This article is part of The Intermission’s 2018 NFL Preview. Click the link to visit the centralized page that’s home to all related NFL Preview content.
Let me put my Green Bay Packers bias aside for just a minute to categorize this division as extremely intriguing. First, the NFC North features two potential powerhouses in Minnesota and Green Bay, that will embark on serious Super Bowl contention right away. Da Bears (fresh off acquiring defensive superstar Khalil Mack) are a team on the rise with some exciting young pieces and could cause some trouble. The Lions could (repeat, COULD) feature a turbo-paced offense with a historically bad defense. Overall, this division should boil down to a bloodbath of a finish between the two contenders. Expect a cold, tense December in the NFC North.
1. Green Bay Packers
2017 record: 7-9
2018 Projection: 12-4
“Does Aaron Rodgers deserve THAT kind of money?” is something I was recently asked after Rodgers signed his MEGA DEAL last week. Frankly, no athlete deserves THAT kind of money, but to humor the society in which we live today, elite quarterbacks are the most valuable commodity in all of professional sports. If Rodgers didn’t prove to the Packers organization and the NFL as a whole, his perennial MVP-worthy status again last season, then I give up. As a Packers diehard, I’d appreciate it if he didn’t take the liberty to prove it a third time. Fear not Cheeseheads, Rodgers is back and so are the Packers. Gone is his buddy Jordy Nelson, replaced by a red zone wet dream in Jimmy Graham. The other usual suspects (Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Ty Montgomery) are still in place, including a young, but slightly inexperienced backfield-by-committee of Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. Any positive impact made by the new-look defense is where this team can transition from good to great. Mike Pettine relieved Dom Capers of his defensive coordinator duties after 8 mediocre seasons, so all eyes will be closely watching to see if the D can finally improve. The Packers have certainly taken their share of defensive playmakers in the draft over recent seasons. Now it’s time to put up or shut up, even though the Packers Super Bowl hopes will ultimately rely on Aaron Rodgers right arm (and fragile collarbone).
Best case scenario: Rodgers dominates with his creative playmaking and freakish ability to NOT throw interceptions (despite the degree of difficulty on some of his other-worldly throws) on his way to picking up his third MVP award. The Packers offense is elite and Pettine’s new scheme is finally worthy of some buzz. The Packers grind through the NFC en route to a Super Bowl appearance.
Worst case scenario: Despite his return to form, Rodgers doesn’t quite have the consistent weaponry that he once did and gets frustrated with the youth movement. The defense doesn’t improve over previous seasons and the Packers succumb to the brutal competition in the NFC.
Bottom line: With Rodgers in tow, this is a team built for 10+ wins and serious playoff contention. They’ll be in a dogfight every step of the way with the Vikings as their equal within the division. Whoever does come out on top, the other will vie for a wild card spot. I think the Packers pull slightly ahead of the Vikings down the stretch like say, Danica Patrick, and toss their hat in the ring for a potential first round playoff bye.
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2. Minnesota Vikings
2017 record: 13-3
2018 Projection: 12-4
Everyone LOVES the Minnesota Vikings in 2018. And why not? Coming off a 13-3 season, they’re one of the most complete teams in the league. They have an elite defense, a ton of speedsters on offense (Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook are legit) and now, a true franchise quarterback in Kirk Cousins, instead of the three-headed “monster” that they featured last season. Though, to be fair, are we absolutely certain that Cousins could have made this miracle throw last year that came via Case Keenum? We’ll never know. Cousins will amplify the passing attack while Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray bolster a wicked ground attack. The defense finished ranked #2 overall in DVOA and added DT Sheldon Richardson in the offseason. The rich got richer. To round this squad out, Mike Zimmer is widely regarded as one of the premier head coaches in the league. Gravy. This team will compete for the division title and a deep playoff run (hopefully with less miracle throws required).
Best case scenario: Basically, an exact duplication of last season, but with Kirk Cousins earning his fully guaranteed contract and minus the absolute abomination that took place in Philadelphia in late January. The Vikings learn from their mistakes and reach the Super Bowl.
Worst case scenario: Too much pressure? Karma for last season’s magic? These things seem to be the only chinks in the armor for this well-rounded squadron. Instead of duplication, the team regresses from their elite rankings in 2017. A worst case scenario would see the Vikings losing out to one of the other high profile NFC teams and missing the playoffs by way of a tiebreaker.
Bottom line: This team is primed (and ready) for a war in the NFC, where they might possess the most complete roster of the bunch. The Vikes will at worst be a wild card team and as dangerous as any team in the postseason. I wish them the worst of luck.
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3. Chicago Bears
2017 record: 5-11
2018 Projection: 7-9
The arousal that the Chicago Bears are causing is starting to get a little uncomfortable. And that includes myself (excuse me while I throw up in my mouth now). After some dismal seasons, this young team is starting to come together and the “sexy sleeper” label is becoming a more common attestation. Last week’s addition of Khalil Mack (in a ridiculous deal with the Raiders), perhaps the most gifted pass rusher in the league, was some icing added to a defense that was already on the rise. Mack can come to Chicago and reach Brian Urlacher levels of fame. He’s THAT good. After him, the pieces on offense are exciting as well. Mitch Trubisky (the #2 overall pick from ’17 Draft) enters his second season with some new personnel perhaps some confidence? Jordan Howard has the look of an all-purpose back (and a guy I tried to land in ALL of my fantasy leagues). The team added a slew of new receiving options in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton (at tight end) and rookie Anthony Miller to inject some upside (if nothing else) to a previously below average offense. Even the offensive line looks formidable. Matt Nagy is already a trendy name traveling the coaching circles, though he is young (40) and this is his first head coaching gig. There will be some growing pains.
Best case scenario: Trubisky is the real deal and features his young weapons accordingly. The offense overachieves, while the defense produces with what was written on the script. Da Bears go from sleeper to disruptive playoff-chaser. In a tough division, they compete.
Worst case scenario: Mack needs some time to adjust to his new surroundings while Trubisky isn’t quite ready to make the leap in his sophomore season. Many of the high-upside guys are wasted on offense and the better teams around them make them pay dearly.
Bottom line: I actually like this team from a “watchability” perspective. I’ll be quite honest… seeing Khalil Mack don the navy and orange hurts my life (since there were so many Packers rumors swirling as well). But all in all, I think the Bears are a much-improved team, but not quite ready for the big time.
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4. Detroit Lions
2017 record: 9-7
2018 Projection: 5-11
In 2018, the Lions fall, hard. Their offense should be just fine with Matt Stafford, Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and their typical collection of a hundred different running backs they trot out onto the field. Their defense however, which was already questionable, lost Haloti Ngata on the end and Tahir Whitehead in the middle. I’d be shocked if this defense doesn’t finish in the bottom five at the end of the season. They’ll get lit up on a weekly basis. They also have the second toughest schedule in the league, based on opponent record. The Lions have been pulling wins out of their ass the past two seasons, but that run ends in 2018.
Best case scenario: The offense is so good that Stafford is able to outscore opponents and win enough high scoring games to get them a sniff at the playoffs. It won’t really get better than that.
Worst case scenario: The defense is so bad that the Lions average almost 30 points per game, but still find themselves well below .500. To most, this is called “reality.” The Lions battle with the Bears for the bottom of the division.
Bottom line: In 2018, I’m completely out on the Lions. On paper, they’re completely one-dimensional and have an insanely tough schedule. With the other three teams in the NFC North on the rise, the Lions are going to be the recipient of some additional losses. An “official” rebuild could be on the horizon.