by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2014, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games that continue Thursday, August 14. Next up for our previews will be the NFC North, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2013 straight-up, pointspread, and "over/under" records included...

GREEN BAY (2013 SUR 8-8-1; PSR 6-10-1; O/U 9-8. Lost 23-20 vs. San Francisco in Wildcard Round)...As long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy, the Packers--despite a few holes on defense--remain the favorite to win their fourth straight NFC North championship. Rodgers pretty much re-established that fact in last year’s regular-season finale, when he returned from a broken collarbone just in time to lead the Packers to a decisive 33-28 victory in chilly Chicago, hurling the winning TD pass to Randall Cobb (himself returned from the injury list) in the final minute.

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The Bears (and Lions) both had late-season leads in the division vs. the Packers, but couldn’t hold on. Green Bay was 2-4-1 in the games Rodgers missed; 2-5-1 when you include G.B.’s home loss to the Bears when the deluxe QB fractured his wing on the first series of a 27-20 November 4 loss to the arch-rival Bears at Lambeau Stadium. Against the spread, G.B. was 1-7 in those eight injury games for Rodgers. The marginal Seneca Wallace was the loser as the first replacement, suffering a groin injury in his first and only start. Then, Scott Tolzien was 0-1-1 as a starter, thanks to help off the bench in the tie from the re-acquired Matt Flynn. Flynn then went 2-2 as a starter, with both of the wins by a single point--22-21 over fading Atlanta, and 37-36 in a comeback from a 23-point halftime deficit at defenseless Dallas.

While Flynn has been re-signed to give the Pack an established reliable backup for this season, both the Bears and Lions both have enough QBing to win the North should Rodgers fall again. So far in 2014, everything has been just fine for Rodgers, who continues to “shoulder” the leadership role for his team in impressive fashion.

One of the things Rodgers missed when he was sidelined was the “coming of age” of power RB Eddie Lacy, who pounded for 1178 YR and provides an ominous alternative for the Packers’ offensive brain trust to use in this year’s attack, which has been designed to be executed at an ever faster tempo than when Rodgers was fully healthy last year. Moreover, one-time starters James Starks and DuJuan Harris (excels as a receiver) now provide quality RB depth.

While G.B. has lost veteran WR Greg Jennings to the “evil” Vikings, second-round pick Davante Adams (233 receptions in two years at Fresno State) has impressed early as a potential volume receiver in the pros, with a 40-inch vertical helping to compensate for a lack of blazing speed. The reliable Jordy Nelson and quick Randall Cobb also got some help last season from developing Jarrett Boykin (49 catches LY). The major receiving concern is at TE, where the career of Jermichael Finley appears to be over due to injury, likely leaving the job to the slowly-developing Andrew Quarless and third-round pick Richard Rodgers, who is back at TE after losing weight last season to be an inside receiver in Cal’s four-WR spread.

Multiple injuries and a lack of sufficient speed resulted in G.B.’s defense ranking 25th in yards allowed last season, and 24th in points against. Speed rusher Clay Matthews was never himself after suffering a thumb fracture in Game Four. CB Casey Hayward, who had 6 ints. as a rookie in 2012, missed 13 games with a strained hamstring. DT B.J. Raji, who once flashed so much promise, contributed no sacks. 2013 top draft pick DE Datone Jones of UCLA had 3½ sacks, but was too often a non-factor. And, for the second straight year, the speed of S.F.’s Colin Kaepernick proved too much for the Pack in the playoffs.

Looking for help, recently re-signed GM Ted Thompson made a relatively rare foray into the free-agent market to sign long-limbed Chicago DE Julius Peppers, who will be a movable, hybrid OLB/DE in Dom Capers’ system, helping to relieve some of the extra attention that Matthews has been getting. There will also be more speed at safety after drafting Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and the move of versatile backup CB Micah Hyde to a deep position. One plus in the DL has been the development of 2012 fourth-round pick DE Mike Daniels, who had 6½ sacks last year and has called on his teammates to be more accountable and aggressive.

Summary...With offseason moves, it’s likely that Packer defense will be improved, but still far from intimidating. But with Rodgers, Lacy & Company on offense, that likely will be enough to keep Green Bay on top of the Black and Blue Division. Mike McCarthy remains an underrated coach, with a regular-season record of 55-24-1 the last five seasons.

