Who will win the NFC North?
By: Andy Davies
The NFC North is a division with tremendous history. The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears are two of the three oldest franchises in NFL history, with the Detroit Lions not far behind. We have seen the Packers and Bears lift a Super Bowl but the Minnesota Vikings have failed to win a Super Bowl and the Lions have yet to even make the big game.
The division has been predominately the Packers’ in recent years, winning 7 of the last 10 division titles. Can anyone dethrone Green Bay this season?
Here is a preview of the NFC North
Chicago Bears (2020 Record: 8-8. Lost in Wildcard Round)
The Bears fans have reason for optimism and are going to the season with plenty of excitement. However, there is also distaste from the fanbase as to who is their starting quarterback is in week one. Andy Dalton will start against the Rams as first-round pick Justin Fields is made to wait, despite his impressive preseason. He was taken eleventh overall in the draft, with Chicago trading up to select him. Perhaps head coach Matt Nagy is wary of not putting a rookie QB up against the excellent Rams defense on their debut. Maybe he is honouring the tweet the Bears made that Dalton was QB1, a tweet made before they drafted Fields.
Offensive lineman Tevin Jenkins was taken in the second-round in the team’s best attempt to protect their quarterback. Wide receiver Allen Robinson was franchise tagged this offseason, which keeps him there for one more year. Darnell Mooney will want to build on an impressive rookie season. Alongside Free Agency signing Marquise Goodwin, there is a quietly good receiver room in Chicago.
Defensively, Khalil Mack’s numbers have declined since his career year in 2018 but the linebacker is still a threat. Along with defensive end Akheim Hicks, these are two defensive studs at the Bears’ disposal. There is not just Mack and Hicks. Safety Eddie Jackson as well as linebackers Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn are three great options for the Bears on the defensive side of the ball.
Can the Bears get back to the playoffs? This is something many felt the team didn’t deserve last year despite starting the 2020 season 5-1. A schedule featuring the Rams, Cleveland Browns, Packers twice, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Seattle Seahawks is a tough ask for anyone and this is likely to be nine losses. This would mean they would have to win all the other games just to end the season 8-9. Fields has the chance to come in mid-season and make a difference. However, this may be late not only for the Bears’ season but also for Nagy’s job.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC North.
Detroit Lions (2020 Record: 5-11. Missed out on playoffs)
When Jared Goff is your biggest headline offseason addition, there is something wrong. There has been something wrong for many years in Detroit. Only the Cincinnati Bengals have waited longer for a playoff win than the Lions.
Goff was the first overall pick for the Rams in 2016 but with the exception of the 2018 season that saw them reach the Super Bowl, he has been nothing more than an average quarterback. He is going from throwing to Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods to now passing the ball to Free agency signing Tyrell Williams, fourth-round selection Amon-Ra St.Brown, and Kalif Raymond, who arrived as a free agent from the Tennesee Titans. They also brought in tight end Darren Fells as backup to T.J. Hockensen, who scored 6 touchdowns and recorded 723 yards from 67 receptions. The Lions did add Penei Sewell seventh overall, who can be a gamechanger between the trenches. However, the offense will still have plenty of issues. The Lions also lost wideouts Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones in the offseason, further adding to Goff’s woes. He does not feel like the type of player that new head coach Dan Campbell would like, considering Goff’s quieter personality and Campbell talking in his first press conference that he wants to bite people’s kneecaps.
Detroit were 32nd in total points and total yards allowed (30th in passing yards allowed, 28th in rushing yards allowed). They have not done enough in the preseason to address this. The Lions have a lot of troubles ahead this season and Campbell has a tough task on his hands.
Prediction: 4th in NFC North.
Green Bay Packers (2020 Record: 13-3. Lost in NFC Championship)
The Packers offseason was dominated by talk of Aaron Rodgers leaving the franchise, for either retirment or another team. Both he and wide receiver Davante Adams, who were so exceptional in 2020, posted the same post which referred to the Michael Jordan Netflix documentary ‘The Last Dance’. It is likely that Rodgers, last season’s MVP, will spend just one more season in Green Bay. Can he go out with a second ring?
