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NFC North Preview: Leaders Are the Pack, Again

The return of Aaron Rodgers means the defense-heavy Vikings and Bears are trying to pry the title from Green Bay again.

For about three months this spring and summer, rumors swirled that Aaron Rodgers was done with Green Bay, and the NFC North looked like it could be wide open. But by the time training camps began in late July, Rodgers was back with the Pack and, despite the turmoil, Green Bay figures to own the division for the third straight year.

One thing Rodgers has made clear since the end of last season: His relationship with coach Matt LaFleur is strong. The duo has gone 13–3 and advanced to the conference championship in each of their two seasons together, and there’s no reason Rodgers can’t duplicate his MVP production of last season. To break through to the Super Bowl, though, the Packers need a steadier performance from their defense. Green Bay moved on from coordinator Mike Pettine after three seasons—his group performed well but the complicated system led to untimely gaffes in January. Joe Barry, most recently an assistant head coach who oversaw linebackers for the Rams, will take over a unit that has All-Pro talents in cornerback Jaire Alexander, nose tackle Kenny Clark and edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, as well as a potential breakout star in third-year edge Rashan Gary.

The Vikings seem to be gearing up for one more run with Kirk Cousins under center, though their flirtation with Justin Fields, and their selection of Kellen Mond from Texas A&M in the third round, suggests they’re preparing to move on from a good quarterback who eats up a superstar-sized chunk of their cap space. After a transition year for a defense that lost the bulk of its cornerback depth, Minnesota signed aging All-Pro Patrick Peterson from Arizona and fellow vet Bashaud Breeland to solidify the defensive backfield, and welcomes back star edge rusher Danielle Hunter, who missed last season with a herniated disk. The strategy remains for Mike Zimmer’s team: Pair a dominant defense with a run-heavy offense led by Dalvin Cook.

The Bears moved on from the No. 2 pick of 2017, Mitchell Trubisky, but didn’t really solve their quarterback quandary in the short term. Andy Dalton, 33, has been named the starter, but it’s only a matter of time before the reins are handed to Fields, whom the team traded up to draft 11th. If Dalton stumbles early, coach Matt Nagy might have no choice but to hand the ball to the former Ohio State star—ready or not—to keep a locker room that’s surely fed up with mediocre QB play. Once again Chicago will rely on a superior defense, though after leading the NFL with 36 takeaways in a stellar ’18 season, it has forced only 37 combined over the last two years. The unit has a new coordinator, Sean Desai, who learned his craft under former Bears DC Vic Fangio.

Under intense first-year coach Dan Campbell, the Lions will be in a rebuilding year after Matt Patricia’s version of the Patriot Way failed to take in Motown. QB Jared Goff replaces longtime starter Matthew Stafford, with a chance to prove he was more than just a product of Sean McVay’s genius while with the Rams. The offense will lean on its run game, led by D’Andre Swift, former Packer Jamaal Williams and a potentially stellar line. The best hope for the defense is that Goff & Co. stay on the field as long as possible.

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Predicted Order of Finish

1. PACKERS (13–4)
Best Case:
The drama of the offseason fades quickly as Rodgers displays MVP form. Their improved defense finishes in the top 10 and plays its best football in January. The Pack win back-to-back playoff games in Lambeau to get to Super Bowl LVI.
Worst Case: Rodgers is Rodgers, but the team around him is wobbly—especially a defense that suffers injuries it can ill afford. Green Bay makes the playoffs but loses in the wild-card round. Rodgers sees this as validation of his criticism of the front office; he’s off to Denver in 2022.

2. VIKINGS (9–8)
Best Case: Hunter returns at an All-Pro level, Zimmer’s defense regains its elite status, WR Justin Jefferson is even better in his second season and Cook is named Offensive Player of the Year. It all falls into place for the Vikings, who steal the division title and then get to watch a frustrated Rodgers pack his bags.
Worst Case: The defense can’t recapture that old magic: The veterans look old, and the young guys look green. Too often, Minnesota is playing from behind, which neutralizes Cook and forces Cousins to drop back 40 times a game. The Vikes stumble to a losing record for a second straight year.

3. BEARS (6–11)
Best Case: After a 2–2 start, Nagy turns the offense over to Fields, and the rookie proves to be the kind of dynamic force Chicago hasn’t had under center since the Sid Luckman years. The locker room is rejuvenated and it shows, as the Bears enter the playoffs as a dangerous wild-card team.
Worst Case: Dalton isn’t the answer. Neither is Fields, at least as a rookie. With the offense once again struggling, and the defense good but not great—cap casualty CB Kyle Fuller is missed—the Bears look broken. If Fields is to be the one who revives the offense, it will be in another year, with another coach.

4. LIONS (4–13)
Best Case: The team, in a reflection of its new coach, plays physical and is dominant in the trenches. Goff pilots an efficient, ball-control offense that makes the Lions a tough out. Before you know it, they’re sitting at .500 heading into December, an unlikely wild-card contender.
Worst Case: To no one’s surprise, Detroit looks like a long-term project. Campbell’s group plays hard and shows flashes, but a mismatched defense struggles, putting too large a burden on Goff and an undermanned receiving corps. The Lions use their top-three draft pick to grab a new QB in the 2022 draft.

More Division Previews:

AFC East: Can the Bills Hold Off the New-Look Pats?
AFC North: Cleveland's Time Has Arrived
AFC South: Titans and Colts Rise to the Top
AFC West: The Chiefs, and Then What?
NFC East: It Can Only Get Better
NFC South: The Champs Have Room to Improve
NFC West: Battle to Be Best of the Best