by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Following is our preview of the NFL North, with teams again listed in ourder of predicted finish.  Last year's straight-up, spread, and "Over/Under" records are included.

GREEN BAY (SUR12-7; PSR 10-8-1; O/U 13-6)...Until Minnesota’s offense catches up with its defense, and as long as future Hall-of-Famer Aaron Rodgers (297 career reg.-seas. TDs vs. just 72 ints.) is around to direct the Green and Gold attack, Green Bay rates the early call once again in the NFC North. The Pack has won the “Black and Blue Division” five times in the last six years, losing the other (in 2015) on the last day of a season G.B. played without the injured Jordy Nelson.

Along with HC Mike McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson, the heady, efficient, strong-armed, and mobile Rodgers has been able to adjust to virtually any situation in the last few years, whether it be a rebuilding OL, a marginal running game, injuries to his top receivers, or a leaky defense. Yes, there has been no Super Bowl victory for the Pack since the 2010 season, but not really because of Rodgers. And there have been excruciating losses in the playoffs since. But that’s not our concern in this forecast.

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Building very heavily through the draft and college free agency, Thompson has shown a touch to continually replenish G.B.’s nucleus, while the still-underrated McCarthy (only one losing season in his 11 years) makes the weekly adjustments in the coaches’ room, while Rodgers creates the magic on the field. Last year, as the G.B. ground game evaporated (ending up 20th), McCarthy eventually turned to backup WR Ty Montgomery, who then led the team with 457 YR (5.9 ypc).

This season, Montgomery will start the campaign at RB, with GM Thompson providing rookie depth and potential in the persons of 4th-round power back Jamaal Williams of BYU, 5th-round speedster Aaron Jones of UTEP, and 7th-round grinder Devante Mays of Utah State.

Jordy Nelson’s healthy return at WR in 2016 re-established the division’s best connection, with Nelson rebounding from his ACL season with 97 recs. and an NFL-best 14 TDs. Davante Adams on the other side still had the occasional drop, but used his big catch radius to produce 75 recs. and 12 TDs. The inconsistent spot in the Pack’s passing attack was in the slot, where Randall Cobb had 60 catches (but for only 10.2 ypr) and TE Jared Cook disappointed with only 30 and too many drops, with only one TDC. Thus, the move for proven TE Martellus Bennett in free agency, which also produced former New Orleans G Jahri Evans to help punch a few more holes in the middle for an OL that already has promising young depth at the tackle spots.

A cluster of injuries at DB was one of the main culprits in scuttling the Packers’ playoff run, as Green Bay finished 31st in pass defense with its backup DBs overwhelmed by the Falcons’ offensive machine 44-21 in Atlanta in the NFC title game (G.B. was down 31-0 early in the third). Sticky cover corner Sam Shields saw his career ended by concussions. And valuable, versatile DB Micah Hyde has taken the money to move to Buffalo. So GM Thompson used the Pack’s first two picks on tall, 6-3 CB Kevin King from Washington and physical, 220-pound S Josh Jones from N.C. State. With corners Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins back from injury to join veteran safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and free agency bringing in young veteran corner Davon House (G.B. 2011-14), the DB corps appears replenished.

Where more help could be useful in the postseason is stuffing the run (4.0 ypc allowed LY) and adding more bit pass pressure following the departure of ageless DE/OLB Julius Peppers. OLB Nick Perry finally “arrived” LY with 11 sacks, but Clay Matthews had only 5 in 9 starts while again battling injuries. Things could change for the better if draft picks such as DLmen Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry, and LBs such as Blake Martinez, Jake Ryan and Kyle Fackrell can now use their experience to be more impactful. Speedy pass-rushing LB Vince Biegel from Wisconsin hasn’t been able to shake the foot injuries that limited him in college.

Summary...With Rodgers orchestrating G.B.’s multiple sets on offense, and veteran d.c. Dom Capers pulling the strings on a good (but not great) defense, the Pack still rates the edge in the Black and Blue, where every division game is a war. But it won’t be easy, as the 2017 schedule includes road games at Atlanta, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Carolina. Improvement in the running game and pass defense will determine how far Green Bay goes in the playoffs.

MINNESOTA (SUR 8-8; PSR 9-7; O/U 7-9)...For the first five weeks LY, the Vikings appeared on their way to the playoffs, with five straight wins and covers (including a key victory over G.B.) to open the season, with Minnesota’s rugged defense allowing only 12.6 ppg. The trade in the preseason for QB Sam Bradford to replace the injured Teddy Bridgewater seemed brilliant. With their sparkling new U.S. Bank Stadium just opened, the Vikings seemed on their way.

