By Eric Thomas
The NFC North was the Lions’ for the taking last year, but they collapsed. They soared to a 6-3 record in the season’s first half and seemed poised to claim the NFC North, with Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers injured for the Bears and Packers. It seemed so close. Lions fans turned to talk of winning the division and securing a first round bye. Instead, as you know, they pitched into a dive, losing six of their last seven games to finish the season 7-9.
The coaches were rightly dismissed. Few teams are presented with an opportunity like the Lions were. Their two main divisional rivals were limping, and they could not strike. Lions fans coalesced around a single line, “Same old Lions,” and shook their heads. There would never be an opportunity like that again.
Not so fast. The NFC North isn’t as daunting as it seems. The Packers are still the class in the division, a team that won a Superbowl in recent memory led by a quarterback that might be the best in the game, if not one of the best of all time. The Bears were improbably better with new coach Marc Trestman and Jay Cutler had the best statistical of his long career. That’s all bad news, but there are silver linings in these clouds.
Here are five reasons the Lions COULD win the NFC North this season:
1. Cutler and Rodgers are good, but they’re on the wrong side of 30 – Rodgers turned 30 this year and Cutler turned 31. Both have had injury problems in the past, and that doesn’t get any easier as people get older. They’re both excellent quarterbacks, but they’re still human beings. If Rodgers starts feeling his age, Green Bay doesn’t have much hope. They’re a great team, obviously, but they looked purely pedestrian without Rodgers against the Lions on Thanksgiving day. The offensive line is suspect, coach Tom Clements is seen by some as “on the hot seat” and that doesn’t bode well for Rodgers, especially against a Lions front seven where two former first round picks are in search of big contracts.
2. All of the defenses are suspect – The Packers broke many Lions’ fans hearts when they took Alabama Safety Ha-Ha Clinton Dix. They took him because they need him. There are giant defensive questions in every NFC North camp. There’s been something of a defensive line shuffle going on in the North. Jared Allen signed with the Bears; Julius Peppers signed with the Packers. The Bears have taken a giant step back defensively in the past few years. The Packers have relied heavily on their offense, which is good enough to win a lot of games. The Packers are getting younger on defense, the Bears have signed some free agents. What will be the outcome? Hard to say, but it’s hard to pick the best defense in the NFC North. With the Lions focused on offense this off season, that could pay dividends in the division.
3. Adrian Peterson is 29 – and that’s not where you want to be if you’re a running back. He’s got Norv Turner coaching him now, and you can bet that Turner will use him often. Is that a good idea when you RB is 29 years old? Probably not. What’s worse? Peterson will accept a larger role in the passing offense this year. That will probably go well until teams learn how to adjust. To be sure, Peterson will be a force for the Vikings this year, and he better, because the Vikings have little else. The Vikings have spent $20 million on the defense this year, and they hope to have a lot more success, but it’s hard to tell if they spent their money wisely until they put on pads.
4. Minnesota has no obvious quarterback – Matt Cassell, Teddy Bridgewater, and Christian Ponder—not exactly the army you want to go to war with. Even with Peterson in the backfield, Ponder has been an epic disappointment. Could Bridgewater be the breakout star this season? It’s possible, but not without a massive improvement from the defense. Minnesota is a hard team to gauge, because they seem to follow a predictable pattern: good one year, awful the next. The Vikings are due for a good year this year, and they might be the surprise team in the division.
5. Who’s the biggest defensive star in the NFC North? – As much as he is maligned in the local media (me included), its unquestionably Ndamukong Suh. You can make an argument for Clay Matthews, but Suh is a close second at a minimum. The division doesn’t have any good defenses this year, and even with the Lions awful defensive secondary, they might be the strongest in the division. The front office’s decision to focus on offense might prove rather prescient, and might be poised to take advantage of a division that has been weak defensively. The NFL has a herd like group think mentality, and most teams spend their off season reacting to January’s past Superbowl winner. Teams have taken their cue from Seattle, and they’ve stocked up on defense. The Lions eschewed that pattern, and that’s not always a bad thing. The Packers, the Saints and the Colts have all won championships with sub par defenses. The Lions will put their best offensive team in years on the field in 2014, and they will have a defense much more established than the others in their division.
Can they win the North? It’s possible. I’d still bet on Green Bay, but 2014 will be the year the Lions decided to buck the trend. When that works, it works really well.