The North Remembers.
Some of the league’s coldest, harshest rivalries reside in the venerable NFC North. It has been a while since this division could lay claim to the title of Best Division In Football. But this year that is the case. And that will raise the stakes over the bi-annual blood feuds that play out in the bitter cold of the Great Lakes region.
Here is my 2012 NFC North preview and NFL predictions with betting odds courtesy of 5Dimes:
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Green Bay Packers Predictions
2011 Record: 15-1 (8-0 home, 7-1 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 11-5 ATS, 11-5 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 3rd offense (3rd pass, 27th rush); 32nd overall (32nd pass, 14th rush)
2012 Odds: 5.5/1 to win SB, 3/1 to win NFC, 1/2.5 to win NFC North, 12.0 wins O/U
Offense: The Packers just wreck people and Aaron Rodgers is unstoppable when he gets in a groove. But there are some questions about the health and stability of his weapons this season. The Greg Jennings concussion situation bears watching and old reliable Donald Driver is on his last legs. Jermichael Finley is a beast, but he is one of those guys that’s never going to be healthy for more than nine or 10 games a year. Look for more Randall Cobb this fall – which is a good thing. Green Bay signed Cedric Benson to give a little live to their non-existent running game. But I think that improvement in that aspect will have more to do with improved run blocking from their technically sound, but not powerful, offensive line. The Packers scored 35 points per game last year. I don’t think they will top that, but they will be in that ball park again.
Defense: This was, statistically, the worst defense in football. Some of that had to do with the fact that teams were so often chasing Green Bay that the Packers were giving up huge chunks of yards with the game already out of reach. There is some truth to that, as the Packers were No. 14 in scoring defense at 22.7 per game – over 12 points less than the offense scored per outing – and even that number could be inflated. There is no denying that Green Bay was pushed around at the point of attack last year. And while they still excelled at creating turnovers the secondary took too many drives off last year and were soft in coverage. The Pack tried to beef up the defensive line a little bit but their offseason moves were nominal. Right now the health of their linebacking corps is the biggest issue. And as long as Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews are playing at a high level this group will have enough to win games.
Skinny: At +24 they were No. 2 in the league in turnovers last year and they are a mind-boggling +58 in turnovers over the past three seasons (best in football). As long as the Packers keep getting more possessions than their opponents they are going to keep outscoring them. The Packers were excessively sloppy in their playoff loss to nemesis New York. But these guys still went 15-1 and made a lot of opponents look silly. Their division is improved but they have more quality experience and steadier hands leading the way than either Chicago or Detroit. I’ll call for 12-4 from this outfit and this team should still have some betting value because when they win, they win big.
Chicago Bears Predictions
2011 Record: 8-8 (5-3 home, 3-5 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 9-6-1 ATS; 7-9 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 24th offense (26th pass, 9th rush); 17th defense (28th pass, 5th rush)
2012 Odds: 27/1 to win SB, 12/1 to win NFC, 3.5/1 to win NFC North, 9.5 wins O/U
Offense: With all of the video game numbers that were being put up around football last year it is amazing to think that the Bears had the No. 5 offense in football when Jay Cutler went down. The Bears then promptly lost Matt Forte and their attack, predictably, fell off a cliff. Fortunately they dumped Mike Martz, who was maybe the worst NFL coordinator of the last decade. Chicago is taking somewhat of a risk by handing the keys to mongoloid conservative Mike Tice. Look for a more traditional Bears offense this year, even as teams across the league are opening things up. Keeping Cutler and Forte healthy is paramount. And Chicago’s offensive line is, shockingly, still one of the worst in football. (I say “shockingly” because it’s stunning that they haven’t addressed this pathetic group over the past three years, as if J’Marcus Webb and Chris Williams will suddenly merge together to form Orlando Pace.) The Bears made huge upgrades in the passing game by trading for noted sociopath Brandon Marshall and drafting beastly Alshon Jeffery. We’ll see if that has the intended impact.
Defense: The Bears defense is still solid and is better than its No. 17 ranking. The health of Brian Urlacher’s knee is a major concern. He is the heart and soul of this unit and of this team and he had his knee scoped this week. It is not certain if he’ll be ready for Week 1. If he is fine, then Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman give the Bears four players among the best at their positions and four playmakers. The Bears still play a modified Cover-2, so they are going to surrender yards. But they rely on big plays – sacks, turnovers, penalties – and excellent red zone defense (No. 7 last year) to keep their opponents under control. As long as the defensive tackles and linebackers hold up this unit will again be a strength.
Skinny: The Bears are a big “buzz” team right now. And their season win total has been one of the biggest movers this summer, going from an open of 8.5 from Las Vegas to its current slot at 9.5. The main reason is the positive vibes that a new front office brought in with coaching and personnel changes. But the reason that the expectations have a chance to come to fruition is that the Chicago Bears schedule is relatively easy. This team is going to win at least 10 games and should make the playoffs again.
