2010 NFL Preview: NFC North Predictions

GREEN BAY, WI - AUGUST 26: Aaron Rodgers  of the Green Bay Packers rolls out to look for a receiver against the Indianapolis Colts during a preseason game at Lambeau Field on August 26, 2010 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

The NFC North will challenge the NFC East this year for being the toughest division in the conference. Three of the four teams are legit playoff contenders, while the Lions only continue to improve as a whole.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the NFC North in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season.

1. Packers

What to Like: Given how well he played last year, Aaron Rodgers should be considered a MVP candidate this season. The fact that he was able to throw for 4,434 yards and compile a 103.2 QB rating despite constantly being under pressure is rather amazing. Just think about what he could accomplish this year if the O-line gave him even a fraction of a second more time to throw. Rodgers will lead a passing attack that racked up 261.3 yards per game last season, which was good for seventh in the NFL. He also has an assortment of weapons to throw to, namely receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, as well as rising talent Jermichael Finley. In the backfield, Ryan Grant continues to be underrated and is coming off a 1,253-yard, 11-touchdown season. Defensively, Dom Capers was a miracle worker in his first year, as Green Bay led the NFC in total defense despite switching to the 3-4 (most first-year 3-4 teams struggle). Rookie Clay Matthews turned out to be a phenomenal pass-rusher and Nick Barnett was outstanding in the middle, both against the run and in coverage. Despite his age, Charles Woodson (33) continues to play at an elite level.
What Not to Like: The offensive line was a disaster at times last year, save for the play of right guard Josh Sitton. If Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher can make it through an entire season without suffering injuries, this will be a much-improved unit and then Rodgers won’t have to spend most Sunday afternoons running for his life. But both tackles are in their 30s and injuries always seem to be an issue. At left guard, Daryn Colledge struggled, although it’s only fair to point out that he was out of position subbing at tackle. While Tramon Williams is more than capable of handling the starting corner position opposite Woodson, losing Al Harris (knee surgery) was a huge blow to Green Bay’s depth at secondary. The concern is that given Harris’ age (35) and the nature of his injury, he may never play again. The other potential issue on defense is whether or not B.J. Raji can handle playing nose tackle after a lackluster 2009 season as a 3-4 end. All good 3-4 teams have a stout nose tackle to eat up space and if Raji isn’t up for the task, it will certainly have an effect on the linebackers.
Keep Your Eye On: Jermichael Finley
Finley put himself on the map last season by catching 55 passes for 676 yards and five touchdowns in just 13 games. He finished the year by hauling in six passes for 159 yards in Green Bay’s loss to the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs, leading to high expectations this year. If he can stay focused (which is the biggest concern with this youngster), he could put up fantastic numbers in the Packers’ explosive passing attack this season.
The Final Word: Expectations are high for the Packers this year, as well they should be. If the offensive line can stay healthy then this is the team to beat in the NFC North. The great thing is that Ted Thompson spent his first round draft pick on tackle/guard Bryan Bulaga, meaning Green Bay now has depth in case injuries do start to mount. Rodgers is the real deal and could lead the Pack deep into the playoffs if his O-line doesn’t get him killed first. Defensively, there are some concerns but Capers will make up for them by being aggressive. If the Packers can win the division and force opponents to come to Green Bay come January, then this will be a legitimate Super Bowl contender this season. The pieces are in place for this team to make a serious run.

Green Bay Packers 2010 Question Mark: Offensive Line

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NFL Playoff Preview: Sunday games

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
1:00 pm ET

Last season, the Ravens began their playoff journey as a wild card by upsetting the AFC East champion Dolphins, and then upsetting the top seeded Tennessee Titans, before losing to the eventual champion Steelers in the AFC championship game. This season the Ravens went 10-6 and eked into the playoffs in Week 17, but their losses have mostly been close games, including a 27-21 defeat in New England in Week 4. The Ravens’ fifth ranked rushing attack is led by RB Ray Rice, and they will once again use their stout defense (ranked third overall) to try and stop Tom Brady, Randy Moss and company. The Patriots will try to run the ball to control the clock and keep it away from Rice, and also try to use said running game to allow Brady and his receivers to stretch the field. Of course, everyone knows that Wes Welker is out for the season after jamming his knee into the Reliant Stadium turf last Sunday. But did anyone expect rookie WR (and 7th round draft pick) Julian Edelman to catch 10 passes for 103 yards and run up and down the field looking like a Welker clone doing it? Not really. Still, Brady didn’t have guys named Lewis, Suggs and Reed lining up on the other side last week, and those guys in purple jerseys could force him into making a few mistakes. The bottom line, however, is that the Patriots are 8-0 at home this season, and a Bill Belichick coached team is a tough out in the playoffs.

Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals
4:40 pm ET

Amazingly, this game is the third contest of the weekend that is a rematch of a Week 17 game, and like the Philly/Dallas game, this one is also in the same building, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona. Will it be the same outcome though? Last week, the Packers played all of their starters in annihilating the defending NFC champs 33-7, but Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt did not use star QB Kurt Warner after the first quarter. Still, how much of that crap about tipping your hand before playing an opponent again do you believe? This is the NFL, and the team that executes their game plan usually wins. Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy believed that letting Aaron Rodgers and his receivers stretch the field against the Cardinals’ 23rd ranked pass defense, as well as mixing in a heavy dose of Ryan Grant and Ahman Green to run the ball and keep it away from Warner and Matt Leinart was an effective strategy. Of course, McCarthy’s Packers boast the #1 rushing defense in the NFL and the #5 passing defense, so they feel like they can stop whoever is trying to move the ball against them anyway, especially if star CB Charles Woodson suits up after aggravating a shoulder injury last week. Remember, though, that the Cardinals are recently playoff tested, and came within a brilliant Santonio Holmes touchdown catch from winning it all less than a year ago.

