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The Playoff Picture and the Cowboys (Part II- NFC North)

In my previous posts, I predicted that the Cowboys would win the NFC East with a 10-6 record, with the Giants and Redskins as co-runners up at 9-7, while the Eagles finish last at 7-9. I also looked at the tough NFC West and predicted the 49ers would win home field advantage throughout the playoffs en route to a Super Bowl title with a 13-3 finish. The Seahawks came in at 10-6 and the surprising Arizona Cardinals improved to 9-7 under 2012 Coach of the Year Bruce Arians. That leaves the Rams as the team giving up many of those wins and finishing 5-11.

Now we take a look at the 'black and blue' division closer to my home -- the same division Dallas will face this season. A division so tough, the Chicago Bears couldn't make the playoffs last year even with a 10-6 record thanks to the rise of the Minnesota Vikings, under ex-1985 Bears Super Bowl champion Leslie Frazier.

As a Cowboys fan here in Chicago, I think the Bears should be better along their offensive line and under new head coach Marc Trestman, a solid offensive mind. With a much improved offensive line thanks to the signing of Jermond Bushrod and the drafting of OG/RT Kyle Long, the question marks on the Bears roster are still at TE/H-back behind Martellus Bennett, and at the linebacker spot where two rookies are competing with ex-Carolina Panthers player James Anderson to start alongside former Denver Broncos 1st rounder D.J. Williams. I expect Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene to push for playing time by late season and perhaps if Greene can ball let Lance Briggs join Urlacher in retirement next year.

The Bears young OLB/DE hybrid Shea McClellin has struggled with injuries. But DE opposite Julius Peppers doesn't seem to be a problem with Corey Wootten starting and 2013 draft pick Cornelius Washington there for depth.

The real lurking issue that could bite the Bears this season in the pass happy NFC North is cornerback depth. Tim Jennings had a career year last season with 8 INTs, but he remains undersized and could get hurt playing the run. Former Illinois cornerback Kelvin Hayden was mediocre to poor in coverage based on my eyeball test last season.

Despite their improvements overall, I still don't think the Bears are ready to knock Aaron Rodgers and the Packers off the division's top perch -- though they should be more competitive against the Vikings and dominate the Lions suspect offensive line. On the defensive side, the Packers should have more depth in their front 7 and secondary this year.

GREEN BAY PACKERS 11-5

Season summary:

The Packers repeat at 11-5. They still have more weapons than the Bears and a better quarterback than the Vikings. One thing that will help the Pack to close out games is a better running game with Eddie Lacy toting the rock and big plays in the screen game by scatback Jonathan Franklin. The Packers o-line may continue to struggle with run blocking but Lacy should make the push up front look better with his power.

1 09/08 SUN @SF L 33 - 31 0-1
Pack loses an entertaining game in San Francisco
2 09/15 SUN* WAS W 34- 20 1-1
Packers force Skins to abandon running game early
3 09/22 SUN @CIN W 29 - 24 2-1
Rodgers rallies the Pack from behind
4 09/29 SUN BYE
5 10/06 SUN DET W 34 - 24 3-1
The Lions downward spiral continues
6 10/13 SUN @BAL L 30 - 27 3-2
Ravens should edge the Pack in a higher scoring game
7 10/20 SUN CLE W 24 - 17 4-2
The Browns are still another offseason and a QB away from contention
8 10/27 SUN @MIN W 30 - 17 5-2
Packers continue their hot streak early in the season
9 11/04 MON* CHI W 33 - 26 6-2
Bears show more firepower on offense but can't keep up
10 11/10 SUN PHI W 31 - 23 7-2
Eagles take another loss headed for their 7-9 finish
11 11/17 SUN @NYG W 37 - 30 8-2
Packers can win another shootout with the Giants
12 11/24 SUN MIN L 30 - 27 8-3
Vikes get their revenge and split the series like last year
13 12/01 SUN @DET W 38 - 24 9-3
Lions are going nowhere by this point doomed by OL problems
14 12/08 SUN ATL L 36 - 31 9-4
Falcons are still the better team than the Vikings

15 12/15 SUN @DAL W 34 - 30 10-4
Packers escape Cowboys Stadium with a win -- but just barely

16 12/23 MON PIT W 27 - 26 11-4
Steelers are headed for a mediocre season, me-thinks
17 12/29 SUN @CHI L 33 - 30 11-5# Bears take a must win game at home

#Packers clinch second consecutive NFC North title

CHICAGO BEARS 10-6

Season summary:

Kyle Long should be an important part of the Bears offensive line by mid-season, either replacing Ja'marcus Webb at right tackle or taking over at right guard. Despite tough games against Dallas, New Orleans and Baltimore, an improved offense and offensive line combined with a solid defense should be enough for the Bears to repeat at 10-6. This year that record should be good enough to sneak into the playoffs as perhaps the most unheralded team in what Bill Parcells used to call the 'tournament'.

The Bears finally need to see what Martellus Bennett, Alshon Jeffrey and Earl Bennett can do when teams try to take away Brandon Marshall on the outside. The question marks I have about Chicago are depth on defense (especially at corner), tight ends not named Marty B and who's playing backup QB if Jay Cutler gets hurt again?

1 09/08 SUN CIN L 27 - 24 0-1
Is Chicago better than Cincy? Dunno. But Cutler can't handle pressure fromt Bengals DTs
2 09/15 SUN MIN W 24 - 20 1-1
Bears owe Vikings after last year's sorry sack fest at Minnesota
3 09/22 SUN @PIT W 26 - 24 2-1
Steelers headed for a down year but Bears struggle to stop play action
4 09/29 SUN @DET W 31 - 27 3-1
Lions put up a fight desperate to avoid going 0-4 but Bears get the road win
5 10/06 SUN NO L 34 - 23 3-2
Brees outduels Cutler who doesn't quite have enough weapons to keep up
6 10/10 THU* NYG W 34 - 32 4-2
The revenge of Marty B and Brandon Marshall abuses the Giants corners
7 10/20 SUN @WAS W 20 - 16 5-2
Skins badly needed this one to stay in the playoff race but Bears stuff zone read
8 10/27 SUN BYE
9 11/04 MON @GB L 33 - 26 5-3
Packers show they're still team to beat in the NFC North, Bears lose at Lambeau
10 11/10 SUN DET W 38 - 23 6-3
Lions don't make it as close this time as their season continues to meltdown
11 11/17 SUN BAL L 30 - 17 6-4
Ravens run over Bears who can't get enough pressure on Joe Flacco
12 11/24 SUN STL W 27 - 13 7-4
Bears still have their downstate rivals in St. Louis to smack around
13 12/01 SUN @MIN L 31 - 20 7-5
Vikings get Jennings and Rudolph going between the hash marks

14 12/08 SUN DAL L 24 - 20 7-6

Bears expect a big win like last year but Marinelli's coaching...and a Sean Lee INT keys to a huge Dallas win on the road

15 12/15 SUN @CLE W 23 - 16 8-6
The Browns are still the Browns despite having a good defensive line/RB
16 12/22 SUN @PHI W 30 - 20 9-6
Bears get to Vick or Barkley early and often while Forte has a big game
17 12/29 SUN GB W 33 - 30 10-6*
In a win or go home scenario the Bears show heart and dig out a home win

*Bears win second and final NFC wild card slot

MINNESOTA VIKINGS 9-7

Season summary:

Minnesota surprised a lot of people last season. This year their tougher schedule reflects that. The Vikings appear to be the 2012 playoff team least likely to make another appearance in the tournament this year. Christian Ponder is still a question mark despite being surrounded by a lot more talent.

1 09/08 SUN @DET W 29 - 26 1-0
Vikings start the Lions smack down early with a big game by Greg Jennings
2 09/15 SUN @CHI L 24 - 20 1-1
Bears stuff Peterson at Soldier Field and get a few early turnovers to win
3 09/22 SUN CLE W 27 - 23 2-1
Vikes get back on the winning track by sacking Brandon Weeden often
4 09/29 SUN PIT L 31 - 27 2-2
Big Ben outpasses Ponder in the dome but not before Vikes get a few scores
5 10/06 SUN BYE
6 10/13 SUN CAR W 25 - 17 3-2
Carolina seems to be another NFC team with a brutal schedule out of luck in 2013
7 10/20 SUN @NYG L 27 - 17 3-3
Giants pass rush gets to Ponder who doesn't improvise so well under the gun
8 10/27 SUN GB L 30 - 17 3-4
Packers get a few turnovers early and run away with this one at Lambeau

