EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of eight NFL division previews.
For the first time since 2010, there’s a team besides Green Bay atop the futures board in the NFC North.
Over the past seven years the Packers have been the odds-on pick to win the loop. Five times they came through.
This year, though, the betting choice is Minnesota, which made the blockbuster offseason acquisition of ex-Redskins QB Kirk Cousins. He’ll take over for a team that won the North last year and reached the NFC title game.
The Packers and Vikings, who have won the past seven crowns and 10 of 11, should again wage a spirited battle for first – barring another crushing injury to Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers (broken collarbone in 2017) – with the likelihood the second-place finisher gains a wild card for the eighth time in 10 seasons.
Chicago and Detroit, meanwhile, have made upgrades and are capable of being wild-card contenders, even though both have rookie head coaches. But over the previous two seasons four of eight first-year bosses with no previous NFL head coaching experience led their teams to the postseason, so maybe it’s not farfetched that one of these teams will make it, too, though Green Bay and/or Minnesota probably would have to stumble.
Schedule-wise, it’s a mixed bag. This group will face all teams from
the AFC North, which were a combined six under .500 last season. And the NFL North will play vs. the NFC South, which was at 10 over and had three playoff teams.
Now for a look at how the division figures to play out, with teams listed in order of predicted finish. The odds c/o Westgate Las Vegas:
1. Green Bay Packers (8-5 to win division; 14-1 to win Super Bowl): Two years ago the Packers entered with the easiest schedule in the NFL, based on the record of foes the previous season, and won the division. This year, they have the toughest slate (138-118, .539). But that didn’t stop GB in 1996 en route to the Super Bowl title, when its foes’ ledger was the league’s hardest at 146-110 (.570).
To remain formidable all season, the Pack will need Rodgers to stay healthy in the worst way, since his backups are Brett Hundley, last year’s 30th rated passer, and DeShone Kizer from Cleveland, who ranked 32nd and last.
Rodgers will be without favorite target Jordy Nelson, 33, who was let go, but GB acquired TE Jimmy Graham from Seattle. He tied for second in the NFL with 10 TD catches in 2017. In 2013 in New Orleans, he had a league-best 16.
RB Aaron Jones averaged 5.5 yards a carry last season as a rookie and gives the Packers a dynamic running threat for the first time since before Eddie Lacy discovered Little Debbies.
Defensively, the Packers drafted cornerbacks in the first and second rounds to help a unit that had the league’s second worst defensive passer rating and enhanced the front seven by adding ex-Jets DL Muhammad Wilkerson, who joins stout LB Mike Daniels and NT Kenny Clark. The unit should be improved.
Note: At 7-9 last season, Green Bay rallied from 14-plus points down three times to win games. All other teams did so eight times.
2. Minnesota Vikings (4-5 div; 10-1 SB): The Vikings got an expensive face-lift at QB after reaching the NFC title game for the first time since 2009. They unloaded all three of their passers (Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford and 2017 hero Case Keenum), who each had winning records in their brief stays with a combined mark of 38-24. Cousins ($84M guaranteed, three-year deal), was only 26-31-1 in six years in D.C., including a 35-18 home playoff loss to Rodgers’ Pack in 2015.
Although Cousins will have one of the best pass-receiving tandems in the league with WRs Adam Thielen (91 catches last year) and Stefon Diggs (64) plus the return of rookie RB sensation Dalvin Cook from injury, he no doubt could have used versatile running back Jerick McKinnon, who left during free agency (SF).
And it won’t help that dependable guard/center Joe Berger retired. Then there was the emotionally devastating death of popular line coach Tony Sparano on July 22.
Defensively, the Vikings added former Jets stalwart DT Sheldon Richardson to a unit that already had five Pro Bowlers. But those five all started in the NFC title game at Philly and were gouged for 456 yards and 38 points.
Note: The Vikings have had 14 kick/defensive TDs the past three seasons and yielded only two. That +12 margin tops the NFC over that span.
3. Chicago Bears (12-1; 100-1): It’s all on QB Mitchell Trubisky’s shoulders this year, with only Chase Daniel (two starts in eight years) in reserve, plus well-rested Tyler Bray, who’s thrown one pass in five seasons.
Matt Nagy will be making his head coaching debut after being Andy Reid’s OC the past two seasons in KC. Nagy will take over a team that has had four straight last-place division finishes.
On offense, Chicago added ex-Jax star WR Allen Robinson, but he’s coming off a torn ACL. They’ll need him because 2015 first-round pick, WR Kevin White, gets hurt a lot. He’s played in only five games in three years. The ground game, though, is potent with Jordan Howard, who’s had a dozen 100-yard games the past two years.
One thing the Bears do relatively well is play defense, ranking 10th last year in total yards allowed despite the offense not helping much, with only 934 snaps, second fewest in the league. In the Draft, Chicago added 2017 Butkus Award winner, LB Roquan Smith of Georgia but he’s still having contract issues.
Note: The last time the Bears finished in the Central cellar four years in a row (1997-2000), they won the division title the next year.
4. Detroit Lions (7-1; 50-1): The Lions, now under the guidance of ex-Patriots DC Matt Patricia, have one of the most productive QBs in the league the past three years in Matt Stafford (85 TD throws), but until now he had little help along the line or in the backfield. Stafford will still be operating behind a mediocre line. However, the run game that’s been ranked in the bottom three the past three years will benefit from the acquisition of bulldozing RB LeGarrette Blount and second-round pick RB Kerryon Johnson of Auburn.
Defensively, the Lions feasted on rookie/backup QBs, going 6-1. But they were only 3-6 vs. Week 1 starters and might not improve since the forward wall appears to be a liability.
Note: Detroit was 2-0 last season when yielding 200-plus rushing yards. Other teams were a combined 0-19.
Next week: AFC North