Last week in this space, when I previewed the AFC North, there wasn’t a whole lot that I liked in the division. If I’m going to put an AFC North win total in my pocket, it’s not going to be on an over wager! But that’s most assuredly not the case in the NFC North, where several teams – including a Super Bowl contender – have the feeling of an undervalued commodity at this stage of the offseason.
Let’s start with the Chicago Bears who are lined at 7 or 7.5 wins; a legitimate split line. Bettors shopping around for the best price on the Bears (over or under) should remember the standard rule of thumb for converting juice into wins with mid-range totals (teams lined between 6.5 and 9.5 wins). Fifty cents of juice equates to about a half win. If you like the over, an over 7 -140 trumps over 7.5 at +100. If you like under, under 7.5 -140 trumps under 7 at +100.
Last year, the Bears went 6-10 SU, 8-8 ATS and 8-8 O/U. Their mainstream stats were indicative of a sub .500 squad: ranked 21st in total offense, #14 in total defense, #22 in yards per play differential and #19 in turnover differential. It’s surely worth noting that those below average offensive stats came DESPITE Jay Cutler enjoying a career best 92.3 passer rating and a career best 1.9-1 TD-INT ratio. Now Cutler loses offensive coordinator Adam Gase , the new Dolphins head coach. New coordinator Dowell Loggains was Cutler’s QB coach last year. Head Coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio are both back, two well-respected defensive minds.
The Bears offseason moves were focused on improving that defense. In free agency, they added Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, a pair of three down linebackers. First round pick Leonard Floyd (Georgia) and third pick Jonathan Bullard (Florida) are edge pass rushers –this front 7 is much better on paper than it was last year. The secondary? Not so much! A unit that notched only 8 INTs last year did not get an offseason upgrade.
Last year, based on my numbers using power ratings the week that the game was played, the Bears faced one of the toughest schedules in the NFL. This year, that strength of schedule declines significantly, down to a below league average slate! That being said, Chicago has had zero home field edge for the last two years: 3-13 SU, 5-11 ATS at Soldier Field; an emerging trend worth noting.
It was a tale of two seasons within one year for the Detroit Lions in 2015. The Lions opened 1-7 SU, but closed out on a 6-2 heater to save Jim Caldwell’s job. They were still moneylosers, finishing 7-9 ATS while going 9-7 O/U. Detroit’s mainstream stats were similar to Chicago’s – below average in every category: 20th on offense, 18th on defense, 20th on yards per play differential and 26th in turnover margin.
The mainstream media has focused their attention on the early retirement of Detroit’s lone superstar, WR Calvin Johnson. Even without Johnson, the Lions have a decent supply of skill position talent. They signed Cinci #2 receiver Marvin Jones to be their no. 1, joining Golden Tate and Eric Ebron as their top receiving weapons. Running back Ameer Abdullah opens fall camp as the top back despite his fumble issues as a rookie last year. It’s worth noting that during the Lions 6-2 run to close out the season with OC Jim Bob Cooter calling the plays, Stafford had 70% completions and a 110 QB rating, finishing the season with his best stats since 2011.
Detroit’s primary offseason goal was to improve in the trenches on both sides of the football. First round draft choice Taylor Decker could start at left tackle on opening day, as could second rounder. A’Shawn Robinson on the defensive line. Acquisitions OL Geoff Schwartz along with DL Stefan Charles and Wallace Gilberry are all upgrades. And, after facing one of the five toughest schedules in the NFL in 2015, Detroit’s strength of schedule based on this year’s season win totals is below the league average, offering hope for long suffering Lions fans.
Like Chicago, the Green Bay Packers have a true split line with some books lining them as a 10.5 win team with juice to the Over; other books lining GB as an 11 win team with juice to the Under. The Packers went 10-6 SU, 9-7 ATS and 5-11 O/U despite finishing at or below the league average in most key statistical categories: 23rd Total Offense, 15th Total Defense and -0.4 yards per play (tied #25). Green Bay did have a +5 turnover differential, tied for 10th.
Without Jordy Nelson as a legit top pass catcher last year, Aaron Rodgers saw his stats drop dramatically. His completion percentage dropped from 65.6% to 60.7%. His yards per pass attempt dropped from 8.4 to 6.9 and his QB rating dropped from 112.2 to 92.7. No surprise then, that the Packers dropped from the no. 1 scoring offense in 2014 to the 15th scoring offense in 2015.
Last year, head coach Mike McCarthy gave up play calling and combined QB & WR’s under one positional coach. That won’t be the case this year! McCarthy will call the plays and Alex Van Pelt is back to coaching only QB’s. McCarthy shook up his staff, bringing in new RB, WR & TE coaches on offense. DC Dom Capers isn’t going anywhere, now in his 8th year on the job.
The Packers have all five starters back on their offensive line. Their schedule, like the other teams in the NFC North, is MUCH easier compared to last year. Their defense is deep and talented. My biggest concern for this team is with their receiving corps – even if Nelson returns at full strength; this unit lacks quality depth. If injuries strike, they’ll be wasting another year of an elite QB in his prime.
Last, but not least, are the Minnesota Vikings, lined as a 9.5 win team here in 2016. Minnesota was something of a surprise team last year, improving from 7-9 to 11-5, while going 13-3 ATS (best in the NFL) and 11-4-1 O/U. The Vikings won the NFC North and came a missed Blair Walsh field goal away from knocking off Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. And the Vikings accomplished all of that despite some very mediocre stats, finishing with the #29 ranked total offense, the #13 total defense and a -0.1 yards per play differential (tied for #15).
Head coach Mike Zimmer crafted an elite defense under Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati and he’s done the exact same thing in Minnesota. The Vikings stop unit is loaded with quality depth on all three units, and looks every bit as good, on paper heading into 2016. But Minnesota’s offense – particularly their blocking up front and their passing game – needed an upgrade. Zimmer: “Teddy (Bridgewater) was running for his life half the time. And we had a whole bunch of one yard runs. We needed to make some changes.”
Minnesota will get two starters on the offensive line back off season ending injuries last year in center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt. They added Alex Boone from San Fran at guard and Andre Smith from Cincinnati at tackle. Bridgewater was mediocre at best in his second season in the league, but new deep threat first round pick Laquan Treadwell gives him another big target to throw to. It’s worth noting that the Vikings have the toughest schedule in the division, based on this year’s season win totals.