By Inigo ‘Naughty’ Zenicazelaya
• THIS week I continue with my NFL pre-season picks division by division. Moving from the tough AFC to the very competitive NFC this week and we start with the North and South divisions respectively.
THIS division is a two-team race, in my opinion, between the Packers and Lions with Minnesota being a potential ‘dark horse’ that could surprise some people and teams on any given Sunday, especially if they are playing away from home.
The rebuilding in Chicago continues, while the Bears may not be overly successful right away they are a solid unit
on both sides of the football with very positive results on the horizon in the not too distant future.
The Marc Trestman head coaching experiment is over in Chicago, and thankfully it is. This scenario means a new head coach and free agents making their way toward Chicago, who’ve still got some chance to work with QB Jay Cutler and hopefully extract his vast potential. Matt Forte and Alshon Jefferies are two offensive ‘studs’ who should put up big numbers.
The defence is the work in progress, but looking at camp reports the defence should be improved, but will it be enough to stay in the race in this competitive division? That remains to be seen. I see the Bears being competitive and finishing out 8-8 or 9-7 with some positives to build on moving forward.
The Lions made the playoffs last season and look to build on it this campaign. The offence is solid with Stafford, Johnson, Bell and Tate making it fire on all cylinders. The defence remains solid despite the departure of Ndamakon Suh, the unit is still nasty and quite capable of devouring opposing QBs but how will it fair against the run without Suh? That is the biggest question for the unit. Special teams returns in tact loads with scoring potential. All three key areas are strong so the Lions should be in every game in one of the toughest divisions in football rivalry wise, Jim Caldwell makes a huge difference as the maturation process in Detroit continues.
I see the Lions finishing 11-5 in a strong division, in contention for the division and a playoff berth.
Barring injuries to key stars, this team looks poised to make a big splash throughout the whole season. Possibly the best QB in the NFL, Aaron Rodgers has some key weapons in the likes of Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb to make this offence explosive, add that to potentially the best or if not one of the best offensive lines in football (one of the best, the best O line in football is in Dallas) the Packers are going to put up points in bunches, and blow a few teams out in the process.
It’s the defensive side of the football that haunts the Packers, and despite some improvements through free agency this unit still is the ‘Achilles heel’ of the team. Good teams will keep up with the Packers if the defence struggles.
I see the Packers between 12-4 and 10-6 in the win-loss column leading into possible contention for the Division Championship with Detroit. When the smoke clears I like the Packers to get it done, one way or another!
Head Coach Mike Zimmer has done an excellent job rebuilding this proud NFL franchise, all the while putting his signature on the defence.
Look for the Vikings to be much improved offensively as well, with the return of Adrian Peterson and the newly acquired Mike Wallace giving second year QB Teddy Bridgewater ample opportunity to improve on last seasons rookie growing pains and results. I see the Vikings improving off their 7-9 records so I think 10-6 or 9-7 is about right with possible playoff ramifications hanging in the balance.
• Now we go south to perhaps the most ‘bipolar’ division in the NFL - the NFC South.
I CALL this the ‘hot potato’ division, because the previous years division winner avoids repeating as division champ like the plague. To make it worse it always seems like the division will flip year in and year out, with the bottom ascending to the top and vice versa on a seasonal basis. However this year may be the year we see a repeat division winner, and if not it’s a strong possibility that it will be the previous years winner that ends up in last place or near the bottom!
Another case of a new head coach, new staff and new players. Not to mention some old friends (Ryan, Jones, White and Freeman) can help the Falcons offensively. It’s the defence that needs work, and boy does it.
If the ‘new look’ Falcons do damage control on their defence and the special teams continues to be a solid unit I can see the Falcons improving, but to leapfrog Carolina and New Orleans, not this time. I see the Falcons in the 9-7 or 10-6 region outside of the playoffs needing help to get in.
For the first time in a long time there may be a repeat division champion. The Panthers showed tons of moxy getting into the playoffs last year all be it with a losing record out of the weakest division in the NFL last season. They made up for their poor record by winning a playoff game, so last season ending in the second round of the playoffs became a building block for this season for the young talented Panthers.
Head coach Ron Rivera has the defence nasty and attacking every angle of the field. Luke Kuechly is a terror at LB and captains the defence impeccably, making sure everyone is in place and Rivera’s defensive schemes are executed flawlessly.
Cam Newton controls the reigns of the offence and down the stretch last season when it counted he put this Panther team on his back and willed them to the division crown and playoffs. Add Kelvin Benjamin and Jonathan Stewart to the offensive mix and Ted Ginn Jr’s return to the special teams unit, and this Panther team could repeat.
Considering the history of this division I see the Panthers 11-5 and in contention for the division and playoffs fending off the Saints in the process.
In all honesty I don’t know what to expect out of the overhauled and new look Saints. Head coach Sean Peyton and QB Drew Breese return so automatically the Saints have a chance. Trading Jimmy Graham is going to haunt them in the long run, but I’m sure there was a method to Peyton’s madness regarding Graham.
Other key free agent losses outweigh the additions in free agency. Taking the division into consideration and the fact that Peyton would not make the changes he did to the roster if he didn’t think it would work and his Saints wouldn’t win in the long run. I see the Saints around 10-6 battling to the wire with Carolina to the wire, provided Peyton’s theory of change sticks. If it doesn’t pan out the Saints could be thinking draft early.
Head coach Lovie Smith will go through more growing pains with a rookie QB in Jameis Winston. Luckily for the rookie he has two talented and productive wide receivers in Vincent Jackson and second year man Mike Evans so the games will be interesting to watch.
The running game is suspect and will hamper the offence. Coach Smith will always have the defence playing and competitive. Sadly this isn’t enough to get the Bucs into the postseason. However, it is enough to improve on last season and set in place some building blocks for the future. I see the Bucs going 5-11 improving from last seasons 2-14, baby steps, but in the right direction.
Next week we will wrap up the NFC and get the postseason predictions out of the way. Until then may all your balls stay inflated and land out of the rough!
• Naughty presents ‘Mischief and Mayhem in da AM’ on KISS FM 96.1 from 6am to 10am, Monday to Friday. Comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org