Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings lead loaded division in NFC North preview

Jay Asser 5/09/2018
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Arguably the best division in football this season, the NFC North is stacked with teams that are, at best, Super Bowl contenders, and at worst, capable of making the playoffs.

At the top, the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers are built for January with the former possessing a dominant defence and the latter boasting the best quarterback in the game.

The Detroit Lions may take a step forward with a new head coach, while the Chicago Bears have vastly improved the roster and could be on the rise sooner than later.

Learn more about the teams with our NFC North team guides.

CHICAGO BEARS

Head coach: Matt Nagy

Star player: Khalil Mack

Last season: 5-11

Key ins: Khalil Mack (Oakland), Trey Burton (Philadelphia), Taylor Gabriel (Atlanta), Allen Robinson (Jacksonville), Roquan Smith (rookie), James Daniels (rookie), Anthony Miller (rookie)

Key outs: Josh Sitton (Miami), Pernell McPhee (Washington), Cameron Meredith (New Orleans)

Strengths: Trade for Mack makes their front seven even more formidable.

Weaknesses: Offence has the potential to thrive, but has several question marks, including Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback.

Verdict: They’ve upped the urgency to win now and have the talent to vie for a playoff spot.

Trubisky

DETROIT LIONS

Head coach: Matt Patricia

Star player: Matthew Stafford

Last season: 9-7

Key ins: LeGarrette Blount (Philadelphia), Eli Harold (San Francisco), Kerryon Johnson (rookie), Frank Ragnow (rookie)

Key outs: Eric Ebron (Indianapolis), D.J. Hayden (Jacksonville), Haloti Ngata (Philadelphia), Dwight Freeney (retired)

Strengths: Golden Tate and Marvin Jones were the only receiver duo in the league last season to both top 1,000 yards.

Weaknesses: Ranked dead last in rushing last year, although they’ve addressed that by bringing in Blount and Johnson.

Verdict: Even though they’re better on paper than last year, they’ll struggle to come out of one of the toughest divisions.

Stafford

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Head coach: Mike McCarthy

Star player: Aaron Rodgers

Last season: 7-9

Key ins: Jimmy Graham (Seattle), Muhammad Wilkerson (NY Jets), Tramon Williams (Arizona), DeShone Kizer (Cleveland), Marcedes Lewis (Jacksonville), Jaire Alexander (rookie), Josh Jackson (rookie)

Key outs: Jordy Nelson (Oakland), Damarious Randall (Cleveland), Morgan Burnett (Pittsburgh)

Strengths: Have the best quarterback in the league, who is fully healthy and back on the field.

Weaknesses: Surrendered the second-highest passer rating to quarterbacks last year (102.0).

Verdict: Always a Super Bowl contender with Rodgers, but need to hit on the changes they’ve made.

at Lambeau Field on August 16, 2018 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Head coach: Mike Zimmer

Star player: Harrison Smith

Last season: 13-3, lost in NFC Championship

Key ins: Kirk Cousins (Washington), Sheldon Richardson (Seattle), George Iloka (Cincinnati), Mike Hughes (rookie), Brian O’Neill (rookie)

Key outs: Sam Bradford (Arizona), Teddy Bridgewater (New Orleans), Tramaine Brock (Denver), Jerick McKinnon (San Francisco), Case Keenum (Denver), Joe Berger (retired)

Strengths: Defence allowed the fewest yards (275.9) and points (15.8) in the league last year.

Weaknesses: Banged up offensive line is the biggest area of concern.

Verdict: Oozing with talent as legit Super Bowl challengers.

Smith

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Pittsburgh Steelers heavy favourites while Cleveland Browns try to turn it around in AFC North preview

Jay Asser 5/09/2018
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The AFC North has been a three-horse race for years, with the Cleveland Browns an afterthought as continuous bottom-dwellers.

After going 1-32 over the past two seasons, the Browns are banking on turning around their woes by notching multiple wins this year, but have a long climb up the division.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who are flush with talent, remain the team to beat, while the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals are also built to challenge for a playoff spot.

Learn more about the teams with our AFC North team guides.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Head coach: John Harbaugh

Star player: Marshal Yanda

Last season: 9-7

Key ins: Michael Crabtree (Oakland), Willie Snead (New Orleans), John Brown (Arizona), Lamar Jackson (rookie), Haydan Hurst (rookie)

Key outs: Mike Wallace (Philadelphia), Jeremy Maclin (free agent), Danny Woodhead (retired), Lardarius Webb (free agent), Ben Watson (New Orleans)

Strengths: Defence had the most takeaways in the league (34) and second-best passer rating against (72.4) last season.

Weaknesses: Passing game was abysmal under Joe Flacco.

Verdict: Jackson’s presence may push Flacco and his weapons have improved, so a return to the playoffs is within their reach.

Flacco

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Head coach: Marvin Lewis

Star player: A.J. Green

Last season: 7-9

Key ins: Cordy Glenn (Buffalo), Preston Brown (Buffalo), Billy Price (rookie), Jessie Bates (rookie), Sam Hubbard (rookie)

Key outs: Jeremy Hill (New England), A.J. McCarron (Oakland), George Iloka (Minnesota), Adam Jones (Denver), Russell Bodine (Buffalo), Andre Smith (Arizona), Eric Winston (free agent)

Strengths: Talented skill players on offence.

