Wild Speculation Season is reaching fever pitch, and I'm here to contribute my wildly speculative ceilings and floors for every team in the NFC North (because, if I'm right, I can say I was right first. Right?)
Let us survey the landscape of the NFC North.
This is the Daily Norseman and the Vikings are my favorite team in the division, so I'll start with them.
In 2012, it sometimes appeared there was only one deep target in the play design (one time, this only deep route was run by running back). The formations were often very dry, 2TE/1FB/1RB even in the mid-season stretch where Adrian's damage was being limited by teams daring Ponder to throw. That sort of puzzling play-calling reminded me of Cam Cameron with the Ravens. It was like Cam was afraid to put a 3rd or 4th WR in because he thought teams would figure out a pass play is coming. Fans at home were exasperatedly yelling "Just unleash the cannon!". Ultimately, the job of an offense is to out-execute the defense. If you don't have the confidence that your speed guys can win and that your quarterback can hit him 20+ yards down the field, you are allowing defenses to condense and get after it.
Last year, the Vikings had WRs who couldn't get open (Jenkins, Aromashodu), and also a few too-raw to be big-time contributors just yet (Wright, Burton). Of course, Ponder rarely looked comfortable during the middle stretch of the season and made some infuriating decisions. Musgrave's scheme and pace were bland throughout the season.
The blame deflection and excuses resulted in WRs getting thrown under the bus (most memorably while Harvin was out and Musgrave basically told the FOX crew that they didn't have anybody). They were bad wide receivers, but Ponder's infamous failings with the deep ball speak for themselves: 11 for 70 (15.7 percent) on attempts of 21-plus yards through the air. That's netted 436 yards, one touchdown, five interceptions and a 28.0 passer rating.
Even if Ponder elevates his game with his nimble feet in the red zone, recent history says that no running back is going to be good enough to consistently get you in the red zone without a strong intermediate passing game and the threat of the deep ball.
I predicted the Vikings would select Christian Ponder (from my fave college team, the Seminoles), and I'm not saying that to toot my own horn. It should seem like a no-brainer in retrospect. As interim coach, Leslie Frazier witnessed the perfect storm of the over-the-hill, self-indulgent, drama queen Brett Favre and the wildly-athletic, wildly-erratic bad decision-maker Joe Webb.
To save you time from clicking on the other article, I knew the Vikings would take Ponder because he had shown the Vikings the leadership and swagger that Leslie Frazier, a Tony Dungy disciple, looked for while at the Senior Bowl. A 21st-century trend is to let new head coaches make the final call on the QB, whether they know offense or not. Obviously, Ponder had to show he could play, too.
The Packers have the best team in this division (thanks to the greatest brain trust in the NFC North in McCarthy-Clements-Capers) that also happens to have the most skins on the wall. In determining the landscape of this division, however, the two most key units are the Detroit Lions' young, powerful defensive line and the Minnesota Vikings' freakish WR corps (also look for Corey Fuller, Ryan Broyles and perhaps Patrick Edwards to help the Lions WR corps emerge late in this season).
If Joe Webb could make this team, the Vikings WR corps will be a size-speed modeling expo. Wright has a lot of wiggle and juice, Jennings is a very smooth route runner with good size, and check out the measurables for two others.
Cordarrelle Patterson at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine (more accurate than pro days): 10'8" broad jump, 37" vertical leap (best number for a WR at the combine), 4.42 40-yard dash.
Joe Webb at 2010 UAB Pro Day: 11'5.5" broad jump (better than any jump at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine), 21 reps of 225 lbs. (would have been best WR number at combine), 42.5" vertical leap (would have been best WR number at combine), 3.91 20-yard shuttle (would have been best number at combine), 4.45 and 4.43 40 times.
Now that I've highlighted the two big changes to watch in 2013, here are those best-case and worst-case scenarios.
Green Bay Packers
Best-Case Scenario: Aaron Rodgers does his thing, the Packers see significant improvement on defense AND/OR they run the ball more effectively with a lead to keep the defense from overexposure, the O-line allows a dozen or so fewer sacks this year (Rodgers was sacked on 51 occasions), and the Pack is back atop the NFC North at 13-3, running the table to win Super Bowl XLVII.
Worst-Case Scenario: Randall Cobb stumbles in his new spotlight (7 fumbles in 30 games thus far), teams continue to run the ball down their throat and limit possessions for Rodgers.
Best-Case Scenario: All the additions on the offense and defense translate to more TDs, sacks and takeaways. The Lions strike the right balance, get more aggressive offensively, go 4-2 in the division, finish the season 11-5 atop the NFC North.
