Turner being counted on to improve the passing game. Second-year speedster Cordarelle Patterson becomes Minnesota’s top receiver.
Key man: Adrian Peterson’s efforts in 2012, when he almost broke the single-season rushing record in the process of taking the Vikings to the playoffs, earned him the MVP award at the end of that campaign. He is the centrepiece of the Minnesota offence and probably the most naturally gifted running back in the league, but he needs more support from his quarterback.