NFC North Preview (August 14, 2010)

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

VIKINGS, PACKERS PROBABLY WEREN'T
AS GOOD AS YOU THOUGHT LAST YEAR!

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

One of the great things about our NFL Preview format is that teams who played difficult or easy schedules the prior season really jump off the page at you.

That's arguably one of the most important things to consider when trying to evaluate the transition from one season to the next. Yet, many handicappers and pundits simply assume last year's won-lost record paints an accurate picture, then they make adjustments for personnel changes and the like.

Records can be misleading!

This is a key theme when studying the NFC North. That's today's featured division as we continue through our gauntlet of previews. All four teams from the 'NFC Norris' division (as Chris Berman likes to call it) are in action this evening. We're glad we can plant some analytical seeds in your mind before you monitor all the action.

If you missed our earlier previews (NFC South yesterday, AFC East Thursday, NFC East last Sunday), please check out the archives.

Here are the fundamentals numbers from last year for the NFC North. You'll see immediately that the top three teams weren't challenged. Detroit played a league average schedule (because they never enjoyed the luxury of playing themselves!)

2009 FINAL NFC NORTH STANDINGS
Minnesota...12-4......+6 turnover differential....29th ranked schedule
Green Bay...11-5...+24 turnover differential....32nd ranked schedule
Chicago......7-9.......-6 turnover differential....25th ranked schedule
Detroit.......2-14....-18 turnover differential....16th ranked schedule

Brett Favre had a historic season for a man of his age. He did it against one of the easiest schedules in the league. Aaron Rodgers posted huge numbers for the Packers during their Wildcard run. He got to face the EASIEST schedule of any NFL quarterback! Jay Cutler was a disappointment to many (though we told you on the day of the trade he was likely to struggle with the Bears). And, even THAT failure to click came against an easy schedule.

You'll be tempted to expect a lot from this group in 2010 because they have good storylines entering the season. If Minnesota can get Brett Favre back at something resembling decent health...then a team that was one step away from the Super Bowl last year has championship hopes. Green Bay seemed like a team on the move last year. Now Rodgers is a year more experienced. Surely they'll get better. Chicago brought in Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. Cutler and Martz could be terrorizing the NFC in a matter of weeks!

Or, the Vikings weren't as good as it seemed last year. The Packers weren't as good as it seemed last year. The Bears made themselves worse by bringing in a way-past-his-prime coordinator to further complicate the mind of a turnover prone quarterback...one who has to play home games in bad weather half the year!

Yesterday we were very optimistic about the NFC South. They had a lot going for them despite playing tough schedules last year. Today it's the other side of the coin. This group wasn't as good as it seemed last year. They may break your hearts in 2010.

Before we talk more about 2010, let's run through our key indicator stats. You can make mental adjustments as we go along for strength of schedule...

OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME
Minnesota 17.5
Green Bay 15.9
Chicago 8.7
Detroit 8.5
NOTEBOOK: If this is your first day reading the NOTEBOOK, these are points scored on drives of 60 yards or more. Anything at 14 or higher is good. If you're in single digits, you're in big trouble. Remember, scoring has been going up since they liberalized the offensive holding rules. Chicago and Detroit were particularly bad in this stat last year considering their schedules.

Minnesota and Green Bay are still top notch in our view, even if you adjust for schedule. Drop them down from 'elite' to 'solid.' That keeps them in the playoff picture, but may dampen championship hopes.

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DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME
Green Bay 9.7
Minnesota 10.3
Chicago 13.8
Detroit 15.4
NOTEBOOK: Green Bay got a lot of raves last year for their defense. In some metrics, they graded out off the charts. In this metric, they were good...but not super scary. This helped foreshadow the problems they would have against Arizona in the playoffs. That's pretty much when the whole world said 'I guess the Packers defense wasn't so great after all.'

Minnesota also has a great defensive reputation, and also didn't bowl everyone over in this particular stat. In our view, the probable decline for these teams in 2010 will be on the defensive side of the ball. They'll allow more long distance points because they're playing tougher schedules.