Worst-Case Scenario: Teams discover holes in the Wide-9, Stafford's mechanics along with targets either injured or slow to recover from injury result in more close losses, team tries too hard to save Schwartz's job and finishes 6-10.
Best-Case Scenario: Jay Cutler sweeps the Lions and Vikings, they manage a split with the Packers, and they minimize the damage against the four AFC North pass rushes. Cutler has a pretty good QB rating of 91.7 against the Vikings, 5 more TD passes vs. them than against either of the other NFC North opponents (despite playing 1 more game vs. Detroit). The Bears notch 10 wins and a Wild Card run to the NFC Championship Game if they can avoid the Seahawks and 49ers in the first two rounds. No way will 9-7 get a Wild Card this season when we know the West have two double-digit-win teams and at least one of these should get to 10 wins: Saints, Eagles, Buccaneers and Giants (assuming Falcons and Cowboys win their divisions).
Worst-Case Scenario: This is the likely scenario. Green Bay has the most explosive offense in the division with the most seasoned and powerful scheme. Detroit and Minnesota added a lot. The Bears made some questionable moves on the offensive line (Matt Slauson, Jermon Bushrod). 5-11 in Marc Trestman's first season.
Best-Case Scenario: Ponder develops his deep accuracy and velocity as they ask him to stretch a defense more often, Everson Griffen (8 sacks and 25 hurries in 2012) continues to feed off of Jared Allen, Desmond Bishop is again a force at linebacker, the Vikings increase their takeaway total (22 in 2012), and Adrian Peterson suits up each Sunday/Thursday/Saturday to bring the Vikings to their first-ever Championship: Super Bowl XLVIII.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Vikings stumble out of the gate opening with two games on the road, the Lions' young pass rush converges on Ponder and the Bears force some turnovers to help out their iffy offense, Ponder can't make the sideline and down-field throws, Aaron Rodgers makes them pay for giving him extra possessions against a fatigued Vikings defense on a short field, and they miss the postseason at 6-10.
So, my prediction is the Packers win the division at 12-4, the Lions sweep the Vikings and finish 10-6 but miss out on Wild Card to the 49ers and Saints, the Vikings finish 9-7, and the Bears finish 5-11.
I do believe you can win an NFL division with a phenomenal run game and a meager passing game. The AFC South and AFC West could be won this way: Pound the rock, run down the clock, score at least one TD a game, make a few plays in the pass rush and secondary (between those two divisions, I'd mostly only fear the Broncos pass offense, barring something surprising from the Colts O-line; Kubiak will use Hopkins well). The Vikings won with mostly just a run game on offense last season, but the Packers and Lions are just too high-powered this year. History agrees that top rushing attacks and top run defenses are not necessary.
The last time someone in the top 6 in rushing yards played in a Super Bowl was Shaun Alexander of the 2005 Seahawks (leading all rushers with 1880 yards).
The 2008 Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl running for the fewest yards and the second-worst yards-per-carry. The 2009 Colts made the Super Bowl running for 129 fewer yards than any other team at just 3.5 yards per-carry (tied for second-worst).
The Super Bowl Champion 2011 Giants ran for 103 fewer yards than any other team, finishing 32nd in yards-per-carry (3.5, next closest 3.7).
This is extended to run defense. The 2006 Colts were dead-last in yards-per-carry allowed. Only one team was worse at yards-per-carry allowed in 2010 than the Super Bowl champion Packers.
Conversely, 11 teams threw for 17 or more interceptions during last season, and only the Colts (who threw for the 3rd-most attempts of those teams) made the postseason.
My best guess is that Dom Capers will get a plan together to contain Adrian Peterson as he did in the postseason game. Let's be honest. The 49ers corners were holding Packers WRs in their first game, and the replacement refs stole the Monday Nighter against the Seahawks. They really should have been 13-3. The Packers had a similar discontinuity to the Lions WR situation, with Greg Jennings being out of the line-up, then playing hurt for a solid stretch of the season.
I hope I'm wrong. I love the Vikings. I love the fan base. I love going to training camp in Mankato. I love the enthusiastic swagger of the defense, and there's no player athletically dominating his sport with the consistency Adrian Peterson is. I simply feel like, in a tight division, play-calling and quarterback are very important. While Gunther Cunningham's schemes have been suspect, Jim Washburn's been added to contour this defense to personnel strengths. I see Stafford reemerging this year with significantly better stability and depth at wideout, and I see Christian Ponder coming up just a bit short.
What do you think? How confident are you in this squad heading into training camp in 2.5 weeks? Do you agree that the Vikings WRs and Lions D-line will be the x-factors that alter the scope of this division? Do you think this team has a pretty certain trajectory if they stay healthy?