But 2016's injuries to Adrian Peterson, to the Vikes’ OL, and to key pieces on defense then quickly tossed out an anchor to halt that line of thinking. After those five opening wins, four straight losses followed. By the end of the year, Minny couldn’t run (last in the league with only 75 ypg and 3.2 ypc) and wasn’t too good at passing, with only 20 TDP. Only 9 teams had fewer. It took a last-game victory over the banged-up Bears to salvage even an 8-8 season in Minneapolis. Along the way, respected Norv Turner had resigned as offensive coordinator, and HC Mike Zimmer had experienced problems with his retina that continued well into the offseason, resulting in multiple surgeries.

However, going into 2017, the Vikings appear to have adjusted enough to make another solid run at their arch enemy to their immediate east. Drawing the most headlines has been the decision of Minny to cut ties with franchise RB Peterson rather than pick up his option of $18 million for 2017. Meanwhile, o.c. Pat Shurmur—who took over for Turner at midseason LY—has tailored the Minnesota offense to exploit the accurate short-passing game of Bradford, who hit an-NFL record 71.6% and only 5 ints. LY despite the torn meniscus suffered by Peterson in the second game and the team’s ensuing OL injuries.

Meanwhile, GM Spielman has moved to re-stock the team’s gimpy OL and RB platoons. Incoming are former Lion Riley Reiff at LT, former Panther Mike Remmers at RT, and No. 3 pick Pat Elflein (Ohio State) at C. Last year, team had added 6-9, 310 LG Alex Boone from S.F.

At RB, Spielman signed big back Latavius Murray (788 YR and 12 TDR) from Oakland and then drafted speed back Dalvin Cook from Florida State. 2016 top rusher Jerick McKinnon (539 YR, 3.4 ypc) will have to fight for carries. Injuries are part of football. But the Vikes surely seem better stocked up front and in the backfield than they were at the end of last season.

Wide receiver, a Minny concern going into LY, is also now better-set, thanks largely to Stefon Diggs (84 recs. LY) and one-time college free agent Adam Thielen, who blossomed with 69 recs. and 5 TDs. Those two showed good chemistry with Bradford, but they need more NFL-caliber help. The Vikes have hopes that help might come from 2016 first rounder Laquon Treadwell (only 1 rec. in 9 games LY) and 2017 fifth rounder Rodney Adams (South Florida). TE Kyle Rudolph (83 recs.) is excellent.

It’s the defense that again should be the pride and joy of the Vikings this season. If healthy, either 10 or all 11 regulars from Minny’s No. 1 unit will line up vs. vs. New Orleans on Monday, Sept. 11. The most important of that group are rotating DEs Danielle Hicks, Brian Robison & Everson Griffen (combined 28 sacks for the three LY), run-stuffing DT Linval Joseph (77 Ts), LBs Eric Kendricks and Anthony Bar (179 combined Ts), and do-everything S Harrison Smith. Improving CB Xavier Rhodes (5 ints.) and third-year CB Trae Waynes are backed up by savvy vet Terence Newman. DT Sharrif Floyd (knee) has had problems staying healthy, so former Packer Datone Jones has been imported to provide more DL depth TY.

Summary...If they can stay healthy, the Vikes will run much more successfully this year, and defend with Zimmer-like stubbornness. But, on paper, they need a breakthrough in the passing game if they are to edge the Pack in the North and then seriously threaten in the playoffs.

DETROIT (SUR 9-8; PSR 7-9-1; O/U 6-11)...The Lions were one of the most unbalanced teams in the league last season, but they still damn near won the NFC North. Detroit stood 9-4 after 13 games. But QB Matthew Stafford then suffered a dislocated finger tip on the middle finger of his right hand in the team’s 20-17 victory over Chicago on Dec. 11, as the Honolulu Blue had escaped with yet another narrow triumph. But that victory was the last for the Lionhearts for the rest of the season. They dropped their final three of the regular season, including the finale, a home game vs. the hated Packers on Jan. 1 when a victory would have given Detroit its first divisional crown since 1988. Stafford (4327 YP, 24 TDs, 10 ints.) made no excuses. But the injured finger tip bothered him at times in those games, and then in the ensuing 26-6 Wild Card loss in Seattle.

When the dust had cleared, the limber-armed Stafford had placed Detroit 11th in passing, but the injured Lion ground game was only 30th, barely a 50 rush yards ahead of the bumbling Rams and barely a 100 ahead of the non-fearsome Vikings. The second-game loss of Detroit speed back Ameer Abdullah (597 YR as a rookie in 2015) was a major factor. Then, to make things worse, Detroit said good-bye to RT Riley Reiff and RG Larry Warford in free agency after the season.

One positive about 2016's struggles was the development of RB Zach Zenner, a one-time college free agent who established himself as an interior force with 334 yards and 4 TDs LY. But a healthy Abdullah (who appears okay after LY’s foot surgery) and the presence of slippery third-down back Theo Riddick (only 10 games LY) are the keys to a more dynamic backfield in Detroit.

