2007 NFC North Preview: Mutants, Weaklings and Bears - Oh My!
by Robert Ferringo - 08/16/2007
It's time once again for Doc's Sports NFL Divisional Previews and I know everyone's nipples are as hard as my own. I know you all were looking forward to individual team previews again last year - especially given the warm and loving reaction that they all got last year; I think my favorite e-mail started with "You don't know what the f*^# you're talking about!" - But my editor let me off the hook and we're going with one-stop shopping for each division.
I've decided to ease you all into it. Nothing startling. I'll save the bold predictions for when I make my case as to why the Colts won't win the AFC North and may not make the playoffs. But before we get into all that nonsense, we'll delve into the good ol' NFC North.
But even though the Bears will be the champions, we still have to try to handicap the other three wannabes. And it basically breaks down like so: the NFC North teams are kind of like mutant babies born in Hiroshima in the years after The Bomb. They're deformed and missing limbs that most "normal" teams are not. Don't get me wrong; these organizations don't lack talent. But they each have PRONOUNCED vulnerabilities that make you wonder if their respective general managers had their ventromedial frontal lobes wilt and decay due to radiation. For instance, Green Bay does not have one running back on its roster that has ever logged more than 95 carries in a single season, and its most "experienced" back has just 142 career totes. Minnesota's most experienced quarterback is its backup, Brooks Bollinger, and his "experience" tops out at nine career starts. And Detroit? Well, they still have Matt Millen and that's all that really matters. Despite fielding one of the worst defenses in the league, Millen surrendered to the will of Rasputin (a.k.a. - Mike Martz) and signed and drafted nothing but offensive pieces.
This one is simple: the Bears are going to win the Worst Division In Football. Don't bother trying to make a case for anyone else, especially since the next closest teams (Green Bay) are still two years away from being a legitimate contender in the NFC. Except for the Lions, who are on pace to win the division around 2041. The Bears have the most depth, skill and experience of any of the teams and they should again devastate the other third-rate regimes within the old Black-and-Blue Division.
Here's Doc's 2007 NFC North Preview:
1) CHICAGO BEARS
2006 Record: 15-4 (8-2 home, 7-2 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 11-8 (6-4 home, 5-4 road); 11-4-1 vs. total (9-1 h, 2-3-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 15th offense (14th pass, 15th rush); 5th defense (11th pass, 6th rush)
2007 Odds: 6/1 to win SB, 2/1 to win NFC, 1/6 to win NFC North, 10.5 wins O/U
Outlook: Basically, the Sex Cannon, Rex Grossman, is going to be tossing his deep balls all over the NFC North this year. That's right: Sexy Rexy is back and ready to party. And although the only thing the Bears needed to win a championship last year was a quarterback who minimized mistakes and didn't hurl balls up for grabs off his back foot when pressured, they continue to support a guy who is the exact opposite. Grossman is the key. And unless he can reign in his natural "gunslinger" mentality and show that he understands when to try to make a play and when to cut his losses the Bears will again fail to break out of their cage.
Beyond Grossman, the other X-Factor for this team is Cedric Benson. Benson is clearly mentally and emotionally unstable - I see him as the NFL's version of Andruw Jones or, if he's lucky, Manny Ramirez - but he also has the potential to be the 1,500-yard workhorse the Bears crave. The problem is that Chicago has no one behind him ready to take over when the inevitable ACL injury hits somewhere around Week 5. Which brings us to the only real weakness on this team - upper management's baffling decision to toss all of their eggs in one basket, gambling the entire season on unproven players at the two most important positions on the field. Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo either have balls of pure titanium or they are amazingly oblivious.
Chicago has a brutal opening schedule - starting out with three straight games against '06 playoff teams before jumping into three straight divisional tilts. However, if the Bears don't win the division it would be a colossal upset. They're 10-2 against NFC North foes over the past two years, they may be the first defense in NFL history to be considered "explosive", they have the No. 1 special teams unit in the league, and they have veterans and Hall of Famers dotting their sneaky-good offense. All in all, everything should be fine - unless Rex and Ced screw it up.
2) GREEN BAY PACKERS
2006 Record: 8-8 (3-5 home, 5-3 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-8-1 (2-6 home, 4-3-1 road); 7-8-1 vs. total (3-5 h, 3-3-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 9th offense (8th pass, 23rd rush); 12th defense (17th pass, 13th rush)
2007 Odds: 75/1 to win SB, 25/1 to win NFC, 4/1 to win NFC North, 7.5 wins O/U
Outlook: Folks, you can't win in the NFL without a legit running game and a capable defense. You just can't. Maybe you can win once in awhile, but to accomplish anything of substance you have to be able to run the ball and play good defense. It's not rocket science; it's just football. However, as it stands right now I am slated as No. 3 on the Packers depth chart at running back, right behind some guy named Verand and some dude named Noah. Seriously, did the Packers just forget that you play with a running back? They currently have eight RB's on their training camp roster and between those guys you have a total of 11 years of experience (or 22 games apiece) between them. So if you want to know why the Packers won't do any better than what they did last season it's just that easy - they have no running back.
