We are just one day away from the start of the 2014 NFL regular season, which features an opening day match up between the defending champion Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. It seems that the off season and preseason keep getting longer and longer, doesn’t it? It’s good to be back!
This past off season and preseason brought with it some notable happenings around the NFC North.
The Packers were the lone North team to make the postseason after an improbable path to winning the division in 2013. Unfortunately, the quest ended after just one playoff game as they fell, once again, to the San Francisco 49ers at a frigid Lambeau Field. Packers general manager Ted Thompson maintained his typical philosophy of developing his own talent, as he re-signed former undrafted cornerback Sam Shields to a lucrative multi-year deal. Thompson then broke character and dipped into free agency to land a big-name free agent in that of Julius Peppers. Thompson also used his first pick in the 2014 draft to select safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. An improved defense appears to be one of the prime goals for this year’s Packers team to go along with a more balanced offense led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The Detroit Lions seemed to have the North well in hand, heading into the last month of the 2013 season. Coming off of a Thanksgiving Day stomping of the Packers, the Lions merely needed a modest finish to secure their first division title since 1993. Detroit somehow failed to win any of their last four games and handed a week-17 marquis match up for the division to the Packers and Chicago Bears. Shortly after the season, head coach Jim Schwartz was let go and the Lions turned to Jim Caldwell, former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator and Indianapolis Colts head coach. The Lions missed the playoffs the past two seasons after securing their first postseason berth in years in 2011.
The Bears lost the heartbreaker to the Packers in week 17 at Soldier Field and missed the postseason for the third straight season. Chicago needed an improved defense and decided against returning Peppers. Instead, they signed free agent defensive end Jared Allen, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings, to replace Peppers and also brought in defensive end Lamarr Houston, formerly of the Oakland Raiders. Chicago also brought back cornerback Charles Tillman later in free agency. The Bears used their first pick in the draft to select cornerback Kyle Fuller, in an attempt to keep up with the high-flying offenses in the North.
The Vikings finished last in the North in 2013 and after making a Wild Card playoff appearance the year prior. Head coach Leslie Frazier was let go shortly after the season ended and the Vikings hired Mike Zimmer, former defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals. With a defensive-minded head coach, the Vikings opted to address the quarterback situation early in this year’s draft and traded back into the first round to select former Louisville standout Teddy Bridgewater. Veterans Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder are also in the fold and Cassel was named the starter at the end of training camp. Popular opinion, however, is that it’s “when” not “if” Bridgewater takes over this season. The Vikings also drafted linebacker Anthony Barr, who should provide an immediate impact to their defensive group. The Vikings said goodbye to their longtime home, Mall of America Field (formerly known as the Metrodome). Back in 2010, we all remember the roof caving in under heavy snow. The Vikings will borrow TCF Bank Stadium, or “The Bank”, for the next two seasons while their new home is constructed very near the site of MOA Field in downtown Minneapolis. This brings back memories of the Bears using Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, back in 2002 when renovations were underway at Soldier Field.
With that, let’s look at the match up’s this week that will kick off each team’s season.
Buffalo Bills at Chicago Bears
The Bears open at home for the fifth straight season and have won their last four. This will mark the third year in a row that an AFC opponent opens up at Soldier Field.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler returns with his usual cast of offensive characters in running back Matt Forte and receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Head coach Marc Trestman has a year under his belt with Cutler and this team and will be looking to make a jump in the team’s offensive output this year. Defensively, the Bears will count on veterans Tillman and linebacker Lance Briggs to bring along some of the younger talent.
The Bills landed wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the draft and will seemingly test Chicago’s secondary early on. Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel has received very mixed reviews heading into this second season and will be looking to silence his doubters. Against the Bears’ more average safety group, this could be a good opportunity. The Bills lost star linebacker Kiko Alonso to a torn ACL injury suffered during the offseason. With veteran safety Jairus Byrd and wide receiver Stevie Johnson also having departed, the Bills are facing an uphill climb this season. They’ll live and die on the arm of Manuel.
