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NFC North Outlook
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The NFL draft gets all the attention this week, but the recent release of the 2013 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 Minnesota Vikings made a big splash in the first round of the draft, but a daunting travel schedule is ahead for Minnesota this season. The Bears may have the most favorable schedule in the group, but a team in transition may not be able to take advantage. The schedule should point to a rise for the Lions and perhaps a small drop for the Packers in the NFC North, but time will tell if there will be enough of an impact to shake up the standings.

Chicago Bears: The Bears were 10-6 last season, but with another late-season collapse a bold coaching change was made. 57-year old CFL veteran Marc Trestman was certainly not a hire that many fell in love with and while he will inherit a team that can compete right away, there also will be elevated expectations for a first-year coach and a first-time NFL head coach, especially one that has been away from the NFL for almost a decade. Few 10-win teams get a 3rd-place schedule the following year, so the opportunity for the Bears to have early success is there. The 3rd-place games bring the Saints and the Rams and those are games Chicago will probably need to take if the playoffs are to be a reality as the NFC North draws the NFC East and AFC North teams for a rather difficult overall slate ahead.

Chicago will play four of the first six games at home, which could be very helpful for a team in transition. They will host 2012 playoff teams in the first two weeks, but Cincinnati and Minnesota are not as fearsome as some of the other playoff caliber teams in the league. The Bears are saddled with three separate sets of back-to-back road games this season, but compared with the rest of the division, Chicago has a favorable slate of road games with only one game outside of the division against a team that made the playoffs last season. Chicago also gets to play its Monday night game with Green Bay coming off a bye week and with a favorable late-season slate, another collapse is not likely this season. Chicago closes the season hosting Green Bay, but has Dallas, Cleveland, and Philadelphia in the three weeks prior to the finale. Chicago will not play a single game outside of the Eastern and Central time zones as the travel miles are among the lowest in the league. Overall, the Bears have the most favorable schedule in the NFC North and while repeating a double-digit win season in a coaching transition is a difficult task, Chicago has a good shot to move back into a playoff position this year if they can get off to another strong start.

Chicago Bears 2013 Schedule Numbers:
2013 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .502
Games vs. 2012 Playoff Teams: 7 (four home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 3,476
Back-to-Back road game sets: 3
Primetime Games: 3 (one Thursday, two Mondays)

Detroit Lions: With three 10-win teams from 2012 in the NFC North, the Lions are facing one of the toughest schedules in the league based strictly on last year’s results. After breaking into the playoffs in 2011, the Lions suffered a huge decline last season with a 4-12 record including losing each of the final eight games of the season. Despite being 4-12, the Lions were only outscored by an average of just four points per game and this is a talented team that could be a strong candidate for a rebound season. Given the climate in the locker room and the general sense of immaturity on the roster and starting with head coach Jim Schwartz, a scenario on the other end of the spectrum is certainly a possibility as well. Detroit failed to win a single game within the division last season, so that will be an obvious area where the Lions need to improve. Ford Field also saw the Lions go just 2-6 in home games despite an offense that was very productive, scoring over 23 points per game on average.

By finishing fourth in the division last year, the Lions are the only NFC North team that has Arizona and Tampa Bay on its schedule and that is certainly an advantage given the overall depth of the NFC and the teams that the rest of the division has to face in those match-ups. Detroit does have three sets of consecutive road games on the schedule this year and the Lions could know early how the season will turn out having to play four of the first six games of the season on the road. The late-season schedule is challenging with the Ravens, Giants, and Vikings in the final three weeks, but the Lions do get a bye week before their road meeting with the Bears and the three division home games come in relatively favorable spots on the schedule. Both of the big primetime games for the Lions will also be at home. The Lions certainly look like a team that should improve on last season’s ugly record, but whether they will improve enough to buy this coaching staff another season remains questionable in a very tough division.

