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TVE’s 2011 NFL Forecast, Part 2: AFC & NFC North Divisions

Yesterday, we took a look at the East divisions of both the AFC and the NFC. Today, we move to the Midwest as we examine the North divisions.

Prediction:  3-13; 4th in AFC North

Even though Cincinnati seems to have improved of the defensive side of the game, this is a Bengals team that has seen the departure of longtime star wideout Chad Johnson to the greener pastures of New England, as well as the apparent retirement of onetime franchise quarterback Carson Palmer. Andy Dalton may very well become the next “guy”, as they say, in Cincinnati, but I don’t think it’ll happen in this, his rookie season. I think the Bengals are in the unfortunate position of simply having far too much challenge and change than can be feasibly overcome in one season.

Prediction:  5-11; 3rd in AFC North

I think the Browns will end up with the same record they had last year, but I think they’ll look better doing it, if that makes any sense. I think that even though Cleveland will have improved, I’m not so sure it’ll show up in their win-loss record. I think one more losing season might actually be to the Browns’ benefit anyway. They’re still several pieces away, and another high drafting position should help Mike Holmgren nab a few, if not several, of those very pieces.

Prediction:  12-4; 2nd in AFC North

Like the New York Jets, the Baltimore Ravens look downright nasty on paper, and at just about every position. Also like the Jets, Baltimore has one big gaping hole. Once again, like the Jets, that enormous hole is in the secondary. The Ravens used to have the opposite of the Jets’ problem in that they had a couple of great safeties while not really having any noteworthy cornerbacks since the days of Chris McAlister. Well, they still don’t have any cornerbacks, but they also saw strong safety Dawan Landry depart for Jacksonville, leaving Baltimore with approximately twenty-five percent of a quality defensive backfield. As great as Ed Reed is, (and he really, really is) he can’t literally be everywhere. At least not all the time. That said, I still think the Ravens will do very well, but I think they’ll ultimately be bested, in terms of divisional placement anyway, by the only AFC North club I’ve yet to discuss.

Prediction:  13-3; 1st in AFC North

This year’s Pittsburgh Steelers starting lineup is almost identical to last year’s. That alone seems advantageous, given the relative brevity with which teams had to prepare for this season after the months-long lockout. The only major personnel change that can be remotely perceived as a loss is that of former left tackle Max Starks, who was cut near the end of July, shortly after Pittsburgh acquired wide receiver Lee Evans in a trade with Buffalo. The consistency in their lineup is a good thing. Some are making mention of the fact that all of those returning players are another year older, but I don’t think that’ll be too big a deal. If there exists a fountain of NFL youth, I’m pretty sure you’d find it at the intersection of three rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Just look at guys like Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, and James Harrison. They just don’t seem to age, do they? Yeah, that’s right. James Harrison. He’s 33. Not that one could tell from his play. I think that the Steelers’ ageless defensive unit, coupled with added offensive firepower in the for of the aforementioned Lee Evans and the always-reliable Pittsburgh Steelers running game will see Pittsburgh to its sixth AFC North Championship, and the franchise’s twenty-first divisional title overall.

Prediction: 7-9; 4th in NFC North

Much has been made of Detroit’s personnel improvements over the few years, and that hullabaloo is well earned. Unfortunately for young Matthew Stafford, very little has been done to remedy the Lions’ offensive line. They still pretty much only have Dominic Raiola, and that means Matthew Stafford’s getting close to being dropped by his health insurance carrier. Detroit seems to have all the potential in the world, but until they get that offensive line sorted out, they’re spinning their wheels.

Prediction:  8-8; 3rd in NFC North

Jay Cutler heads into the 2011 season with a year of Mike Martz’s offense under his belt, and a shiny new toy named Roy Williams. I think Cutler and Williams will both have bounce-back years, thanks in no small part to Williams’s familiarity with Martz and his scheme from when the two worked together in Detroit. The Bears’ running game will be there to lean on too, with a healthy Matt Forte in the backfield who will himself be spelled admirably by former Dallas Cowboys tailback Marion Barber. Their biggest problem is their being a part of what I think will be the NFL’s most competitive division.

Prediction:  10-6; 2nd in NFC North

Minnesota is a very good team, but I think they’ll struggle some early in the absence of perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams. No relation. They won’t get Kevin back until his much-publicized four-game suspension has been served, and Pat has told the press that he won’t ever be seen in a Minnesota Vikings uniform again. I think between that, the loss of wide receiver Sidney Rice to Seattle, and the fact that new quarterback Donovan McNabb has had all of about six weeks to acclimate to his new teammates will add up to some slight growing pains for the Vikes. I think they’ll get it together in time to contend for a Wildcard spot, but that’s the only way I can imagine them seeing postseason play.

Prediction:  14-2; 1st in NFC North

Green Bay has managed to remain relatively intact in terms of personnel. They did lose defensive end Cullen Jenkins to the beastly Philadelphia Eagles, but Rian Picket will pick up that slack with B.J. Raji becoming the full-time starter at the nose. They also lost safety Atari Bigby to Seattle, but they’re confident in young Morgan Burnett. After all, why shouldn’t they be? Who’s drafted better in the secondary over the last few years than have the defending Super Bowl champs? As good as they were down the stretch last year, Green Bay looks to start 2011 on even better footing with a healthy Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant back in the starting lineup. I can think of no reason why the Pack won’t remain atop what I think will be a very competitive NFC North. In fact, there’s only one club that I think might stand in the Packers’ way of a second consecutive NFC crown, and that’s the Atlanta Falcons. More on them, and the rest of the South divisions tomorrow.

- TVE’s 2011 NFL Forecast, Part 1: AFC & NFC East Divisions

- TVE’s 2011 NFL Forecast, Part 3: AFC & NFC South Divisions

- TVE’s 2011 NFL Forecast, Part 4: AFC & NFC West Divisions

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Comments

  1. Nice writeup, but I disagree about the Lions. Their offensive line actually did a pretty decent job last year. After LT Jeff Backus let Stafford get slaughtered in the first game, he gave up only one other sack all year, I believe. I am most concerned about their running game since Jahvid Best will have to carry the load due to Leshoure’s injury, and he didn’t exactly impress last year. Still, the team has A LOT of potential and can do some serious damage this year. It’s the first time in at least a decade that I am genuinely excited about the season.

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    • "The Current Big Thing" Bryan Micklus says:

      Eric, first and foremost, thanks for reading and responding. I genuinely appreciate it.

      Now then, as far as Jeff Backus is concerned, he may have managed to give up fewer actual sacks, but he still gave up a TON of big hits on his quarterbacks. You don’t have to take my word for it– ask Shaun Hill. Jeff Backus isn’t a great tackle. He’s not completely terrible either, but he leaves a lot to be desired at the tackle position.

      I think the running game might fare a little bit better than you think, because Best’s load will be shared by former Cleveland Brown Jerome Harrison, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Harrison begin to take the majority of the carries once he becomes more familiar with Detroit’s scheme.

      Like you, I think this Detroit team has all the potential in the world, and I think you and other Lions fans have every reason to be stoked, but I think they’re still a couple of years away because of the aforementioned offensive line issues. Hey– I think Leonard Davis is still available, even though he absolutely shouldn’t be. I think Shawn Andrews might be out there too. If he can keep his head on straight, he’d be a TERRIFIC signing.

      Again, thanks very much for reading.

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      • Thanks for responding. I’m always up for talking Lions football, heh.

        I agree somewhat on Backus, and I think I can speak for most Lions fans in that he is certainly not a strong point on the team. He is, at best, an adequate tackle that occasionally can play very well. He has had some issues over the years, but I thought he stepped his game up last year after that timely week one sack. I think right now if there is a link on the offensive line it is at RG with Stephen Peterman. I don’t know if it was injuries or what, but he was pretty much terrible last season. I’m hoping he steps back up to his level of play from a couple years ago, but I’m not holding my breath.

        I hope you’re right about Harrison. He showed glimpses of his potential in the last preseason game, but before that he was pretty bad. Keiland Williams is an intriguing pickup, too. I think the team will have to rely solely on Stafford’s arm for the first few weeks at least until the new guys learn the playbook/system.

        I will say this: it sure feels good to not have to talk about deficiencies on defense, haha. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the D-Line is one of the best in the NFL, if not THE best. Love it.

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    • "The Current Big Thing" Bryan Micklus says:

      Hm. It wouldn’t let me add another reply in the above thread, so I suppose I’ll start us a new one.

      Harrison had a great, albeit short, run in Cleveland. He’d almost certainly still be their guy if not for last year’s emergence of Peyton Hillis. He’s a little bit undersized for an NFL tailback, and, as such, I think he’ll benefit from being a part of a rotation as opposed to having to try to be *the* guy in the backfield. Fortunately for him, that’s pretty much exactly what Rod Marinelli wants to do. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, by about week 5, Harrison and Maurice Morris were sharing most of the load as pertains to straight running plays, while Best morphs into a similar role that Reggie Bush used to play in New Orleans, that of the “scat back”, “just get him the ball and a little bit of space and let him be awesome” variety.

      Honestly, one last sort-of-disappointing year could be just what the doctor ordered, so long as your Lions continue their recent trend of brilliant drafting.

