Side Note: Work has been absolutely brutal lately, but I’ve blocked out 30 minutes today to write. I’ll probably only get through the intro and one team, but if it seems a little rushed, a little sarcastic, and lacking in facts/analysis, you can blame the U.S. Army.
I selfishly picked doing the NFC North as the first NFC Division to do because it was the one I am most-excited to delve into. It’s also my opportunity to unveil my boldest prediction of the year: Chicago Bears, NFC North Champions.
Side note: Somewhere, a frequent reader of this site that actually introduced me to Filler is jumping with joy.
But I also think the storylines from this division are endless. For starters, the NFC North is home to the best quarterback talent in football. You can make an argument for the NFC South, but I’ll take Rodgers over Brees, you can have Ryan over Stafford/Cutler, but I’ll take Stafford/Cutler over Cam Newton and anonymous Vikings QB vs. anonymous Bucs QB is a wash. The NFC East wouldbe in the conversation had RGIII not been benched last year, had Eli not led the world in interceptions, had Tony Romo won a significant/important game in his lifetime ever ever ever, and had Nick Foles built a stronger than one-half season resume.
Now I’m talking about talent here. I’m not sold on whether or not they’re the best group of QB’s in any division (thus the storylines to follow this year). Remember that Mel Kiper picked Matt Stafford to go #1 overall while he was still being recruited out of high school. Remember Jay Cutler probably has more arm strength and probably about as much natural talent as Aaron Rodgers. And remember that Aaron Rodgers throws the prettiest football I’ve ever seen – and that is not an exaggeration, I freaking hear Mozart when the ball leaves his fingers.
4th Place: Minnesota Vikings (6-10) (Divisional Record: 1-5)
Drafting Teddy Bridgewater way higher than they should have and then trying to convince us all that it was such a steal is such a Minnesota thing to do. It’s just so Minnesota. If you draft a guy way ahead of where he should have been drafted, it doesn’t make it a good pick if he pans out. It makes you lucky that your dumb pick didn’t bite you in the ass. Just like the Bills’ logic last year. “But we really liked EJ Manuel!” Oh! Ok. Well then you would have really REALLY liked EJ Manuel in the second round. You know, when good organizations would have drafted EJ Manuel.
You know what? I’m not even going to break down the Vikings. I need to rant about this. Look, I’m not trivializing how difficult it is to run a franchise, but there’s some really obvious patterns that I feel like no one looks at here. Let’s look at perennial losers:
Look at the quarterbacks these guys draft and where they draft them. Is that a winning system? You have to build a Super Bowl winner. That takes time. That takes 4-12 seasons, then 8-8 seasons, then maybe a 10-6 season before you have that real Super Bowl season.
There’s a number of ways to do it. Maybe you mortgage your franchise’s future on a can’t-miss guy, a bonafide top 1 or 2 pick and build around them (Giants/Redskins traded half their franchises for Eli Manning and RGIII respectively. The Colts let Peyton Manning go for Andrew Luck). Maybe you start from the ground-up with the blue-collar guys. Draft deep and build a strong, defense-first football team and then grab an underrated QB who’s not going to knock your socks off, but he sure won’t turn the ball over 20+ times (mid-2000 Steelers, last year’s Seahawks, Pats’ first 2000-era Super Bowl, Harbaugh’s Niners).
What all these teams have in common is that they have – and mostly stick to – some kind of plan. They don’t jump ship on coaches when people call for their firing every year (Coughlin), and their coaches, GM’s, Presidents, and owners are all clearly on the same page. What’s the goal? Super Bowl. How do we get it? Develop and stick to a strategy.
Some teams are OK with just winning games, making the playoffs occasionally, selling tickets, and creating exciting football. These are your Dallas Cowboys (who, by the way, seem to suck at doing even this recently), your New York Jets, your Philadelphia Eagles. Teams that love the media circus – whether they admit it or not. Because as long as they’re selling tickets, who cares?
Then there are the teams that just can’t help themselves. Because they’re so tired of going 6-10, they unintentionally keep doing things to go 6-10. Like, drafting EJ Manuel at 15. Like, drafting Ryan Tannehill instead of a right tackle. Like, trading up to draft a borderline first-second rounder after whiffing on Christian Ponder (12th overall!?!?!?) in the same exact way. Like, bringing in Michael Vick in any context ever ever ever. Like, starting Terrelle Pryor and paying Jamarcus Russell billions of dollars.
That’s why you can hate on the Browns, the Bengals, the Cardinals, the Rams all you want, but at least they’re following the defense-first strategy. Let’s see if they stick to it. Now comes the patience. Look at the Seahawks just a few years back. Don’t they remind you a bit of last year’s Cardinals?
In conclusion, the Vikings are blessed to have Adrian Peterson and a couple dudes on defense. But in the end, they keep drafting Bridgewaters instead of Shermans or Joey Porters or Tedy Bruschis – the franchise builders. That’s why they’re going 6-10 in this loaded division.
