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The NFC North has traditionally been nicknamed the Black and Blue Division of the NFL, but everything is pointing toward a 17-week display of aerial fireworks in the Upper Midwest in 2014.
Most Important Player: Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
Quarterbacks will decide how the teams will finish within the division, and nobody has more to prove than Stafford. Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler are surrounded by weapons, and even Matt Cassel only has to keep the seat warm while Teddy Bridgewater learns the Viking offense.
But Stafford is plagued with a history of poor on-field decision making, and Calvin Johnson isn’t getting any younger. With a legitimate number two receiver in Golden Tate lined up across from Johnson (finally!), it’s time for Stafford to prove he belongs in the conversation of top quarterbacks — or at least in the top half — of the league.
X-Factor: Chicago Bears Defensive Front Four
Last year saw Bizarro Chicago post an 8-8 record to take second place in the North. The offense kept the Bears afloat, as the renowned Chicago defense was the worst crew in the league.
Sophomore coach Marc Trestman will lean on a revamped defensive line, led by free agent signee Jared Allen, to restore the unit from fuzzy little cubs to the Monsters of the Midway. The Bears defense will have a tough test early in the season at San Francisco in Week 2.
Best Team: Green Bay Packers
Nobody has as many capable offensive skill players as the Packers. Beyond the stable of receivers that should thrive catching gems from Rodgers, Eddie Lacy has company in the backfield in preseason standouts DuJuan Harris and James Starks. Tight end Ryan Taylor is my pick for breakout fantasy football star, and the ageless John Kuhn will be a solid short-yardage option. Even QBs Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn are making it tough on the Packers’ top brass to pick a clipboard holder to roam the sideline.
The offense will hold up its end of the bargain, and the defense ought not be too far behind.
Team That Could Surprise: Minnesota Vikings
Nobody is picking the Vikes to win the NFC North (myself included), but the Quarterback Whisperer has arrived to save the day. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has the offense clicking on all cylinders this preseason without All-Everything running back Adrian Peterson in the mix. Someone has to lose the intradivision matchups, but improving on last year’s 5-10-1 record could be within reach for new head coach Mike Zimmer.
Bold Prediction: Someone not named Calvin Johnson leads Detroit in receiving yards
The injury bug kept Johnson from putting up filthy numbers in 2013. I can’t shake the gut feeling I have about him missing more than two games this season. When he’s healthy, he’s unstoppable, which makes me hope for the Lions’ sake I’m wrong.
I’ll bank on Tate to take the team title, with tight end Brandon Pettigrew, receiver Ryan Broyles and Swiss Army Knife Reggie Bush getting significant opportunities in the passing game.
Offensive Player of the Year: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
I’ve already raved about the new Vikings offensive coordinator, but the only proof I need that Peterson will dominate defenses in his age-29 season is the gleam in his eye when asked about the new-look Minnesota offense. Turner will finally get opposing defenses to not stack nine guys in the box with his vertical passing scheme, and AP will see holes so large he’ll have flashback to his days at Oklahoma. His annual target of 2,500 yards in a season always seems a bit deranged, but I’ll drink the Kool-Aid and say he’s not too far off when all’s said and done.
Defensive Player of the Year: Clay Matthews
A broken thumb is among the injuries that has kept Matthews from being the the beast he is capable of being, but 2014 will be a renaissance year for the linebacker. With all the emerging names and new arrivals on the Packers’ defense — Julius Peppers, Micah Hyde, Mike Daniels — Matthews will rise to the challenge to help lead Green Bay to (spoiler alert!) another NFC North title.
Green Bay Packers: 12-4
Chicago Bears: 10-6 (NFC Wild Card)
Detroit Lions: 7-9
Minnesota Vikings: 6-10