2014 NFC North schedule analysis

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    Chicago Bears schedule analysis

    Breakdown: Teams discuss the need to start off quickly so often it's become almost cliché. But in Chicago's case, it holds true with the club playing two of the first three games on the road against quality opponents. The Bears open Sept. 7 at home against the Buffalo Bills, before hitting the road for the opening of the new Levi's Stadium against the San Francisco 49ers in a prime-time clash. In Week 3, the Bears go back on the road for a Sept. 22 game against the New York Jets on "Monday Night Football." So Chicago's revamped defense, which finished 32nd last season against the run, will be tested early on in the schedule against Frank Gore (1,128 yards last season) and new Jets addition Chris Johnson (1,000-plus yards in six consecutive seasons). Maybe both backs are truly washed up. Maybe they're not. Either way, the Bears get a chance to find out while they're fresh. After the outings against the 49ers and Jets, the Bears host the Green Bay Packers. So what's expected to be a revamped Bears defense better be prepared.
    Starting with the matchup at San Francisco, the Bears play four of their first six games on the road: at Carolina on Oct. 5, at Atlanta on Oct. 12 and at New England on Oct. 26 just before what will likely be a much-needed Week 9 bye. What's good for the Bears is they play five of their final eight games at Soldier Field, which could make for a tremendous advantage as the weather begins to turn downright frigid in Chicago.

    Complaint department: Why not start the schedule at Soldier Field against former coach Lovie Smith and former backup quarterback-turned-starter Josh McCown? That would make for an intriguing, potentially drama-filled matchup to kick off the season. Instead, that matchup won't come until four days before Thanksgiving.

    Furthermore, the Bears play the Lions on Thanksgiving, and then host them in Week 16 before concluding the regular season on the road Dec. 28 against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium. Prior to the Thanksgiving clash with Detroit, the Bears host the Vikings Nov. 16. That means the Bears face the Lions and Vikings for a combined four games over the last seven weeks of the season. That could be either boring, which might be complaint-worthy, or full of drama and playoff implications if the teams are in the thick of the hunt in the NFC North. So we're not sure whether to complain or applaud here.

    Thanksgiving turkeys: That's typically what the Bears have been on this holiday in recent history, but perhaps that changes this year with the schedule featuring a Thanksgiving matchup on the road against the Detroit Lions. Interestingly, Chicago and the Lions have squared off on Thanksgiving on 15 occasions, with the Bears holding an 8-7 record. But the Bears own a 1-4 mark in their past five outings on Thanksgiving, with their last win coming courtesy of the Lions on Nov. 25, 1993. The Bears haven't played a Thanksgiving game since Nov. 25, 2004, when they lost 21-7 at Dallas during former coach Lovie Smith's first season at the helm. That season, the Bears finished with a record of 5-11.

    Strength of schedule: 15th, .496 | Vegas over/under [​IMG]: 8

    Bears Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
    Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, Buffalo, 1 p.m.
    Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, at San Francisco, 8:30 p.m.
    Week 3: Monday, Sept. 22, at N.Y. Jets, 8:30 p.m.
    Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, Green Bay, 1 p.m.
    Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
    Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
    Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, Miami, 1 p.m.
    Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at New England, 1 p.m.
    Week 9: BYE
    Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, at Green Bay, 8:30 p.m.
    Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Minnesota, 1 p.m.
    Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
    Week 13: Thursday, Nov. 27, at Detroit, 12:30 p.m.
    Week 14: Thursday, Dec. 4, Dallas, 8:25 p.m.
    Week 15: Monday, Dec. 15, New Orleans, 8:30 p.m.
    Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Detroit, 1 p.m.
    Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Minnesota, 1 p.m.

    Detroit Lions schedule analysis

    Breakdown: The Lions hired head coach Jim Caldwell on Jan. 14 to provide stability to a talented but reckless team that posted a 7-9 record in 2013. The nation won’t have to wait long to see if Caldwell can deliver results. Detroit opens its regular season at home on "Monday Night Football" versus the New York Giants before facing back-to-back playoff qualifiers from last year: the Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers. Winnable games appear on the schedule from Weeks 4-7 (New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings) until the Lions host the always dangerous New Orleans Saints and then travel to London to square off against the Atlanta Falcons. The highlights of the second half of the schedule include a trip to New England in Week 12, and two games versus NFC North rival Chicago Bears, who will be this year’s Thanksgiving Day opponent at Ford Field. Detroit could have a chance to control its destiny within the division with four of its final five games to be played against NFC foes. Caldwell and company wrap up the regular season with consecutive road games in Chicago and Green Bay, cities that usually prove difficult for road teams in December.

    Complaint department: The easy target is the trip to London in Week 8. But the NFL pulls out all the stops to make teams feel comfortable whenever they play overseas, and their bye is the following week. In all likelihood, the Lions will have overcome the long flight and time zone change by the time the second half of their season kicks off. The real issue for Detroit is wrapping up the year with back-to-back games in Chicago and Green Bay. The Lions did manage to knock off the Bears and their banged up quarterback, Jay Cutler, last year at Soldier Field, but had lost five straight in Chicago from 2008-12. But that pales in comparison to their struggles on the road versus Green Bay. Detroit has not won a game in the state of Wisconsin since 1991. If the NFC North crown or playoff positioning hangs in the balance for the Lions in Week 16 and Week 17, Caldwell’s group figures to be at an extreme disadvantage.

