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A Look Around the NFL - NFC North

In a division that the Green Bay Packers have owned since 2009, a credible threat is emerging in Detroit. Meanwhile, the bottom of the division may get nothing out of 2014 except for some questions answered. In one team’s case, the answers to those questions may be catastrophic.

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Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Lions

You just KNOW this team is going to have the other shoe drop at some point this season and that it will drop right after kicking Detroit in the cajones once more. With the talent on the lines and the playmakers on offense, this team has just as much hope as any other to make the playoffs. But this is, after all, the Lions and you can almost feel the wheels starting to wobble. There has been a lot of talk about the team’s growth, new found maturity, and professional demeanor going into this season, but does anyone really trust them to win a division that is there for the taking?

So far though, the team has been able to weather issues with kickers (it did cost them a game against Buffalo), significant playmakers (Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, and Joique Bell) losing time to injury, and Matthew Stafford not playing particularly well to get a 6-2 record through their first 8 games. The Lions are actually in a good position to take this division and maybe even make some noise in the playoffs.

What to Watch For

The next 3 games in November and the last two games of the season. The Lions do get Miami at home, followed by roadies in Arizona and New England. The New England game could be a cold weather game and the Lions do not do so good outside in the cold. Given that tendency, the schedule makers may have shafted them with their last two games; in Chicago and the last game of the season in Green Bay.

Fun Fact

The Lions are the only pre-merger NFL franchise to have not even appeared in at least one Super Bowl. (I am counting the Ravens pre-1970 existence as the Cleveland Browns for that statement.)

Packers

Since Aaron Rodgers spelling lesson to the fans in late September, this team has gone 4-1. Apparently, a Pro-Bowl QB’s holistic relaxation therapy works better than a PR Director’s prescribed chill pill. Loaded from top to bottom with playmakers and with one of the league’s best QB’s, the Pack really needs Dom Capers’ defense to pick up its share of the load. The loss of BJ Raji has resulted in LB’s having to contend with blockers too often and made the Packers weak in defending the run.

The pieces seem to be there on both sides of the ball to make this an interesting race for the title with the Lions. I would give the Lions the edge on defensive talent, with both teams pretty much even for offensive talent, and what looks to be the more favorable schedule for the Packers in the last half of the season. The Packers also have the experience of winning and winning in a variety of ways, including winning a Super Bowl as a Wild Card team. That kind of experience and the confidence that goes with it counts for a lot in the NFL. Their 5-3 record puts Green Bay one game behind Detroit and in good position to win another NFC North title.

What to Watch For

The last game of the season. The Packers close out 2014 at home against the Lions. If it comes down to that game to determine the NFC North winner, you have to give a significant edge to the Packers. Of course, Rodgers & Co. have to put themselves in position to make that game count, but that is certainly possible with the schedule for both teams.

Fun Fact

Lambeau Field opened in 1957, 10 years before Qualcomm Stadium in 1967. It has a seating capacity of 80,735 and has sold out every game played there since 1973. After the latest renovation (completed in 2013), the stadium has 195 luxury boxes. There are no plans for another stadium in either the Green Bay or Milwaukee area.

Vikings

If you were wondering why Teddy Bridgewater was not starting from week 1, join the club. There are some QB’s that can win in the NFL without a reliable running game; Cassel is not one of them. At this point though, neither is Bridgewater, although nobody knows what his ceiling is now. Without two of their primary offensive weapons (Adrian Peterson and Kyle Rudolph) and really no distraction to make Corderelle Patterson’s life easier, this team has come together, grinding and fighting its way to a 4-5 record.

The rest of the schedule is not really favorable for the Vikings, but there may be anywhere from 3-5 wins out there in the next 7 games. The defense is filled with a lot of unknown players, but first year head coach Mike Zimmer has them playing at a very high level. The same cannot be said for Offensive Coordinator Norval Turner’s offense, although losing Peterson and using a rookie QB mitigates the low rankings and production on that offense somewhat.

What to Watch For

Whether the league lets AD AP play again in 2014. If the Vikings get him back no later than Thanksgiving, it may give the coaches and front office a better look at what this team can do and what it needs to fix. There were some rumors during pre-season that Bridgewater was not a good fit for the offense being installed; we Bolts fans may be wondering if Bridgewater would do better in a slightly less obsolete system.

Fun Fact

With Bridgewater and Bortles starting, there is only one 2014 1st round pick QB that has not started an NFL game yet this season. That would be Johnny Football in Cleveland, with a nice view from the bench of watching Mike Pettine put together a great case for winning "Coach of the Year" in his own rookie season.

Bears

Speaking of trust issues, intangibles, and varying levels of confidence, Jay Cutler is still the QB of the Bears. What’s worse is that his team mates are starting to figure that out. Blessed with playmakers, a rebuilt O-line, and an offensive guru of a coach, the Bears have managed to underachieve their way to a 3-5 record so far.

The fact remains that of the NFC North QB’s, Cutler is probably #3 on that list. That situation would be bad enough for Chicago if it had not been compounded by paying Cutler elite QB money last year. I am fairly certain the Papa Bear George Halas would not have signed the check that his daughter did, until Cutler actually won something. Unless this team figures out how to play defense and get Cutler to avoid negative plays, this will be another year with a quiet January in Chicago.

What to Watch For

A locker room that sounds increasingly dysfunctional. There were reports that Brandon Marshall was yelling at his QB after the Bears last game, a 51-23 loss at the throttling hands of the Patriots. If Marshall wants to point a finger at underperforming offensive players, he could start in a mirror, as he is only catching 52% of the passes Cutler is throwing at him. This is not the stuff elite WR’s are made of. A team is in trouble if it tunes out a head coach. If a team tunes out a QB that cannot be cut without creating instant cap hell for another 4 seasons, that can easily turn into a train wreck that requires years, if not a decade to clean up.

Fun Fact

The Bears are 3-2 on the road and 0-3 at Soldier Field. The Bears are playing in Chicago 5 times over the next 8 games is not good for this particular team. By not rewarding the ticket buyers with even one win so far, the Bears join the Oakland team as the league’s leaders in the fan award of "Why I am paying to see this crap?"

To buy tickets, visit the NFL Ticket Exchange.