By: Brandon Blake
My next 2016 NFL season preview will be previewing the NFC North division.
The Green Bay Packers won this division four straight times from 2011 to 2014 but in 2015, the Minnesota Vikings captured their first division title in six years by beating the Packers at Lambeau in Week 17. In the playoffs, the Vikings lost a heartbreaker to the Seahawks while the Packers advanced to the divisional round by beating Washington and taking the Arizona Cardinals to overtime, thanks to a last second Hail Mary from Rodgers, but in the end, the Packers fell to the Cardinals.
As the new season approaches, I ask these questions: Can the still young Minnesota Vikings take that next step in repeating as division champions and becoming a possible Super Bowl favorite or will the Green Bay Packers reclaim their NFC North division throne?
Also in the division, Can the Chicago Bears under second year head coach John Fox bounce back from a dismal 2015 campaign and get the defense back on track or will a retooled offense flop and doom the Bears to an early hibernation?
And how will the Detroit Lions adjust to life without Calvin Johnson on the team? Can the offense diversify enough to make the Lions a legitimate threat to make the playoffs or even win the NFC North?
Here are my predictions for the NFC North.
*-Denotes who will win the division
#-Denotes who will earn a Wild Card birth
*Green Bay (11-5)- The Packers started last season 6-0 before going 4-6 in their final ten games. The downward trend could be blamed in part because of the absence of wide receiver Jordy Nelson and linebacker Clay Matthews who were both out with injuries. Nelson and Matthews will return this season along with a more svelte Eddy Lacy at running back. The Packers did lose BJ Raji to retirement and Casey Hayward to free agency but the Packers have the depth on the defensive side of the ball to withstand those losses. With Aaron Rogers returning his full complement of weapons on offense and the defense getting back Clay Matthews, the Packers should win their fifth NFC North division title in six seasons.
# Minnesota (9-7)- Last year the Vikings, exceeded everyone’s expectations as they went 11-5 and won the NFC North. Their talented but young core is still there with Teddy Bridgewater leading the way and a defense that finished 13th in the league in total defense last year. Minnesota does face a tougher schedule this year (Arizona and Green Bay are their cross-conference games this year) and can they expect running back Adrian Peterson to play a full 16 game season again given the odds that he has only done it twice in his career makes it unlikely? The Vikings will take a step back but there is enough talent there that they can improve slightly and return to the postseason in 2016.
Detroit (7-9)- After a 1-7 start to the season last year, the Lions won six of their last eight games to finish at 8-8 but this year it is going to be a challenge for the Lions as wide receiver and future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson has retired. And now the Lions are looking to be more balanced on offense instead of relying on Johnson’s great physical abilities. Golden Tate and former Cincinnati Bengal Marvin Jones look to attempt to at least replace Calvin Johnson’s numbers on the field. The defense (ranked 18th in total defense last year in the league) did improve in the second half of the season which sparked their late season surge. But on the whole, the Lions don’t have the talent on paper to compete with the Packers or Vikings in the NFC North.
Chicago (6-10)- According to Football Outsiders DVOA rankings, the Bears defense was one of the worst in defensive DVOA last year ranking at 31st. That number should improve in the second year under John Fox. Danny Trevathan, Pernell McPhee and Akeem Hicks should make the front seven for the Bears a solid unit. But my issues with the Bears in 2016 will be on offense as Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett are gone and the offensive line is below average and will miss center Hroniss Grasu for the season. Even with wide receivers Alshon Jeffrey and Kevin White present, it still won’t be enough for the Bears to climb out of the NFC North basement in 2016.