    Uncharted territory: The Week 1 NFL prime-time matchups are generally reserved for the league’s elite -- except for the second of the opening Monday night doubleheader that caters to the West Coast audience -- but a pair of 7-9 teams pop up on the schedule this year. This is the first time the Lions will open their season on Monday night since September 20, 1971, when they lost a 16-13 decision to the Minnesota Vikings at old Tiger Stadium. This marks the fourth straight year "Monday Night Football" has paid a visit to Ford Field, with the Lions owning a 1-2 record the past three years in that prime-time spot.

    Strength of schedule: 16th, .492 | Vegas over/under [​IMG]: 8

    Lions Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
    Week 1: Monday, Sept. 8, N.Y. Giants, 7:10 p.m.
    Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
    Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Green Bay, 1 p.m.
    Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at NY Jets, 1 p.m.
    Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, Buffalo, 1 p.m.
    Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
    Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
    Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at Atlanta, 9:30 a.m. (in London)
    Week 9: BYE
    Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, Miami, 1 p.m.
    Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.
    Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, at New England, 1 p.m.
    Week 13: Thursday, Nov. 27, Chicago, 12:30 p.m.
    Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
    Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Minnesota, 1 p.m.
    Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
    Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Green Bay, 1 p.m.

    Green Bay Packers schedule analysis

    Breakdown: In perhaps the least surprising news of all, the NFL picked the Green Bay Packers to open the season at the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks on Thursday, Sept. 4. It seemed likely from the moment the Seahawks hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in February. So many good story lines in that game, leading with the first meeting since the Fail Mary ending to the 2012 game and the replacement officials. The Packers don't play on Thanksgiving but still have two Thursday games. The other is Oct. 2 against the Vikings. After an unusually early bye last season in Week 4, the bye comes after eight games and is followed by a stretch of four out of five at home.

    Complaint department: It's not the easiest opening stretch, with three of the first four on the road. That includes a pair of division games at the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears. The only home game in that stretch, when the weather tends to be at its best in Green Bay, is against the New York Jets in Week 2. In the first six weeks, the Packers have only two home games. That means plenty of cold-weather games are possible at Lambeau Field. And it's not like their warm-weather trips are all late in the season, either. They play at the Dolphins in Week 6, when the weather still could be decent in Green Bay.

    Seeing division rivals early: A year after playing a late-season, division-heavy schedule, this year features only one NFC North game over the final five weeks of the season. That's against the Lions in Week 17, when everyone plays division games. Instead, the Packers play three straight division games in a 12-day stretch early in the season. Two of those -- against Lions (Sept. 21) and Bears (Sept. 28) are on road -- followed by the Thursday home game against the Vikings.

    Strength of schedule: 13th, .504 | Vegas over/under [​IMG]: 10

    Packers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
    Week 1: Thursday, Sept. 4, at Seattle, 8:30 PM
    Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, NY Jets, 4:25 PM
    Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, at Detroit, 1 PM
    Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Chicago, 1 PM
    Week 5: Thursday, Oct. 2, Minnesota, 8:25 PM
    Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Miami, 1 PM
    Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, Carolina, 1 PM
    Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at New Orleans, 8:30 PM
    Week 9: BYE
    Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, Chicago, 8:30 PM
    Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Philadelphia, 1 PM
    Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, at Minnesota, 1 PM
    Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, New England, 4:25 PM
    Week 14: Monday, Dec. 8, Atlanta, 8:30 PM
    Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at Buffalo, 1 PM
    Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at Tampa Bay, 1 PM
    Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Detroit, 1 PM

    Minnesota Vikings schedule analysis

    Breakdown: The Vikings' efforts to improve their defense under new coach Mike Zimmer will get a firm test early in the season; the team will have faced Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers by Oct. 2, with two of those three games coming on the road. The Vikings will have to handle that stretch of their schedule if they want to burnish their playoff chances with a soft stretch in the middle of the season -- four consecutive games against Detroit, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Washington, with a bye week coming at the end. And the NFL gave the Vikings their fair share of chances to play cold-weather games in their first season at TCF Bank Stadium; four of Minnesota's last six are at home.

    Complaint department: If the Vikings were to have a gripe with this schedule, it would probably come right up front. They will open on the road for the sixth time in seven seasons, face Brady in their first game at TCF Bank Stadium and travel to two of the toughest venues on their schedule -- the Superdome and Lambeau Field -- in a five-week stretch. The other home game in there is against the Atlanta Falcons, who will be trying to rebound from a rare down year. It will be incumbent upon Zimmer to have the Vikings' defense in good working order early in the season, or the passers on the Vikings' schedule could make it tough to recover.

    Getting acquainted with the elements: The Vikings haven't played well in cold weather in recent years, but they are going to have to learn, because the NFL loaded up the back half of their schedule with home games. They get three in a row at home from Nov. 23-Dec. 7, and close the season with Jared Allen's return to Minnesota on Dec. 28. In fact, the Vikings will play five of their seven games after the bye in cold-weather climates, with four of those at home and another in Chicago. The only breaks will come on Dec. 14 in Detroit's dome, and Dec. 21 in Miami.

    Strength of schedule: 21st, .477 | Vegas over/under [​IMG]: 7

    Vikings Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
    Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at St. Louis, 1 p.m.
    Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, New England, 1 p.m.
    Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
    Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, Atlanta, 4:25 p.m.
    Week 5: Thursday, Oct. 2, at Green Bay, 8:25 p.m.
    Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Detroit, 1 p.m.
    Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Buffalo, 1 p.m.
    Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
    Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, Washington, 1 p.m.
    Week 10: BYE
    Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
    Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, Green Bay, 1 p.m.
    Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, Carolina, 1 p.m.
    Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, NY Jets, 1 p.m.
    Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at Detroit, 1 p.m.
    Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at Miami, 1 p.m.
    Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Chicago, 1 p.m.

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