It wasn’t long after April’s NFL Draft that the NFC North hype machine was in full force. The Packers would return to the Super Bowl after a one-year hiatus; The Lions are now a playoff mainstay; The scrappy Chicago Bears are back, with an offense this year. All three teams wouldn’t just have a better-than-average chance to make the 2012 playoffs; rather all three teams would make the 2012 playoffs. When it released game spreads for the first 16 weeks (it didn’t post lines for Week 17 games, likely due to the inevitable resting of players by some teams) Candor Gaming had the Packers favored 15 times, the Bears 11 times and the Lions 10 times. Seems to me that’s punching a playoff ticket for all three teams, no?
The truth is it’s rare for three divisional foes to each occupy a playoff spot as it requires both wild card teams to come from the same division. Rare, however, doesn’t mean it never happens. Just last season three AFC North teams – Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati – secured playoff berths. In 2006, New York, Dallas and Philadelphia all represented the NFC East in the playoffs.
The barometer of a non-division winner playoff team is typically at least 10 victories. Naturally, 10 wins doesn’t guarantee a spot in the post season, sincerely the 2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Despite a surprising-yet-solid 10-win season, Tampa Bay lost a tiebreaker for the final playoff spot.) Occasionally, nine wins is enough, proven by last year’s Cincinnati Bengals, but in the current NFL culture a spot on the Week 18 schedule almost always requires at least 10 victories.
That means all the hoopla surrounding the NFC North’s Big 3 assumes each will amass a double-digit victory total. Here are the over/under win totals on the Black and Blue Division for the 2012 season:
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers are one of just two teams (New England is the other) favored in every game this season. If the chalk holds, the Packers would complete just the second 16-0 season in NFL history. With the over/under set at 12 it seems like a no-brainer to take the over at this point, even with a little extra juice. Nevertheless, let’s break down Green Bay’s chances to top, match or fall short of a dirty dozen victories.
Despite many, including NFL.com, calling Green Bay’s schedule “Fairly Easy,” I find it anything but. The first four weeks will tell us a lot about this team and, more importantly, whether it’s still King of the NFC North and can amass 13 wins. The season opener against San Francisco pits last year’s top two NFC seeds against each other. So much for a cakewalk to kick off the season. Four days later the Packers play host to the much-improved Bears. After a Monday nighter at Seattle – always a place in the Pacific northwest where east coast teams go to die – in Week 3 the Packers return home to host the turmoil-stricken-but-dangerous-nonetheless Saints. Anything less than a 3-1 start should make “over” betters extremely timorous. Outside of a Week 6 game at Houston for Sunday Night Football, the Packers should roll between Weeks 5 and 9 (Indianapolis, St. Louis, Jacksonville and Arizona aren’t gimme wins for everyone in 2012, but they are for the Packers). Following a Week 10 bye, the schedule gets NFC North heavy as five of Green Bay’s final seven opponents are intradivision foes. The back-to-back games at Detroit and at the New York Giants won’t be easy, though it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Packers won a shootout with the Lions last year despite Matt Flynn playing 60 minutes.
Why they’ll go over 12 wins (-125)
Simply put, the Packers are built to win games. Last year’s team was a one turd showing at Kansas City away from a 16-0 regular season. Aaron Rodgers is playing quarterback about as well as any quarterback has in recent memory. Just think of how much more lethal Rodgers would be if the Packers gave him one healthy running back, let alone a stable of healthy running backs. It doesn’t matter who’s at wide receiver or tight end, Rodgers is to the NFC what Tom Brady is to the AFC; he’ll take the pieces he’s given and turn them into hot commodities.
While going 13-3 or better is quite the challenge, a big question for Packer better is the following: “Are the Lions and Bears really good enough to split the season series with the Pack?” The Lions haven’t won in Green Bay since 1991 and while the Bears always have the pieces to give the Packers trouble it is rarely enough. Assuming – and we’ll have to do that a lot here in playing the “Project the Win Total” game – Green Bay goes unbeaten at home again, it’ll need to find four road games to lose. There are only five road games I’d consider remotely difficult: at Seattle (-6), at Houston (-1.5), at Detroit (-3), at New York Giants (-3), at Chicago (-3). It means Green Bay would have to win two of those games, at minimum, to get 13 wins. It definitely looks doable.