Rodgers requested a trade on draft day, which dominated the media that day. The boyhood 49ers fan is likely to have done this with the hope of San Francisco trading for him. Taking Trey Lance third overall put an end to these hopes. The Denver Broncos were often seen as the team with the best chance but after months of speculation, he decided to stay put in Green Bay. Many Packers fans were extremely frustrated during last year’s draft, when the team selected Rodgers’ replacement in Jordan Love instead of a wide receiver. This is a position that Rodgers and the Packers fanbase have wanted for a while now. A true WR2 is something that Rodgers has missed, playing a big role in why they have lost in back-to-back NFC Championship games.
Running back Aaron Jones resigned, with a four-year $48 million deal agreed. Tight end Robert Tonyan, who scored 11 touchdowns in 2020, was initially placed on a second-round restricted free agent tender, before signing the tender for $3.4 million. The Packers also traded for former player Randall Cobb, who will want to improve on the three touchdowns he scored in both the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Amari Rodgers was taken in the third round to add some depth to the receiver room that also features Allen Lazard and Marquez Vantes-Scantling. Lazard impressed at times last season, with 3 touchdowns and 451 yards but injury meant he played just 10 games in 2020. Vantez-Scantling continues to struggle for consistency.
The offensive line could be an issue for the Packers and Rodgers. Cory Linsley, widely considered one of the NFL’s best centers, departed in Free Agency for the Los Angeles Chargers. Left tackle David Bakhtiari will miss the opening 6 weeks of the season at least, after being placed on the PUP list. Can the line protect Rodgers, who was the 25th most sacked quarterback in the league? This shows what impact the losses of Linsley and Bakhtiari could be.
Defensively was where Green Bay struggled in the playoffs. Cornerback Kevin King had a poor game against Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship. Eric Stokes was taken in the first round to add some competition and depth to the position. In their 3-4 scheme, nose tackle Kenny Clark, Za’Darious Smith are both brilliant at what they do. Cornerback Jaire Alexander is one of the best shutdown corners in the league, with the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey arguably the only player to do it better than Alexander.
The Packers will win this division with ease but it is the question of whether their defense can take them any further than the NFC Championship. Rodgers will be on a mission to end on a high with the Packers. However, with the strength of the Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams, and the potential surprise outfit of the Washington Football Team, they may find it hard to even make the NFC Championship game this year.
Prediction: 1st in NFC North.
Minnesota Vikings (2020 Record: 7-9. Missed out on playoffs)
The Vikings began the 2020 season horribly, starting 1-5 before winning 5 of their next 6 games and ending the season 7-9. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson recorded 1,400 yards, breaking the record of most receiving yards recorded by a rookie. He scored 7 touchdowns, with fellow receiver Adam Thielen recording 14. Their offense developed last season, with Kirk Cousins throwing over 4,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. However, his vaccination status may detriment his and their season.
Players not getting vaccinated may affect several teams, but Cousins’ stance is the biggest headline maker along with Lamar Jackson and Cole Beasley. If he is not careful, they may not be scared to put third-round pick Kellen Mond in the starting role during his rookie season. Cousins, a fourth-round pick in 2011, knows more than anyone how a late draft pick can make the most of their opportunity.
Running back Dalvin Cook will hope to continue on from his impressive 2020 season. He had career-best numbers in both yards (1,557) and rushing touchdowns (16), stats only beaten by Derrick Henry last season. He will be excellently protected by 2021 first-round selection Christian Darrisaw, who is said to be an “animal in the run game”. He will hope to be fit for week one.
Minnesota was 27th in total yards allowed in 2020 (25th in passing yards allowed and 27th in rushing yards allowed), with only three teams allowing more total points than the Vikings. The top three players for the Vikings for sacks recorded were Yannick Ngakoue, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Eric Wilson. They are all no longer with the franchise. Even with them in the roster, the most any player got in 2020 was 5.
Eric Kendricks missed time last season and the Vikings also lost Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, and Michael Hughes to injury. Michael Pierce opted out due to COVID-19. All of these players except Hughes are returning for 2021. This will surely make a huge difference to the defense, something that will be hugely welcomed by head coach Mike Zimmer.
An opening six games against the Cincinnati Bengals, Arizona Cardinals, Seahawks, Browns, Lions, and Carolina Panthers gives the Vikings the chance to start 4-2. They then face the Dallas Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers, Packers, 49ers and Lions. There is likely to be one or two wins out of these next six games. This would have Minnesota at either 5-7 or 4-8. The Vikings then face a tough end to the season, where they face the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rams, Packers as well as twice facing the Bears. They could lose four out of these five. Looking at the schedule, the prediction here is that their 2021 record will be either 5-12 or 6-11.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC North