Over the past decade, the Green Bay Packers or the Minnesota Vikings have won the NFC North division nine times in 10 years. Given the way the division looks heading into the 2017 season, it would be very surprising if that trend didn’t extend to 10 times in 11 years.
Green Bay Packers
During the 2016 NFL season, the Green Packers not only went undefeated between the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend through the third week in January of 2017, but they beat opponents by an average of more than 12 points per game. But it all came to an end with a resounding thud, when the Atlanta Falcons ambushed the Packers in the NFC Championship game, storming out to a 31-0 lead at one point, and handing Green Bay a 44-21 defeat. But during that second-half-of-the-season run, Green Bay re-established themselves as one of the top contenders in the NFC, and they’ll look to build on that momentum during the 2017 season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is one of the early favorites for the Most Valuable Player award, and rightfully so. After leading the league in touchdown passes (40) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (almost 6-to-1), and finished 4th in total passing yards (4,428), he’ll get to throw to an even-better group of receivers this year, with Jordy Nelson another year removed from his season-ending ACL injury (in 2015), Randall Cobb coming into camp healthy after dealing with nagging injuries all of last year, and Davante Adams coming off a breakout season and looking as sharp as ever. On top of that, the Packers went out and acquired tight end Martellus Bennett, who could turn out to be one of the steals of free agency.
The question for the Packers will be if the defense can keep up its end of the bargain, having finished 22nd in total yards allowed last season, and a dismal 31st in passing yards allowed. Green Bay devoted their top two picks in the 2017 NFL Draft to the secondary, taking cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones, and brought back cornerback Davon House to play the nickel spot. But losing safety Micah Hyde, one of the real leaders in the secondary, may prove to be a very difficult endeavor.
The Packers offense can score on nearly anyone in the NFL, but the question will be whether they can stop anyone from scoring on them.
This year’s Minnesota Vikings will feature the same storyline as last year’s Vikings — a game-managing quarterback, a dynamic running back, a patchwork offensive line, and a ridiculously stout defense — but with different characters filling many of those roles.
Sam Bradford will be back for the second year in a row as the Vikings quarterback, having taken over the role on the heels of the catastrophic knee injury to Teddy Bridgewater. In the backfield, he’ll spend much of this year handing off the football to rookie running back Dalvin Cook, the team’s second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (it’s just a matter of time before he takes over the job from free agent acquisition Latavius Murray). And the line that’ll be blocking for Bradford and Cook will feature as many as four new starters from last year’s group, as Minnesota continually looks to fix the beleaguered unit.
But the same “beleaguered unit” description simply cannot be used for the defense, which will return nine of 11 starters from last year’s group, and should be as good as any defense in the NFL. Minnesota ranked third in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game overall, and fewest passing yards allowed per game as well. They were fifth in the NFL in quarterback sacks, with three different edge rushers racking up seven or more sacks last season (and that’s even with star linebacker Anthony Barr suffering a big slump for much of last year).
The Vikings are essentially the mirror opposite of their division rivals in Green Bay: their defense will be good enough to limit any opponent from putting a lot of points on the board, but will the offense do enough to actually score enough points to squeak out a win?
In a conference that’s filled with a good number of teams that will be vying for the six available postseason berths, the Detroit Lions find themselves in a place that most professional sports teams dread: sprinting on proverbial “treadmill of mediocrity.” They’re interesting enough to be relevant, but not relevant enough to be interesting.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford had a fantastic year in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s offense, finishing with his second highest completion percentage, second highest yards per attempt, and second highest passer rating of his career last season, along with the fewest number of interceptions thrown. And even with that, the Lions still ranked outside the top 10 passing offenses last year (they were 11th) and didn’t have a single receiver finish in the top 10 in receiving yards (Golden Tate was 14th). For all the yards they could put up in a game, it didn’t translate to much, considering Detroit finished 20th in the NFL in total points per game.
Things weren’t better for Detroit’s defense, overseen by highly-esteemed coordinator Teryl Austin. The Lions defense was in the bottom half of the league in total yards allowed per game (18th in the NFL), rushing yards allowed (18th), passing yards allowed (19th), and quarterback sacks (tied for 30th).
So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Detroit spent much of the offseason fixing the defensive side of the ball, as almost half the unit will have new starters next season. But in an already loaded conference, and a division with two teams that have postseason aspirations themselves, have the Lions really done enough to make a return trip to the playoffs?
For sports fans in the greater Chicagoland area, the mantra this Fall likely won’t be all that much different than it was in the Fall of 2016: “well, at least the Cubs are doing well.”
It was another offseason of offensive upheaval for the Chicago Bears, marked by the team pushing it’s longtime starting quarterback, trading for a quarterback to presumably be the starter, and subsequently drafting a quarterback to also presumably be the starter. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that four of Chicago’s top five wide receivers will be different than the depth chart from last year, after watching their best wide receiver (Alshon Jeffrey) leave town as well.
So now, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (at some point this season anyway), running back Jordan Howard (who finished second in the NFL in rushing yards last season), and wide receiver Cameron Meredith (the team leader in virtually every receiving category last year) will form the foundation of the rebuilt Bears offense.
Ironically enough, the Bears defense will return all 11 starters from last year’s group. Take what you will from that fact, considering Chicago had the sixth-worst rushing defense in the NFL last year, ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL in most points allowed per game, and featured exactly zero players with more than eight sacks recorded last year.
Winter is Coming, Chicago fans. And if you root for these Monsters of the Midway, don’t say we didn’t warn you.