Detroit Lions Predictions
2011 Record: 10-6 (5-3 home, 5-3 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 7-7-2 ATS, 10-6 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 5th offense (4th pass, 29th rush); 23rd defense (22nd pass, 23rd rush)
2012 Odds: 30/1 to win SB, 13/1 to win NFC, 5/1 to win NFC North, 9.5 wins O/U
Offense: Detroit’s offense was one of the most clutch in the game in 2011, scoring 8.7 points per game in the fourth quarter. Matt Stafford had a breakout season and no one could stop Calvin Johnson, who scored 16 touchdowns, racked up nearly 1,700 yards and averaged nearly 18 yards per catch. The rest of the receiving corps is pretty average. But Johnson demands so much attention that it opens things up for their two very athletic tight ends and their crop of B- wideouts. Detroit’s offensive line also had a good season, allowing just 36 sacks. But the main issue for this team is that they can’t run the ball. At all. Despite teams stacked against the pass, the Lions had the second-fewest attempts and fourth-worst running game in football. They enter the 2012 season with more injury issues at running back and I don’t see them making major strides in this key facet of the game.
Defense: Detroit’s front four was among the toughest, most active, most explosive in football last year. They have an excellent eight-man rotation and Nd Suh, Corey Williams, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril are all Pro Bowl talents. They play nasty and really set the tone for this team. Unfortunately, the back seven for this team is a train wreck. Their corners are among the worst in football. They were getting decent safety play until injuries exploited their shallow depth chart at the end of last season. They were lit up by any halfway decent offense that they faced in the second half of the year, allowing an average of 31.7 points per game in their last nine outings. For as bad as Detroit was, they were able to mask some deficiencies by ranking No. 5 in interceptions. But they didn’t really upgrade anywhere so it should be another season of shootouts in the Motor City. Depth and overall back seven talent are almost nil.
Skinny: I think that the Lions are going to come back to reality a bit this season. This core bunch of players is young and talented. But they play sloppy football and they are undisciplined both on and off the field. This group is obviously having some trouble handling success and they remind me a little bit of how Tampa Bay came into last season after their surprise 10-win campaign in 2010. We know how that ended. Detroit had the third-fewest starts lost to injury, a +11 turnover ratio, and they won three games by overcoming double-digit fourth quarter leads. In other words, they were a bit lucky last year. I can see things going the other way this time. They won’t fall off the map because of the schedule but I can see them hovering around 8-8 and missing the postseason.
Minnesota Vikings Predictions
2011 Record: 3-13 (1-7 home, 2-6 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 6-8-2 ATS, 10-6 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 18th offense (28th pass, 4th rush); 21st defense (26th pass, 11th rush)
2012 Odds: 275/1 to win SB, 88/1 to win NFC, 30/1 to win NFC North, 5.5 wins O/U
Offense: To say that this group is a work in progress is an understatement. The Vikings are still trying to figure out if Christian Ponder can play and if he can be a long-term answer at quarterback. But Ponder is toiling behind a terrible offensive line and he has absolutely nothing to work with at the receiver slots. Fortunately, it looks like Adrian Peterson is going to be back within the first month of the season after offseason knee surgery. But it is going to be asking a lot for him to instantly be the dominant player that he was before he got hurt. Minnesota was No. 4 running the ball last year despite finishing just No. 13 in attempts. I would expect them to continue to try to pound the ball on the ground. This should help their defense and keep the focus off their dilapidated stable of wideouts. Points are going to be tough to come by for this group. And if Peterson re-injures himself then things could spiral out of control in a hurry. I’m not high on Ponder – he was a major reach – and even if he has potential for the future I know he’s not that good of a quarterback in the present.
Defense: I thought it was a crime that defensive end Jared Allen was not named AP Defensive Player of the Year last season. I felt he was the best non-quarterback in football (Cal Johnson could also make an argument) and Allen absolutely dominated despite getting almost zero help from those around him. Kevin Williams still has some good football left and linebacker Chad Greenway is one of the league’s most underrated players. But the rest of the front seven is shaky and has no depth – and that is the strength of the unit. The linebackers are liabilities in pass coverage and their secondary isn’t good enough to cover for them. In fact, the secondary is the unit’s top weakness. They jettisoned six players that saw time back there last year and head into 2012 with a rookie at one safety and a second-year man at the other. In this division, holes in your secondary are a fatal flaw. And if former defensive coordinator/now coach Leslie Frazier can’t come up with solutions he might be back as a position coach for some AFC team this time next year.
Skinny: This team has gone just 9-24 since making it to the 2009 NFC Championship Game. They were a major hard-luck team last year, finishing -7 in net close losses. That is almost unheard of. They were stifled by injuries, they lost their first four games by a touchdown or less, they were -2.5 with their Pythagorean Win Total, and they had extreme numbers in both offensive and defensive yards per point. All of those factors point to a bounce back year and I think Minnesota will be feisty this year. But the fact of the matter is they are still the fourth-best team in the best division in football. I think they will be right around 4-6 wins and the key will be developing some pieces for next year.
Robert Ferringo is a professional handicapper and has posted back-to-back profitable seasons (college and pro). Robert has turned a profit in three of four football seasons and over the last nine months his clients have earned nearly $10,000 in profit with his football selections. He is looking forward to building on his stellar football handicapping resume again this fall and you can check him out here. Also, you can also get $60 worth of free Robert Ferringo member picks (no salesman, no credit card, no obligation!) by clicking here for more info.