NFC NORTH: Week 1 preview

Week 1 of the regular season is here, which means the speculating and projecting when it comes to the four teams in the NFC North is done with. The landscape of the division will be determined on the field starting this week.

So what can we expect, and what should we be looking out for during the first week of the regular season?


2015 record: 11-5 (Division champs)

Key addition(s): T Andre Smith, G Alex Boone

Key losses: QB Teddy Bridgewater (ACL), CB Josh Robinson, WR Mike Wallace

Top 3 draft picks: WR Laquon Treadwell, CB Mackensie Alexander, G Willie Beavers

Week 1 opponent: at Tennessee

The Vikings suffered a devastating blow last week when third-year starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a dislocated knee and torn ACL on a non-contact play in practice. With Bridgewater, the Vikings were serious contenders to repeat as division champs behind a Top 5 scoring defense last year and one of the league's top rushing attacks.

Vikings GM Rick Spielman traded a first- and fourth-round pick to Philadelphia to acquire veteran quarterback Sam Bradford.

"I watched every game Sam played last year, and the last three games, I thought he was playing as well as anyone I saw last year," Spielman told Peter King of MMQB. "I don't think he's ever been on a team with a top 10 rushing offense. With 28 (Adrian Peterson) in our backfield, playing at a high level, with the defense we have, Sam's not gonna have to throw it 35 or 40 times every game. I know our coaches wanted him."

What to watch: Adrian Peterson is 31 years old. All reports out of Vikings camp over the last month were that he looks as strong as ever. He led the NFL with 1,485 rushing yards last season (4.5 average) and added 11 touchdowns.

Can he continue that kind of pace after 2,381 career NFL rushes? The Vikings need him to be that player more than ever with Bridgewater out. Does he still have it in him? The Titans ranked 18th against the run last season.

Biggest question mark: How long will it take for Bradford to pick up enough of the offense where he can start? Could it be Sunday in Tennessee?

If not, the Vikings will go with 36-year-old Shaun Hill, who is 16-18 in 34 career starts over a 10-year career.

Whoever starts at quarterback for Minnesota just has to be efficient. This is a team that runs the football and plays good defense. Just don't get in the way of that.


2015 record: 10-6

Key addition(s): WR Jordy Nelson (missed all of 2015; ACL), TE Jared Cook

Key losses: G Josh Sitton, WR James Jones, CB Casey Hayward, NT B.J. Raji (retirement)

Top 3 draft picks: DT Kenny Clark, OT Jason Spriggs, OLB Kyler Fackrell

Week 1 opponent: at Jacksonville

The return of Jordy Nelson after missing all of last season with a torn ACL gives quarterback Aaron Rodgers his most trusted deep threat back in the mix. Nelson had over 1,500 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in 2014. But is he still that same player after a year off? We'll see Sunday.

The Jaguars allowed the second most points per game (28.0) last season.

What to watch: The Packers didn't do a whole lot this offseason via free agency to boost a defense that was middle of the road (ranked 15th) last season. Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers are also a year older.

That unit will get a great test Week 1 against a Jaguars offense that had two 1,000-yard pass catchers in Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns last season, and employs an up and coming quarterback in Blake Bortles, who threw for nearly 4,500 yards last season with 35 touchdowns.

Biggest question mark: Will the Packers be getting the Eddie Lacy of 2014, the one who ran for 1,139 yards (4.6 average) with nine touchdowns? Or the Lacy of 2015, who ran for just 758 yards (4.1 average) and three touchdowns?

Lacy was overweight and mostly ineffective a season ago. To his credit, he came into Packers camp this offseason slimmed down and had a terrific camp and preseason. If he's back to being a 1,000-yard workhorse, and Nelson is still the same top-tier receiver, the Packers offense should be one of the best in the NFL.


2015 record: 7-9

Key addition(s): WR Marvin Jones, LB DeAndre Levy (only played 17 snaps in 2015), WR Anquan Boldin

Key losses: WR Calvin Johnson (retirement), S Isa Abdul-Quddus, LB Stephen Tulloch, CB Rashean Mathis (retirement)

Top 3 draft picks: T Taylor Decker, DT A'Shawn Robinson, C/G Graham Glasgow

Week 1 opponent: at Indianapolis

For the first time since 2006, the Lions enter Week 1 of the regular season without Calvin Johnson as their No. 1 weapon on offense. The Lions expect defenses to play them more straight up without Megatron in the lineup, which puts more pressure on individuals to win their respective matchups.

The Lions' first-team offense didn't score a single touchdown in nine preseason possessions. Will there continue to be an adjustment period without Megatron? Or will Jim Bob Cooter push the right buttons now that game planning is part of the package?

What to watch: Are some of the young players ready to step into major roles?

Headlining that group is rookie tackle Taylor Decker, who the Lions will entrust with protecting Stafford's blind side to start the year. Decker got better every week of the preseason. The Lions need him to continue that trend.

Devin Taylor steps into a starting role at defensive end. Third-year cornerback Nevin Lawson is the starter opposite Darius Slay. Quandre Diggs gets the full-time start in the slot. Kyle Van Noy enters Week 1 at the starting SAM linebacker.

The Lions need these defensive youngsters to be steady contributors if they're going to get back to being a top-tier defense like they were in 2014.

Biggest question mark: There are still a lot of question marks surrounding the Lions' offensive front.

Can they protect Stafford better? The Lions allowed 44 sacks last season, and Stafford has been sacked a total of 89 times the last two seasons combined.

Can they open holes for the run game? Detroit ranked last running the football last season at just 83.4 yards per game. They can't be as one-dimensional as they've been in recent seasons, and expect to be better on offense.


2015 record: 6-10

Key addition(s): LB Danny Trevathan, LB Jerrell Freeman, G Josh Sitton, DL Akiem Hicks, WR Kevin White (missed all of 2015 with leg injury)

Key losses: TE Martellus Bennett, RB Matt Forte, K Robbie Gould

Top 3 draft picks: OLB Leonard Floyd, G Cody Whitehair, DE Jonathan Bullard

Week 1 opponent: at Houston

The Bears made a concerted effort to beef up their front seven on defense this offseason with the signing of Trevathan, Freeman and Hicks in free agency, and then spending their first-round pick on Floyd.

The Bears ranked 29th against the pass last season and recorded just 35 sacks, which ranked 22nd. This is a team that has to play better upfront on that side of the ball if they're going to be better in 2016.

What to watch: Do the Bears have the best guard tandem in the NFL in Pro Bowlers Kyle Long and Josh Sitton?

The team signed the three-time Pro Bowler Sitton over the weekend after he was released by Green Bay.

Chicago has a new offensive scheme and new starting running back (Jeremy Langford). Being solid up the middle of the offensive line is a good way to get both of those off to a good start in 2016.

Biggest question mark: Offensive coordinator Adam Gase moved on to take the head coaching job in Miami this offseason, which left quarterback Jay Cutler having to learn a sixth new scheme since joining the Bears back in 2009.

For all the flack Cutler gets by Bears' faithful -- and some of it is deserved -- he was efficient last year, completing 64 percent of his passes for 3,659 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The interceptions were a career-low for a season in which he played at least 15 games.

But as we all know, most teams will only go as far as their quarterback can take them. Cutler was 6-9 as a starter last year. He has to be more of a playmaker in 2016 if the Bears are going to climb out of the basement of the NFC North.

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