After an Offseason littered with drama, will the Packers once again reign atop the NFC North, or will any of the Bears, Vikings, or Lions get their @#$% together in time to make a move against Green Bay???
The more things appear to change, the more they stay the same within the NFC North, where for a second consecutive season the Packers finished atop the division, and for all intents and purposes that doesn’t look like it’s going to change in 2021. Even after a lengthy saga with (three-time MVP) Aaron Rodgers requesting a trade before eventually “rectifying” his differences with the franchise that drafted him back in 2005, Green Bay remains miles ahead of their neighbors in terms of talent and depth. As far as those neighbors are concerned, both the Vikings and Bears enter what is very much a make or break campaign for both clubs, with (Head Coaches) Mike Zimmer and Matt Nagy firmly on the hot seat. And then there are the Lions, who are starting over once again after the failed Matt Patricia experiment, turning to Dan Campbell to resurrect a franchise that seems to have finally embraced something that they’ve long been familiar with: rebuilding. So let’s take a trip through the North and see if there is anyone capable of upsetting the status quo, or if Rodgers & Co will run roughshod over their rivals yet again… at least while they’re still together (more on that shortly).
The Favorite: Green Bay Packers
For those wary of the Offseason and it’s lack of entertainment following Free Agency and the Draft, the Packers certainly did not disappoint as they carried the news cycle throughout the Spring and early Summer as the standoff between the historic franchise and their elite Quarterback commanded national headlines. After weeks of coy remarks made to the media by the 37-year old in regards to his future in Green Bay, Rodgers made official his desire to be traded with the club repeatedly stating that they in turn had no desire to make good on that request. The saga dragged on for months into early August in which the sides came to a relative compromise; the reigning MVP returned to Training Camp while the team promised to trade him to a destination of his choosing in the summer of 2023. While you can make of that what you will, the bottom line is that Green Bay simply can’t afford to let arguably the top Quarterback in the NFL leave, particularly when you consider the man that they drafted last season to eventually replace him, Jordan Love, has shown no signs of being ready to take the reins. With this inevitable breakup looming on the horizon, the real question is if the Packers can get over the hump and back to their first Super Bowl since 2010 after collapsing in back-to-back NFC Championship Games. Even at this stage of his career, Rodgers (48 TD, 5 INT!!!) remains INSANELY productive and with the return of (All-Pro Receiver) Davante Adams (1,374 YDS, 18 TD) and (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Aaron Jones (1,459 YDS from Scrimmage, 11 TD) there is no reason to think that the Offense won’t continue to be a juggernaut after a season in which they lead the league in scoring (31.8). The Defense should see some considerable (and necessary change) with the acquisition of (new Defensive Coordinator) Joe Barry, who will be looking to get more consistency out of a unit that isn’t particularly short on talent, but has made a habit of putting together some truly head-scratching performances in big games. After the last few months, the theme in Green Bay is that time is indeed running out for both club and Quarterback, but fortunately for them they’re issues are minor in comparison to most of their competition (certainly in comparison to the rest of the division), so they should find themselves competing for the top seed in the NFC once again, though it remains to be seen if they’ll receive the necessary breaks to make their run a super one.
The Contender: Minnesota Vikings
After seven (largely successful) years in Minneapolis, there is a growing feeling that (Head Coach) Mike Zimmer’s message has indeed run it’s course as the Vikings look to rebound from a disappointing 7-9 finish, their first losing campaign under the 65-year old’s watch since his first season with the club in 2014. If it feels like their run to the 2017 NFC Championship Game was a lifetime ago then you’re not alone, for this team that was once absolutely loaded with talent on both sides of the football has been the subject of a considerable drain, particularly on Defense where the bottom fell out from under them; Minnesota allowed the most points (29.7) and yards (393.3) of the Zimmer era in 2020, which is something that the defensively-oriented Coach has lamented on a number of occasions. The team has been undergoing a youth movement on D, with (General Manager) Rick Spielman selecting six defenders in the first five rounds of the 2020 Draft, with the hope that a full and proper Offseason with the Coaching Staff will indeed iron out the wrinkles that were so glaring a year ago. And then there is the Offense, where (Quarterback) Kirk Cousins also enters a make-or-break year in Minnesota. Following that aforementioned jaunt to the NFC Title Game four years ago, the Vikings made headlines when they signed Cousins to the first totally guaranteed contract in the history of Free Agency, though in his three years with the club he has yet to deliver on that faith; the 32-year old will look great one week, but a basket case the next, piloting an attack that despite ranking fourth overall in total yards (409.3) committed twenty-three turnovers (23rd Overall), which was more than they forced (22). It also hasn’t helped that he’s led them to the Playoffs just once since arriving in Minneapolis, while he hasn’t been the most popular figure with many of his teammates, regardless of what side of the football they perform on. Spielman drafted (Texas A&M Quarterback) Kellen Mond as an insurance policy in the third round of the Draft, but in the meantime will rely heavily on a supporting cast including (Pro Bowl Tailback) Dalvin Cook (1,557 YDS, 16 TD) and (Sophomore Wideout) Justin Jefferson (1,400 YDS, 7 TD). Healthy for the first time in his career, Cook set personal bests, while Jefferson broke rookie franchise records once set by (Hall of Famer) Randy Moss. The firepower is available on Offense for the Vikings to compete within the division, though it’ll ultimately come down to the growth of their young Defense as to how close they’ll get to the Playoffs, though at the moment they appear closer to changing regimes.