Stafford’s improvisational clutch throws helped the Lions to numerous fourth-Q victories last season. And the prolific QB (has started every game the L6Ys) might have to carry more than his share of the load once again if the restructured Detroit OL doesn’t come into form by the start of the season. Rugged second-year LT Taylor Decker might be out until October with a shoulder injury. Ram cast-off Greg Robinson gets a shot to replace him. TJ Lang, a stalwart blocker for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, must prove he’s 100% recovered from January hip surgery. RT Ricky Wagner (via Balt.), LG Graham Glasgow, and C Travis Swanson do offer plenty of support elsewhere.

The receiving corps of Golden Tate (91 LY), Marvin Jones Jr. (55), and TE Eric Ebron (61) is plenty solid, especially with dual-threat Riddick (53) going out of the backfield and with MAC stars Kenny Golladay (6-4 WR from No. Ill.) and Michael Roberts (6-5 TE from Toledo) both shining early as rookies. If the Lions can run a little better and stay a little healthier, points should come easier than LY’s very modest 21.6 ppg (20th in the league).

Considering LY’s offensive struggles, the Lion defense (13th in PA at 22.4 pg) held its own. Safety Glover Quin and CB Darius Slay provide excellent leadership in the secondary. And Detroit management deserves credit for several recent additions—run-stuffing FA DT Haloti Ngata from the Ravens two years ago; tackling (but not covering) machine LB Tahir Whitehead (132 Ts LY); and safety Tavon Wilson (89 Ts), picked up from the Pats’ STs. However, hustling DE Kerry Hyder, who led the team in sacks as a rookie with 8, has been lost to a torn Achilles.

This year, the team has high hopes for speedy first-round LB Jarrad Davis, Detroit’s top pick from Florida. Steady Paul Worrilow provides valuable depth and experience after losing out in the youth movement in Atlanta.

However, impact plays were too few in the Motor City LY, as the Lions collected only 26 sacks (only Oakland had fewer) and just 10 ints. (only six teams had fewer). Considering Detroit’s problems with Aaron Rodgers in recent years, those totals are way to low.

Summary...If Detroit can stay reasonably healthy, the men in Honolulu Blue should be neck and neck...with the Vikings for second in the North. Only when WR Jordy Nelson was sidelined in 2015 did the Pack not win the Black and Blue in the last six seasons.

CHICAGO (SUR 3-13; PSR 6-10; O/U 7-8-1...This will be the third straight rebuilding year for the Bears under John Fox. If they win the division, hundreds of thousands of fans in Green Bay, Minneapolis, and Detroit will be stunned. Not to mention a few million fans in Chicago. Fox, who has taken both Carolina and Denver teams to the Super Bowl, has finished 6-10 and 3-13 in his two years in the Windy City. If his Bears don’t finish in a distinctly positive direction at the end of 2017, he likely won’t have a fourth year.

Yes, there have been some positives. Young RBs Jordan Howard (1313 YR in 2016), Jeremy Langford (537 in 2015), and Ka’Deem Carey have established themselves in the NFL. Cameron Meredith came from nowhere to catch 66 balls LY. Kyle Long is one of the better guards in the league, when healthy. Same for Hroniss Grasu at center. And G/C Cody Whitehair (2nd round 2016) is from the same mold. But keeping the best of their “big uglies” up front on the field has been problematic for the Bears. The same goes for their WRs, and, last year, for now-departed QB Jay Cutler (only five games).

So it was back to the drawing board in the offseason, with Chicago mystifying a little bit by first signing Tampa Bay free-agent QB Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million deal, and then dealing to move up just one spot to take North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky in the draft. Big and mobile, Trubisky had just 13 starts in college, but it seemed that he impressed pro scouts more and more each day in the offseason. And he might even relegate Glennon to the bench sooner than the elongated N.C. State grad envisioned when Glenon signed for the big bucks.

One of the reasons Fox was chosen for the Chicago job in the first place was his strong emphasis on fundamentals such as running and defense. He had Adam Gase as his off. coord. in 2015 before the passing wizard took his talents to Miami. So expected the Chicago aerial attack to be “under construction” once again TY as Fox tries to blend in some aging veteran receivers to go with some youngsters of varying talents (6-6 rookie TE Shaheen showed some shine in the preseason).

And, with just a little better offense than LY’s injury mess, expect the Chicago defense to improve. In 2017, the Bears had only 8 ints. and were last in turnover margin at -20. Obviously, those totals must improve. Chicago does have some nasty defenders—NT Eddie Goldman; 6-5, 336 DE Akiem Hicks; 273-pound OLB Pernell McPhee; former Bronco ILB Danny Trevathan; speedy LBs Jerrell Freeman & Leonard Floyd; CB Kyle Fuller; and 2017 free-agent DBs Prince Amukamara (via Jax) and Quintin Demps (via Hou.). Q: How come so many key guys in Chicago keep getting hurt?

Summary...Don’t look for any 3-13 record this season from Chicago unless injuries strike hard once again. These young, improving Bears might finish last in the North. But they’ll leave a lot of their foes black and blue each week. And, if they can get a little genuine NFL quarterbacking, maybe even threaten to hit the .500 mark and play the spoiler’s role.


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