With one pre-season game left to be played, and rosters beginning to shape up, here is my predictions for the NFC North teams this year. They are not consensus views. Not by a long shot. Here we go:
13-3. Yes, that's thirteen wins, 3 losses. Not afraid to be bold (or stupid), this Vikings team will improve over last year for a few reasons: 1) the passing game will improve; 2) the pass defense will improve; 3) the defense will generate more turnovers. I went into detail of each game and match-ups earlier this month and how the Vikings get there. Still, despite the improvement, poor Christian Ponder won't get much credit- that will go mainly to the receivers.
10-6. As usual, a few writers have them going to the Super Bowl this year. It's all about Aaron Rodgers. Nobody bothers to look at the rest of the team. And this is a team that didn't get better during the off-season. If you want to point to Eddie Lacy or Datone Jones, that's fine. But I'll point to Greg Jennings, Brian Bulaga, DuJuan Harris, Charles Woodson, Tom Crabtree, et. al. - all lost to via FA or injury. And what are the odds that Jordy Nelson makes it through the year healthy? Practically zero in my mind. The Packers are already trying to cobble together an offensive line of rookies and 3rd day draft picks and the year hasn't even begun yet. Aaron Rodgers may be the best QB in the league, but his receiver corps is degrading and the rest of the team, on-balance, has not improved.
7-9. The Lions will improve, record-wise, over last year, in part because I think Reggie Bush will help them offensively, but defensively it's still gonna be tough-sledding for the Lions this year. The offensive line will need time playing together- most are new to their position this year- and will still struggle to protect Matthew Stafford. Speaking of Stafford, people talk about some amazingly low stats for Christian Ponder- here's one for Matthew Stafford: # of wins against teams with a winning record: 1. That's a career stat mind you. He's gonna have to muster a few this year in all likelihood if the Lions are to make it to 7-9. But let's face it. The Lions organization is not one to pull victory from the jaws of defeat all that often. Usually it's the other way around. Probably more of the same for Detroit this year, just not quite as much as last year.
6-10. The Bears are gonna collapse this year. The signs are all there if you look for them. Lots of players on the last year of their deal in Chicago. New coaching staff that players have not gelled with yet. New system. There will be kinks and issues and stuff to get worked out during the year. But here's the problem: Bengals, Vikings, at Pittsburgh, at Lions, Saints, Giants, at Redskins, BYE, at Packers. That's the first half of their schedule. There is not even one easy game there. Not even one. So, struggling out of the gate with new system, coaching staff, etc., the Bears could be sitting mid-year at 2-6, the playoffs fading fast. Did I mention the Bears have 20+ guys on the last year of their deal - Cutler included? The Lions ran into that last year, and once the playoffs looked out of reach, just kept on losing. The Bears are a team in transition, and will end the year with a lot more questions than answers. Interesting little Jay Cutler factoid (another QB generally considered much better than Christian Ponder): Jay had a 81.3 passer rating last year- just 0.1 higher than Ponder- in his 7th year in the league. His career average passer rating is just 84. And he's never had a year better than 88.1.
As the year goes on, you will hear less and less about what a tough division the NFC North is. It certainly isn't as weak as the AFC East has been the last decade (outside the Patriots of course), but it may be awhile before we see three teams with double-digit wins again in the NFC North.