It's too bad. The Pack has the foundation for one of the better defenses in the NFC. They have a pair of dynamic wideouts, and Brett Favre has just enough pop left in his gun to make things uncomfortable for opposing fans coming down the stretch. But the trouble is that - besides having no running game - the Mystique is gone. Teams don't fear Favre, Lambeau, or the Packers like they did five or 50 years ago. Their defense, with Kampman, Hawk, and Woodson all Pro Bowl talents leading some solid role players - will be good enough for the Pack to hang with or beat on teams of equal or lesser value. But when they run up against top-tier squads (San Diego, Chicago, Denver, etc.) their glaring weakness in the backfield will make them one-dimensional. And now Favre is more of a turnover dispenser than a miracle worker in those situations.
3) DETROIT LIONS
2006 Record: 3-13 (2-6 home, 1-7 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 6-10 (2-6 home, 4-4 road); 9-7 vs. total (3-5 h, 5-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 22nd offense (7th pass, 32nd rush); 28th defense (25th pass, 21st rush)
2007 Odds: 125/1 to win SB, 40/1 to win NFC, 15/1 to win NFC North, 5.5 wins O/U
Outlook: Don't get suckered in. I repeat: don't get suckered into thinking that the Lions are going to be a good team this year. They sure as hell are no sleeper, and the people that say so are probably the same guys who were drinking the Arizona Kool-Aid last year. We saw how that turned out. Detroit is an organization that has averaged 4.0 wins over the past six years and I don't see where they've gotten appreciably better on either side of the ball. Yes, Mike Martz is a mad genius that can develop a passing game. But the running backs are injury prone, the offensive line is still shaky, they have a brittle linebacking corps, and their defense has little or no depth. Other than that, yeah, they're ready for Prime Time.
The Lions suck, and they will continue to be a "Play Against" only team. Jon Kitna can crow all he wants about winning 10 games, but the bottom line is that they had the No. 28 defense in the league last year and did absolutely nothing to improve it. In fact, they got rid of one of their best defenders (Dre Bly) and instead of picking anyone up in the offseason they drafted a wide receiver, traded for a running back and offensive lineman, ad signed yet another offensive lineman. They simply can't stop people. And say what you want about Martz, but the Lions were just No. 22 in total offense last year so let's not pretend the Lions have some elite scoring force. And Rod Marinelli was brought in to instill a tough, disciplined, physical style of football but he's clearly let Martz hijack the team. That's an obvious mistake by a young coach. The Lions are 4-13 SU as an underdog of 7.0 or greater over the past four seasons but are 11-5-1 ATS in those situations. That's about the best thing I have to say about them - they're bad, but they're not amazingly bad.
4) MINNESOTA VIKINGS
2006 Record: 6-10 (3-5 home, 3-5 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-9 (3-5 home, 4-4 road); 7-7-2 vs. total (4-4 h, 3-3-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 23rd offense (18th pass, 16th rush); 8th defense (31st pass, 1st rush)
2007 Odds: 50/1 to win SB, 20/1 to win NFC, 12/1 to win NFC North, 7.0 wins O/U
Outlook: The Vikings look like a chick with a butterface. (For those of you born before 1975, the "butterface" is used to describe a girl who has a slamming body but an incredibly ugly face. Everything looks good, but-her-face.) The Vikings have a stout defense that is nearly impossible to run against, a massive offensive line that gets great push against even the best defenses, and a one-two punch at running back that (when healthy) can cause a lot of problems for opponents. The body is good. But the face - the quarterback and the wide receivers - looks like ass and might constitute the worst passing game in the league.
I'm not ready to say that Tav Jackson can't be an NFL quarterback. But I am ready to say that his growing pains are going to sink the Vikings' season. It would be one thing if they were a team like Denver in the AFC - a club that has all the pieces in place and put their offense in the hands of a young QB. But the Vikings don't have any weapons in the passing game, they have an unproven coach who's running out of rope faster than anyone expected, and they have an owner that doesn't know if he's coming or going. There's just too much instability on this team to expect them to threaten for a playoff spot. Can they be profitable? Absolutely. With that defense they should be able to hang within some of the large cushions they'll be granted. But I wouldn't expect much when they're forced to go to Chicago or to Dallas or some of the other difficult venues they'll have to play in.
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