Chicago was astonishingly bad considering Lovie Smith's defensive reputation...and the fact that weather usually helps them late in the year. Bringing in Mike Martz could make things worse! The Martz approach makes it hard to protect your defense by running clock and winning the field position game. Be sure you're paying attention to the Bears on this side of the ball in September. The media will be focusing exclusively on the offense. You need the full picture.

Should we talk about Detroit much? They'll probably be better than 2-14...and they'll probably pick up the slack on both sides of the ball. Last year's numbers were so ugly that we'll save them the embarrassment of dwelling on them!

OFFENSIVE 3RD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Green Bay 47%
Minnesota 45%
Chicago 37%
Detroit 36%
NOTEBOOK: No surprises here. Green Bay and Minnesota drove the field. It's a good sign for the maturity of Rodgers that he was able to do that consistently. He's still capable of showing career growth at his age, which might counteract the strengthening schedule this season.

Chicago and Detroit were awful. Cutler in particular was a disappointment...as he was supposed to cure what ailed the Bears. He just turned into another sick Bear.

DEFENSIVE 3RD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Minnesota 34%
Green Bay 36%
Detroit 40%
Chicago 41%
NOTEBOOK: We mentioned a second ago that Minnesota and Green Bay sparkled in other defensive metrics. Here's a good example. Both were very good on third downs. The relative lack of alignment with Drive Points means both were vulnerable to big plays. And, we should say that these defenses were really good at shutting down BAD offenses, but less effective vs. quality. That's worth remembering this year when they do run into inferior opposition.

Detroit was surprisingly good given the division they were playing in. That might be a hidden indicator for improvement on that side of the ball this season. We look for signs of toughness from the laggards. That's a positive red flag for Lions fans.

2010 NFC NORTH OUTLOOK:
Who knows for sure what's going to happen with Brett Favre. Last year was a stunner considering how badly he played late in the prior season with the Jets. If he's back at full strength, you have to consider the Vikings a threat to win 10-11 games. If that's not destined to happen, Tavaris Jackson will probably have them around the .500 mark...with a shot to be better if he's matured in his time away from the limelight.

Green Bay is poised to take over the division if Favre can't go. Just be careful assuming that puts them at the head of the class for the whole conference. We've already talked about the quality in the East and South divisions in the NFC. Green Bay wasn't quite as good as it seemed last year. You can't lose sight of that!

Chicago has probably a 30% chance of turning things around under Martz, and a 70% chance of crashing and burning. You longtime readers may be surprised we have the success rate that high! We're typically down on Martz, and down on Cutler. And, there is some sentiment that it's 90% for a crash and burn instead of 70%. For now, we'll recognize that the addition of Martz has created an enthusiasm with the franchise and city that could lead to some temporary success. Cutler has an arm. If Cutler ever gets his head on straight instead of following the Jeff George career path, whoever he's playing for becomes dangerous immediately. Smart handicappers know when to keep their pessimism in check. And, they also know how to jump in quick when it's justified.

That wraps up our look at the NFC South. Sunday we're going to focus on the AFC South because defending divisional (and conference) champion Indianapolis takes the field for the first time this August. The Colts host San Francisco Sunday afternoon. Monday we're going to take a one-day hiautus from the previews to study boxscore numbers from this first week of NFL action. We'll look at quarterback rotations...yardage ranges...and try to find hints about what may unfold in the next few weeks of Preseason play. Our divisional previews pick up again Tuesday with the AFC North. We'll finish off the set of eight with the Western divisions the next two days.

Don't forget that great rates are still available for JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK'S football service. The next big winner will be kicking off soon! Test the waters here at the website by making a few clicks. Have your credit card handy to purchase tonight's games online. Or, call 1-800-323-4453 for more information.

Believe it or not, there was a division last year that had an even easier schedule than the NFC North. We won't tell you who it is until we get there. Be sure you read the NOTEBOOK every day so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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