As we head into the 2012 NFL season in just a few short months, the current choice in futures wagering to win it all is the Green Bay Packers at 7/2. This stems mainly from the unbeaten run that they put together to begin 2011.
What isn't discussed is that the Cheeseheads were one of two teams to allow more passing yards defensively than any team in NFL history, the Super Bowl-losing Patriots being the other. Teams that had great seasons in 2011, you might say. However, this is an unsustainable situation that may well repeat itself in 2012. You can't win every game by simply outscoring your opponents.
The NFC North breaks down with each team having a severe weakness to overcome if they hope to win it all in 2012. The Minnesota Vikings allowed the 2nd-worst Defensive Passer Rating in NFL history. The Detroit Lions were one of three 2011 teams to allow at least five yards per rush attempt, a situation that had occurred only 19 times since 1920 before the Lions, Buccaneers and Raiders all did it last year, the first time in history that three teams had all accomplished it in the same season.
It is possible that the increase of passing offenses has created fewer rushing attempts and less emphasis on stopping the run, but a 5+ YPC average is still a shocking number.
The Lions get a lot of media attention for their defensive front led by Ndamukong Suh. However, they were unable to stop the run and were exposed by the Saints in their playoff game last year when New Orleans ran 36 times for 167 yards and three touchdowns. Even with Suh's suspension last season, he was still on the field for a majority of the snaps.
Detroit did manage to put together its first winning season since 2000 and the first 10-win record since 1995. This was the direct result of a prolific offense and the ability of quarterback Matthew Stafford to remain healthy. However, the Lions were winless against the top teams in the NFL, going 0-5 against what I like to call "Quality Opponents" and getting outscored by an average of eight points per game in those contests (allowing slightly over 30 points per).
The two glaring weaknesses are the inability to run the ball and stop the run. They lost key running back Jahvid Best early in training camp 2011 with a torn Achilles, and he may not be 100 percent to begin 2012. The drafting of Mikel Leshoure brings a strong, durable rusher into the fold to aid the run game. The Lions need to improve seriously on the rush numbers in 2012 to fight for the division title and the rush defense needs to step up as well, despite the NFC North quickly becoming a passing division with Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers and Stafford flinging the ball all over the yard.
The Detroit offensive line is weak in run blocking and only marginal is pass blocking, so keeping Stafford upright will be a large issue again in 2012. The Lions are also dealing with big salary cap problems, likely having to restructure several contracts to remain under the NFL number.
The Chicago Bears lost what chance they had for a successful season last year when Cutler went down in Week 11 and they were forced to use Caleb Hanie at QB. That move panned out so poorly that Hanie was let go by Chicago following the season. Up to that point, the Bears had started slow only to gain steam and enter that week with a record of 7-3. They proceeded to lose five straight after Cutler suffered a dislocated thumb and that sealed their fate. An 8-8 year was a major disappointment for a team that had risen quickly after the slow opening to the year.
Add the additional loss of Matt Forte to a knee injury, who at the time was leading the NFL in Yards from Scrimmage, and Chicago's offense struggled to move the ball at all.
The defense appears to be a strength in 2012, as long as Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher can remain on the field. All three made the Pro Bowl in 2011.
The offensive line was expected to improve after allowing a record 52 sacks in 2010, and they selected tackle Gabe Carimi to shore up that unit in last year's draft. Unfortunately however, Carimi was lost for the year in Week 2 against the Saints. The O-Line quickly reverted back to the weak unit of 2010 with forty-nine sacks against.
Chicago hopes to rekindle some of the magic between Cutler and former Broncos teammate Brandon Marshall by signing Marshall following a trade with Miami for a low-round pick. Marshall has worn out his welcome everywhere with his off-field issues, so that will be a key component again this year. He has a great connection with Cutler and that will improve the Bears passing numbers if he can stay out of trouble.
Johnny Knox was lost to an injury that was serious and he may not be ready to start the year. Earl Bennett, Cutler's teammate at Vanderbilt, is at best a No. 3 wideout and while he was productive, the Bears still need more threats to allow Cutler to get the ball out and not be subjected to the amount of hits and sacks he takes.
Chicago is a team that is aging, especially defensively, and its window for making a run in the postseason is closing quickly. The Bears must face the AFC and NFC South divisions aside from their own AFC North, so improving on 8-8 from 2011 seems unlikely. New offensive coordinator Mike Tice wants to return to the run game first, and the offensive line will need to improve to do so.
As I mentioned, the Vikings were the 2nd-worst defense in Passer Rating in NFL history last year, and things don't look likely to improve in a division that loves to throw the ball. They suffered through their worst season since 1984 and lost many games after going into halftime with a lead. Christian Ponder was thrown into the fire after the Donovan McNabb experiment failed miserably.
Strangely, Minnesota allowed the second fewest yards in the NFC North last year behind the Bears, but the secondary cost the Vikes late in games. They did allow the 31st-worst points per game in front of only the Buccaneers. The Vikings are strong up front defensively and accumulated 50 sacks, tied for best in the league. They will need to continue that pressure to save a defensive backfield that is as sorry as they come.
Losing Adrian Peterson went down with a severe knee injury that will not have healed by the start of this season. The offensive line allowed 49 sacks, making the passing game vulnerable. Minnesota lacks depth at wide receiver and other than Percy Harvin, they have few deep threats. Some help may come with the dual 4th-round selections of Jarius Wright and Greg Childs in this year's draft, but again, they are rookies learning the NFL game and a new offense.
Look for the Vikings to again finish near or at the bottom of the tough NFC North. No team fell apart faster than Minnesota did, following the NFC Championship loss to the Saints with Brett Favre at quarterback in 2010.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers once again appear to be the class of the division, if not the NFC. The defensive numbers give concern, but they managed to allow a lot of yards without giving away a ton of points. They ran off a string of victories to open the year 13-0 behind the arm of Aaron Rodgers and his wide receivers. However, the defense was exposed in the playoffs to end what could have been a magical season. Rodgers and the offense turned the ball over four times and he had his worst game of the year at the most important time.
It is interesting that from Week 16 of 2010, Green Bay won 19 straight games in which they led entering the fourth quarter. The loss to the Chiefs last year and to the Giants in the Divisional Round were the only times that they trailed entering the final stanza. They were unable to make a comeback either time.
For 2012, Green Bay will need to improve the defense's ability to get off the field and limit the yardage allowed while cutting the Defensive Passer Rating. The Pack may never have a strong rushing attack but the offense clicks with Rodgers throwing the ball.
Their first six selections in this year's draft all went to defense. Green Bay went from 47 sacks in 2010 to only 29 last year, showing a reason why the passing yards were so high without putting pressure on opposing QBs. The Pack didn't make a lot of noise in free agency, but if they can stay healthy, they can win the NFC North again. Rodgers will have to duplicate his 2011 stats until the new additions can shore up the defense, but he has talent and great coaching around him. I look for Green Bay to return to the playoffs in 2012 and make some noise in the postseason.
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