9 11/03 SUN @DAL W 23- 17 4-4
Dallas stunned as Vikes pressure Romo all day, cooling OL youth movement enthusiasm in Big D

10 11/07 THU* WAS L 20 - 17 4-5
Vikes upset the Skins in another loss that hurts Washington's playoff chances
11 11/17 SUN @SEA W 26 - 23 5-5
Vikes upset the Seahawks by getting Peterson going against a stout D
12 11/24 SUN @GB W 30 - 27 6-5
Packers can't avoid the upset at a muddy Lambeau that favors running the ball
13 12/01 SUN CHI W 31 - 20 7-5
Vikes continue their mid-season hot streak with a beat down of the Bears
14 12/08 SUN @BAL L 33 - 23 7-6
The Super Bowl champs' running game is too much for the Vikes DL to handle
15 12/15 SUN PHI L 20 - 17 7-7
Eagles get their biggest upset of the year by stealing one from the Vikes
16 12/22 SUN @CIN W 24 -22 8-7
Minnesota tops the Bengals in cold weather to keep their playoff hopes alive
17 12/29 SUN DET W 36 - 23 9-7
Despite beating down the Lions the Vikings still miss out on the playoffs

DETROIT LIONS 2-14 last place NFC North and competing with Jets for top draft pick

Season summary:

With a brutal opening schedule the Lions will either surprise everyone by taking charge in the NFC North or crumble under the weight of negativity and locker room distractions. Given my dislike for their head coach my money would be on the latter, and I think Dallas wins a shootout with Stafford and Megatron due to better defense.

The Lions might beat the Browns, Bengals, Steelers and Bucs, but possibly lose all their remaining games. In any case the record above would not be out of the question when you look at the schedule and the problems in this team's offensive line and secondary combined with a bad locker room culture. Believe me, if the Chiefs could go 2-14 under Romeo Crennel this is quite possible in Detroit.

1 09/08 SUN MIN L 29 - 26 0-1
Vikings have the D to pressure Stafford and contain Megatron
2 09/15 SUN @ARI L 31 - 27 0-2
Cards continue the hits on Stafford
3 09/22 SUN @WAS L 30 - 27 0-3
Same story -- Skins pass rush too much for Lions o-line
4 09/29 SUN CHI L 31 - 27 0-4
Bears hit Stafford early and often, Marshall outplays Megatron
5 10/06 SUN @GB L 34 - 24 0-5
Packers run Lacy to close this one out after huge 1st half for Rodgers
6 10/13 SUN @CLE W 27 - 20 1-5
Lions finally get a win, but locker room dissension continues
7 10/20 SUN CIN L 31 - 30 1-6

8 10/27 SUN DAL L 34 - 24 1-7
Marinelli knows how to contain his former team and the D gets to Stafford early


9 11/03 SUN BYE even a miserable season gets a break
10 11/10 SUN@CHI L 38 - 23 1-8
Cutler and Marshall have one of their best games ever
11 11/17 SUN @PIT W 30-27 2-8
Don't know why, but I think Steelers headed for down year
12 11/24 SUN TB L 24-23 2-9
Lions can't even beat the Bucs and that means Jim Schwartz is fired
13 12/02 MON GB L 38 - 24 2-10
Pack cruises over Lions and their interim HC
14 12/08 SUN PHI L 30 - 23 2-11
Eagles win a shootout with the Lions
15 12/15 SUN BAL L 27 - 23 2-12
This one could get chippy early with Ravens pass rush still formidable
16 12/22 SUN L 36 - 20 2 - 13
Eli has his best passing day of the year
17 12/29 SUN MIN L 36 - 23 2 - 14
Vikes put the Lions out of their misery, but can't grab the final wild card

Up next...I look at the NFC South and take a look at the Cowboys AFC opponents in the context of the playoff picture in the other conference.

Why the Cowboys will win the NFC East with a 10-6 record - Part O

NFC West preview - Part I

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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