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NFC North Preview

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NFC East · NFC North · NFC South · NFC West
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)

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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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