NFC North 2014 Preview
Although only one NFC North team barely made it passed the .500 mark in the 2013 season, it was one of the most exciting years for the division. From Adrian Peterson's first carry of the season (a 78-yard touchdown) to the Rodgers-to-Cobb connection that gave Green Bay a spot in the playoffs, there were few dull moments in the North, and the same is anticipated for 2014. Even though the Packers are the favorite to retain their division championship, their competition will once again be fierce; the Bears continue to improve on offense with the Marshall-Jeffery receiving duo, the Lions have new leadership with Head Coach Jim Caldwell, and the Vikings' defensive playbook will be much thicker with Mike Zimmer at the helm. Alright, let's get right into it and take a peek into this upcoming 2014 season.
1. Green Bay Packers (2013 Record: 8-7-1)
Since they won the Super Bowl in February 2011, the Packers offense has possessed one of the best quarterbacks in the game, Aaron Rodgers. Sure, he's also had some great receivers in these past few seasons, but the thing he needed the most was a running back. Now, I think it's safe to say that Eddie Lacy has granted Rodgers's wish, and together, they're probably the best quarterback-running back combo in the entire league.
There's not much to complain about the offense, but the defense has been a major question mark for years now. They've added former Bear Julius Peppers and drafted Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and they also expect young veterans like Mike Daniels and Datone Jones to play a larger role. The Packers have now been knocked out of the playoffs two years in a row by the San Francisco 49ers, and if they want to want to beat a powerhouse like San Fran in January, the defense needs to get better, no questions asked.
Projected 2014 Record: 11-5
2. Chicago Bears (2013 Record: 7-9)
Chicago may have finished 2013 with a losing record, but let's look at the facts: first of all, this was Marc Trestman's first season as Head Coach, and he brought with him a much different and unfamiliar offense than what the Bears previously had; starting Quarterback Jay Cutler missed five games, and although Josh McCown played really well in his place, it can slow an offense down when the QB position is unstable; and finally, their defense was missing several pieces throughout the season, including Charles Tillman (missed eight games with a triceps injury), Henry Melton (missed 13 games with torn ACL), and the recently retired Brian Urlacher. Even with all of those problems dragging them down, they were painstakingly close to the division title.
As I said before, the combination of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery is incredibly unique, given their size. It's also possible they that the recently-signed Santonio Holmes could play the role of the slot receiver, giving Chicago a whole lot of flexibility. The big question mark for me is Cutler; there's no doubt that he has the qualities of a starting quarterback, but can we put him in the "elite" category? Whether he is or isn't elite, he has a strong enough supporting cast to make for interesting competition in the rest of the division.
Projected 2014 Record: 9-7
3. Detroit Lions (2013 Record: 7-9)
After Detroit took down the Packers in Thanksgiving, it seemed like the division title would be the Lions' for the taking. However, they couldn't win any of their last four games and were eliminated from playoff contention. Now, with the hiring of quarterback guru Jim Caldwell as their new head coach, they obviously want to elevate their offense to one similar to Green Bay's and Chicago's. They already have many pieces surrounding Quarterback Matthew Stafford, like Calvin Johnson, Running Backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, and Rookie Tight End Eric Ebron.
They've clearly done all they could have to improve their offense for 2014, but it's the defense that I'm worried about. Their defensive line (which includes Defensive Tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley) has been nothing less than impressive, but they need to improve as a whole. Linebacker DeAndre Levy has made a name for himself, and if they get more draft picks that can work their way up in the ranks (Kyle Van Noy, maybe?), we could certainly still be talking about the Detroit Lions in late December.
Projected 2014 Record: 8-8
4. Minnesota Vikings (2013 Record: 5-10-1)
When I arrived at Vikings training camp earlier in the month, I could definitely sense that the fans had very high expectations for 2014. That's always a good attitude to have, but the reason I'm putting in fourth is that they currently don't have a starting quarterback. Yes, if you rank Matt Cassel against some of the best backup quarterbacks in the league, he would be pretty high on the list, but I wouldn't want him to start 16 games for me in one season. On that same note, there's always a risk with starting a rookie at quarterback, which would be Teddy Bridgewater. I truly believe that he will be their franchise quarterback for years to come, but fans' expectations for rookie quarterbacks were extremely elevated when guys like Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson stepped in without skipping a beat. If I had to make the call on who started at QB, I'd go with Cassel week one, but depending on how well he performs, I would begin to consider Bridgewater sometime after week five.
Not even considering the quarterback situation, Minnesota will have to be granted some time to adjust in Mike Zimmer's defense. Veterans like Chad Greenway and Harrison Smith should fit in well, but patience is definitely needed. Overall, the Vikings may turn some heads in 2014, but it's best that we just wait and see.
Projected 2014 Record: 5-11
NFC North Award Predictions
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Offensive Player of the Year: Calvin Johnson, Lions
Defensive Player of the Year: Chad Greenway, Vikings
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Eric Ebron, Lions
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Kyle Fuller, Bears
Comeback Player of the Year: Bryan Bulaga, Packers
Fantasy Sleeper: Cordarrelle Patterson, Vikings
Coach of the Year: Mike McCarthy, Packers
The fact that the NFC North is in the conversation for one of the best divisions in the league has to be a complement to all four teams. Since the 2009 season, each team in the North has had a serious shot at the Super Bowl, and at least two of them are in the conversation right now. Even though I put Green Bay two games ahead of the competition, I think there's a strong chance that the division title could once again come down to week 17. Either way, I think the NFC North will be filled with intense and exciting games that will create an incredible viewing experience for the fans.