Week one always brings about a surprise or two but this one appears to be another one in the win column for the Bears. Home opener and a weaker AFC opponent who is unfamiliar with them seems to play right into Chicago’s hands for a fifth straight opening day victory.
Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams
The Vikings will wait to bring outdoor football back to Minnesota and open on the road against the Rams. The Vikings had a relatively active offseason and preseason, bringing in head coach Zimmer, draft picks Barr and Bridgewater as well as free agent cornerback Captain Munneryln, formerly of the Carolina Panthers. Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson enters his second season and seems primed to have a big sophomore season. Patterson’s biggest contributions as a rookie came as a kick returner and he will assume those duties again this year. Patterson will be flanked by veteran and former Packer Greg Jennings. Running back Adrian Peterson returns for his eighth season and shows no signs of slowing down. While he may never touch his output from 2012 when he nearly broke the single-season rushing yard record, he remains the opposing defense’s number one priority.
The Rams have had quite a bit of the early spotlight with a few notable happenings over the past week. Quarterback Sam Bradford suffered an ACL tear to his left knee during the third preseason game and will miss the entire 2014 season. It’s the second time in less than a year that Bradford has torn the same ACL, leaving many to wonder if he will ever return to play football again. If he does, it won’t likely be with the Rams, who now have to turn to backup veteran Shaun Hill to guide them this season. The Rams could continue to explore trade options, but Hill gives them the best option now, having spent the entire offseason with the team. Additionally, the Rams are still dealing with a lot of attention over seventh-round linebacker Michael Sam, who was released earlier this week and was not brought back to the Rams’ practice squad. Sam remains unsigned by any team at this point.
The Rams sit in one of the toughest divisions in football and need to take advantage of games like this one, where they still match up well despite the loss of Bradford. St. Louis features one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL with Robert Quinn and Chris Long and this will give Vikings tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt an early test. The Rams added veteran free agent receiver Kenny Britt to complement Tavon Austin in the passing game, provided Britt can stay out of trouble off the field.
On the other side of the coin, the Vikings could steal an early road game if Hill struggles early on. At this point, I’m leaning towards the home team.
Detroit Lions at New York Giants (Monday Night)
The Lions and Giants will square off in the first Monday night contest of the 2014 season. I dub this one “The Disappointment Bowl”, as both teams underachieved badly last season. That they were chosen as the Monday night match up is a bit puzzling. The Giants finished dead last in the NFC East and the Lions went Oh-for-December and squandered the NFC North division.
The Lions added rookie tight end Eric Ebron in the draft and brought in free agent receiver Golden Tate to complement the All-World Calvin Johnson. Quarterback Matthew Stafford enters his sixth season and with virtually the same offensive group from last year. If he can stay healthy and consistent this season, the Lions remain formidable. Defensively, Detroit has to hope that tackle Nick Fairley can get his groove back, as he has fallen down the depth chart and is now a backup to CJ Mosley, formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Lions, in a bizarre move, stopped negotiating a contract extension with tackle Ndamukong Suh and will let him test free agency after this season. The last year of Suh’s deal is voidable. I’m not certain how that stands to benefit the Lions this season, but they have to hope Suh is looking to audition for any potential suitors. His departure in free agency would present a large hole in the Lions’ defensive front.
The Giants feature the offense of new coordinator and former Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo. New York was dealt a blow earlier this off season when young running back David Wilson was forced to retire due to a neck injury. The Giants will run with free agent running back Rashad Jennings, formerly with the Raiders. Long-time Giant Hakeem Nicks left in free agency and the team has been snake-bitten with injuries at receiver. New York brought back Mario Manningham, who injured his hamstring in the last preseason game and was placed on injured reserve. Former Bronco Trindon Holliday was also lost to injured reserve after signing as a free agent. The Giants will look to Rueben Randle to flank Victor Cruz as primary targets for quarterback Eli Manning. All I can say about Manning last year is that he was awful. Like Mason Crosby 2012 awful. Head-scratching awful. The Giants and McAdoo obviously hope that was an anomaly. Defensively, the Giants are still formidable up front and retained veteran linebacker Jon Beason along with most of their secondary. They did add cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who had announced that he was likely to retire earlier in the offseason. Hopefully he didn’t sell New York a bill of goods.