      As far as the defense is concerned, I actually think you have even more to be happy about than you realize. I’m sure you’re beside yourself about Nick Fairley. As you should be. I don’t watch a lot of college football– it’s just never been able to hold my interest– but one game I did watch last year was the National Championship game. While watching that game, I remember thinking to myself, “Man, this DaQuan Bowers kid I keep hearing about must have some incredible tape, because this Fairley kid is absolutely ridiculous.” It was like he was three men instead of one college kid. I saw him beat tackles off the edge on what Oregon thought were supposed to have been passing plays, and I saw him play on the inside and split the interior of Oregon’s offensive line like a pre-cut bagel before taking the running back’s head off in the backfield. He was just disruptive as all hell out there, and it almost isn’t fair that your team is going to have both him *and* Ndamukong Suh on the same line. If you’ve heard a better argument than that for sticking with the “old school” 4-3 base, pass it on to me.

      The thing is, that’s not even where the defensive positives stop for Detroit. The Lions’ front office has done well to quietly upgrade their secondary, and nobody even seems to realize it. I think Erik Wright is a bright young corner who was really starting to blossom in Cleveland, but I guess they decided that he’d become expendable with the arrival of Joe Haden. Brandon McDonald, also from Cleveland, is somebody who I think well see a lot of action in “nickel” and “dime” packages, and he might just end up being that Detroit secondary’s version of the NBA’s famed “sixth man”.

      Like I said, I think that you and the rest of Lions Nation (or however you collectively refer to yourselves ;) ) have a lot to look forward to over the next few years, but I think they’ll have a tough time maintaining possession this year, on account of what I think is a pretty shoddy offensive line outside of Dominic Raiola.

      Again, thanks for reading and for the continued discussion.

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      • Ah, I can’t believe you referred to the Lions coach as Rod Marinelli. That brings back horrible memories! :P

        Well, one game is in the books and the Lions looked pretty much like they did in the preseason. Scoring points at will and remaining dominant on defense. The final score is not indicative of the sheer beatdown Detroit was giving Tampa, as the only time the Bucs were able to score was when the Lions defense went to Prevent in the fourth quarter. It was impressive to see, and I think if the team stays healthy they will even exceed my modest expectations (8-8 or 9-7).

        Harrison looked pretty good in his limited action, and I can see the RB scenario you mentioned potentially happening, though Best looked capable as the lead back yesterday. It’s good to have more than one decent option though.

        I can’t wait to see Fairley in action. His foot can’t heal fast enough. You’re right about the secondary — they were great yesterday, even without Alphonso Smith playing. Eric Wright had one bad year in Cleveland, and they gave up on him pretty quick. Good for us, because he has all sorts of potential.

        In regards to the offensive line, they did a good job yesterday for the most part, especially the left side. That’s where most of the good runs came from. I just wish the right side could refrain from making stupid mental mistakes. Both Pteerman and Cherilus had terrible penalties that could have cost the team more than they did. Inexcusable.

        Anyway, it’s great to have the NFL back. I miss these lazy Sundays. :)

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      • "The Current Big Thing" Bryan Micklus says:

        Oh, good Christ. I know good and well that Jim Schwartz holds that job now. ;) I chalk it up to the fact that I play Madden 08 for Windows with reasonably current community-built rosters, and got back into a five-pretend-years-in franchise on that game. Needless to say, not all of the coaching staffs are current. Sheesh.

        At any rate, your boys did look good, My beloved 49ers won too, though almost despite themselves.

        I’m really excited to see Fairley myself. I think the guard and center positions have become points of weakness for a lot of offensive lines around the league because of how big a deal has been being made of tackles in recent years. It wasn’t long ago that every team that didn’t have a Pro Bowl guard or two absolutely could not run on Jacksonville because of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. That’s the type of athletic tandem I think you’re looking at with Suh/Fairley, and if Fairley makes half as succesful a transition as has Suh, it’s not crazy to think that they could be even better and for longer.

        Eric Wright may have found a home for the next several years. I think Detroit’s going to emerge as one of those places defensive backs just love to play because of how much easier that front seven makes their respective jobs. You can’t put a price tag on only having to cover a guy for a second and a half because Ndamukong Suh’s feeding time is at T-Minus two seconds on every play. About that “down year” he had last year in cleveland– everything I’ve been able to find on the subject seems to suggest that most of the plays on which he was “burned” looked a lot like circumstances in which zone coverage was blown by then-rookie safety TJ Ward. Now he has Louis Delmas behind him, who’s a playmaker and a half. I don’t think he’ll have a repeat of last year by any means.

        The running game will come I think. Two out of their three running backs didn’t even get to town until after the first batch of cuts, so they’re still getting up to speed. That’s what such a short offseason will do to you. One thing in which I feel reasonably confident is that, if nothing else, Harrison is highly unlikely to shit the bed. I read not too long ago that he’s actually a Michigan native, and he was more or less born a Lions fan. As such, he really feels like he’s living a dream on top of a dream in that not only is he able to play professional football, but he’s able do do so for the team he’s loved as a fan since he could walk. He’s a guy who probably wants nothing more in the world than to be a legit star for the Detroit Lions.

        Lastly, thanks for writing “dominant” and not “dominate” in that sentence regarding Detroit’s defensive play– the latter is one of my internet pet-peeves. ;)

        CBT

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