Why they’ll fall under 12 wins (-105)
This will be Aaron Rodgers’ fifth season under center for the Packers; last season was the first time Rodgers led Green Bay to more than 11 wins. While he’s definitely had Green Bay a perennial playoff team during the last three seasons, the Packers haven’t been Patriot-like in posting what feels like 13+ wins every year. For as good as the defense has been at creating turnovers it’s also been notorious for giving up big plays.
As mentioned above, the slab of five road games isn’t filled with a gimme victory. Plus, if last year was any indication, there might be a game on the schedule that the world chalks up as a Packers win (-9.5 at St. Louis in Week 7) where Green Bay forgets to show up.
I’d sit this one out only because the more I replay the schedule possibilities in my head the more I see 12-4. The chance Green Bay falls to 10-6 seems slim but an 11-5 season isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Then again, this is a team that is only likely to be healthier, and therefore better, than last year’s 15-1 team. The “perfect” line for the Packers probably should be at 12.5, as the chances are plausible the team gets a dozen wins. Whether it’s a common dozen or a baker’s dozen remains to be seen.
Following the team’s first playoff appearance since 1999 many of the immature youngsters on the Lions turned what should be an excited fan base into a hide-those-Lions-T-shirts until September one. It seems like we’ve read a weekly “Lions (fill in name here) arrested with marijuana” story this offseason. Shame aside, Detroit faithful are in the middle of a disgustingly disappointing Tigers season and are haven’t been more eager for a Lions season in eons. Detroit’s over/under is set perfectly at 9.5 as the Lions have the look of a fringe playoff team once again.
It’s an odd schedule to say the least. The Lions don’t play back-to-back home games until three in a row starting in Week 11. Prior to that, they play three pairs of back-to-back road games. And before we go all Green bay and assume Detroit will go unbeaten at home you should remember the following: The Lions went 5-3 at home last season, losing to the three best teams (Green Bay, San Francisco and Atlanta) they hosted at Ford Field. The three toughest home games this season appear to be the Packers, Texans and either the Falcons or Bears. If parts of 2011 hold true, it means the Lions will lose at least a pair of those games and with road games at San Francisco (Week 2), at Philadelphia (Week 6), at Chicago (Week 7) and at Green Bay (Week 14) the Lions can’t afford to slip up in any game it should win easily.
Why they’ll go over 9.5 wins (+110)
Last year’s team was one Matt Flynn I’m-going-to-become-a-hot-free-agent-QB performance from finishing 11-5 despite playing most of the season’s second half without a running game. With some new pieces on the offensive line (namely new tackle Riley Reiff, who might start from day one at either LT or RT) and the secondary via the draft, the Lions look like they’ve found the guys to exercise their offensive and defensive demons. Matthew Stafford became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards last season joining Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. People forget it was his first full season under center. Stafford has proven to be a china doll of sorts but when healthy he’s proving he’s one heckuva quarterback.
Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in the game, making Stafford’s job a little easier. Speedster Jahvid Best looks to be healthy again and, if he can kick his marijuana habit and avoid too long of a likely NFL-mandated suspension Mikel Leshoure should provide the Lions with the power back it’s desired for years. Offensively this team can outscore any other team in the league. In a QB-happy league driven by huge passing games the Lions rise to the top as one of the league’s best making a play on over 9.5 wins a decent proposition.
Why they’ll fall under 9.5 wins (-140)
We’ll start with the obvious: Megatron is obviously going to miss some games this season. With Calvin Johnson winning the Madden ’13 cover spot, a victory that made Lions fans squeamish immediately, a 16-game season for the new CJ2K seems like a stretch.
