NFC North Preview

The Minnesota Vikings dominated the division last season, compiling a 13-4 record, leaving the second-place Detroit Lions four games back. The Packers failed to make the playoffs in what proved to be Aaron Rodgers final season in Green Bay, while the Bears finished with a woeful 3-14 record despite the promise of quarterback Justin Fields.

This season, the Lions are in a great position to become the beasts of the “Black and Blue Division” with quarterback Jared Goff at the helm. After a few subpar seasons, Goff returned to form, throwing for 4438 yards and 29 touchdowns. Amon-Ra St. Brown will be Goff’s go-to guy after hauling in 106 passes for 1161 yards last season. Despite losing Jamaal Williams to the New Orleans Saints and De’Andre Swift to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Lions feel comfortable at running back with first-round pick Jahmyr Gibbs out of Alabama.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Lions allowed nearly 26 points per game last season. The main culprit was a run defense that was gashed for nearly 147 yards per game. On the bright side, the Lions secondary was opportunistic with 12 interceptions and the pass rush was solid, led by Aidan Hutchinson’s 9.5 sacks. The addition of C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who played with the Eagles last season, will further improve the secondary. On special teams, Riley Patterson returns to the Lions after a year in Jacksonville, where he nailed 30-of-35 field goal attempts.

The Packers and Vikings will battle for second in the division. Green Bay is getting used to life without Aaron Rodgers as the Jordan Love era beings. He completed 14-of-21 in limited time last year. Love will look for Christian Watson, Jayden Reed, and Romeo Dobbs with last year’s top receiver Allen Lazard joining Rodgers in New York. Running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon will make life much easier for Love. The two combined for over 1800 yards rushing and nine touchdowns last season.

The defense is young, but promising. If they can dominate the Packers will be back in the playoffs this season. In the secondary, the Packers had 17 interceptions, led by Jaire Alexander’s five. Linebacker Preston Smith leads the pass rush after 8.5 sacks in 2022. The defensive line must be stouter after allowing 140 yards and five per carry last season. The kicking game sees a new face with the departure of Mason Crosby. In steps former Auburn kicker Anders Carlson, who was drafted in the sixth round this year.

In Minnesota, the Vikings have gone through several noteworthy changes. Departing were running back Dalvin Cook (1173 yards, eight touchdowns), wide receiver Adam Thielen (70 receptions, six touchdowns), and defensive end Za’Darius Smith (10 sacks). The Vikings still have Kirk Cousins, who threw for 4547 yards and 29 touchdowns and all-world receiver Justin Jefferson (128 receptions, 1809 yards), but the Vikings cannot win through the air alone. Can Alexander Mattison produce enough in the running game to take the heat off Cousins?

Defensively, the Vikings were far from stellar, despite losing only four games last season. They allowed 403 yards and 25 points per game, but were opportunistic with 15 interceptions. However, Patrick Peterson, who led the team with five interceptions, is now in Pittsburgh. The question is whether the revamped secondary can make up for his departure. With Za’Darius Smith gone, will Dean Lowry or Harrison Phillips pick up the slack in terms of pass rush? Another question is in the kicking game, where Greg Joseph hit only 26-of-33 field goal attempts and just 4-of-10 from beyond 50 yards. There are too many unknowns to pick the Vikings higher than third in the division this season.

The Bears are relying upon the progression of third-year Justin Fields. He threw for a modest 2242 yards and 17 touchdowns with 12 interceptions, but ran through defenses, compiling 1142 rushing yards and eight scores. He will need an improved offensive line that allowed 58 sacks last season to get the ball to the likes of DJ Moore, Darnell Mooney, and Chase Claypool. Adding to the team’s strength in the running game is Khalil Herbert, who averaged an astounding 5.7 per carry, while gaining 731 yards. The key to the offense will be how far Fields has improved in terms of accuracy as a passer.

Regardless of the improvement that Fields must make, the Bears need to improve in every area defensively. They allowed a whopping 27 points per game and an abysmal 31 rushing touchdowns. There was very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks with safety Jaquan Brisker leading the team with four sacks. The only positive was the 14 interceptions, led by Eddie Jackson’s four from his safety position. Chicago needs production up front from a retooled, experienced line that includes former Raider Andrew Billings, former Colt Yannick Ngakoue, Justin Jones, and former Titan DeMarcus Walker. Kicker Cairo Santos was nearly automatic last season, hitting 21-of-23, giving the Bears hope in close games late.

Expect a change at the top this year with the Lions winning their first divisional title since 1993. The Packers will return to the playoffs, edging the Vikings, who will suffer from their changes and a first place schedule this season. The Bears will improve and anything above six wins should be considered a success.