NFC North Preview
Network Notebook: NFC NORTH TRULY BLACK AND BLUE IN 2011
The foursome of Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit, and Minnesota have been linked together in "black and blue"lore for decades in the NFL. The divisions may re-align from time to time because of expansion (it may be hard for some of you to remember that the league didn't always consist of eight four-team divisions!). The geographical proximity of these Ice Belt franchises has them frozen together in time, destined to continue storied rivalries year after year.
And, THIS year, the NFC North could truly be something special. Nobody really got worse in the offseason. Stragglers got better. We're looking at a foursome that will play a very prominent role in NFL storylines this year, and in the handicapping of Las Vegas bettors.
CHICAGO won the division last year with an 11-5 record, earning the #2 seed and a bye. You'll get your first national TV look at the Bears tonight when they visit the NY Giants on ESPN's Monday Night Football.
GREEN BAY suffered through injuries all season, but got healthy just in time for the playoffs. Their rose from a Wildcard spot all the way to Super Bowl champion. Note that Chicago and Green Bay played each other in the NFC Finals.
MINNESOTA had a great defense and a great running back, but couldn't overcome spotty quarterback play and slumped to 6-10. This is a team that reached the NFC Finals the year before, coming moments away from beating New Orleans. The acquisition of Donovan McNabb could lift them right back up to playoff caliber simply because most of the other positions were already there.
DETROIT has picked up some high impact defensive players in recent drafts, and is now a popular darkhorse across pundit nation. They're going to hurt people. If the offense can mature with experience, the Lions can easily become Wildcard material his year as well.
Let's review the final standings from 2010. You'll see right off the bat that this foursome was close to being playoff caliber last year.
2010 FINAL NFC NORTH STANDINGS
Chicago: 11-5 (+4 turnovers, 11th schedule)
Green Bay: 10-6 (+10 turnovers, 7th schedule)
Detroit: 6-10 (+4 turnovers, 8th schedule)
Minnesota: 6-10 (-11 turnovers, 5th schedule)
Detroit and Minnesota finished 6-10, but played very tough schedules. Pencil in league average schedules, and you're looking at something like 8-8 for those two teams, even with some of the headaches that they endured. Neither Detroit nor Minnesota was as bad as their record suggested last season. Minnesota is very likely to turn around their turnovers woes this year with a much more experienced quarterback.
We should mention that Green Bay went 10-6 vs. a killer schedule, while dealing with injuries! That certainly foreshadowed what would happen in the playoffs once they got healthy. They're a 12-4 or 13-3 type team when healthy, which the other NFC powers and the Pittsburgh Steelers can attest to.
Football fans are used to thinking about the NFC East as the power division in this conference because of media hype and the Dallas Cowboys cachet. The media fell in love with the NFC South last year because Atlanta surged to a #1 seed, New Orleans was the defending Super Bowl champs, and Tampa Bay because a legitimate feel good story. Just remember that the AFC South played a much softer schedule than the NFC North did!
Let's compare the North to the South in the NFC:
- Green Bay beat Atlanta on the road in the playoffs
- Chicago beat the team that beat New Orleans in the playoffs
- Detroit beat Tampa Bay on the road during the regular season
- Minnesota lost a close 14-9 affair on the road at New Orleans in the regular season
What would have happened if Detroit moved to the South and got to play Tampa's 23rd ranked schedule instead of the 8th? What if Tampa Bay moved to the North and had to play Detroit's schedule. Maybe those 6-10 and 10-6 records would have met in the middle at 8-8.
You never know for sure how a season is going to play out. Right now, there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the NFC North this year. Let's see what our key indicator stats from 2010 might be suggesting...
OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME
Green Bay 13.8
Notebook: Green Bay was explosive even with their injuries. They have a shot to be like New England if they can ever have a sustained run at full strength. Otherwise, offense is an issue in this division. It's black and blue because three of the teams "have"to run! (If you're new to the website, Drive Points are those scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more per game).
Detroit had injuries at the quarterback position last year. They should improve with stability. But, it's hard to see the Lions becoming an elite offense any time soon. Minnesota hopes McNabb can at least bump that number up closer to league average...which was around 12 last year. Chicago was a big disappointment because Jay Cutler was supposed to help them drive the field and light up the scoreboard. He may never be as good as he looks like he's supposed to be.
DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME
Green Bay 8.4
Notebook: This is where the bread gets buttered. Anything in single digits is terrific in the modern game. Only nine teams in the whole league managed that, and three were in this division. This division played tough schedules! Detroit's likely to get better from their league average mark. Black and Blue indeed. Be sure you're aware that Green Bay has an elite defense in terms of shutting down drives. Aaron Rodgers gets a lot of media hype because quarterbacks on winning teams always do. And, in his case, he really has become a legitimate star. This defense is producing star quality results and deserves more credit than it's been getting.
OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Green Bay 42%
Notebook: League average is around 40%, so Green Bay is a bit of a disappointment here. It can be tough to move the chains when you're dealing with injuries. Let's see if a healthy Packers group can make a run at 44-455 this season. The Vikings are hoping McNabb can help here. But, he struggled badly on third downs with Washington last year, so that's far from a sure thing. Jay Cutler. What can you say? His fundamentals keep getting worse. You have to give the team credit for going as far as they did last year even with his issues. Right now, they're looking at the real possibility of dropping from first in the standings to last even without getting any worse. Did they fix any of their weaknesses? Didn't everyone else get better?
DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Green Bay 36%
Notebook: Strong numbers here. The Bears defense consistently bailed out Cutler by shutting down opponents and getting them off the field. Another strong showing from Green Bay. Think about how potent that combination is...your defense gets opponents off the field...and your offense is led by Aaron Rodgers. What other NFC Super Bowl hopefuls can be confident about similar situations with their teams?
2011 NFC NORTH OUTLOOK
You have to start with the assumption that the defending Super Bowl champs are going to be healthier this year than they were last year...which puts the GREEN BAY PACKERS at the top of the division. Anything from 11-5 to 13-3 wouldn't be a surprise unless they suffer the worst of luck.
We're not optimistic about the CHICAGO BEARS because they weren't really championship quality material last year. They had negative differentials in Drive Points and Third Down conversions. They earned a bye because of Green Bay's injuries. Their only playoff game before the Packers was a home field affair against 7-9 Seattle. We'll see what develops. For now we have them penciled in as an 8-9 win team depending on what happens with Detroit and Minnesota. If those guys rise up, it's going to be tough for the Bears to make a run at the Wildcard.
We're a bit concerned that the DETROIT LIONS are on everybody's darkhorse list. That's often a kiss of death, because the players believe all the press clippings and don't prepare as hard as they should. There's a chance for a playoff caliber defense this year, but an erratic offense that stubs its toe too often. We'll be watching this team closely. Frankly, nothing would surprise us in either direction.
Donovan McNabb was NOT the answer for Washington last year, so the MINNESOTA VIKINGS can just assume they've solved their quarterback problem. Maybe they did. If that's the case, we're looking at a 9-10 win team that could easily do this year what Chicago did last year with a break or two. If not? Well, Washington went 6-10 last year. Minnesota may be looking at a re-run.
At least be aware that the potential for something really great is in play for this division in 2011. Their divisional rivalry battles could be even more intense than normal...which is saying something.
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