The NFC North is a storied division with a steady reputation—there has only been one instance in the last 34 years when the North champion failed to reach double digits in victories, and that was back in 2013, when Green Bay finished 8–7–1. But for all of its regular season competitiveness, the teams in this division haven’t made it all the way to the end of the postseason very often.
The Packers won the Super Bowl in 1996 and 2010 and lost it in ‘97; the Bears lost in ‘06, and ... that’s it for the NFC North’s Super Bowl representation in the past three decades.
The rest of the conference may not be able to hold off the North for much longer, though. Green Bay enters its 2016 campaign with legitimate championship aspirations, (and Minnesota had the same aspirations until Teddy Bridgewater suffered a complete ACL tear in practice on Tuesday), while Detroit and Chicago have arrows pointed in the right direction (yes, even with the Lions losing Calvin Johnson to retirement). It is not out of the realm of possibility that the NFC North—not the AFC North nor West, not the NFC West—is the best division in football this season.
“I think each and every year the division gets tougher,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at February’s NFL combine. “I think this year will probably be the toughest year. ... I think our division is as tough as ever.”
There is plenty to build off of from 2015. The Vikings arrived a year earlier than most expected, posting an 11–5 record to claim the NFC North crown and were one missed chip-shot field goal away from advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs. The Packers, painfully flawed offense and all, rolled Washington in the wild-card round and then fell just short against Arizona in an instant classic.
The draft stockpiled critical upgrades across all four North teams, at least in theory. The first round alone brought in Laquon Treadwell (Minnesota), Kenny Clark (Green Bay), Taylor Decker (Detroit) and Leonard Floyd (Chicago), a quartet of outstanding talents who all fill pressing needs.
Yet, the most important “addition” of all may come in Green Bay getting back its top receiver, Jordy Nelson. He will not fix all that ailed an unimaginative Packers offense, but he was, and is, Aaron Rodgers’s preferred target. While one player alone cannot win the division, Nelson’s presence—provided he can stay healthy—helps tip the scales in Green Bay’s favor.
As for the Vikings, Zimmer’s club is loaded on defense, albeit with a question mark here (strong safety?) or there (weakside linebacker?). And let’s not forget that Adrian Peterson is still the workhorse of an ever-improving offense. But Bridgewater's absence has the potential to throw the whole unit, if not the entire team, into crisis.
Even if the NFC North beats up on itself, there is comfort to be found in this year’s schedule. The Black and Blue Division draws the NFC East as its intra-conference foe and the AFC South for crossover games. There will be wins to be had.
Could the NFC North send two or even three teams to the postseason? Sure. But it won’t matter much if all of those teams fail to reach Houston in February.
Favorite: Green Bay
This was a shared space, with Green Bay and Minnesota pegged as co-favorites, until Bridgewater’s devastating injury. That event pushed the Packers into the top spot by their lonesome, as the Vikings scramble to figure out their next step.
The 2015 division race came down to the season’s final week, when Minnesota pulled off a 20–13 win at Lambeau to pin down first place. The teams will wrap their season series in Week 16 this year, again in Green Bay—the Packers visit Detroit in Week 17; the Vikings host Chicago. Will Minnesota somehow manage to stay in the hunt until then?
It won’t be easy. Not only do the Packers have Nelson back in the fold, they also have a slimmed-down Eddie Lacy at running back and an O-line that is much healthier than its 2015 version, even with center Corey Linsley’s hamstring injury.
Defensively, rookie linebacker Blake Martinez could be the seek-and-destroy tackling weapon missing up the middle. His fellow 2016 draft choice, defensive lineman Kenny Clark, has drawn rave reviews throughout camp.
The Vikings still have talent loaded up on their roster, albeit no longer at the quarterback position where Shaun Hill is suddenly on track to start. They selected Treadwell in hopes that he could develop into a true No. 1 receiver. The process may take longer than initially hoped, especially with Bridgewater sidelined, but an offense with Peterson in it remains a threat.
One or two big plays a game might be enough if the defense is as good as advertised. With playmakers like Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Sharrif Floyd, it should be for this season, and many seasons to come.
