2014 NFC North Preview: Is It Green Bay's Division to Lose?
If you want a division full of all offense and little defense, then look no further than the NFC North: three powerful and versatile starting running backs, three Pro Bowl quarterbacks, and all four dangerous receiving tandems. Instead of the “Black and Blue” division as it's often referred to, we may have to start calling it the “Fun and Gun” division.
With three of the teams in the division placing in the bottom seven defensively (Detroit finished 14th) in our Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP) in 2013, the division was there for the taking. The Packers seemed to have the edge early, but replacing Aaron Rodgers wasn’t an easy task. Thanks to the collapse of the Lions (0-4 to finish the season) and timely losses from the Bears, the Packers won the division for the third year in a row.
But another year is upon us. The division race should be just as close again this year, and with the competition increasing every year in the NFC, it may take winning the division to get into the playoffs. So who has the best shot? Take look at the 2014 NFC North, in reverse order of our algorithm-based team rankings. (nERD is a calculation of expected point differential against an average NFL team.)
4. Minnesota Vikings
Chance of Winning Division: 8.6%
Offensive Rank: 22nd
Defensive Rank: 32nd
The Vikings will always have a feared offensive weapon when Adrian Peterson is coming out of the backfield, looking to nail his next victim to gain some extra yardage. It’s the rest of the offense that can be a cause for concern.
Enter Norv Turner. He loves his tight ends and he uses his running backs in the passing game. Earlier in the offseason, we dug into what Norv could bring to this offense, so make sure you check it out. In essence, Norv should be able to steer the team's offensive production upwards which should be good for fans and fantasy football fanatics alike.
Despite having an offense that could see improvement this year, our metrics are still skeptical of both sides of the ball, especially the Vikings' defense. Last year the Vikings were the third-worst overall defense when adjusting for strength of schedule, joining the Falcons, Jaguars and Raiders at the bottom of the barrel. The Vikings were the second-worst passing defense last year, too, and that won't get any easier when facing the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler twice a year.
The Vikings have the chance to be the underdog story this year if everything comes together right for them, especially under new no-nonsense coach Mike Zimmer. Whether it's Matt Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater, if Turner can take the offense to new heights and the defense jells despite a big roster overhaul, the Vikings could be a sneaky squad. If not, they’ll be at the bottom of the division.
3. Chicago Bears
Chance of Winning Division: 21.9%
Offensive Rank: 10th
Defensive Rank: 28th
As much as the football staff likes to look at Turner as the tight end whisperer and offensive guru, we love to call Marc Trestman the quarterback whisperer. And if Jay Cutler stays healthy, he could have the best season of his career.
However, it's not the offense that Chicago fans should be concerned about. It's the defense that did so poorly last year, and our metrics say it could be just as bad this year.
Towards the end of last season, we repeatedly used our Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP metrics to point out that the Bears’ defense was there for the taking by opposing running backs in fantasy football. Last year saw the Bears finish dead last against the run, giving up 73.73 more points over the course of the season than they should have to opposing ground games. The Chargers and Dolphins were second- and third-worst against the run, but even their total combined points against weren’t as bad as the Bears.
Julius Peppers jumped ship to the Bears’ biggest rival, but the team did bring in Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen to help the line. They also focused heavily on defense in the draft, giving that side of the ball a little upside entering the season.
Chicago will have to work hard to keep up in this division though. While having one of the strongest offenses in the league will boost their win-loss record, they will need to fix their run defense to have a chance at knocking off their bitter rivals. They have a great chance at finishing second in the division (they and the next team on this list have very similar projections), but that may not be good enough to even make the playoffs this year.
2. Detroit Lions
Chance of Winning Division: 26.0%
Offensive Rank: 17th
Defensive Rank: 15th
How does a team that consistently stopped the run last year and actually finished as the best defense in the division lose four games in a row to get knocked out of the playoffs? Having an offense that stalls at the end of games doesn’t help.
Our metrics peg the Lions as the best defense again this year in the division, mostly due to their power to stop the running game. If we look back at the 2013 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP, the Lions tallied a -41.51 over the course of the season, good enough to end the year as the second-best rushing defense.
Matthew Stafford wasn't strong down the stretch, throwing five picks in the team's final four games. He also failed to exceed 300 yards passing in the last four games after averaging 318 per game in the first 12. Stafford’s inconsistency led to a 15.55 point drop in the team’s Adjusted Passing NEP, putting a lot of pressure on the defense.
The defense tried to do its part, going from 25th best after Week 12 to the 14th best one at the end of the season. But in the end, it wasn't enough. The Lions will need Ndamukong Suh to be a force on the line again this year to keep the division’s best defense on the rise. A new head coach might do some good in the discipline department for Suh and others.
Offensively, Scott Linehan got the most out of Calvin Johnson, Joique Bell and Reggie Bush last year, so Stafford knows how to play with those guys. With the addition of Golden Tate and the tutoring of new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi (from the Saints), the Lions may be able to get to the top of the division like we’ve all be waiting for the past few years.
1. Green Bay Packers
Chance of Winning Division: 43.5%
Offensive Rank: 2nd
Defensive Rank: 25th
If any team fits the mold of “Run and Gun” in this division, it's the Packers. Not only do they have a Super Bowl MVP (and one of the three best) quarterbacks leading their offense, they have an excellent receiver that can stretch the field in Jordy Nelson and an up-and-coming slot receiver in Randall Cobb.
Oh, and did I mention second-year running back Eddie Lacy? Throw in Jarrett Boykin and the upside of rookie Davante Adams, and it’s not a surprise that our analytics place the Packers as the second best offense in the league.
However, winning the division and challenging for the Super Bowl are dependent on two big things. The first is keeping Aaron Rodgers upright and healthy. Thanks to timely losses and execution of the right plays in crunch time, the Packers somehow managed to win the division last year. If everyone is healthy offensively, this offense should run smoother than ever.
Second, health on the defensive side of the ball is a concern for this team. The depth of the linebacker corp was hit hard last year, so the Packers went out and added Julius Peppers as a multi-use lineman/linebacker. The secondary was painful to watch as well for the Packers; they added Ha-Ha Clinton Dix and strengthened their depth, but this might be Dom Capers' last chance with these players.
But if the secondary can keep the big plays in front of them and Lacy doesn’t hit a sophomore slump, the Packers could be off and running to their fourth straight division title.