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Matthew Coller: The NFC North is a problem for Vikings' future

The Packers and Lions won in the playoffs as the Vikings pondered their future

You knew something might be going on when Jordan Love ripped a touchdown pass against the Minnesota Vikings that traveled 50 yards through the air at the speed of light. The throw looked a little bit too much like the last 30 years of quarterbacks in Green Bay for comfort.

But it can’t be, right? No way can the Packers have somehow repeated history and drafted/developed another freakshow QB who is going to slice them up like Wisconsin cheddar for the next decade. No way could they hit the lottery thrice while the Vikings have QB uncertainty and are still looking for a home playoff win since the Minneapolis Miracle.

If you were talking yourself into believing that Love’s New Year’s Eve thrashing of the Vikings was simply a product of the defense wearing down, this Sunday afternoon hit you like an arctic blast of cold air. Inside Jerry World, Love throttled the Dallas Cowboys to the tune of 13 for 16 for 185 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the Packers jumped out to a 27-7 lead.

In the second half Love only needed to throw a handful of passes as the Packers cruised to victory. He finished the game with a perfect 157.2 quarterback rating.

It just got real. Really, really real.

Combine Love’s playoff win with his 32-touchdown debut season as a starter (second in the NFL), his 34 big-time throws (per PFF, fifth in the league) and 4,158 yards and you have a full blown franchise quarterback.

Even the Packers probably did not expect to be this good this fast. They did not spend big in free agency to go all in on 2023, rather they put a bunch of young players on the field around Love. Midway through the season that looked like a mistake but in Dallas players like Romeo Dobbs and Dontayvion Wicks looked like Robert Brooks or Jordy Nelson. The FOX broadcast noted that the Packers had the most receptions by receivers in their first or second season in the NFL in the Super Bowl era.

It’s hard to start calling Love the next Favre or Rodgers because they are two of the greatest quarterbacks in history but the Packers’ QB situation is now clarified and they can put all of their assets into building around him.

Meanwhile in the NFC North, the Detroit Lions won the division and defeated the Los Angeles Rams 24-23 behind 277 yards passing, 10.1 yards per attempt and a 121.8 rating. Detroit’s group of weapons drove the Rams defense mad. Superstar receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown caught seven passes for 110 yards and much-debated first-round draft pick Jahmyr Gibbs and veteran David Montgomery combined for 136 total yards.

While the Detroit defense struggled to contain Matthew Stafford, former No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson registered five QB hits and caused pressure at key moments in the game.

Whatever happens next in Detroit during these playoffs, they proved this year to be contenders and they aren’t going anywhere. Goff is 29 years old and the Lions have the sixth most projected cap space for 2024 (per They also own an extra top-100 draft pick from the Vikings this year.

In Chicago, Bears have the eighth most cap space heading into the offseason. Oh and the Bears hold the No. 1 and No. 9 overall picks in the draft.

It has been a longtime since they have been the Monsters of the Midway but with the addition of pass rusher Montez Sweat, Chicago’s defense started to come together in the second half of the year. If they decide to move on from Justin Fields, the pieces are in place to drop a rookie QB into the mix and spend the needed free agency dollars around whichever player they pick.

If the Bears’ plan clicks into place, they could have a quick turnaround like Detroit or the Houston Texans, who picked No. 2 and No. 3 overall this season and beat the Cleveland Browns on Saturday.

How do the Vikings reckon with all this?

In 2022 the NFC North looked like a mess. As the Vikings one-score win’d their way to 13-4, the Packers, Lions and Bears all missed the playoffs. It was unclear how the Packers would transition from their QB legend to an inexperienced quarterback under coach Matt LaFleur. It was unclear how the Lions would get over the hump of a team on the cusp. It was unclear whether the Bears’ tank job would work.

On Sunday it became clear that the worst-case scenario for the Vikings has come to fruition. All their opponents’ plans worked.

Now the Vikings sit with the 15th most cap space, the No. 11 overall draft pick but only one other draft pick in the top 100 (42nd) and a decision to make on Kirk Cousins.

The team has repeatedly expressed its desire to bring back Cousins and the veteran quarterback has said that he would like to return in purple. Both sides had their caveats when speaking with the media at the end of the year. Cousins said the decision will be “about structure” and noted that “the league needs quarterbacks.” Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah talked about projecting his play. The GM said: “How do you believe the performance will go? There’s different examples through time.”

Both sides may be playing a negotiating game of chicken but if they stay together they may end up going over the cliff together. Cousins is entering the final stanza of his career and noted that winning was at the top of his list for a destination. The Vikings have a high quality offensive setup but their WR3, WR4 and LG spots are open and on the defensive side Harrison Phillips is the only starting defensive lineman from 2023 under contract for next season. Linebacker Jordan Hicks is a free agent, Harrison Smith may retire and Byron Murphy Jr. is the only cornerback locked in.

That’s a lot to rebuild in an offseason.

The Vikings would probably love to split the difference and draft a quarterback while bringing back Cousins. The issue with that approach is that it’s one less draft pick to help solidify the foundation around the veteran quarterback. Plus, Cousins was brought to Minnesota to take them over the top from their NFC Championship appearance in 2017. If their odds aren’t high of reaching that goal, why wait for the future QB?

And now the bar is higher than it has been in many years within the division. Since 2018 Chicago and Detroit rank 19th and 25th in total point differential. It appears unlikely that they will remain there going forward. The Packers are eighth and very well may stay there after finishing 10th in differential this year.

How will the Vikings get an edge? How will they outperform their six-year stretch from 2018-2023 that featured just one playoff win when the track now has more crocodiles and landmines to jump over than it did before?

Back in 2021, the Lions saw something similar. They looked at their roster and the NFC North and decided to hit the reset button. They moved on from their quarterback and went back to the drawing board.

The Vikings have a complicating factor: Justin Jefferson.

So long as they have the league’s top receiver, who is in line for a mega contract extension, it’s very difficult to argue for a total teardown.

How can they get from here to where the Lions and Packers were this weekend without doing what the Lions or Bears did over the past few seasons?

Well, not every team that is in the playoffs tanked to get there. The Baltimore Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson and watched him lead the team to the playoffs as a rookie. The Philadelphia Eagles picked Jalen Hurts and he took them into the postseason by his second year. Josh Allen got the Bills to 10 wins by Year 2.

Could the Vikings quickly fight back against their thriving North foes if they went the draft route at quarterback? Who knows. If the QB isn’t Jordan Love, CJ Stroud, Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen, they could end up with an even higher draft position than last season.

But is that path really less risky than the road that’s known? The roster is shaping up to look much like the 2020 and 2021 clubs that struggled to replace talent after a number of veterans exited and there wasn’t a stable of successful draft picks on the way. The only recent players the Vikings have picked who appear to be clear-cut parts of the future on defense are Cam Bynum and Josh Metellus, plus UDFA Ivan Pace Jr. If they stick with Cousins that luck is going to have to change very fast.

All arrows since the new regime took over have pointed to picking a new quarterback and going to work to build a true contender rather than the “in the hunt” squad the Vikings have had for many years.

Will they get stuck in the mud again because the division suddenly turned into a juggernaut or find a way out of the woods? Their decisions in the coming weeks/months will decide that.

No pressure.

Jordan Love

Jan 14, 2024; Arlington, Texas, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love (10) drops back to pass against the Dallas Cowboys in the first quarter for the 2024 NFC wild card game at AT&T Stadium.