The Wild Card: Chicago Bears
Based on the news coming out of the Windy City, you wouldn’t get the feeling that the Bears were coming off their second postseason appearance in the last three years. That’s because there is arguably no team in the NFL that enters 2021 on a hotter seat than Chicago. After winning the NFC North in 2018, (Head Coach) Matt Nagy immediately came under fire as his charges missed the Playoffs in 2019, while (former Quarterback) Mitchell Trubisky, whom they traded up to select at second overall back in 2017 (subsequently passing on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the process), regressed mightily to the point where he was replaced by Nagy’s former charge, Nick Foles, who also struggled to acquit himself with the club. Botching the development of Trubisky has been a huge stain on the collective CV of Nagy and (General Manager) Ryan Pace, with the tandem parting ways with both of last year’s Quarterbacks in favor of one last attempt to salvage their jobs with a completely different pair of passers; Pace selected (former Ohio State QB) Justin Fields with the eleventh overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, while also adding (former longtime Bengals’ starter) Andy Dalton as both a bridge and insurance policy. Indeed, Fields possesses the potential and dynamism to morph what has been a very average attack into a formidable one, though it’s anyone’s guess as to how long it will take for the Rookie to get acclimated to the National Football League. At this point, Nagy has refused to relinquish the starting job, which appears Dalton’s to lose, though make no mistake the 2018 Coach of the Year’s status is tied completely to the development of his young signal-caller. In the meantime, Chicago will have to rely upon it’s once stout Defense, which will be under the direction of a new Defensive Coordinator in the form of Sean Desai, who will be looking to get more production from what has been the most talented unit within the division for a number of years now. (Pro-Bowl Edge Rusher) Kahlil Mack (9.0 Sacks, 3 FF) and (Nose Tackle) Akiem Hicks (3.5 Sacks, 7 TFL) can dominate on a moment’s notice, while (Pro-Bowl Safety) Eddie Jackson (82 TKL) is a ballhawk in the Secondary. Unfortunately, this group isn’t the deepest, which can be attributed to the roster as a whole, yet another reason that Pace and Nagy are under fire. If Fields can beat out Dalton and emerge as the undisputed starter, then there is certainly the potential for the bears to overcome the glaring weaknesses and get into the Playoffs for a second consecutive season, which would go a long way towards saving both Pace and Nagy’s jobs, but as is the case with their neighbors in Minneapolis, they’re at present far closer to a regime change than winning the North.
The Rest: Detroit Lions
Bringing up the rear once again are the Lions, who are turning the page towards a new regime for the second time in the last four years. Detroit’s New England West experiment never quite got off the ground, with (General Manager) Bob Quinn and (Head Coach) Matt Patricia each handed their walking papers well before the conclusion of the Regular Season, as the duo ultimately lost their jobs following a nearly three-year stretch in which the team suffered through a miserable 14-33-1 run marred by a slew of late collapses. Building a roster to fit Patricia’s particular schemes was the biggest failure of that brain trust, who have since been replaced by (GM) Brad Holmes and (HC) Dan Campbell, both of which arriving from the New Orleans Saints. For a team looking to change the culture there was no more logical choice than Campbell, a 45-year old and ten-year veteran who has subsequently amassed a veritable who’s who of former players, including (Defensive Coordinator) Aaron Glenn and (Running Back Coach) Deuce Staley, along with former Chargers’ Head Coach, Anthony Lynn. The longtime Tight End has pledged to turn the Lions into a nasty, physical unit that will spend plenty of time “biting knee caps” though it remains to be seen if the first-time skipper will be able to indeed lead group that is in transition in many areas, while also lacking in depth in a plethora of others. And speaking of transition, Detroit will be transitioning to a new Quarterback, shipping (longtime starter) Matthew Stafford to the Rams in exchange for Jared Goff (along with a cache of premium Draft Picks). Goff, who is just two years removed from leading Los Angeles to the Super Bowl, arrives looking to reinvent himself in the second act of his career; the former No. One Overall Pick appeared to hit a wall in his development with the Rams, and will be given every opportunity to do so in Motown. At 27-years old, he’s far from a finished product, and given the lengthy rebuilding project ahead of the franchise, Campbell & Co will have plenty of time to ascertain whether or not he’s the answer at Quarterback for the long haul. In the meantime, the fans in Detroit should prepare themselves for an arduous rebuild, for this season is very much ground zero for the new regime, but then again for a franchise that has only enjoyed three postseason appearances since the turn of the century, rebuilding should be very familiar.