Jay Cutler loves himself the interception

The good, bad and ugly of Jay Cutler was on full display in Week 14, as the Bears lost to the Packers, 21-14.

Cutler made some outstanding throws into tight coverage while throwing for 209 yards and two touchdowns. His second touchdown pass (which gave Chicago a 14-13 lead early in the second half) was a laser to Devin Aromashodu (who?), who made an incredible grab along the sidelines.

But what has often been the case for Cutler in 2009, he threw two horrible interceptions, which aided in the Bears’ demise. On both picks, he underthrew Johnny Knox because the pair weren’t on the same page. Cutler thought Knox would break off his route, while Knox continued to head up field.

Who’s more at fault? Who knows. The only thing that matters is that Cutler’s first year in Chicago has been a small disaster and the Bears have fallen to 5-8 despite having Super Bowl aspirations in preseason.

As for the Packers, Aaron Rodgers (16-of-24, 180 yards) didn’t tear up the stat sheet but then again, he didn’t have to. Ryan Grant rushed for 137 yards on 20 carries and the Green Bay defense once again turned in a solid performance in the victory.

This was actually a bigger win than some may think. After beating the Ravens on Monday night, this could have served as a letdown game of sorts for Green Bay. But they stay focused, earned a win on the road and will now jockey for position in the NFC Wild Card race the rest of the way.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Packers win, but Kampman and Harris suffer injuries

With their 30-24 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the Green Bay Packers leapt back into the playoff hunt in the NFC. But unfortunately for them, they may be without two defensive starters for the rest of the season.

According to beat writer Greg Bedard, outside linebacker Aaron Kampman and cornerback Al Harris have torn ACLs and both will likely miss the remainder of the 2009 season.

At 35, Harris’ could be a career-ender. He was carted off the field Sunday and couldn’t walk in the locker room, and chances are he’ll need reconstructive surgery to repair the damage. Tramon Williams will start at right corner in Harris’ place.

Kampman was in the midst of having a horrible season while trying to convert from defensive end to outside linebacker. Given that he’s a free agent at the end of the year, it’s doubtful that Green Bay will re-sign Kampman. And even if the team had interest, it’s more doubtful that he’d even be interested in coming back to play outside linebacker. He just isn’t a fit for the 3-4.

Save for a brutal effort against Tampa three weeks ago, Green Bay’s defense had been playing well over the past month. Given how poorly Kampman was playing, the Packers defense might not suffer much in the long haul. But it remains to be seen how Williams will hold up when teams start attacking his side of the field more frequently.

As for the game, the Packers held off a late 49ers’ rally to secure victory. Green Bay jumped out to a 30-10 fourth quarter lead, but Alex Smith hit Vernon Davis on a 24-yard touchdown pass with 10:37 remaining to cut the Packers’ lad to 30-17, then running back Frank Gore hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass with 5:56 to make it a 30-24 game.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had an outstanding game, throwing for 344 yards on 32-of-45 passing and two touchdowns. Ryan Grant rushed for 129 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Ochocinco does Lambeau leap as Bengals upset Packers

The Bengals’ 31-24 win over the Packers on Sunday is proof that nobody knows what the hell is going on in the NFL. You may have called this upset, but I guarantee you that there was a game on the schedule this week that made you scratch your head.

Cincinnati scored seven points last week. Green Bay’s defense harassed Jay Cutler for four quarters last Sunday night and made him look like a rookie. So it makes sense that this week that the Bengals would roll into Lambeau Field and put 31 points up on the scoreboard.


Where to begin? Let’s start with the disastrous play of Green Bay’s offensive line. Left tackle Chad Clifton was carted off the field in the first half and the Packers had to bring center Scott Wells into the game. They also slid Jason Spitz to left guard and Daryn Colledge to left tackle, and the changes resulted in Cincinnati racking up six sacks, including five by defensive end Anthony Odom.

Aaron Rodgers did a good job of adjusting to the pressure and scrambling out of the pocket. But he was always on the run, could never set his feet and his receivers didn’t help him by dropping multiple passes throughout the game. (How does Greg Jennings go an entire game without a catch?) If this team doesn’t get their issues resolved on the offensive line, Rodgers doesn’t stand a chance.

Of course, Green Bay’s defense doesn’t get off the hook here. Cedric Benson racked up 141 yards on 29 carries, which set up Carson Palmer and the passing game to make some plays. Outside of a Charles Woodson 37-yard interception return for a touchdown, there’s not much good that came out of this game for Dom Capers’ defense, which had played so well against Chicago the week before.

Somehow, the Packers still had a chance to tie the game with seconds remaining, but a false start penalty (which resulted in a 10-second run off) ended Green Bay’s comeback bid.

As for the Bengals, if they can generate that kind of pressure every week, they’d be in good shape. But I don’t think Odom is going to rack up five sacks every game, so keeping the expectations low for this team would be wise. Still, this was an impressive upset for a team that was devastated at home last week on Brandon Stokley’s fluke last-second touchdown.

The quality isn’t great, but here’s video of Chad Ochocinco doing the “Lambeau Leap” after scoring a touchdown late in the third quarter:

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