3rd Place: Detroit Lions (8-8) Divisional Record (2-4)
You knew things weren’t going to be great for the Lions when they lost the Ken Whisenhunt sweepstakes to the Tennessee Titans. You know there isn’t a great plethora of available coaching candidates when a “Ken Whisenhunt sweepstakes” is a thing.
So, Detroit. Who did you settle on? Jim Caldwell. I guess my reaction was the same as everyone elses – “Eh.” That’s all I got. Jim Caldwell? Eh. I mean, you fired the coach that brought you your first 10-win season in like, ever for… Jim Caldwell.
Nevermind the fact that you could have given the job to Perry Fewell. The guy whose defense consisted of Antrel Rolle, Jon Beason (for a few games), injured/underachieving Justin Tuck/JPP, and pretty much no one else and finished with the 8th-best defense in football.
Anyways, let’s talk positives. For one, Vegas has 15:1 odds on Matt Stafford throwing for 40+ TD’s and I’m seriously thinking about laying down a $50 bet. 15:1? Seriously? That’s a $750 payout on something that Stafford has already done. He’s got Megatron, who might actually just now be entering his prime. And now to take some pressure off, the Lions have a legit threat in Golden Tate on the opposite side. I think we could see Reggie Bush’s load lightened a bit this year for the younger, but less-dynamic Joique Bell. Great offensive potential here.
Some negatives: I’ve heard a lot of people are really high on Eric Ebron but reports out of Detroit are that he’s had some real issues with his hands and he’s dropping a lot of balls. The whole defense outside of Suh/Fairley on that line and picking up James Ihedigbo is a negative I think. The Lions are a good defense against the run in a division/football league that likes to air it out.
2nd Place: Green Bay Packers (11-5) Divisional Record (4-2)
Boy do I like this Green Bay Packer team. I mean, I really like them. And somehow, that defense still left me to give them only 11 wins (losses to Bears, Pats, Saints, Seahawks, maybe Panthers/Eagles).
I’ve already mentioned my man crush on Aaron Rodgers’ throwing motion. I think Eddie Lacy will finish as a top-3 fantasy back. And while I think Rodgers’ makes Jordy Nelson and his receivers look better than they are, they still have an above-average receiving corps.
But I have a hard time falling in love with the defense that finished 24th and 25th in pass and rush defense respectively. Additions? Well BJ Raji is healthy, but is he still the guy we remember? And Julius Peppers will be wearing a Packers’ uniform!? What!? Unfortunately, this is 2014, not 2007. Mike Neal and Nick Perry have durability issues and while Clay Matthews is reportedly 100% (thumb), I need to see him play a few games in a row before I hop back on that “Clay Matthews Defensive MVP” train. I’m more excited about AJ Hawk than I am about Clay Matthews right now. And sorry I’m not all-in on Ha Ha Clinton Dix anchoring a new Packers’ secondary. I’ve been burned by Alabama DB’s before (lookin at you, Dee Milliner).
1st Place: Chicago Bears (11-5) Divisional Record (5-1)
On paper, I think I picked the Bears for 12 wins, but they are still the Jay Cutler Bears so I factored in a 4-INT game against Dallas and “voila,” I came up with 11 wins. The Bears match up very well against teams in that division though and I think they’ll win every divisional game but @ Green Bay or @ Detroit (take your pick).
Last week me and some buddies were talking about the best receiving corps in the NFL. I said the Falcons (Harry Douglas, Julio Jones, and Roddy White) and Broncos (Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Emmanuel Sanders) were tied. But, I said the Bears had the best 1-2 punch at receiver, by far (Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey). Then the Bears signed Santonio Holmes. Now I think the Bears have the best receiving corps, especially when speedy Marques Wilson comes back midseason. Back to Alshon and Marshall. My goodness. The height, and speed, and leaping and catching ability of those guys…
As for Cutler, I think people just misunderstand the guy. He comes off douchey but he’s actually a pretty down to earth dudes. He just has one of those faces I think. And he gets hurt a lot (like that’s somehow his fault). But a number of my Bears’ fan friends are actually pretty fond of Cutler. In fact, my buddy last weekend said he was “the best thing that’s happened to the Bears in recent memory.” The guy had a 63% completion percentage and a 66.4 QBR (well above average performance). That’s all you need with Forte and that receiving corps. If Cutler can keep that decision-making and those interceptions in check, that offense will be very explosive.
The Bears have a grizzled, tough, veteran leader at each level of their defense. Jared Allen on the line, Lance Briggs in the linebacking corps, and Charles Tillman in the secondary. The Bears’ rush defense was atrocious last year, but it’s hard to judge them when the biggest Bears’ fan I know (shout out to Loges!) didn’t even recognize half the names on the defense. They had an unprecedented amount of injuries. They can’t possibly have that bad of luck this year.