With the joy that is brought upon by the upcoming return of the NFL, it is time to begin our traditional yearly divisional previews that pick division winners and wins over/under bets for every single team. Last season, my picks went a cool 18-13-1 regarding over/unders (.581 winning percentage), while picking 6 of 8 divisional winners correctly. Now let’s step ahead with part 1 of this 6-part endeavor while trying to do even better than last season.
To begin, we have the top-heavy NFC North, where the Packers appear to be in a different tax bracket compared to the other three franchises of the division. Under its current four-team format, the NFC North has seen Green Bay take the title in 8 of its 13 seasons, including the past four. Going from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers has given the Packers the chance to always have the best QB in the North, and so it seems that again the season could be a formality while the rest of the division battles for respectability and a possible wild card spot.
Standings predictions are carried from worst to best, and include over/under picks using the latest odds posted by Bovada Online.
Odds to Win Division: +1700
Over/Under Wins: 7
The once-proud Chicago franchise enters 2015 in what may be its lowest point in a decade, a year removed from an embarrassing 5-11 campaign that has led to a complete shake-up of the team’s staff. With new GM Ryan Pace and a new coach in John Fox, the Bears are finally looking to embrace an honest attempt at a full rebuilding job, which sounds smart but can lead to a couple of dreadful seasons.
The notable non-change happened with embattled quarterback Jay Cutler, who had been linked to numerous trade rumors only to instead sign a long-term extension with Chicago. While Cutler’s demeanor and inconsistent play continue to enrage the Windy City, it is still possible that Bears management opted to keep a proven QB around instead of looking into the unknown, and probably trusting that Cutler can be part of the next successful iteration of the Bears. He still has Alshon Jeffery as a threat to catch the ball, but the defense appears to have many liabilities that will drag down Chicago.
For a team that had better talent and still won only 5 games it seems a bit of a stretch that it could go ahead and better that mark. The Bears could mention their 0-4 record in 1-score games as a sign of possible regression, but that can be countered by a -123 point differential that reflected their poor talent level. It should be a season of growing pains that at least yields a nice high draft pick to start thinking about the future. In one of my favorite bets for the year, take the Under confidently.
Odds to Win Division: +500
The Lions had the best chance of dethroning the Packers while also winning their first division title since 1993, but that was lost when Detroit faltered in the regular season’s final game against Green Bay. That loss was compounded with the traumatic playoff exit against the Cowboys, which was followed by the inevitable loss of its best player to free agency. After the defense emerged as Detroit’s calling card in 2014, how can the team rebound after losing Ndamukong Suh?
During the regular season, Detroit allowed 20+ points only five times, finished as the second-best unit in the league in terms of yards allowed, while Suh had the best non-JJ Watt defensive season in the NFL. However, the defense’s prowess did mask a lot of the offense’s shortcomings, as Calvin Johnson again missed some time and Matt Stafford took a step back in his development. Detroit’s +39 point differential was more in line with a 9-win team instead of the 11-5 record posted by the Lions, fueled by an unsustainable 6-1 record in one-score contests.
Suh has been replaced by veteran former Raven Haloti Ngata, and the bulk of the roster remains intact to fight for another playoff spot, but it’s hard not to remember what happened to the last Detroit team that made the playoffs. After a bad playoff exit, they regressed by six wins and pummeled back to earth, which could be a possible scenario for the 2015 version of the team that has lost an irreplaceable player. It should be close, but the Lions are looking like the 8-8 or 7-9 team that sees its fortune reversed after a successful season. Play the Under in this case.
Odds to Win Division: +700
Considering all of the turmoil suffered by the franchise in 2014, seeing the Vikings go 7-9 was a pleasant surprise and a possible building block. As a rookie, Teddy Bridgewater looked raw and sometimes unpolished, but he also managed to throw more scores than interceptions and lead 3 game-winning drives, usually looking better as the games piled on. Teddy will now be rejoined by Adrian Peterson, whose season-long absence in 2014 may prove as a nice resting period that could see the former MVP rejuvenated in 2015.
The offensive line remains in flux, with a lot of question marks regarding pass protection and opening lanes for Peterson, but at least the team can count on further development from a defensive unit that was better than league average last season and ready to take a step ahead. As Bridgewater, Coach Mike Zimmer starts 2015 as a sophomore that looks to be among the best young coaches in the NFL, as the Vikings are becoming a trendy pick to at least battle for a wild card spot in the middling NFC.
The NFL’s continuous system that pushes also-rans into contenders and the other way around gives us a handful of teams to watch every season, and the Vikings look the part of a squad that lunges into the spotlight. Peterson remains a mystery after his hiatus, and the offensive line is a major question mark as well, but the Vikings do have a good coach and many promising traits in their roster. It is hard to see them not being at least a .500 team; play the Over here, and watch out for Peterson and Bridgewater in your fantasy drafts.
Green Bay Packers
Odds to Win Division: -300
At their best, the Packers are a balanced team that finds a way to win, and at their worst they have a lousy defense which then relies on its high-octane offense to overcome big deficits. Either way, the Packers are again a scary team that is fresh off a devastating playoff loss and that should have been the NFC’s Super Bowl representative. With Aaron Rodgers winning the MVP and again at the height of his powers, the Packers shouldn’t have many problems scoring, but are they bound to be a championship contender?
That question looms large in Green Bay, but there is little doubt that at least the NFC North is again there for the taking, barring a long-term injury to Rodgers or a complete collapse of the team’s foundation. Rodgers, who hasn’t thrown an interception at home in more than two years, remains in his prime and has a nice array of weapons, even with Jordy Nelson’s uncertain status to begin the year. Eddie Lacy has proven to be a capable running back that brings some semblance on balance to Green Bay’s attack, with the team winning despite the constant miscues of Coach Mike McCarthy. Green Bay’s defense ranked as the 15th-best in the NFL in 2014 and is projected to regress a bit, but it shouldn’t be a big deal considering that the Packers get to face the weakened AFC West and NFC West as its seasonal rivalries, while the rest of the North is not really a threat,
Following his 9-game shortened 2013 season, Rodgers returned in full strength and nothing seems to suggest that he should have a problem staying there for 2015. The Packers may get into a few shootouts and high-scoring affairs, but having the league’s best QB and offense tends to favor their chances. It is always hard to choose the upper-side projection in such big numbers, but at worst the Packers could be an 11-5 team that cruises to a division title. In any case, go with the Over as the rest of the North awaits a season in which they can present a serious threat to dethrone the Packers.