Curse-related news aside, while people will remember a few games the Lions could have won last season they likely will forget three oddly historic comeback victories. Despite trailing 20-0 at Minnesota, the Lions rallied to win the game, 26-23, in overtime. The following week Detroit trailed Dallas by 24 points in the third quarter before Tony Romo gagged the game away. In a home game chalked up as a gimme, the Lions trailed Carolina by 17 points in the first half before a second-half surge fleeced Detroit another win. Heck, that doesn’t even mention Detroit scoring 14 points in the final five minutes to win at Oakland in Week 16. The point is, Detroit was extremely inconsistent last season, not only over the course of 16 games but in the four quarters within each contest.
I’m a “show me” kind of guy and before I get giddy on a team I’d like to see a repeat of some sort. My former high school baseball coach used to say “any asshole can do it once” in reference to winning championships. In this case, we’re making the Lions the assholes. For the first time in 12 seasons the Lions made the playoffs. Before I expect the Lions to do it again I want the team to show me it can. Even with a perfectly quiet offseason I’d be skeptical. With a spring circus resembling Hard Knocks there’s no way I’d consider Detroit a 10-win team. I’m leaning heavily toward taking the under despite a little extra juice, but I can’t put it in stone. Yet.
The Bears are a model of consistency. Sort of. I’m not saying Chicago is the NFC’s version of the New England Patriots, who have made double-digit wins (typically 12+) and an AFC East title the norm, rather I’m saying no matter how good or bad the world assumes Chicago will be it’ll probably be right-in-the-middle good. Heck, the consistency even has an up-down-up-down feel to it. The biggest move this offseason was luring Brandon Marshall to Chicago and pairing him with Jay Cutler once again. What makes the move scary is the Bears have always had a good-enough-to-win-low-scoring-games offense because the defense always comes to play. Adding a bonafied Top 10 receiver means the Bears might actually average 20+ points each week and have some easy andwatchable victories.
The schedule screams EASY to me, though I’m not sure why. There are two games against both the Packers and Lions as well as road trips to San Francisco and Dallas. Soldier Field also plays host to Houston and Carolina, the former being a Super Bowl contender and the latter being a major sleeper this season. Yet, all the other games seem to be gimmes. Chicago’s travel also isn’t that bad; the Bears play back-to-back road games just once before the last two weeks of the season, although the first one is a Monday Nighter in Dallas (Week 3) followed by a Sunday game in Jacksonville (Week 4). The toughest back-to-back stretch might be a Sunday Night home game against Houston (Week 10) followed by a Monday Night trip to San Francisco (Week 11). Vegas is counting on the Bears somehow sitting at 8-7 heading into a Week 17 showdown in Detroit where both teams could have playoff aspirations on the line.
Why they’ll go over 8.5 wins (-130)
The schedule will help, that’s for sure. If Chicago can with the other eight games not listed above, it only needs to win one of the eight “toughies” to top the over. That seems like a decent bet. Moreover, Lovie Smith’s calling card has always been his defense. Chicago’s defense is going to be good enough to keep Chicago in every game thanks to timely strips, sacks and interceptions. With an actual receiving corps for Jay Cutler to throw to and an offensive line that actually improved, it seems like this team’s floor should be 9-7. What’s crazy is I haven’t even mentioned Matt Forte yet and we’re already approaching double-digit victories. Forte is one of the best all-around backs in the game. While his fantasy value might be hurt a bit by Marshall’s presence, his usefulness for the Bears will be better as he’ll create space for a Cutler-to-Marshall connection and Marshall’s ability to stretch the field will open up the dink-and-dump passes that Forte can turn into huge gains.
Why they’ll fall under 8.5 wins (-100)
Jay Cutler gets hurt and the reins end up in the hands of one of the three backup quarterbacks (Jason Campbell, Josh McCown or Nate Enderle). Let’s add an injury to Brandon Marshall as well. Outside of the plague striking this team I just don’t see how the Bears could possibly finish 8-8. Even if Matt Forte continues his holdout, Michael Bush will be more than able to fill in. Bush has always been an under-the-radar guy who has 1,500-yard potential in the right offense. Chicago’s offense suits him well.
