Seven months later, football is back! The 2013 NFL season will kick off this week as the Denver Broncos host the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens on Thursday.
Preseason is over, rosters are set and fans are itching to see their team play a game that matters. As we look at the NFC North heading into week one, there is a storyline to be found with each team.
The Chicago Bears fired head coach Lovie Smith and have begun the Marc Trestman era. The Bears hope that Trestman can get more out of quarterback Jay Cutler than could the defensive-minded Smith. The Bears will also be without star linebacker Brian Urlacher for the first time in over 12 seasons.
The Detroit Lions return much of their 2012 roster, which finished last season with a 4-12 record. It was a disappointment after the Lions made a playoff appearance following the 2011 season. Lost in last year’s dismal record was receiver Calvin Johnson’s record-setting season. Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s record for receiving yards in a season with 1,892. Johnson has said he has his sights set on a 2,000 yard season. On the defensive side of the ball, Detroit drafted defensive lineman Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, who had a strong preseason. Ansah joins a formidable Detroit defensive line that already includes Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh.
The Green Bay Packers let long-time veterans Greg Jennings and Charles Woodson go and locked up quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews to lucrative contract extensions. Green Bay also drafted two running backs in the early rounds of this year’s draft. Eddie Lacy figures to be the team’s starting back come week one and will try to help balance the Packers offense and open up more opportunities for Rodgers to make plays with his arm.
In Minnesota, the Vikings signed more former Packers in Jennings and linebacker Desmond Bishop. Jennings will be called on to help quarterback Christian Ponder take steps forward within the offense as well as mentor rookie receiver Cordarelle Patterson. Minnesota got busy on the draft’s opening day and ended up with three picks in the first round. In addition to Patterson, the Vikings also selected defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes. In the end, it will all come down to how well Ponder can play.
Let’s take a look at each team’s week one matchup and some of the main points in each.
Cincinnati Bengals (0-0) at Chicago Bears (0-0)
The Marc Trestman era begins with a home game against the Bengals, who appeared in the postseason for the second season in a row last year. It was the first back-to-back playoff appearance for Cincinnati since the late 1980’s. Week one is always a bit of an anomaly in the NFL. Upsets happen. Teams lose games that they should win on paper. Some teams are still rusty from the preseason. Throw in that two teams who are unfamiliar with each other and you could have a very intriguing matchup in Chicago.
Chicago will lean on Cutler, wide receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte to carry their offense. Marshall had over 1,500 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns last season, something the Bears have not seen from a receiver in quite some time. Marshall, along with Alshon Jeffery, will match up with Bengals corners Leon Hall and Terrance Newman, who were solid last season. Jeffery will be called on to mature and build on his rookie season to open things up for Marshall and give the Bears another weapon in the passing game.
The Bears drafted offensive guard Kyle Long in the first round and Long has had a very strong preseason. He is being touted by many as one of the top offensive linemen in this year’s draft. He will line up at right guard. The Bears also solidified their O-line by bringing in former Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Last year’s left tackle, J’Marcus Webb, is now in Minnesota and the Bears will turn to either Eben Britton (2009 Jacksonville Jaguars 7th rounder) or Jordan Mills (2013 fifth-round pick) at right tackle. Protection for Cutler will play a key role in his improvement and the success of the Bears offense.
The Bengals added running back Giovanni Bernard in the draft, to go along with starter Benjarvis Green-Ellis. Bernard figures to contribute in the short passing game, much like Forte does in Chicago. Quarterback Andy Dalton comes in confident after a second-straight playoff appearance and will continue to look for his top target, receiver AJ Green. Mohamed Sanu had a strong preseason and could be a sleeper at the other receiver spot. They will keep Bears cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, busy.
Despite solid corner play on both sides, expect both teams to try and air it out and lean on their top offensive weapons. This could be one of those high-scoring games with quite a few turnovers.
Minnesota Vikings (0-0) at Detroit Lions (0-0)
The winner of this game will immediately stake claim to first place in the North with an important divisional win. This marks Ponder’s third season as Vikings’ starter and the team is going to be looking for him to take a big step forward. While Ponder will face a tough pass rush from the Lions front four, the Detroit secondary is still very average. This could help Ponder get off to a quick start in 2013.
The same could be said for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Minnesota’s secondary is average, at best, and Stafford loves to air it out. Minnesota, much like Detroit, has an improved front four with the addition of Floyd, who had a good preseason. If defensive end Jared Allen can maintain his high level of play, Minnesota should be able to keep Stafford on the move and off balance. Allen will be squaring off against Lions left tackle Riley Reiff, who was moved from right to left tackle. The jury is still out on whether Reiff can cut it protecting Stafford’s blind side.
While many eyes are on Ponder, the Vikings offense begins and ends with the reigning MVP in that of running back Adrian Peterson. Detroit’s defensive front gets a solid test right out of the gate in 2013. Peterson has said he has his eyes on another run at the single-season rushing record and the Lions will be keying on stopping him in his tracks. Easier said than done.
While the Lions have one of the NFL’s top pass-catching threats in that of Johnson, the Vikings have added some of their own weapons. New Vikings receivers Jennings and Patterson will try to take advantage of Detroit’s iffy secondary and reel in some big plays off of some of the play action that Peterson will likely create.
While I always expect a shootout in any game that Stafford is in, I have to remember that Ponder is on the other side. I’ll stop short of an offensive firework display, unless Peterson goes off for 200 yards on the ground. Defense won’t be on display, that much I can confidently say.
Green Bay Packers (0-0) at San Francisco 49ers (0-0)
The Packers return to the scene of one of their worst defensive playoff performances in team history. The Packers dropped their divisional playoff matchup against the 49ers, 45-31 back in January. The score wasn’t very close but the game was even less close. 9ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick embarrassed the Packers defense with 181 rushing yards, most by a quarterback in NFL playoff history.
That performance motivated Packers head coach Mike McCarthy to send his defensive coaches to school during the offseason. They studied the read option with various college coaches who are very familiar with the offensive scheme. After facing Kaepernick in week one, the Packers will return home and likely see Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Packers will need to become quick experts in keeping these mobile QB’s in check and force them to make plays with their arms.
San Francisco is without top receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham and while they did bring in former Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin, he is aging and may not have the same chemistry with Kaepernick that he enjoyed with Joe Flacco in Baltimore. Green Bay’s opportunistic defensive backs will likely need to nab a turnover or two in order to help the Packers get a road win.
Green Bay getting outside linebacker Nick Perry back could boost the defense after last year’s starter, Erik Walden, was dizzied all night long by Kaepernick and the 9ers. Clay Matthews and Perry will need to remain very disciplined in their pass rush so as not to create huge running lanes for Kaepernick to take advantage of. Green Bay also struggled to contain 9ers running back Frank Gore and I expect San Francisco to test the Packers run defense once again. The Packers were marginal in run defense during the preseason and will need to be solid in this area to keep up with the 49ers in week one.
Green Bay will throw their fair share of the ground game at San Francisco with a combination of Eddie Lacy and James Starks. If the Packers run game can have any early success, they should be able to force some favorable one-on-one matchups in the passing game. Look for Rodgers to get tight end Jermichael Finley in single coverage and feed him the ball as often as he can. Rodgers has been one of the best against the blitz in recent years and if he can continue that trend in week one, the Packers have a chance to pull off an early upset.
This game will come down to the play up front. San Francisco holds an advantage on both the offensive and defensive lines. The Packers will trot out two young offensive tackles as well as center Evan Dietrich-Smith, who only took over as starter late in 2012. This will be a stiff test for those young linemen, who have the daunting task of reducing the pressure on Rodgers that was far too prevalent last season. On the defensive side of the ball, the Packers added first-round rookie Datone Jones and return Johnny Jolly. They will be called upon to clog up the middle and give the Green Bay linebackers a chance to chase down Gore or Kaepernick before they can turn north/south.
Enjoy the games!
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: