Best Case, Worst Case for each NFC North team in 2014
Is there a team in the NFC North capable of knocking off the Packers? As long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy, it's hard to imagine Green Bay as anything other than a legit Super Bowl contender.
The whole idea started on our award-winning* podcast (listen here!): what would each NFL team look like in their "Armageddon scenario"? In other words, what's the absolute worst thing that could happen to each NFL team? And, conversely, what's the best-case scenario for each team? (Yes, theoretically "16 wins and the Super Bowl" works, but let's be realistic.)
We'll go by division on these and if you want to hear the breakdown for each one, subscribe to the Eye on Football podcast via iTunes. Up now, the NFC North.
DREAM WEAVER: Any conversation of a successful season starts with Jay Cutler, the man the Bears signed to a seven-year, $126.7 million deal ($54 million in gurantees) back in Janaury. The knock on Cutler is that he has only made the playoffs once, but the bigger issue is keeping him healthy. (Which, incidentally, played a big role in the team's NFC Championship Game loss to the Packers in January 2011. Green Bay went on to win the Super Bowl and Cutler spent the offseason answering questions about his toughness.)
But assuming Cutler can stay on the field, there's plenty to like about this Bears team. It starts with wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and running back Matt Forte. And perhaps the most underrated aspect of this offense: A really good offensive line. Two years ago, the unit ranked 24th in pass-blocking, according to Football Outsiders' metrics; last season they were fifth.
There are questions about the No. 3 receiver spot as well as who will spell Forte in the backfield. There's also the matter of who is behind Cutler on the depth chart if, God forbid, he goes down for any length of time. A year ago, Josh McCown played so well in Cutler's absence there were conversations about whether Cutler would get his job back when he was healthy. (He did.) McCown has since been pegged as the savior down in Tampa Bay, leaving Jimmy Clausen and Jordan Palmer to duke it out for the No. 2 job.
Put another way: If Cutler can play the entire season -- something he hasn't done since 2009, his first season in Chicago -- we fully expect the Bears to make the playoffs. From the perspective of mid-August, 10 wins sounds about right, but we don't think this group gets beyond the wild-card round. The NFC is too competitive -- the Seahawks, 49ers, Packers and Saints immediately come to mind -- for the Bears to get on a roll that carries them deep into the postseason. (That said, podcasting partner and CBSSports.com colleague Will Brinson is picking the Bears to make the Super Bowl.)
In the second preseason game against the Jaguars on Thursday, Cutler has all day in the pocket before throwing a seed to Marshall in the back of the end zone.
ARMAGEDDON: Cutler going down for any length of time is troubling. Beyond that, if this defense isn't substantially improved, the offense will need to score a ton of points. And while there are playmakers capable of doing that, the problem is that Cutler takes a beating when he drops back 50 times a game. A season ago, the Bears' defense ranked 25th in the league; it was average against the pass (17th overall, according to Football Outsiders), but dead last against the run.
We love the addition of Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, but we don't know how well former first-round pick Shea McClellin will handle a move to outside linebacker, and perhaps more importantly, who's playing safety next to Ryan Mundy?
If everything goes wrong -- injuries to key players, the defense reprises its 2013 performance, etc. -- a 5-11 record could be the result.
DREAM WEAVER: Confession: We were high on the Lions in the offseason, mostly because we talked ourselves into liking the Jim Caldwell hire from the perspective that he could make Matthew Stafford a better player. And free agent Golden Tate would not only improve the return game, he would take pressure of Calvin Johnson. On paper, the defense looks good, too; the front seven is formidable and Glover Quin would add talent and experience in the secondary.
Still, a lot of questions remain.
Can Stafford change? Or will he revert to his sloppy habits as the season progresses? Does Reggie Bush have anything left? And why would this team use the 10th overall pick on a tight end? Yes, Eric Ebron was the best tight end in the draft, but during his first training camp he has struggled with dropped passes, route running (one likely affects the other), and blocking. Yes, we know, Brandon Pettigrew (a former first-round pick) will primarily be used as the blocking tight end but the opponents don't know or care about that distinction.
ARMAGEDDON: These are all minor concerns, though. Stafford has shown that he can leading scoring drives. A bigger issue is the secondary after Glover. Currently, the starting cornerbacks are Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay. Mathis, despite ranking 26th among all cornerbacks last season, according to Pro Football Focus, is entering his 12th season. Slay, a 2013 second-round pick, ranked 92nd out of 110 players.
There's certainly room for Slay to improve but there's no reason to think Mathis, at 33, will be able to play at a high level. Which means that if the front seven can't generate pressure, the rest of the NFC North will be teeing off on the secondary.
Another lesson worth remembering: Detroit started 6-3 last season before going 1-6 down the stretch. The teams they beat to get to six wins? Minnestoa, Washington, Chicago (twice), Cleveland and Dallas. Then the wheels fell off over the final two months of the season with the only win coming against an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers team. Our point: This team looks great on paper, but less so on the field. Nine wins seems like the absolute ceiling for this group in 2014 while a 5-11 mark isn't an impossibility if nothing goes right.
DREAM WEAVER: There are plenty of reasons to like the Packers and the obvious one is Aaron Rodgers. He is one of the three or four best quarterbacks in the league and as long as he's on the field, Green Bay will always have a good chance to win. And while "You need a franchise quarterback in today's NFL to win a Super Bowl!" is pretty much a cliché at this point, an often overlooked aspect of championship teams are good defenses.
When you say it out loud (or read it -- or read it out loud if that's your thing) it sounds ridiculous. "Wait, what, stopping the other team is important?!" But the 2010 Packers had their defense catch fire near the end of the season and parlayed that -- along with a high-powered offense -- into a Lombardi Trophy.
The Packers also know how to win. Again, another cliché but in a division with Cutler and Stafford, Rodgers has the advantage. Not solely because the numbers paint him as the better passer, but because he has been in -- and come out the other side -- of tough, late-season, game-on-the-line situations. Cutler and Stafford haven't been nearly as successful.
There are questions about the offensive line, but Rodgers, who occasionally holds the ball too long, has an uncanny ability to sense and avoid pressure. And that, coupled with maybe the quickest release in the league, can buy time in the pocket even when the protection is adequate or worse.
And now Rodgers has a running game. Eddie Lacy was a pleasant surprise a season ago and the hope is that he can continue to play like one of the league's best young runners.
ARMAGEDDON: This is straightforward: Rodgers gets knocked around, has to miss some time and the offense is left to Matt Flynn or Scott Tolzien. This defense, which ranked 31st in '13 but eighth the season before, isn't capable of carrying the offense for an extended period, even with new faces like Julius Peppers and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. But here's the thing: Even if Rodgers misses two or three games, the Packers are almost guaranteed to make the playoffs. Their final four regular-season games? Atlanta, at Buffalo, at Tampa Bay and Detroit. Even if Green Bay loses to the Patriots in Week 13 to fall to 6-6, they could reel off four straight to get to 10-6. And that's the worst-case scenario. Best case: They win 12 or 13 games and end up in the Super Bowl. This development would shock exactly no one.
DREAM WEAVER: In a perfect world, Teddy Bridgewater would catch fire in the final three preseason games, get the nod in Week 1, and play like the can't-miss face of the franchise everybody pegged him for last fall, months before that disastrous, gloveless pro day. Instead, Bridgewater has looked like, well, a rookie. We were one of the few people on the planet who thought he held his own against the Raiders last week, but he was clearly outplayed by veteran Matt Cassel.
And while Cassel is a solid backup, and a guy who can step in and win a game for you in a pinch, he's not someone you're building a team around.
If Cassel wins QB job, as expected, Vikings will return all 11 starters from last season on offense.— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) August 14, 2014
ARMAGEDDON: And that tweet above, along with the fact that the Vikings aren't very good, is why it makes some sense to throw Bridgewater out there. What's the worst that happens? Minnesota wins five games again? If Cassel plays, the Vikings might be, what, a game better than that? Is 6-10 with Cassel worth denying Bridgewater the experience he would gain?
(Bridgewater's first NFL throw may have ended in an offensive penalty, but it offers something Vikings fans haven't had in a while with their quarterbacks: Hope. GIF via B/R)
This is rhetorical because Cassel's the likely starter in Week 1; he has outplayed Bridgewater and he gives the Vikings the best chance to win (after Adrian Peterson, anyway). The problem is that Cassel's best chance doesn't do much for the organization's playoff hopes, or their long-term prospects of getting better.
* May not be true.
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