NFC North - What You Need To Know

NFC North - What You Need To Know

Green Bay Packers (15-1, 560 Points For, lost in Divisional Playoffs): The Packers looked so sluggish in their playoff loss to the Giants, it's easy to forget just how dominant this offense was in the regular season. Aaron Rodgers has established himself as the best quarterback in the league, and fantasy owners appreciate that he'll run for a handful of yards and touchdowns every year, too. Perhaps a few of those cheapies at the goal will fade away with Cedric Benson in the fold, but make no mistake, Rodgers can pass his way to another MVP award either way. Although Greg Jennings is the de-facto No. 1 receiver here, he didn't even see 100 targets in 2011 - that's how much the Packers spread things around. No one thinks Jordy Nelson can score 15 times again, but his crisp routes and breakaway speed should give him a strong chance at 9-11 spikes. James Jones and Randall Cobb will struggle to get significant looks; Cobb has a big upside but didn't do much this summer. Jermichael Finley would be a star at tight end if he found a way to fix his ongoing drop problem. Look for another division title in Wisconsin, and at least 450 points. Bang the drum all day.

Detroit Lions (10-6, 474 PF, lost in Wild Card Round): Everything broke right for Matthew Stafford as a fantasy play last year: he stayed healthy and the Lions couldn't run the ball or stop anyone else from the scoring. Detroit wound up throwing the ball 66 percent of the time, the highest clip in the league. Head coach Jim Schwartz would like more balance in the offense (as anyone would), but the Lions don't have any special backs between Kevin Smith (ordinary vet), Mikel Leshoure (injury issues, drug suspension) and Jahvid Best (concussion problems, may not play again). Okay then, let Stafford line up in the shotgun and let it rip. Calvin Johnson is an uncoverable freak at receiver and a justifiable fantasy pick in the overall Top 5, and he'll get more help from Titus Young this year (try to snag Young as your fourth or fifth receiver). Tight end Brandon Pettigrew is a solid volume play, but he's not a dominator in the red zone.

Chicago Bears (8-8, 353 PF): The Bears were on the short list of Super Bowl contenders before Jay Cutler busted his thumb in November. A 1-5 crash landing followed, as a nation grimaced at the sight of backup QB Caleb Hanie. The front office did all it could to help Cutler for 2012, adding his old running mate Brandon Marshall in addition to RB Michael Bush and rookie WR Alshon Jeffery. Marshall should be a force between the 20s, but he never had big touchdown counts back in the Denver days with Cutler. He's a strong fantasy play but not a Top 10 wideout. Bush probably can poach 6-8 rushing touchdowns from tailback Matt Forte, but Forte will get his 1500-1800 total yards anyway, even behind a pedestrian offensive line. If you're looking for a safe back in the late-first or early-second round, Forte is a smart play. TE Kellen Davis has a some sleeper value in deeper leagues.

Minnesota Vikings (3-13, 340 PF): It's notable to see 340 points tied to a team that just won three games; the Vikings outscored 13 clubs last year. There's offensive talent here, and second-year starter Christian Ponder might be the most improved quarterback in the league. Percy Harvin is a Top 10 wideout if the migraines leave him alone, and TE Kyle Rudolph has breakout written all over him. No. 2 wideout Jerome Simpson can jump out of the dome, but he's on a drug suspension to open the year. No one knows what to expect from RB Adrian Peterson after his holiday knee blowout last year. He didn't take contact or play in any preseason games. You need a lot of nerve to select AP in the Top 25 - we'll pass on that option, thanks. Backup Toby Gerhart will be underrated in many leagues; he went for 4.9 YPC last year and caught 23 passes (three for touchdowns). Even if Peterson is able to start most of the season, Gerhart might be good enough to see 8-12 touches a week.

Bears Talk Podcast: What's next for Bears at QB after Brian Hoyer suffers broken arm?


Bears Talk Podcast: What's next for Bears at QB after Brian Hoyer suffers broken arm?