Weaknesses: Shaky offensive line play resulted in second-fewest rushing yards in the league last year (1,366).

Verdict: Have finished third in the division in consecutive years but possess the tools to change that.

Green

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Head coach: Hue Jackson

Star player: Myles Garrett

Last season: 0-16

Key ins: E.J. Gaines (Buffalo), Jarvis Landry (Miami), Tyrod Taylor (Buffalo), Carlos Hyde (San Francisco), Chris Hubbard (Pittsburgh), Damarious Randall (Green Bay), Baker Mayfield (rookie), Denzel Ward (rookie), Nick Chubb (rookie),

Key outs: Isaiah Crowell (NY Jets), DeShone Kizer (Green Bay), Danny Shelton (New England), Joe Thomas (retired)

Strengths: Could have one of the best receiver duos with Landry and Josh Gordon.

Weaknesses: Allowed the highest passer rating of any team last year (102.2).

Verdict: They’ll make progress and (finally) win a handful of games.

Hue

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Head coach: Mike Tomlin

Star player: Antonio Brown

Last season: 13-3, lost in Divisional Round

Key ins: Jon Bostic (Indianapolis), Morgan Burnett (Green Bay), Terrell Edmunds (rookie), James Washington (rookie), Mason Rudolph (rookie)

Key outs: Ryan Shazier (injury), Martavis Bryant (free agent), Mike Mitchell (free agent), Chris Hubbard (Cleveland)

Strengths: Have arguably the best offensive weapons in the league.

Weaknesses: They’ve yet to recover from the loss of Shazier, making their linebacking unit a soft spot.

Verdict: Along with New England and Jacksonville, they’re one of the top contenders in the conference once again.

Bell

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AFC preview: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick back for more as New England Patriots still team to beat

Jay Asser 3/09/2018
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The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least when it comes to the New England Patriots.

Sixteen years after lifting their first Lombardi trophy and shocking the world, the Patriots remain a team you can set your watch to – they wrap up the AFC East by early December and get within a game of the Super Bowl, if not win it, seemingly every season.

Eventually, their run will end, but that time doesn’t appear to be now as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick remain entrenched as the franchise’s two most important pillars.

That doesn’t mean it won’t get harder to maintain their level of excellence though.

There were reports of turmoil between Brady and Belichick even before New England fell to the Philadelphia Eagles in February’s Super Bowl, and since then defensive coordinator Matt Patricia left to be the head coach in Detroit, Rob Gronkowski contemplated retirement, Julian Edelman was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, and Brady turned 41.

The last point will matter sooner rather than later. For now, Brady is still at the top of his game – as his 505-yard performance in the Super Bowl drove home – but Father Time is undefeated and a precipitous drop could be looming around the corner.

Until it comes or Belichick leaves, however, the road to the Super Bowl is likely to once again go through the Patriots, who’ve reached seven straight AFC Championship games.

AFC

Behind them sit a host a challengers who should fight for the conference’s throne, led by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It’s felt like Pittsburgh have been on the cusp each of the past four years, only to fall short in the playoffs. Funnily enough, as much as they view New England as their main rivals, they’ve only gotten far enough in the postseason to see their big brother once over that span – and the Patriots comfortably handled them 36-17 in 2017.

Yet their talent, particularly on offence, means they’re a team to be reckoned with and one that could break through any season, as long as Ben Roethlisberger, now 36, is still effective.

But with Le’Veon Bell all but gone after this season, this could be the Steelers’ last chance at a Super Bowl with this group of special playmakers, which includes wide receiver Antonio Brown. And that’s if Bell shows up and ends his holdout, which he has yet to do despite the season kicking off this week.

LeVeonBellSteelers (1)

Even at full strength though, Pittsburgh’s high-powered attack may only rank as the third-most dominant force in the AFC, with the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defence arguably ahead of them.

Jacksonville’s uber-talented unit dismantled the Steelers in January and is champing at the bit for another chance at the Patriots, who edged the up-and-comers in a comeback win in the AFC title game.

Blake Bortles appears to be the only one holding them back – an unfortunate crux for the Jaguars considering he plays the most important position.

That couldn’t be any less the case with the Houston Texans, who have their contention hopes pinned to a quarterback who has played all of seven games as a pro.

One year after lighting the league on fire in his brief time on the field before suffering an ACL tear, Deshaun Watson is back and ready to inject the same explosive element into the Texans offence that was sorely missed in his absence.

Watson

Speaking of explosiveness, the Kansas City Chiefs also have a gunslinger capable of shooting them into – and out of – games in Patrick Mahomes, who has been handed the reins after the team moved on from steady-handed Alex Smith.

Kansas City have made the playoffs four of the past five seasons under head coach Andy Reid, so as much as it may seem like a transitional year with an unproven quarterback, the Chiefs are hoping Mahomes is actually an upgrade and unlocks their potential.

However, they should have their hands full in the AFC West with the Los Angeles Chargers, who boast one of the most complete rosters in the league.

Philip Rivers – another aging veteran quarterback whose skills remain mostly intact – leads a team that has failed to reach double-digit wins in eight years and has missed the playoffs the last four.

Elsewhere, the Cleveland Browns will aim to break their atrocious 1-31 run, the Indianapolis Colts get back a healthy Andrew Luck and the Jon Gruden show returns to Oakland shorn of superstar Khalil Mack.

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