NFC North Preview

NFC North Preview

NFC North Preview
By Joe Nelson
VegasInsider.com

The NFL draft gets all the attention in the spring but the recent release of the 2014 schedule can be a more telling factor in how a team will fare next season. Take a look at the four teams in the NFC North in this schedule preview. The North was a disappointing division in 2013 with the Packers taking the title despite just an 8-7-1 record and only the 7-9 Lions featuring a positive point differential. This was after the division produced three 10-win teams in 2012. Green Bay is the favorite to win a fourth consecutive division title in 2014 but all four teams can make a case for improvement.

Chicago Bears: The plan to bring in an offensive-minded coach with former CFL coach Marc Trestman certainly worked as Chicago was the highest scoring team in the NFC last season. A team with a reputation for playing great defense struggled to an 8-8 mark while allowing nearly 30 points per game. While the Bears fell from 10-6 in 2012 to 8-8, they were in control of their playoff fate in the final week, losing to the Packers on a late touchdown. Along with the rest of the NFC North, Chicago faces the four AFC East teams and the four NFC South teams and Chicago will have to play Dallas and San Francisco in the second place schedule draw. Chicago has a tough road schedule in 2014 with games at San Francisco, at Carolina, and at New England and before a Week 9 bye, the Bears will play five road games.

Chicago could find a stronger finish in 2014 as the Bears are at home in five of the final seven games of the season with only one of those final seven games coming against a 2013 playoff team. Both games with the Packers will complete by Week 10 for Chicago and the Bears catch Green Bay in potentially favorable situations as the Packers play in Chicago as the second of two back-to-back division games on the road and the bye week will precede Chicago’s trip to Lambeau Field. The Bears will be in the spotlight with six national TV games this season including two primetime games in the first three weeks of the season as well as three consecutive national TV games late in the year. The Bears have made some moves to address the league’s worst run defense from 2013 and there could be more stability on the team if the key injuries from 2013 are avoided, though the case can be made that the Bears were a worse team last season with Jay Cutler at quarterback. After a hot 3-0 start last season faded, the Bears might have a slower start in 2014, but a favorable late season slate could push the Bears into the postseason mix in what should be a tight division race yet again.

Chicago Bears 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .496 (15/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (two home, four away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 6,306
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 6 (1 Thursday night, 1 Thanksgiving, 2 Sunday night, 2 Monday night)

Detroit Lions: The Lions had all signs pointing to a big turnaround in 2013 and while Detroit did improve by three wins from a 4-12 season in 2012, this was a team that sat at 6-3 with the division lead before collapsing with losses in six of the final seven games. The slide cost Jim Schwartz his job and after being passed over by some of the higher profile coaching candidates, the Lions hired Jim Caldwell, the former Colts head coach and more recently the offensive coordinator of the 2012 Super Bowl champion Ravens. The Lions have a great deal of talent on both sides of the ball, but another transition season is ahead and Caldwell is the eighth Lions head coach since the team last won a division title in 1993. Detroit draws a third place schedule in 2014, which means games with the Giants and Cardinals, not exactly weak opponents and Detroit draws a daunting road schedule despite only having to play seven true road games with a London date in Week 8 vs. Atlanta.

The four non-division road games for the Lions come against teams that were 42-22 last season. Detroit also has two challenging back-to-back road game sets in the second half of the season having to play at Arizona and then at New England the next week for taxing travel and then closing the season on the road in Chicago and then Green Bay in potentially treacherous weather for an indoor team. The first half schedule looks slightly more favorable for the Lions, but for a team in a coaching transition, getting off to a hot start may be difficult. As usual, the Lions will likely have a handful of games where they look like a legitimate contender, but getting consistent performances with this schedule in a transition season could be a great challenge. Another late season slide seems likely for the Lions with a tough path in November and December.

Detroit Lions 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .492 (16/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 5 (two home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games (includes London): 9,286
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 2 (1 Thanksgiving, 1 Monday night)

Green Bay Packers: The Packers barely snuck into the playoffs despite facing one of the weaker schedules in the league last season. Aaron Rodgers did miss several games as the Packers bounced through three different back-up quarterbacks, but ultimately Green Bay finished with a negative point differential despite the division title. Injuries were costly for Green Bay on both sides of the ball last season and better results could be on the way with improved health, but there were glaring issues on the team defensively last season. Despite what ultimately was a pretty mediocre campaign in 2013, the Packers draw a first place schedule which means they are the only team to play Seattle, where they open the season. They also host Philadelphia in between division games in November. Green Bay gets to play 2013 division winners New England and Carolina at home which could be a big advantage and overall the Packers have a fairly favorable schedule with only two road games against 2013 playoff teams. Four of the first six games of the season will be on the road and Green Bay has long trips to Seattle, Miami, New Orleans, Buffalo, and Tampa Bay this season.

The Packers will play all three teams in the division in the first five weeks including the big road tests at Detroit and Chicago and even if the Packers don’t win in Seattle, they should be able to get off to a fairly strong start to the season in the first half slate. Green Bay plays teams that finished a combined 21-43 last season in the final four weeks of the season, so swooping in to steal the division title again is certainly a possibility for the Packers as the Lions and Bears both face tough closing slates. In a division with two new head coaches and a second-year head coach, the Packers have by far the most stability of the group and while the schedule rates slightly more difficult than the rest of the division, overall the timing of games should play out favorably for Green Bay.

Green Bay Packers 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .504 (13/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 5 (three home, two away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 7,783
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 5 (2 Thursday, 2 Sunday night, 1 Monday night)

Minnesota Vikings: The rise to 10-6 in 2012 certainly felt like a fluke for the Vikings and not surprisingly, Minnesota fell backwards last season, finishing 4-12 while allowing 480 points, the most in the league. The Vikings started 1-7 last season before competing relatively well down the stretch, going 2-0-1 in the final three division games and beating NFC East champion Philadelphia and playing close games with Dallas and Baltimore. Minnesota appears set to go with veteran Matt Cassel at quarterback, although the Vikings traded up to get Teddy Bridgewater late in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. Minnesota’s rough 2013 season led to a coaching change and defensive-minded Mike Zimmer takes over after great success in transforming the Cincinnati defense in recent years. The Vikings still have a great running game and a solid run defense returning from last season, but in a division with three high-profile quarterbacks, it has been tough for Minnesota to keep up. The Vikings had a very difficult schedule last season and there are challenges ahead in 2014, mainly getting used to playing outside as the Vikings will play at TCF Bank Stadium for two seasons on the campus of the University of Minnesota while a new stadium is built in downtown Minneapolis. Four of the final six games of the season will be at home for Minnesota and there certainly could be some challenging cold weather games and the fan support could be diminished moving from the loud Metrodome into a smaller college stadium.

The fourth place draw of St. Louis and Washington does not feature a typical pair of last place squads, but the Vikings do at least avoid the NFC West powers and Minnesota only plays one road game outside of the division against a 2013 playoff team, though it is a challenging game at New Orleans. The Vikings play the Patriots, Saints, and Packers in the first five weeks, a very tough early draw for a team in transition with quarterback questions. If Minnesota can avoid a disastrous start like they had last season, the rest of the schedule is relatively favorable. Minnesota plays teams that were a combined 28-52 from Week 6 to 11 with a bye week mixed in as Minnesota would have a chance to stay in contention if they can steal a game or two in the tough first month. The final two road games are at Detroit and at Miami, not exactly overly threatening venues and the Vikings do not have to play any west coast games. The Vikings are probably a year away from seriously contending for the postseason, but this is likely to be an improved team compared with 2013 based on the schedule alone.

Minnesota Vikings 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .477 (21/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 5 (three home, two away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 7,684
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 1 (1 Thursday)

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Re: NFC North Preview

NFC North Betting Preview
By: Micah Roberts
Sportingnews.com

LAS VEGAS -- The Linemakers on Sporting News continue our division-by-division preview of the 2014 NFL season. Here is the NFC North.

ODDS TO WIN NFC NORTH

Green Bay Packers 2/3
Chicago Bears 3/1
Detroit Lions 3/1
Minnesota Vikings 25/1

Futures action

"The Packers have by far been the most popular choice within those four teams as far as tickets written go," said Jeff Stoneback, manager of the MGM Resorts sport book hub that oversees more futures action than any chain of books in Nevada. "They're actually the second most popular bet among all teams, only 60 tickets behind Seattle.

"We have them listed at 8-to-1 now, but our biggest risk among the division is the Bears, who we have had to drop all the way down from 20-to-1 down to 6-to-1. Every time we lower it, they just keep betting it and we just keep incurring more risk. We get a lot of that Midwest traffic through here, and always get the high risk on the Bears and Cubs, but they really seem to like the Bears a little more this season. If the Bears won it all, it would be our second worst decision right now behind the Raiders."

A team-by-team outlook...

Chicago Bears

Season wins: opened 8 OVER -140, currently 8.5 OVER -150

Super Bowl odds: 25-1

2013 record: 8-8

Key additions: Lamarr Houston (LB), Jared Allen (DE), Willie Young (DE), Brian De La Puente (C), Ryan Mundy (S), Jordan Senn (LB), Adrian Wilson (S)

Key losses: Henry Melton (DT), Josh McCown (QB), Julius Peppers (DE), Corey Wootton (DE), Devin Hester (WR), Major Wright (S), Earl Bennett (WR)

LM take: Monsters of the Midway they're not, and the defense does not figure to be drastically improved. Look for Marc Trestman's offense to put up big numbers again, but for the results to be right around the .500 mark with playoffs off the horizon by Week 15. People are high on them again as the season win total and Super Bowl futures show, but the Jay Cutler act is getting old and they no longer have Josh McCown to execute the offense if/when Cutler needs to mend.

Key quote: Bears HC Marc Trestman, on all five Bears starting offensive lineman from 2013 returning this season: "To be able to bring them back again, continue to progress and add to the system is certainly a benefit. They're focused on trying to be the best offensive line they can be. They know they can get better. And we've got some new guys in the mix that are competing as well, not necessarily for starting positions but for positions on the team. So it's a positive thing."

Detroit Lions

Season wins: opened 8 OVER -150, currently 8.5 UNDER -130

Super Bowl odds: 40-1

2013 record: 7-9

Key additions: Golden Tate (WR), James Ihedigbo (S), Darryl Tapp (DE), Cassius Vaughn (CB), Jed Collins (FB), Garrett Reynolds (G)

Key losses: Willie Young (DE), Nate Burleson (WR), Jason Fox (T), Shaun Hill (QB)

LM take: They folded down the stretch, losing their final four games, and went 1-6 ATS in their last seven. New coach Jim Caldwell should be able to bring a renewed enthusiasm to this squad that has underachieved greatly the past two seasons. Look for close to 10 wins and a potential wild-card spot.

"I think Detroit is a little undervalued because of their finish to last season," says The Linemakers on Sporting News' Kenny White.

Key quote: Matthew Stafford talks about the changes under new coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi bringing in new offensive system: "I think I've embraced it. It's something that is obviously a challenge. I don't see this as something that I'm on this path by myself, but at the same time, I know the guys on the team are going to look up to me. You never want to see coaches go, or people you've been with five-plus years, Shaun Hill included. But sometimes change can be a great thing. That's the mindset I've taken into this.

"Frankly, to be successful after the changes, that's the only mind-set you can have."

Green Bay Packers

Season wins: opened 10 OVER -145, currently 10.5 flat

Super Bowl odds: 12-1

2013 record: 8-8

Key additions: Julius Peppers (DE), Letroy Guion (DT), Michael Hill (RB)

Key losses: Evan Dietrich-Smith (C), James Jones (WR), Marshall Newhouse (T), M.D. Jennings (S), Greg Van Roten (G), C.J. Wilson (DE)

LM quick take: Adding Julius Peppers is a great step in improving a poor defense, but the secondary is still lacking. First-round pick safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could help that need as another Alabama product -- Eddie Lacy -- helped their running game. While they appear a notch or two below the Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC, they'll have a chance to challenge that notion in Week 1 at Seattle. With a healthy Aaron Rodgers, winning the NFC North is expected. If Lacy takes his game to the next level, they could be playing meaningful games for home field in late December.

Key quote: Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements, on Eddie Lacy: "We haven't sat down and figured out 'X' number of carries for Eddie. We want to get him touches, trying to get him more involved in all aspects of the game, but Eddie was a workhorse for us last year. And then when James got in there last year, he ran very hard. That was a great one-two punch. Now you factor in DuJuan and the other guys, it's going to be interesting to see how that plays out."

Minnesota Vikings

Season wins: opened 6 UNDER -125, currently 6 flat

Super Bowl odds: 200-1

2013 record: 5-11

Key additions: Captain Munnerlyn (CB), Corey Wootton (DE), Linval Joseph (DT), Kurt Coleman (S), Lestar Jean (WR), Tom Johnson (DE), Terrell Manning (LB), Derek Cox (CB)

Key losses: Jared Allen (DE), Chris Cook (CB), Toby Gerhart (RB), J'Marcus Webb (T), John Carlson (TE), Letroy Guion (DT), Kevin Williams (DT)

LM take: They may have won only five games in 2013, but they covered the spread nine times, showing they were much better than their record. New coach Mike Zimmer should help improve the defense, but without the QB situation miraculously changing, getting to .500, or seven wins, seems like a lofty challenge. On the flip side, what if first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater impresses Zimmer so much in camp that he's the starter in Week 1. We saw something similar happen two years ago with Seattle and the move paid off okay. Would a move like that make the Vikings better? Who do you want as a bettor, the kid learning on the fly or a steady but unspectacular veteran?

Kenny White says Bridgewater. "Christian Ponder has been below average his entire career and you can't win in the NFL with a below average quarterback."

Either way, Minnesota is nowhere close to being where Seattle was when Russell Wilson beat out Matt Flynn.

Key quote: Ron Jaworski said Matt Cassell is not ideally suited for new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's system: "My 32nd rated quarterback entering the 2014 season is Matt Cassel. Turner's offense starts with the run game. With Adrian Peterson in the backfield, Cassel's 66 quarterback rating last year on play-action passes just wasn't good enough."

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Re: NFC North Preview

NFC North Outlook
By Tony Mejia
VegasInsider.com

Division winner

Detroit pulled off the grueling equivalent of fumbling inside the 10-yard line last season by squandering a 6-3 start in maddening fashion. Not only did the Lions completely blow each of their final six losses with asinine decisions and costly turnovers, they led or were tied in every fourth quarter. History will show that they failed to win a game after a 40-10 rout of eventual NFC North champ Green Bay, going winless in December to finish 7-9. The Packers won the division at 8-7-1. Detroit's last three losses came by a combined six points, the largest of which was decided on an overtime field goal. There's a lot of pain and frustration for new head coach Jim Caldwell to tap into. The fact he's on board instead of Jim Schwartz offers an immediate improvement, as will the arrival of receivers Golden Tate, Kevin Ogletree and rookie tight end Eric Ebron to enhance the offensive arsenal around Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush. QB Matthew Stafford should be a year wiser. First-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has a lot of talent to work with from a unit that gave up the fewest points in the division last season. Sometimes, the best motivation is the desire to bounce back from an epic collapse. That should pay dividends in this season's final months.

Projected order of finish


1) Detroit
2) Green Bay
3) Chicago
4) Minnesota

Go over with

The Detroit Lions are available at 8.5 at Sportsbook.ag, so expect them to at least get to 9-7 in Caldwell's first season and pull the trigger. Remember, he did go 14-2 in taking over for Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, remaining undefeated until after Christmas. If Stafford, Megatron and Bush stay healthy, the Lions will score points in bunches, especially if Ebron hits the ground running and adds another dimension. Defensively, Ndamukong Suh faces a key season after struggling in 2013, so a new voice like Austin should help him. The front seven has ridiculous talent in Suh, Ezekiel Ansah, Nick Fairley, Stephen Tulloch as well as rookies Kyle Van Noy and Larry Webster III. Meanwhile, the hope is that James Ihedigbo's vast postseason experience will help fortify the secondary. There's certainly reason for optimism.

Go under with

Green Bay won its third consecutive NFC North title last season, but saw its streak of four straight seasons with double-digit wins come to an end. Injuries played a major role in the regression, but expecting 10.5 wins, the Pack's projected win total at most books, provides little room for error. Given how brittle the offensive line has been in holding up, often being comprised of patchwork unit that leaves Aaron Rodgers running for his life, counting on the Packers to win 11 times given their tough division and scheduled games against defending champion Seattle, New England, Carolina, New Orleans and Philadelphia seems like far too tall an order to back.

Games to Watch - September

Sept. 4 - Green Bay at Seattle: The Thursday night season opener sees these powers meet for the second time in three years at CenturyLink Field. The Packers got beat on that awful "touchception" call that ended up helping to bring an end to the 2012 referee strike, so they'll be out to avoid walking off with another sour taste in their mouths.

Sept. 8 - N.Y. Giants at Detroit: The Lions get the opening stage of the Monday night doubleheader to start the Caldwell era off right and exorcize some well-documented demons.

Sept. 14 - Detroit at Carolina: Another major test awaits against the Panthers stingy defense. Win or lose, Stafford avoiding key turnovers in a hostile road atmosphere would be a positive sign of progress.

Sept. 14 - New England at Minnesota: We know to expect a heavy dose of Adrian Peterson to try and keep Tom Brady off the field, so this is a high-profile home opener the Vikings may be able to steal if they get a break or three.

Sept 14 - Chicago at San Francisco: The Week 2 Sunday night game will be a massive hurdle for Jay Cutler and a Bears offensive line that returns intact after starting all 16 games together last season. If they keep making significant progress, they'll be a factor in the NFC. This will be a great opportunity to see where they stand.

Sept. 21 - Green Bay at Detroit: The favorites square off in the first battle of a Black and Blue division that's been transformed into a pass-happy group outside of the Vikings. The Lions were perfect at home gains the rest of the NFC North last season, so maintaining that dominance will be key to their success.

Sept. 22 - Chicago at N.Y. Jets: Rex Ryan will have plenty in store for Cutler on a Monday night, but you can bet Marc Trestman will also have a few tricks up his sleeve. There's no question both head coaches are masterful strategists in their areas of expertise, so hopefully this winds up an intriguing chess match.

Sept. 28 - Green Bay at Chicago: The Packers stunned the Bears at Soldier Field in Week 17 to win the NFC North, stealing the game and division when Rodgers found Randall Cobb to convert a 4th-and-8 in the final minute. The 33-28 loss has haunted Chicago since, so this will be an emotional contest you can count on it being up for despite the short week.

Sept. 28 - Atlanta at Minnesota: Given the tough early schedule featuring the home date against the Patriots and road games against St. Louis and New Orleans, this one might be vital to the rest of 2014 for the Vikes.

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