NFC NORTH PREVIEW
As we head into the second week of the Preseason I continue my breakdown of each NFL Division. Today I head back to the National Conference to discuss my favorite division in football, “The Black and Blue Division”. Most of you know I am a die hard Bear fan at heart being from the Windy City; however I learned along time ago not to mix fanfare with handicapping or wagering.
The fact is, this season with or without Brett Favre my pick to win the NFC Conference falls in the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field and the “Red Bay Packers” (+425 to +475), read Mike Ditka’s book. As painful as it is I liked them last year and I like them even more this year. I bet them early, and you can still go out and get a favorable price, even since the Favre announcement. If you feel as good about Green bay as I do you can bet them to win the Superbowl today at (+825 / +850)?
For Bear fans, three years removed from a Superbowl appearance, the debut of homegrown QB Jay Cutler couldn’t have been more dismal. The response was to usher in the Mike Martz era of play calling. Some people feel it will be an improvement, I feel the proof is in the pudding. When I think of Chicago I recall a lack of running game with no true big play receiver for Cutler to rely on. They get a middle of the pack schedule strength at (#14), it is truly a do-or-die season for this organization. I expect a better season from Cutler and I know this running game has only one place to go and that is up, when was the last time Chicago was 4th worst in the league?
Oddsmakers have installed Chicago’s season O/U Total at 8 (-105 / -115) and I agree with that number. They face a few challenges on the road with Dallas, New York (N) and Miami. They’ll need that grinding Bear rushing attack from Matt Forte to compete intra-division as the competition is improving on defense every season. Martz has brought some obscure formations and routes to Chicago, so Cutler will need a major turnaround to give them a down field threat. My educated thought is this; the Bears always produce when no one expects them too.
Many books have taken the NFC north off the board since the Favre indecision of retirement and for those offering numbers it has moved significantly. I am confident that every team in the league is planning for Brett to play in 2010. Chicago remains constant on the Board (+350) to take the Division and I don’t see any super value in this line, however they may play the surprise role. The Bears (Week 8 Off) will need to improve on both sides of the ball and be on the positive side of the turnover differential to compete. A few closing thoughts on Chicago when you look at the NFC right now which Division is emerging? I’d say the East is rapidly fading, while the North and South become the dominant. You always have to check the pulse of the big picture when analyzing season results. Prediction 9 Wins; Key Loses Wk 2 @ Dallas, Wk 4 @ NY and Wk 13 @ Detroit. Key Wins Wk 10 Minnesota, Wk 12 Philadelphia and Wk 17 Green Bay.
Jim Schwartz and company try to rebuild after the Matt Millen debacle, and when I look at this struggling franchise I see youth. I do believe they are headed in the proper direction; the question is how long it will take to get there. Years of sinking and barely treading water, this ‘90’s playoff team is going to be better. In order to get better though the primary focus will need to be on stopping the other team. Last years league worst defensive unit can only get better. In order to do this they have the right man at the helm, Schwartz, he was a major difference maker in Tennessee and is another HC with Belichick roots. For Detroit the help is needed now in the secondary, they gave up a league worst 265 Ydsg with only 9 picks.
Of course the obvious is that they are the biggest dog to win the North landing in at (+1700). They’ve produced 2 quality drafts now, something unheard of over the past decade and with the signing of Dre’ Bly I expect he’ll be able to mentor these young backs into a reputable corp over time. Up front defensively they added Suh and he’ll demand a double team, helping them out to get more pressure in the backfield. No true value on betting this team to win the division, just too many years left in the rebuild process. So the only wager to consider here is the season O/U total.
Oddsmakers have moved the odds off openers with some early money Over, the number currently stands at 5 (-135 / +115). The Lions (Week 7 Off) won’t get much help from their schedule (#12) facing all division foes in the first 4 weeks then have to face New York (A), Dallas and New England. The offense needs to find a way to maintain more ball control with a better rushing attack, and it is yet to be seen how the addition of Jahvid Best will help. Prediction 5 Wins; Key Wins Wk 5 St. Louis and Wk 13 Chicago. Key Losses Wk 2 Philadelphia and Wk 16 @ Miami.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
When I begin to think of Green Bay I get excited about this team so much that I am confident to share with you that they are my pick to win the National Conference (+450). Even though I am a Bear fan, it is easy as a handicapper to make this wager. The addition last year of Dom Capers helped fill a void from the 2008 season on defense, and I only expect them to be better this season. However, the real excitement comes from this offense and the maturation of Aaron Rodgers. One area of concern last season was a middle of the pack rushing game, and they’ll need to make more strides there. They were #3 in the league on third-down conversions and I can only believe it was one of the key elements to a winning season.
When it came to defense last season the Packers were 2nd in the league in total yards and 7th in points allowed a major improvement from the previous season. The only area of concern lies in their secondary though they led the league with interceptions. The best way to help the secondary is to get more pressure on the QB as the Packers were 11th in overall sacks. Throughout the leagues history many times you can reflect on teams that made the playoffs the prior season and know that they are on the rise, I feel that this is that team. They’ll need to get by Minnesota and I felt that with or without Favre they would be able to do that this season.
Green Bay (Week 10 Off) have a tough task prior to the bye with Minnesota, @ New York (A) and Dallas. No NFC team has a total season number higher than 10 and Green Bay is one of them O/U 10 (+100/-120). They do get the benefit of a weaker schedule #22, but road games in Washington, New York (A), Atlanta and New England make me question that ranking. Prediction 12 Wins; Key Wins Wk 1 @ Philadelphia, Wk 9 Dallas and Wk 12 @ Atlanta. Key Losses Wk 3 @ Chicago, Wk 8 @ New York (A) and Wk 15 @ New England.
As I conclude the writing of this article Brett Favre arrived at Viking training camp and just about every book has taken Minnesota off the board for all future bets. However, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article with or without Brett I don’t see them repeating as the defending North champions. Minnesota has the benefit of one of the leagues premiere running backs and this defensive front is dominant with Jared, “the energizer bunny”, Allen. I admit over the years I have formed a much greater respect for Favre, however this season will be a true test of his will. Repaired ankle and one more year under center I feel he may be off his game slightly, just enough to hurt this team in the long run. Although one thing I learned about Favre many years ago and that is never ever count him out.
The oddsmakers number for Minnesota is O/U 9.5, and frankly I like the number to go over here, and I remind you with or without #4. Minnesota faces a tougher schedule than their Eastern foes in Wisconsin, tallying the 14th toughest schedule in the league. Really what can you say about this team that was in position to head to the Superbowl a year ago, how will they move on from that obstacle? Many times in history teams rebound from those circumstances, but it is difficult to repeat 11 or 12 win seasons and even more difficult to make it the NFC Championship game. I do see this team as one of the best in the Conference and a certain playoff team.
Prior to Tuesday you found Minnesota Vikings (Week 4 Off) to win the North at (+280), I would expect that to move back toward preseason Favre announcement of (+180) and they are (+450 / +400) to win the National Conference. Frankly, if you were intuitive enough to know Brett would come back, really everyone knew he would, you missed your greatest betting opportunity over the past 2 weeks. No real surprise that they are maintaining ground with Green Bay as the team out of the North to challenge the South. Prediction 10 wins, Key Wins Wk 1 @ New Orleans, Wk 6 Dallas and Wk 16 @ Philadelphia. Key Losses Wk 5 @ New York (A), Wk 10 @ Chicago and Wk 12 @ Washington.