The extra juice on the over and the straight-up 50/50 on the under has Vegas begging you to take the under. That’s a sucker bet as the only play here is on the over. The worst-case Chicago season is 8-8 which gets you a push and the chance to play again next year. The NFC North will be tough but the Bears will survive it as well as tackling challenges around the NFL. This is a 2012 playoff team, meaning at least nine victories. Book It!
I miss the Vikings’ party boat days, if only because that’s when the Purple People Eaters actually fielded a relevant football team. Don’t get me wrong, the Vikings have some exceptional pieces (Adrian Peterson anyone?!?) but coaching and poor quarterback play has doomed this team in recent years. Peterson’s injury last season crippled this squad, propelling it to a pathetic 3-13 year. If there was one positive it’s that it forced Christian Ponder to grow faster and get up to NFL game speed without the help of a top-tier running back. Peterson’s return should allow Ponder to develop even more but the question remains: Will it be enough against the beasts of the NFC North?
As a whole, this is one of those schedules that doesn’t impress you on either end of the “easy” or “brutal” meter. That said the final eight games might be the most challenging in the league. Starting with Week 9: at Seattle, Detroit, at Chicago, at Green Bay, Chicago, at St. Louis, at Houston, Green Bay. There isn’t a gimme victory in that bunch, especially since the Rams will be playing at home in a season that has no expectations under new coach Jeff Fisher. The first half of the schedule has three “probably not going to win this one” games: San Francisco (Week 3), at Detroit (Week 4), at Washington (Week 6). The Week 8 game against Tampa Bay is also a Thursday Night special.
Why they’ll go over 6 wins (-100)
If used correctly Adrian Peterson is a horse any team could ride into the playoffs. The problem is the Vikings haven’t had a competent coach/quarterback combination with Peterson in the backfield. He’s a back who should get 25-30 carries a contest yet there are too many box scores that show 15-carry, 60-yard efforts. At least the Vikings used him in the passing game in 2009 (his 43 catches that season were more than his 2007 and 2008 totals combined) which allowed Peterson to become the all-around back everyone knew he could be. The Metrodome, dilapidated and all, is still a tough place to play. Jared Allen coming around the edge means opposing quarterbacks are always one snap away from being carted off the field, giving the Vikings a huge advantage. And, to help combat that scenario from opposing players, the Vikings added the best offensive tackle in this year’s draft (Matt Kalil) to protect Ponder’s blindside.
Why they’ll fall under 6 wins (-130)
Adrian Peterson can only do so much. Looking back at the schedule, let’s assume the Vikings lose those three tough games early in the season. Let’s also assume the Vikings somehow manage to close with two wins in the final eight games. That means Minnesota would be 2-9 with these five games to be played: Jacksonville (Week 1), at Indianapolis (Week 2), Tennessee (Week 5), Arizona (Week 7), Tampa Bay (Week 8). The positive there is four games are at home but the negative is the Vikings were worse than all but one of those teams last season. (Candor Gaming has the Vikings favored in the Arizona and Tampa Bay games while the Tennessee game is a pick’em). All those games are coin flips, meaning even if we give Minnesota the benefit of the doubt and give it a 3-2 mark in those games the Vikings finish the year 5-11.
The ceiling for this team is most definitely 6-10, therefore taking the under, with the extra juice, is the only play here. If either the Bears or Lions were expected to struggle mightily this year maybe the Vikings could pull out a magical seventh victory. But with the three other divisional foes expected to be 8-8 or better it leaves the Vikings in a scramble-for-victories mode. There just aren’t that many on the schedule and a 5-11 campaign seems to be most likely. Minnesota is only favored in three games with another “pick’em” contest. This team isn’t 3-13 material again but it surely isn’t going to be sniffing .500. You won’t lose by taking the under here. You could push, but you definitely won’t lose. Book It!