Updated: Aug 28, 2019
For quite awhile in the earlier part of the decade, you could pretty much pencil in the Green Bay Packers as the playoff contender out of this division, and on occasion you’d see two teams get in. But that couldn’t be further from the truth in 2019. The Packers have missed the playoffs two years in a row after making nine straight post-season appearances, and the rest of the division has caught up. First it was the Vikings under Mike Zimmer who broke through, and last season it was the Bears with first-year HC Matt Nagy. With the Bears looking to repeat as division champs for the first time since 2006, parity within the division is at an all-time high. Even the Detroit Lions, who most see as the clear trailer to the other three teams, have enough pieces to legitimately contend all season long.
Chicago Bears (Over/Under: 9)
The Chicago Bears, much like the Browns in the AFC, were the comeback team of the year in the conference, and a lot of it had to do two single moves. GM Ryan Pace was able to hire Matt Nagy from Andy Reid’s staff in Kansas City, which is turning out to be a home run. Then in unprecedented fashion, the Raiders traded them Khalil Mack – which turned out to be ironic because of all the suitors lined up to acquire Mack, John Gruden thought the Bears’ pick would be the highest value at the end of the year… they went 12-4. The Monsters of the Midway are back, but after a heart-breaking loss to the Eagles at home in the first round of the playoffs, Chicago will be even hungrier in 2019. Their only real draft pick in the spring, RB David Montgomery, projects to be a good one and fills what was really the only hole on the offense. In other words, there aren’t really any excuses for 3rd-year QB Mitch Trubisky anymore. This is a huge year for him in terms of how he’ll be perceived for the rest of his career, because the Bears are absolutely loaded. The one thing to keep an eye on is how the defense plays after the departure of Vic Fangio. Ex-Colts HC Chuck Pagano is the defensive coordinator now and although all the Bears defensive talent is all still in place, Fangio was hired to be the HC of the Broncos for a reason.
Green Bay Packers (Over/Under: 9)
Things sure do look different in Titletown these days. The organization known for its steadiness and stability has turned over most of its personnel in the last two seasons. Long-time HC Mike McCarthy was fired in-season, completing the cycle after GM Ted Thompson and DC Dom Capers were relieved the season prior. Aaron Rodgers’ injuries the past two season revealed plenty of warts on the franchise he had previously been able to hide himself with his remarkable talent. As it turns out, it could end up being very healthy for the Packers in the long-term and they may start to see the dividends this season – it could also get ugly very quick. There is a lot to be optimistic about in Green Bay. The defense is likely the best its been since they won the Super Bowl in 2011, Rodgers is healthy, and they have a lot of young talent on both sides of the ball. But there are glaring questions too. New HC Matt LaFleur was elevated after being a coordinator for the Titans for just one season, a season that didn’t go very well at that. Will he be successful as the head coach of a storied franchise like the Packers? Rodgers’ talent is unquestioned, but he isn’t getting any younger and has been severely injured each of the last two seasons. If he’s hurt – the season is over, it’s as simple as that. Can they keep him upright? There’s a wide range of outcomes for the Packers, and I suspect they’ll land somewhere in the middle.
Minnesota Vikings (Over/Under: 9)
The Minnesota Vikings have had a nice resurgence of late, and their HC Mike Zimmer has everything to do with it. Since his hire, they’ve changed the identity of the team, nailed draft pick after draft pick, and built a contender up north. Coming off an NFC Championship berth in 2017, to say the 2018 season was a disappointment would be a massive understatement. The team started off hot and many thought Minnesota would be a Super Bowl contender again after their shootout with the Rams, but things quickly fell apart both on and off the field for the Vikes. The offense went into the tank, and OC John DiFilippo drew a ton of criticism for his play-calling, eventually getting canned mid-season by Zimmer. The 84 million-dollar man Kirk Cousins earned his fair share of the blame as well, and the perception in Minneapolis was as negative as I can remember. However, I think a lot the off-field issues in Minnesota stemmed from one tragic event not many people outside Minnesota are aware of.
When O-line coach Tony Sporano passed away before the season it obviously shook the organization, but it was a huge blow to the team from a pure football standpoint as well. Sporano was instrumental in getting DiFilippo hired in the first place and after watching the relationship between Zimmer and DiFilippo deteriorate completely over the course of the season it appears clear Sporano was the glue holding the relationship together. With DeFilippo out, and Kevin Stefanski in as the OC, I don’t anticipate Minnesota’s locker room issues to follow them into 2019. The question for me is the personnel, even though they really are loaded. The trouble with building a team defensively is guys fall off quickly, and you need all 11 to be solid. Xavier Rhoades has looked like garbage in the pre-season and this core has been together for 4-5 years already. The defense will obviously still be good, but I think the days of dominating opposing offenses week-in and week-out are over. That brings us to the offense, where all eyes are on Kirk Cousins. Minny paid a premium for a QB they thought could elevate them to a Super Bowl, and his first season didn’t go that way at all. There are significant questions about the O-line despite the resources thrown at the problem, and RB Dalvin Cook has only made it through 13 games healthy his first two seasons. The Vikings, with the talent throughout the division, feel like they’re headed for another middling year – but with the number of high-level players on the roster, they could easily win 10 games if things come together. Like the Packers, there’s a wide range of outcomes for the Vikes.
Detroit Lions (Over/Under: 7)
The Detroit Lions have consistently been at the bottom of the dogpile in the NFC North apart from 2016 when they made it as a wild-card team, losing to the Seahawks in the first round. It’s been 27 years since the Lions were able to come out on the winning end of a playoff game and unfortunately for the city of Detroit, 2019’s prospects don’t look much better. The team added edge defender Trey Flowers from the Patriots and TE T.J. Hockenson in the draft, but none of the moves they made really signaled more wins this fall. Now 2nd-year HC Matt Patricia hasn’t proven much, and it looks like they’re moving towards a more run-heavy style offensively which is surprising given the fact RB Kerryon Johnson wasn’t able to stay healthy in his rookie year and C.J. Anderson is all that’s behind him – not to mention Matt Stafford is too talented and makes too much money to hand the ball off. Your opinion on the Lions really revolves around what you think about Patricia and his ability as a head coach. Personally, I’m not a believer in the slightest and regardless, the Lions roster is a step behind the rest in the division.
Chicago Bears (11-5)
Green Bay Packers (9-7)
Minnesota Vikings (8-8)
Detroit Lions (6-10)