The Green Bay Packers preseason begins tonight, and for the first time in four years, they’ll enter the year without an NFC North title to defend. Yet, even though they’re coming off a disappointing year by their standards, they won’t take these warm up games any more seriously. It’s never really been the Packers modus operandi to stress about the preseason, and if it ain’t broke…
Green Bay were runners up in the North last year, yet they still enter this season as the odds-on favorite. It’s a common thread the division shares with its AFC counterpart, where last year’s second-place Steelers are also the odds-on favorite to earn a home playoff date. But if these teams couldn’t accomplish that feat last year, isn’t it conceivable they’d fall short again? Of course it is!
Last week, we touched on who the plays are in the NFC and AFC West. Now, it’s time to provide the same service for the black and blue divisions that are the NFC and AFC North.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 6/5
Cincinnati Bengals: 13/8
Baltimore Ravens: 3/1
Cleveland Browns: 25/1
It’s understandable why Pittsburgh leads the pack: they have the sexy trio of Ben Roethlisberger, LeVeon Bell and Antonio Brown: their offense could be unstoppable. But since they were never on the field at the same time for an entire game last season, nobody actually knows what this team’s ceiling is.
In the column of things we do know; is that the Bengals are consistently a good team. Cincinnati has made the playoffs for five straight years, won double-digit games the past four seasons, and claimed two AFC North titles in that span. Cincy finished second in the NFL in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) last season, and saw very few significant losses to the roster that finished two games ahead of the Steelers last season.
When it comes to legitimate bets, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati represent the only real options in the division. Baltimore is getting more respect than they deserve at +300, largely based on their history under Jim Harbaugh: they’ve never failed to hit double-digit wins in consecutive years under his lead. But while injuries are certainly part of why this team looked so poor last year; is a healthy Terrell Suggs and Steve Smith really worth a six-win swing? The Ravens are just an old mediocre team, not worth taking at the current odds.
Obviously, we don’t even need to talk about Cleveland. So while I’d never recommend taking them to win the Super Bowl, or even get out of Wild Card weekend; there is some logic to taking the consistent Bengals, over the highly variant Steelers, to repeat as AFC North champs this season.
Green Bay Packers: 8/13
Minnesota Vikings: 2/1
Detroit Lions: 12/1
Chicago Bears: 14/1
The loss of Jordy Nelson affected the Packers offense way more than anyone would have expected, especially with the all-world Aaron Rodgers at the helm. Still, with the Packers only playing okay football last year, the NFC North came down to a Week 17 tilt versus the Vikings; and losing that game ended up giving Green Bay a more favorable first round matchup. So this team should be runaway favorites to repeat now that they’re healthy, right?
Before you go putting all your money in cheesehead stocks, remember the “Hail Mary” game? The Packers needed a miracle win just to finish the year going .500 against divisional opponents. The North has gotten far tougher than the division Green Bay used to skate through. The Vikings are at the forefront of that renaissance, finishing one spot behind the Pack in DVOA rankings last season, with Detroit two spots behind them.
Having the best quarterback in the league accounts for a lot, but if you look at the rosters top to bottom, Minnesota has the best team in the North. The one reason to hesitate on taking a Viking repeat, is that winning last year saddled the team with a far tougher schedule; playing Carolina and Arizona.
If someone is going to keep the Packers from the mountain top this season, it would figure to be Minnesota: Chicago and Detroit are better, but not there yet. If you are wary of taking Green Bay, like me, some sites are offering betting the Packers to not win the North at +120. But obviously, the better value is taking the Vikings outright.
(Photo Credit: Mike Morbeck (Flickr: Phil, Loadholt, Clay Matthews) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
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