Detroit Lions 2013 Schedule Numbers:
2013 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .539
Games vs. 2012 Playoff Teams: 7 (four home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 5,125
Back-to-Back road game sets: 3
Primetime Games: 2 (one Thanksgiving, one Monday)

Minnesota Vikings:
The Vikings bolstered their roster with three first round picks and coming off a surprising 10-6 season and a trip to the playoffs, Minnesota might look like a team on the rise. The Vikings will be dealt one of the tougher schedules in the NFL, as they will play just seven home games by virtue of facing Pittsburgh in London. The road schedule is truly difficult as after the opening game at Detroit, Minnesota’s remaining seven road games will all be against teams that finished 8-8 or better last season. In the AFC North, draw the Vikings have road games against Baltimore and Cincinnati, the top two teams from that division last season and they will also have to play at Seattle in the second place NFC draw. There are winnable home games outside of the division with Cleveland, Carolina, and Philadelphia all visiting the Metrodome, but an early Week 5 bye could add to a challenging second half of the season schedule. Minnesota also plays its two biggest division road games, at Chicago, and at Green Bay in the second of back-to-back road games this season.

The Vikings open up with back-to-back road games in the division at Detroit and at Chicago and in late November, they have a brutal set of road games at Seattle and at Green Bay in back-to-back weeks. The home meeting with Green Bay will be a big Sunday night game for the Vikings, but it comes on the heels of a Monday night game in New York, giving the Vikings long travel and a short week for one of the biggest games of the season, while the Packers get to host the Browns leading up to that game. Minnesota went 4-2 in the NFC North last season and it will likely take a similar mark for Minnesota to flirt with the postseason again. With Chicago in a coaching transition and Detroit coming off a dreadful season, it is possible for Minnesota to maintain its place but the Vikings were a team that snuck out several narrow wins last season to sneak into the playoffs and a step-back season is probably a more likely scenario with this slate.

Minnesota Vikings 2013 Schedule Numbers:
2013 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .516
Games vs. 2012 Playoff Teams: 6 (two home, four away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 11,365 (includes 4,280 to London)
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 3 (one Thursday, one Sunday night, one Monday)

Green Bay Packers: The Packers will be the favorites to win the NFC North for the third straight season this year and Green Bay will likely be one of the popular picks to win the Super Bowl again. The Packers stumbled to an 11-5 finish last season and ending up in the #3 spot in the NFC playoff picture proved to be too difficult as Green Bay saw an early playoff exit for the second year in a row. Green Bay was the highest-scoring team in this division last season but in the playoffs the defense showed glaring concerns with an embarrassing loss at San Francisco to end the season. Green Bay will open the season where they left off with a Week 1 match-up at Candlestick Park, a contest they lost in during the opening week last season as well. Having to play San Francisco as well as Atlanta with the first-place schedule is certainly a challenge for the Packers and overall it is not an easy slate for the green and gold. The first four road games of the season will all be against 2012 playoff teams and Green Bay will only play one road game against a team that had a losing record last season, the division game at Detroit in early December.

In the AFC North draw, the Packers get road games against the Super Bowl champion Ravens as well as the Bengals and the Packers will also have to play a road game against another recent nemesis, the New York Giants. The Packers have gone 15-1 at home the last two seasons and that is a run that could continue with a relatively favorable home slate, though there are just four games against losing teams from 2012 on the schedule the whole season. Green Bay will not have to play consecutive road games at any point in the season which is a favorable break in the schedule, especially compared with the rest of the division but the closing schedule is tough with a gauntlet of big national games with Atlanta, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Chicago as the final four opponents. The Packers also will play four road games in the Eastern Time zone as well as the opener in the Pacific Time zone for some lengthy trips. Green Bay will have its work cut out for it this season and the door may be open for a surprise in the NFC North, although none of the other three teams appear poised to make that leap.

Green Bay Packers 2013 Schedule Numbers:
2013 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .533
Games vs. 2012 Playoff Teams: 7 (three home, four away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 6,785
Back-to-Back road game sets: 0
Primetime Games: 5 (one Thanksgiving, three Sunday night, one Monday)

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