Green Bay Packers seek third straight division crown
GREEN BAY—Just two teams, Mike Holmgren’s Packers and Mike Sherman’s Packers, have won three straight divisional championships since the last of two legitimate dynasties in the 46-year history of the NFC North and Central Division was extinguished.
Heavily favored for a third straight year, Mike McCarthy’s Packers are accorded a shot to establish a dynasty largely because of 29-year-old quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“No, that’s not premature,” an executive in personnel for an NFC team said Thursday. “Any time you have the elite quarterback on your team you’ve got to think there’s a chance.”
After dropping the divisional crown by the margin of one game to Minnesota in 2009 and Chicago in 2010, Green Bay clinched the North with four games remaining in 2011 and two games left last year.
With a little bit of luck, the Packers would be seeking their fifth title in a row rather than their third.
Mike Ditka’s Bears won five titles in a row, and six out of seven, from 1984-’90. The other dynasty belonged to Bud Grant’s Vikings, who captured 11 of 13 titles from 1968-’80.
Detroit rose up to win the division in 1991 and ’93. In the 19 years since the Lions last roared, the championships have been divided among Green Bay (nine), Minnesota (five), Chicago (four) and Tampa Bay (one).
The Buccaneers left their faraway division brethren in 2002, the first year that the NFC Central was renamed the NFC North.
Four NFL personnel directors, three from the AFC and one from the NFC, made the Packers their unanimous choice for a divisional three-peat.
Green Bay (41-23) was picked first by all four scouts, who tabbed the Packers for records of 11-5, 10-6, 10-6 and 10-6.
Next was Minnesota (37-27), with one 10-6 and three 9-7’s.
Detroit (33-31) was picked to finish third after getting two 10-6 votes, one 7-9 and one 6-10.
Chicago (28-36) brought up the rear with two 8-8’s and two 6-10’s.
“I think it’s going to be a very, very competitive division again,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier told Michigan reporters Wednesday. “Every team has a chance, no matter what their record was a season ago. It’s as deep as I can remember it being.”
Last year, three teams—Green Bay, Minnesota and Chicago—posted double-digit victory totals for the first time in divisional annals. The NFC North led the NFL with a 35-29 overall record, one game better than the NFC West.
Each team returns its starting quarterback and general manager. The only new coach is Marc Trestman in Chicago.
“The NFC North this year is going to be hard,” one personnel man said. “Chicago’s defense is going to suffer a little bit, and I really think Detroit’s defensive line is going to overwhelm some people. That could give the Packers fits and the Vikings fits.”
With pressure on coach Jim Schwartz after a six-game crash in the standings to 4-12, the Lions changed a division-high nine starters and put together the oldest 53-man roster (27.04 years) in the NFL, according to STATS.
After firing coach Lovie Smith, GM Phil Emery hired Trestman and changed eight starters, including four of five on the offensive line.
The Bears have 21 players on the 53 (one more than Detroit) that weren’t on their roster or reserve lists in 2012. That was their highest total in 12 years.
Based on STATS calculations, Chicago will field the third-oldest team (26.74) in the league.
On the other end of the spectrum is Green Bay, with just two new starters, 14 new players and average age of 25.66, and Minnesota, with just three new starters, 13 new players and average age of 26.00.
This marks the ninth straight year that the Packers enter with the youngest roster in the NFC North.
Since GM Ted Thompson and McCarthy changed 10 starters and had 23 new players in their first season (2006) together, the Packers have been remarkably stable in their team building.
From 2007-’13, Green Bay’s opening-day rosters included merely 20 new starters and 86 new players.
Minnesota’s numbers in that span were 31 and 95, Chicago’s were 44 and 103, and Detroit’s were 52 and 135.
“I admire him the most of all the GMs,” the NFC executive said, referring to Thompson. “Just the way he goes about it. He never wavers. Doesn’t get nervous.”
Counting playoffs, the Packers are on a 14-1 run against the Vikings, Lions and Bears.
Despite that dominance, the Packers’ five victories last year in the division were by margins of only 13, eight, four, seven and nine points.
Of the 12 games between division foes in 2012, the widest margin was 18 points by Chicago over Minnesota, 28-10, at Soldier Field.
“I’ll be honest,” one scout said. “I don’t know how good Green Bay is. They could be 8-8 in a second. But that quarterback makes a big difference.”
Rodgers ranked No. 1 in passer rating last year with 108.0. By comparison, Chicago’s Jay Cutler was 20th with 81.3, Minnesota’s Christian Ponder was 21st with 81.2 and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford was 22nd with 79.8.
Only one division, the AFC North, has a longer streak than the NFC North of putting more than one team in the playoffs. The AFC North has done that for five straight years compared to four for the NFC North.
Those two divisions are matched against each other this season.