CHICAGO (2013 SUR 8-8; PSR 4-10-2; O/U 12-4)...For so many years under Lovie Smith--and before--the Bears were variously inconsistent to terrible at QB, while being rugged on defense. Then, finally, in 2013 in the first year under offensive mastermind Marc Trestman, the Monsters of the Midway suddenly turned meek on defense while being able to rack up the points (27.8 ppg; second only to Denver) and yards (8th overall) on offense. Capping and perhaps typifying--but certainly not highlighting--their 2013 campaign, was the Bears’ fourth-quarter home collapse on defense in a 33-28 loss to Green Bay, handing the NFC North championship to their ancient rivals from Wisconsin. And shutting Chicago out of the postseason.

It was mostly defensive injuries that scuttled the Bears’ in 2013, especially the cluster of injuries in the defensive line. But it was also the decision not to re-sign defensive leader and MLB Brian Urlacher, the decline of DE Julius Peppers (now in Green Bay), and the midseason injury loss of ball thief par excellence CB Charles Tillman. Sadly, while Trestman had solved so many of the team’s offensive issues, the once-proud Bear defense was last versus the run (161 ypg; 5.3 ypc!), tied for last in sacks, and 31st on third down (allowing 44.2%). As the late, great Howard Cosell used to say, not a pretty picture.

Looking ahead to 2014, the uptempo, quick-hitting, jumbo-receiver attack seems all set to continue producing. So the key question becomes, “How well have the Bears shored up their defense?” Incoming this season are DE Jared Allen, who had 11½ sacks last year with the Vikings, DE/DT Lamarr Houston, who had 6 sacks with the Raiders, and DE Willie Young, who had 3 sacks with the Lions. Stalwarts such as Tillman and LBs D.J. Williams & Lance Briggs will try to come back from last year’s injuries. Incoming new blood includes the team’s top three draft picks--No. 1 Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech, No. 2 DT Ego Ferguson of LSU, and No. 3 Will Sutton of Arizona State--plus a second No. 4 pick, S Brock Vereen of Minnesota. The youth movement is underway.

Few doubt that the Trestman offense will continue its 2013 productivity. After shoring up the team’s previously-leaky OL last year with the addition of rookie RG Kyle Long, rookie RT Jordan Mills, conscientious FA LT Jermon Bushrod (only 4 sacks LY), and yeoman FA LG Matt Slausen, Trestman utilized his talents as a known “QB whisperer” to settle down the sometimes restive Jay Cutler, he of the marvelous arm, but sometimes surly personality. Not so surprisingly, Cutler’s mood improved considerably once he stopped getting crunched so often. Even when Cutler was sidelined for a few weeks with a groin injury, backup Josh McCown relieved in marvelous fashion, collecting 13 TDP vs. only 1 int. (and gaining a nice contract as this year’s starter in Tampa Bay.).

Also benefiting from Trestman’s offensive concepts were RB Matt Forte with 1339 YR (second only to LeSean McCoy), now-happy WR 6-4 Brandon Marshall (100 recs., 12 TDs), 6-3 Alshon Jeffery (89 & 7), and 6-5 TE Martellus Bennett (65 & 5; apparently out of the doghouse after a scuffle in a scrimmage in camp). The versatile Forte caught 74 balls. The receiving unit seemed to be on the verge of getting another tall target on line until speedy 6-4 Marquess Wilson of Washington State suffered a fractured collarbone in camp.

Summary...Under Trestman, the Bears will score. However, Cutler still can’t match Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers’ leadership and hold on his team, and the Bears defense must prove it has solved last year’s severe problems. Second in the North is more likely than first, but a wildcard berth is certainly within reach with better luck on defense than Chicago had in 2013.

DETROIT (2013 SUR 7-9; PSR 6-9-1; O/U 8-8)...After two straight difficult-to-watch late-season fades, Detroit management had seen enough of Jim Schwartz. Yes, Schwartz had helped the Lions emerge from the dark, dark days of Rod Marinelli and the infamous 0-16 of 2008. And Schwartz did have a significant hand in rebuilding the team around rising, talented young players such as QB Matthew Stafford, WR Calvin Johnson, and DT Ndamukong Suh.

However, after finally reaching the playoffs in 2011 (but being routed 45-28 in New Orleans), Schwartz’ promising young Lions lost their last eight games of 2012 to finish 4-12, and Detroit then dropped 6 of its last 7 last season to finish 7-9 after a 6-3 start in 2013. The team had stopped improving. The Lions of last season had out-rushed, out-passed, out-sacked, and out-scored their foes, yet ended the campaign only 7-9. Moreover, incidents on the field in Schwartz’ regime were disturbing. Schwartz chasing down Jim Harbaugh after a perfunctory handshake. Repeated misbehavior by his defenders, particularly by the immensely talented Suh. Blown leads in completely winnable games. Time for change? Yes.

But is the choice of Jim Caldwell (now 59) the best way to go? Of course, only time will tell. On the plus side, Caldwell was the long-time, steady lieutenant under the poised Tony Dungy, the quiet leader who demanded accountability. Caldwell has won Super Bowls as a both a key assistant to Dungy with the Colts and later as offensive coordinator with the Ravens. That kind of experience, combined with a firm hand, could be just what the doctor ordered for the erratic, impulsive Lions.

But there is also a dubious element to the hiring of Caldwell, who was only 26-63 in eight years at Wake Forest. Then 26-22 (including a Super Bowl loss to the Saints) in three years as head man with the Colts. That’s not a heckuva lot of winning to bring to the table for a team that has a base of big-time talent, but that hasn’t won a playoff game since back in the days of HC Wayne Fontes in 1991.

The men in Honolulu blue seem destined to score a load of points again this season. After all, while throwing from all angles, Matthew Stafford passed for 4650 yards in 2013, while Calvin Johnson caught 84 balls for 1492 yards and 12 TDs, as the RB combo of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell rushed for 1656 yards on the ground, and 6-7 rookie free agent TE Joseph Fauria became a valuable alternate target to Megatron in the red zone with 7 TDC. Bush and Bell also snagged 107 catches. TE Brandon Pettigrew 41. But those latter two stats are revelatory of one of the Lions’ issues in 2013, namely lack of WR help to relieve some of the pressure on the marvelous 6-5 Johnson, who has been taking an increasing beating in recent years as defenses have focused on him in crunch time.

Last year’s plans to help Johnson went awry early when veteran Nate Burleson suffered a broken arm in a vehicle accident when trying to keep a pizza from sliding off the front seat of his pickup. A few weeks later brittle WR sub Ryan Broyles suffered a torn Achilles. For 2014, former Seahawk Golden Tate (64 recs. LY) has been added to help C.J, as lack of competent depth at the WR spot last year plagued Detroit as the narrow losses mounted. Stafford began forcing too many passes, throwing four ints. in a Game 11 loss at Tampa Bay, and three more in a Game 14 home loss to Baltimore that cost the Lions in the lead in the division. One week later the team was booed off the field after a late interception TD helped the Giants win at Ford Field.

Plus, Schwartz’ defense was perhaps just as disappointing. Schwartz’ base 4-3 “Wide Nine” scheme was often exploited by knowledgeable foes, perhaps most infamously by backup QB Matt Flynn (480 yards, 6 TDP) in a regular-season-ending 2011 loss in Green Bay. The Eagles rushed for 299 yards in a snowy late-season Lions’ defeat last year in Philly. Detroit lost three weeks later at Minnesota when Adrian Peterson did not play, but when reserve RB Matt Asiata crashed 14 times for 115 yards. Even with the presence of the powerful Suh, 2011 top pick DT Nick Fairley (6 sacks LY), and 2013 No. 1 pick Ezekiel Ansah (8 sacks), Schwartz’ rushers collected only 33 sacks (28th in the league). And despite the pressure up front, the Lions nabbed only 15 interceptions, 6 of them by heads-up LB DeAndre Levy.

The best hope for help on defense this season is No. 2 pick OLB Kyle Van Noy, who regularly busted up opponents’ plays at BYU. But the Detroit secondary is still below par unless 11-year CB Rashean Mathis can discover the fountain of youth or No. 4 pick CB Nevin Lawson can cover in the NFL as well as he did last year at Utah State.

Summary...With Stafford, Bush and Johnson, the Lions’ offense is plenty potent. But the defense, although intimidating at times, is still vulnerable. Yes, potent Detroit will win spring a few upsets. But unless Caldwell can punch the right buttons on defense, a near-.500 season seems in store for the Lions once again.

MINNESOTA (2013 SUR 5-10-1; PSR 8-7-1; O/U 13-3)...After a 21-32-1 record for Leslie Frazier in 3½ years, including just one winning season, it’s rebuilding time in Minnesota. And, with ten picks in this year’s draft, the Vikings’ youth movement is well underway. Directed by GM Rick Spielman and incoming head coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings hope to build a contender before they move into their new roofed stadium in 2016. Until then, the Vikes will play their games at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium, located in the great outdoors of Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, the Vikings are pinning their near-term hopes on 58-year-old first-time HC Zimmer, an NFL defensive coordinator the last 14 years, most recently with Cincinnati, and on promising Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater, the team’s second of two first-round draft choices. Elsewhere, management has shed age and salary, most notably 32-year-old DE Jared Allen, who led the team with 11½ sacks in 2013.

The Vikes did decide to keep 10-year veteran QB Matt Cassel (6 starts, 60.2%, 11 TDs, 9 ints.) to mentor their young QB and be the “bridge” to Bridgewater. Fourth-year pro Christian Ponder has fallen out of favor after plateauing in his development, with only 7 TDs vs. 9 ints. LY despite the powerful backfield threat of Adrian Peterson (1266 YR in 2013). Norv Turner (last year with Cleveland)—perhaps more highly regarded as a teacher and offensive coordinator than as a head coach--will be in charge of developing the young Bridgewater, much as Turner aided the young Troy Aikman in Dallas and Philip Rivers in San Diego.

Whether Bridgewater (whose numbers of 71%, 31 TDs, only 4 ints. last season at Louisville were outstanding) is the starter in Game One at St. Louis will depend upon how fast he advances and how much of an investment in youth Zimmer wants to make this season. Turner has always excelled at exploiting the talent on hand to generate “chunk” yardage, so look for the 29-year-old Peterson to have another good year. With former backup Toby Gerhart now with Jacksonville, this year’s backup RB might end up being rookie Jerick McKinnon, a quick 5-9 package from option-oriented Georgia Southern who also packs a punch.

One of the Vikes’ continuing problems in recent seasons has been their failure to either develop or keep happy premium receivers, as both Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin ended up going to Seattle. Minnesota is hoping the same fate doesn’t affect 6-2 speedster Cordarrelle Patterson (45 recs., 4 TDs LY), who bolted for two KR TDs last season. While former Packer WR Jennings (68 recs. with G.B. LY) is a valuable addition, the Vikings’ WR corps is still thin in these days of QBs who throw for 4000+ yards while exploiting rules that favor dynamic passing attacks. Minny was 23rd in passing yardage in 2013 and had only 18 TD passes (Peyton Manning tossed 55 in Denver). 6-6 Kyle Rudolph is one of the better TE targets in the NFC.

A youth movement is underway on defense as well, although heady OLB Chad Greenway (134 Ts LY) and rugged MLB Jasper Brinkley (Arizona LY) still have plenty of tread on their tires. Minny ended last season 31st in yards allowed and dead last in points allowed 480 (30 pg), which was 249 more points than Super Bowl champion Seattle, and 48 more than the more-discussed sieve in Dallas. The top upcoming youngsters are pass-rushing OLB Anthony Barr of UCLA, rangy DE Scott Crichton of Oregon State, and S Antoine Exum of Virginia Tech, who could be a sixth-round steal after dropping in the draft following the injury-plagued end to his college career. In the secondary, second-year CB Xavier Rhodes flashed excellent potential at times last year, third-year safety Harrison Smith (6-2, 214) of Notre Dame has shown Pro Bowl potential when healthy, and sixth-year CB Captain Munnerlyn has good cover skills and a hard-nosed demeanor and should prove to be a good signing from Carolina. One negative has been the slow development of last year’s top pick, DT Sharrif Floyd of Florida, who had only 2½ sacks, but it’s way too early to give up on the former Gator.

Summary...Mike Zimmer was known as a knowledgeable and well-liked defensive coordinator at all of his NFL stops. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be a good pro head coach, as history has shown time and time again. Outside of RB Peterson & WR Patterson, premium talent is lacking at the skill positions on this team. And it likely won’t be very long before the Bridgewater era begins in the Twin Cities. The Vikes have made only one playoff appearance in the last four years. Make it one in five.

Note that the combination of a weak defense and hard-trying offense helped Minnesota go “over” in 13 of 16 games last season



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