This game is a toss up with the Lions historically not a good road team. I’ll go with the home team and a slightly better defense.
Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks (Thursday Night)
The NFL regular season opener begins in Seattle at CenturyLink Field, aka “The Clink”. All of the talk about this contest will end soon and the Packers can gauge just how ready they are to compete for another Super Bowl title. The defending champion Seahawks are expected to have another strong season and will not need any extra shots of adrenaline for this game. The Packers better be ready for a highly motivated defending Super Bowl champion. The last team to repeat as champions was the 2003-2004 New England Patriots and don’t think the Seahawks aren’t aware of that.
The Packers continued to work on their defense this offseason, adding Peppers to solidify the pass rush opposite linebacker Clay Matthews. The team is clearly done counting on linebacker Nick Perry to develop into that guy and even re-tooled their defensive scheme to accommodate Peppers. The Packers will now employ a hybrid 3-4/4-3 scheme and will feature Peppers as an elephant defensive end at times. The Packers also finally addressed the much malignned safety position with the drafting of Clinton-Dix in round one. Green Bay added defensive tackle Letroy Guion for depth purposes but after a season-ending biceps injury to B.J. Raji, Guion not only made the final roster, but will likely be counted on regularly. Micah Hyde moved from cornerback to safety and this week one matchup will be a good test of just how well his transition has been. The Packers will get corner Casey Hayward back and sorely missed his play-making abilities last season. Hayward will draw quite a bit of Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin in this game.
Offensively, Rodgers at quarterback needs no introduction. The Packers added receiver Davante Adams and tight end Richard Rodgers early in the draft to keep the toolbox full. R. Rodgers will get the start at tight end in this game, according to Ourlads.com. Packers receivers against the legion of boom. Sounds like the only thing missing is an undercard and pay-per-view billing. While never short on confidence, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman did tone it down a bit and was complimentary of Rodgers and his ability to create. Seattle’s dynamic safety duo of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor will provide a stiff challenge to Green Bay’s vertical passing game, as they defend the pass very well. Green Bay will use the no-huddle to try and keep match ups favorable. Rookie center Corey Linsley will step in for the injured J.C. Tretter and make his first NFL start in prime time, on the road at the NFL’s loudest venue. Rodgers said it wasn’t necessary that he and Linsley spend an inordinate amount of time together working on QB/C chemistry. Was that just bravado? We will find out soon.
The Seahawks extended Sherman this past off season and soon will have to do the same with quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson will play out this season on his rookie deal, which has allowed Seattle to retain their top talent and get the biggest return on investment around the league. Wilson has an incredible work ethic and should continue to improve this season, if that is possible. The brainy quarterback has made every team who passed him up question how they missed such a gem at the game’s most important position. Wilson can get it done with his arm and his feet. Getting pressure on Wilson is the key, but the Packers have proven to have issues with mobile quarterbacks and need to remain sharp in pursuit and not bailing him out with huge running lanes. Defensively, the Seahawks are still the best unit in the league. They added free agent veterans Kevin Williams and O’Brien Schofield during the off season. Seattle did lose cornerback Brandon Browner and if there is any weakness to their defense, it could be former sixth-round corner Byron Maxwell. Rodgers should be able to detect an opportunity, if there is one, relatively early on.
If I’m going off of my usual formula to determine a winner in this game, I have to lean towards Seattle as the better overall team and with their being at home. Stranger things have happened in week one, however. When the schedule came out and I saw this match up in week one, my first thought was that the Packers were fortunate to get Seattle so early on and possibly a bit rusty. It’s not ideal for any team to be playing in Seattle, but if there is a scenario that is best for the Packers, it’s facing the ‘Hawks in week one.
Let the games begin!
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: