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NFC North Outlook

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Ask the oddsmakers in Las Vegas which NFL division they hold in the highest regard this season and their answer will likely surprise: the NFC North.

Once known as the league's Black-and-Blue division, the NFC Central has softened since becoming the NFC North. That's confirmed by the fact teams in this loop have lost more games than they've won since division realignment in 2002, going 316-348 in all games. Even poorer against winning opposition, they've produced a lethargic 104-185 record against teams with a win percentage better than .500, including 72-126 against winning foes outside the division.

Making matters worse is the fact that they are just 11-22 straight up all-time against the AFC South, its designated non-conference division rival this season.

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So why is it Vegas is enamored with this year's edition, you ask?

For openers the four teams residing in the NFC North own a collective league-high total of 36 projected victories this campaign, headlined by 12 wins posted on the Green Bay Packers. With the Detroit Lions (9.5 wins) and the Chicago Bears (8.5 wins) next in line, only the Minnesota Vikings (6 wins) look to be a losing team this season.

Looking back at last year's NFL QB Ratings it's easy to understand the expected win totals. Led by former MVP Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers' top rating of 122.5 in 2011, the division produced three signal callers in the upper half of the rankings, with Detroit's Matthew Stafford finishing number 5 at 97.2 and Chicago's Jay Cutler number 13 at 85.7.

So, will it be black-and-blue or sacre bleu for the NFC North this season? Stay tuned.

Designated 'Play On' and 'Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.

CHICAGO
Team Theme: STATUS WOE


It was perhaps the quietest celebration of a five-game win skein in NFL history last season when Chicago walked off Soldier Field with a 31-20 win over San Diego. News that QB Jay Cutler had suffered a season-ending thumb injury had settled in. A week later, star RB Matt Forte suffered a season-ending knee injury and just like that a promising 7-3 start fell apart like a new bride's first cake. Backup QB Caleb Hanie went 0-4 (with a 41.8 passer rating) and the Bears were toast. New offensive coordinator Mike Tice replaces Mike Martz and the former Vikings head coach knows better than most the importance of keeping Cutler out of harm's way. The problem is issues on the offensive line were not addressed: none of four key offensive acquisitions or two offensive players acquired in the draft are linemen. Instead, they are banking on WR Brandon Marshall and RB Michael Bush, and healthy returns by Cutler and Forte, to juice the attack. Through it all, an aging defense and Lovie Smith hang on for dear life.

PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Detroit (10/22)

Stat You Will Like The Bears have allowed 105 sacks the last two years.

IN THE STATS: The Bears are 9-31 'ITS' at home the last five regular seasons.


DETROIT
Team Theme: THE ROAR IS BACK


After their first playoff berth since 1999, and enjoying their best-ever offensive production last year behind healthy franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Lions are growling for more. After retaining key components, Detroit was unable to do much in the free agency market but that was not a high priority. Behind a veteran offensive line, priority-one is keeping Stafford upright (5,038 yards and 41 TDs). An armada of wide receivers, led by the indomitable Calvin Johnson, is next to relentless. The Achilles' heel is a running game that averaged just 92 RYPG last season. In their defense, both Jahvid Best (concussion) and Mikel Leshoure (torn Achilles tendon) were hurt. Added production from the backfield will only make the offense more lethal. Head coach Jim Schwartz realizes the defense needs to get back to 2010's standard. As expected, DT Ndamukong Suh hit a sophomore wall when his tackles and sacks were cut in half. Along with a disappointing effort from fellow tackle Nick Fairley, the Lions need more output from these two in order to post repeat playoff appearances for the first time in 17 years.

PLAY ON: vs. Green Bay (11/18) - *KEY as a dog

Stat You Will Like: Detroit is 0-8 SU and ATS in its last eight games on Thanksgiving Day.

IN THE STATS: The Lions were 11-5 'ITS' last season.


GREEN BAY
Team Theme: THE DEFENSE RESTS


As we pointed out last year, the hands-down 'Leader of the Pack' is QB Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers enjoyed a staggering 122.5 quarterback rating in 2011, coming on the heels of 101.8, 104.4, and 105.5 ratings the previous three seasons. So how is it, off a career-best performance from the league MVP and a franchise high 15 wins, the Packers went one-and-out (as a No. 1 seed at Lambeau Field, no less) in the playoffs last season, you ask? Simple, we reply. The defense came to a complete halt, surrendering 103 YPG more last year than it did in its 2011 Super Bowl season, including a mind-boggling 70 passes of 20+ yards. Green Bay's first step to recovery was drafting six defensive players with its first six picks in this year's draft, including pass rusher deluxe Nick Perry from USC. Perry's presence figures to aide LB Clay Matthews who finished up with a career-low six sacks in 2011. Surprisingly, no changes were made to the defensive staff. Losing OC Joe Philbin to the Dolphins might be another matter, though.

PLAY ON: at NY Giants (11/25) - *Key as a dog

Stat You Will Like: The Packers allowed the most passing yards in NFL history last season.

IN THE STATS: The Packers were 6-11 'ITS' last season.


MINNESOTA
Team Theme: STARTING OVER


After attempting to switch gears from Brett Favre to Donovan McNabb, the Vikings have had a heavy dose of cold water splashed on their face, suffering a franchise-high 13 losses last season - while winning just nine games combined the last two seasons. This year a new game plan has been laid out and building blocks for the future are in place. New GM Rick Speilman has targeted a group of core players and is rolling the dice with them. Second-year quarterback Chris Ponder is one of the building blocks. The team remains confident in his abilities despite the fact they have won only one of the 10 games Ponder has started and finished. First round choice Matt Kalil was selected with the 4th pick of the draft and will be asked to become Ponder's bodyguard. More important is whether star RB Adrian Peterson can completely recover from ACL surgery as he once did in college at Oklahoma. After regressing each of the last three seasons, it's imperative the defense regains its former groove. Let the process begin.

PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Green Bay (12/30)

Stat You Will Like: The Vikings have won one division game the last two years.

IN THE STATS: The Vikings are 16-6 'ITS' at home in their last 22 home games.


  
HEADLINES
Mejia: AFC Preseason Notes
Lawrence: Trends to Watch - September
Lawrence: 2014 NFC Season Preview
Marshall: Ravens rising up
Lawrence: 2014 AFC Season Preview
ASA: NFC North Notebook
ASA: NFC South Notebook
Marshall: Philadelphia Hype
Rogers: AFC North Preview
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