EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth of eight NFL division previews for the 2017-18 season.
For the seventh straight season, Green Bay is the odds-on choice to win the NFC North, having won the division five of the past six years. Before that the Packers were Super Bowl champs as a wild card in 2010.
But they haven’t exactly overwhelmed their closest pursuers lately, only once taking the loop by more than one game since 2011. Last year they beat Detroit on the last day of the season to prevail by one game over the Lions.
This season, the betting public is in love with the Packers again, but GB could be in for a minor fall yet still win the division because of the shortcomings of its foes.
The Lions must overcome their historically atrocious pass defense. The Vikings’ offensive line could sink their chances despite an infusion of talent at running back. Chicago has inexperience at QB after saying goodbye after nine years to Jay Cutler, who came out of brief retirement to sign a one-year deal with Miami.
It appears unlikely the division will produce a wild card team as it has in seven of the previous eight seasons. Now for a look at how the division figures to shake out. Odds c/o Westgate Las Vegas.
Green Bay (1-2 div; 12-1 SB): QB Aaron Rodgers is back for his 13th year after rallying the Packers from a 4-6 hole to a division crown and berth in the NFC title game. He was the league’s fourth-rated passer (104.2), had an NFL-best 40 TD throws during the season and nine more in the playoffs.
However, his receiving corps has been roundly skewered for struggling to break free on routes. Although WR Jordy Nelson had 97 catches last year after missing 2015 (knee), his yards-per-catch norm was only 13.0 – 3.1 below his average from 2011-14. Considering GB has jettisoned two standout guards the past 12 months, Rodgers could have trouble finding time to wait for receivers to clear. Newcomer TE Martellus Bennett should be an immense help.
The backfield will be minus Eddie Lacy, who was a bulldozer but fought weight issues. GB apparently is going to ride the back of more slender ex-WR Ty Montgomery. Nothing special there.
Defensively, the unit gave up 400-plus yards in nine games, exceeded only by San Fran’s 10 such games. The Packers were shredded by Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota and Washington’s Kirk Cousins, who had their best passer rating days.
Note: Last season was the first time since 2006 the Packers went a season without being a double-digit favorite.
Minnesota (11-4, 30-1): QB Sam Bradford, acquired from Philly eight days before last year’s opener, set an NFL record by completing 71.6 percent of his throws. He figures to handle the job again with previous No. 1 Teddy Bridgewater on the PUP list while he recovers from last year’s gruesome knee injury.
Before getting carried away with high-fives for Bradford, in 10 of his 15 starts he went against units ranked in the bottom 10 in defensive completion percentage.
In the backfield, with stalwart RB Adrian Peterson gone to the Saints, the Vikings rebooted by acquiring Latavius Murray from Oakland and drafted Florida State RB Dalvin Cook. Murray is a puzzler, though. He gained only 4.0 yards a carry behind Oakland’s solid line last year and now will be rushing behind one of the league’s poorest units. Last season, Minnesota’s norm of 3.2 a carry was worst in club history.
The defense gets high marks across the board, but special teams should be hurt by the departure of Cordarrelle Patterson. He returned five kickoffs for scores the past four years. That’s three more than anyone else in that span.
Note: In the first six weeks, the Vikings will face two 2016 division winners while on short rest – at Pittsburgh in Week 2 off a MNF home game vs. New Orleans, and four weeks later hosting GB after a MNF game in Chicago.
Chicago (25-1,100-1): It was only a month ago that the Bears were 50-1 shots to win the North, so the club has been generating interest at the windows. QB Mike Glennon was brought in from Tampa Bay after going 5-13 in that capacity for the Bucs (2013-14). But he has thrown only 10 passes since. A key drawback was taking too many sacks.
Glennon will likely get a quick hook if ballyhooed rookie Mitch Trubisky, the second overall draft selection, looks ready to go. But with only year of college starting experience, chances are defenses will be way ahead of the game against him.
At least RB Jordan Howard will be around. He had seven 100-yard games in 2016.
On defense, Chicago looks stout along the line with veteran Akiem Hicks and run-stuffing Eddie Goldman along with a solid linebacker corps. Three times the Bears had five-plus sacks, tied for most in the league.
Note: Chicago was one of two teams that went winless away from home last year and over the past eight seasons has only three road wins against teams that finished with a winning record.
Detroit (6-1, 50-1): Detroit’s holes on offense start with the running game. After finishing last in the league in 2015 with 83.4 yards a game, they got worse last year. But immediate hope is on board if RB Ameer Abdullah, who was injured (foot) in Game 2 last season after averaging 5.6 yards on 18 carries, returns to form.
Defensively, the Lions allowed foes to complete a record 72.7 percent of their throws and have a cumulative 106.5 rating, by far the worst in the league. It didn’t help that the Lions were next to last in sacks with 26. Although prolific QB Matt Stafford guided Detroit to an NFL-record eight fourth-quarter/OT comebacks, five came while rallying vs. an underdog. He’ll again be looking for WR Golden Tate, who’s had three straight 90-catch seasons.
Note: When the Lions host Minnesota on Thanksgiving Day it will be their fourth game in 18 days. It will be only the third game in 25 days for the Vikings.
Next week: AFC South