Lance Briggs, Alex Brown and Jim Miller break down where the Bears go at QB following Brian Hoyer’s injury and evaluate the defense’s gutsy performance on Thursday night against the Packers despite numerous injuries. Plus, a look at the big picture and who can help the Bears down the road.

Check out the latest edition of the Bears Talk Podcast here:

Anthony Rizzo/Javier Baez antics show how this Cubs team doesn’t feel the same weight of history

Anthony Rizzo/Javier Baez antics show how this Cubs team doesn’t feel the same weight of history

LOS ANGELES – Within minutes of the last out on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, ESPN’s @SportsCenter account sent out a photo of Moises Alou at the Wrigley Field wall to more than 30 million Twitter followers: “The last time the Cubs were up 3-2 in an NLCS was Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS vs. the Marlins. Most remember it as ‘the Bartman Game.’”

As Kerry Wood once said: “Irrelevant, dude.”
Look, the Cubs still need to find a way to beat either Clayton Kershaw or Rich Hill this weekend, with Kenley Jansen resting and waiting for the multiple-inning saves. The obligatory description for Kershaw is “the best pitcher on the planet.” Hill’s lefty curveball – and “the perceptual velocity” of his fastball – freezes hitters. Jansen has a mystical cutter reminiscent of the great Mariano Rivera. The top-heavy part of this Los Angeles playoff pitching staff has held the Cubs to zero runs in 16.1 innings.

But until proven otherwise, forget about this idea of a Cubs team weighed down by the history of a franchise that hasn’t played in the World Series since 1945.

Just look at Javier Baez getting in Anthony Rizzo’s airspace during Game 5, the human-highlight-film second baseman standing right next to the All-Star first baseman as he caught a Kike Hernandez pop-up for the second out of the third inning.

It didn’t matter that this was a 1-0 game and MVP-ballot players Justin Turner and Corey Seager were coming up. This is what the 2016 Cubs do. Rizzo caught the ball, quickly flipped it underhand and it bounced off Baez’s chest – in front of a sellout crowd of 54,449 and a national Fox Sports 1 audience.

“We always mess around,” Rizzo said at his locker inside a tight clubhouse jammed with media after an 8-4 win. “So I’m screaming: ‘Javy! Javy! I got it! I got it, Javy, I got it!’

“And usually he’ll yell at me: ‘Don’t miss it!’ Or I’ll yell at him: ‘Don’t miss it!’

“We do that a lot. If it’s a pop-up to him, I’ll go right behind him. It’s just little ways of slowing the game down and having fun, too.”

Rizzo is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency this year. As a super-utility guy, Baez got credit for 11 defensive runs saved in 383 innings at second base, or one less than co-leaders Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler, who each did it in almost 1,300 innings.

“Sometimes when I call (Rizzo) off to get a fly ball, he starts talking to me,” Baez said. “I tell him: ‘Hey, you can do whatever you want. Just don’t move my head. You can touch me if you want. Just don’t move my head.’

“And I told him to be ready for it, because I was going to do the same thing. You just got to be focused on the fly ball. No matter what’s happening around you, you just got to catch it.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

This isn’t about Bartman. It’s about a group of young, confident players who are growing up together and absolutely expect to be in this position. It’s manager Joe Maddon designing “Embrace The Target” T-shirts and telling them to show up to the ballpark whenever they want and then blow off batting practice.

“For sure, we’re relaxed,” said Baez, who’s gone viral during these playoffs, the rest of the country witnessing his amazing instincts and flashy personality. “I’m relaxed when I play defense.”

The thing is, Rizzo and Baez could be playing next to each other for the next five years, the same way Kris Bryant and Addison Russell will be anchoring the left side of the infield.

This is how Rizzo introduced Russell to The Show when a natural shortstop tried to learn second base on the fly last year and track pop-ups in front of 40,000 people: “Hey, watch out for that skateboard behind you! Don’t trip!”

“Oh yeah, we yell at each other all the time,” Rizzo said. “It’s just one of those things where you got to stay loose.”