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NFC North Outlook
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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, 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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