Wednesday, August 27, 2014

NFC North Preview

The 2014 NFL regular season is approaching quickly and the question us Minnesota fans are asking is, "Where do the Vikings stand?"

It's a fair question as the Vikings have some question marks on the field, though the rest of the division is similar. The NFC North seems to be fairly wide open, with the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, and Green Bay Packers all finishing with nearly identical records in 2013, though the Packers were the only team of the three to make the playoffs. Minnesota was in the cellar of the NFC North with a 5-10-1 record and a scary 0-7-1 on the road. It wasn't a great season for any of the NFC North teams, so what can we expect this season?

Though appearing to be a wide open division, the Packers look to be the favorite. As three-time defending division champions, Green Bay will look to defend their crown after an 8-7-1 season, and have plenty of weapons to accomplish it. Despite being a pass first team, the absence of Aaron Rodgers last season saw the emergence of a rookie superstar in the backfield. Running back Eddie Lacy topped 1,400 yards last season on his way to becoming Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Aaron Rodgers returns healthy, which believe it or not could actually make Green Bay a Super Bowl threat. Rodgers has Lacy behind him to go along with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb at receiver for a potent offense. The Packers defense is going to be shaken up a bit which could also mean trouble for opposing teams.

The move of Julius Peppers from defensive end to linebacker is interesting and could be a huge help for the Pack. 2014 first round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix should be an impact player in his rookie season at safety, also aiding a stingy defense.

The biggest challenge for the Pack may be Chicago. An 8-8 record is nothing to brag about, but the Bears finished second in the league in points scored, and that was with starting quarterback Jay Cutler injured. The problem for the Bears was they had the worst run defense in the NFL last season, though the additions of Jared Allen from the Vikings and Kyle Fuller from this year's draft could certainly help.

Expect the Bears to have one of the best offenses in the league again this season, as Jay Cutler is healthy and all of his weapons are back too. With one of the best running backs in the league behind him in Matt Forte, the running game is taken care of. But down field Cutler has a dynamic duo in Pro Bowl receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. If their players stay healthy, I think at worst the Bears are a wild card team, but certainly have a chance at dethroning Green Bay as divisional champions.

A possible dark horse flying under the radar is Detroit. They have the tools to be an elite offensive power in the division, though quarterback Matt Stafford can't find his niche. Stafford's play can look brilliant at times, but he also can look like a lost rookie. Finding consistency will be the key to Stafford's success. Behind Stafford is running back Reggie Bush, who seemed to find his place in Detroit last season.  And you can't forget about the receivers. Calvin Johnson has prove himself as one of the best receivers in the game, and now has Golden Tate to take some of the load off his back.

The Lions finished pretty much middle of the pack in the NFL in both offensive and defensive statistics in 2013, so they could just as easily fall down the ladder as they could climb it. If their offense can find some consistency, they could be in the hunt for the NFC North.

Minnesota is the team most people are probably counting out, but they could find themselves in the mix. Last season's quarterback situation was a disaster that has finally been figured out. Veteran Matt Cassel will take the snaps to begin the season, which seems like the best option. Although rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has looked great in preseason, Cassel has the experience and though not an elite quarterback, has enough talent to get the job done.

The best running back in football today, and one of the greats of all time, belongs to the Vikings. Adrian Peterson can be expected to have another incredible season, but at a certain point Minnesota needs to stop relying on him for all their offense. With Cassel behind center and an emerging star at receiver in Cordarrelle Patterson to go along with veteran Greg Jennings, the Vikings should see improvements.

Their defense is the question mark, where they were the worst in the NFL last season. Jared Allen is gone to Chicago, but 2014 first round pick Anthony Barr as looked capable in preseason. Harrison Smith being healthy is also huge for the Vikings' defense.

The NFC North will likely see Detroit and Minnesota try and battle their way into the discussion for the top two spots in the division, but Chicago and Green Bay appear on paper to be too strong and it may be a two-horse race for the crown. With only a week until the start of the regular season, get ready for a wild ride in the NFL this season.

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