NFC North Preview

NFC NORTH PREVIEW: GREEN BAY LEADS A VOLATILE GROUP

There are some pundits who believe that the NFC North is going to be the best division in football in the 2012 season. Green Bay is a Super Bowl team. Detroit is a strong up-and-comer. Chicago finished .500 last year and would have been better if Jay Cutler didn't get hurt. Even Minnesota is in position to get better after a disappointing season.

The group was good last year (arguably three playoff caliber teams when healthy), and might get better! On the other hand...well, let's run through our key indicator numbers before commenting any further.

2011 FINAL NFC NORTH STANDINGS
Green Bay: 15-1 (+24 turnovers, 29th rated schedule)
Detroit: 10-6 (+11 turnovers, 12th rated schedule)
Chicago: 8-8 (+2 turnovers, 24th rated schedule)
Minnesota: 3-13 (-3 turnovers, 14th rated schedule)

Notebook: Green Bay looked awesome last year, until they had to face the NY Giants in the playoffs. You'll recall from yesterday that New York had played the toughest schedule in the league, and was getting healthy just at the right time. Green Bay played one of the easiest schedules in the league...and got so arrogant (and soft on defense) that they figured they coast through the playoffs at three quarter speed. Didn't work out so well.

Detroit is definitely is an up-and-comer. Our concerns there are with turnover differential (they can get a bit risky on offense), and just with the overall mentality of the team. Peak aggressiveness is great until you go over the top and start getting cheap shot penalties all over the place. Suddenly, each game becomes a fight you're trying to win rather than a ballgame where scoring the most points matters. Talk about volatility. This could be the next Pittsburgh Steelers developing before our eyes. Or, it could be just another flash in the pan where a bullying head coach gets his comeuppance sooner than everyone expects.

The Bears? Da Bears! They did go 8-8 last year even with Cutler's injury. But, they played a soft schedule and finished on the plus side of the turnover category. This is a team that could turn out to be part illusion in 2012...because the schedule is likely to be soft and Cutler is sick and tired of being called "soft!" They might make a run at 10 wins while actually being an 8-8 caliber squad.

Here were the 2011 performances from NFC North teams in the stat areas we've been covering in our divisional previews.

OFFENSIVE YARDS-PER-PLAY
Green Bay: 6.6
Detroit: 6.0
Minnesota: 5.2
Chicago: 5.1
Notebook: Great stuff from the top two...as Green Bay was up at historical standards (against a very soft schedule) while Detroit certainly announced itself as a team to be reckoned with. It's important to remember that Green Bay's offensive coordinator is now the head coach at Miami. That may or may not be a big deal because the head coach is an offensive guy...and the quarterback is FANTASTIC. We still expect Green Bay to be potent. They have less insurance than they used to with a trusted backup now fighting for the starting job in Seattle. They're overdue to run into some turnover issues. And, the fact that Detroit has the better defense might lead to a real battle for first place through the course of the season. Green Bay never felt threatened last year in terms of earning a bye. Did they get their wake-up call in the playoffs?

YARDS-PER-PLAY ALLOWED DEFENSIVELY
Chicago: 5.4
Detroit: 5.6
Minnesota: 5.6
Green Bay: 6.3
Notebook: This is what we mean about arrogance and complacency for the Packers. They had the worst defensive YPP in the league. Well, they tied with Tampa Bay, who TANKED the second half of its season! The Packers were basically a clone of New England last year...fantastic offense, lazy defense, hope for turnovers when other teams go to desperation mode...lose to the Giants in the postseason when you run into a good defense with a ball control offense. Nobody should take Green Bay seriously as a real Lombardi Trophy threat until they start playing defense again.

Detroit ties for second here. But, this isn't a "great" defense by any means. You'll recall that Baltimore and Pittsburgh were in the mid 4's over in the AFC last week. The best defenses are typically 5.2 or lower. So, Detroit definitely has a playoff composite with a 6.0 mark on offense and a 5.6 mark on defense...but the media is spending too much time on The Man Named Suh when rating the team.

Should we be giving Chicago more respect today given that defensive ranking? Well, best in this division isn't elite in terms of the league. And, the Bears play home games on slow turf where weather conditions often reduce offensive potential. We can see why Chicago is a "keep your eye on them" kind of team...but we've never been big fans of Jay Cutler, or really Lovie Smith in terms of the big picture stuff.

OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Green Bay: 48%
Minnesota: 38%
Detroit: 36%
Chicago: 32%
Notebook: Moving to third downs helps you see why we're skeptical of the Bears. Cutler should do a lot better than this at moving the chains at this point in his career. He played up to Thanksgiving last year but the full season conversion rate is atrocious. Detroit's also putting up a red flag there. Their big offensive numbers came from big plays. It's great to have a god at wide receiver...until he pulls a hamstring or tears a ligament landing badly. Then you have to move the chains to win games. Detroit is way behind the truly elite offenses in terms of this basic fundamentals. Great number for Green Bay. Our concerns are with their defense...and maybe some regression to the mean with giveaways. Great stuff on third downs...better than New England even, but not as good as the New Orleans team you'll read about later this week.

DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Detroit: 33%
Chicago: 35%
Green Bay: 43%
Minnesota: 44%
Notebook: We didn't rate Detroit amongst the elite in terms of YPP earlier. They do grade out very well here. You should probably think of them as a team that makes big plays on both sides of the ball. They go for bombs on offense...and then they attack like crazy when it's third down and opponents are trying to move the chains. This can make them vulnerable to big plays (which hurts their yards-per-play). Chicago is also impressive, but they play home games in conditions that help out their defense. Detroit plays home games indoors on a fast track, so 33% is a very impressive number.

A lot of work to do for the Packers and Vikings. Remember that last year was a down year for offenses in this stat. Only a third of the league allowed 40% or more. Tanking Indianapolis allowed 45% while trying to lose so they could lock in the #1 draft pick. Only San Diego was a team that was trying all the time who clocked in at worse than 45%. Bad news all over the place for the Vikings last year.

Let's see how the markets have rated these teams in terms of projected victories in the regular season.

NFC North Regular Season Win Projections
Green Bay 11.5 or 12
Chicago 9.5
Detroit 9
Minnesota 6

We could certainly see some Over sentiment for the best three teams (particularly at 11.5 for Green Bay rather than 12). The NFC North this year draws the NFC West...which is likely to be an inferior grouping again; and the AFC South...which currently grades out as the worst of all eight NFL divisions. Injuries are always a potential bugaboo. Green Bay can definitely make a run at 13-14 wins with this year's schedule. Chicago or Detroit can certainly make a run at 10 wins if their QB's stay on the field. And, then, they'll all be vulnerable in the playoffs when they run into consistent quality for the first time!

It's almost a crime that the NFC North gets the West while teams like New Orleans, Atlanta, and Carolina will be dealing with Philadelphia, Dallas, and the NY Giants all season...and THEN the NFC North ALSO gets the easiest division from the AFC.

We'll be talking about the NFC West tomorrow here in the NOTEBOOK. Then, we're saving the NFC South for Thursday since the Atlanta Falcons are playing a TV game that night vs. Baltimore. That will finish off our divisional previews for the coming season. Hopefully you've been printing all of these out so you can refer to them through the exhibition slate and once the regular season gets started. Please check last week's archives for the AFC if you missed out on those.

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See you Wednesday for the NFC West!

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Nov

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