Still, it will take a remarkable team effort for the Vikings to hang in the race now sans their franchise QB. This is the Packers’s division to lose.
Dark Horse: Detroit
Mainly because of the standouts now available for Vic Fangio’s defense, Chicago has drawn a decent amount of love this off-season. Detroit has garnered no such buzz. Megatron retired and, despite the work done by new GM Bob Quinn, the Lions hardly registered a blip the past few months.
That may be a mistake. The Lions were a playoff team just two seasons ago, and they have an underrated collection of talent on their roster. The line remains an issue, though less so if Decker excels, but the passing game could thrive in spite of Johnson’s absence thanks to the arrivals of Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin. QB Matthew Stafford will have more pressure on his shoulders than ever. Between Jones, Boldin, Golden Tate and versatile backs Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, he also has as deep a corps to work with as he arguably has ever had.
Stafford took off under the watchful eye of interim-turned-permanent offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter late last season. Detroit’s other coordinator, Teryl Austin, is a head coach-in-waiting. He’ll build his defense around Ziggy Ansah, Darius Slay and DeAndre Levy.
Division MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Adrian Peterson led the league in rushing last season, so he obviously belongs in the race. That said, Rodgers is as good as it gets at the most important position on the field.
Or, at least, he was prior to 2015. Last season was an inconsistent disappointment by Rodgers’s standards. He still threw for 3,800 yards with a 31:8 TD-to-INT differential, but there were far more rough patches than usual. The impact of Nelson’s injury was felt throughout 2015.
Nelson’s reappearance in the lineup for 2016 coincides with the signing of enigmatic tight end Jared Cook. If Green Bay somehow can unlock Cook on a consistent basis, look out. Rodgers makes everyone around him better.
Potential breakout player: Kevin White, WR, Bears
Chicago never had the chance to use the 2015 draft’s No. 7 pick last year because of a stress fracture. White is still playing catch up now, as evidenced by a shaky preseason—he caught one pass for six yards vs. the Patriots, one pass for four yards vs. the Chiefs. Losing a rookie season makes for a steep learning curve come year two.
The upside, though, is unmistakable. So much so that the Bears may hand over No. 1 receiver duties to White next year and let the franchise-tagged Alshon Jeffery walk. White is a 1,000-yard threat already, without ever having played a regular-season game.
Rookie to watch: Jonathan Bullard, DE, Bears
Floyd is the headliner of Chicago’s 2016 draft class, but Bullard could have just as big an impact this season. The Florida product has the size, at 290 lbs., to help free up space for the Bears’ improved linebacking group (Danny Trevathan was a huge get this off-season). He also has the athleticism to be a force vs. the pass.
“He’s a tough-minded player,” Chicago coach John Fox said, via the team’s website. “He’s a tough player physically. From a trait standpoint he’s explosive, which helps obviously in pass rush situations. That’s a lot of the reasons why we drafted him. And I just kind of liked his mindset and how he [has gone] about his business thus far.”
Coach with the most to prove: Mike McCarthy
In truth, Detroit’s Jim Caldwell is the closest to being fired. Only the successful swap of Joe Lombardi for Jim Bob Cooter mid-2015 prolonged his stay. Another sub-.500 season and Quinn no doubt will start looking to hire his own guy.
But McCarthy has a lot of eyes on him as he again takes full control of the Packers’ play-calling duties, off a season in which he first gave up and then reclaimed that responsibility. The results were underwhelming, to say the least. (My former SI colleague Doug Farrar dug deeper into why last November.)
Nelson is not going to be enough to turn the tide on his own. The scheme and play calling have to be more effective in 2016 than they were in 2015. Much of that is on McCarthy.
Must-watch divisional game: Minnesota at Green Bay, Week 16.
It’s hard to say whether that will be the showcase NFL game four months from now, but odds are decent that the must-see will be either Minnesota-Green Bay or Arizona-Seattle on Christmas Eve. If all goes according to plan, the Vikings and Packers will be fighting for not just the division title but also home-field advantage come their Week 16 matchup.
Their first meeting of 2016 comes much earlier: Week 2, on Sunday night.