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How Will The NFC North Stack Up In 2018?

John Autey-Pioneer Press

Can Captain Kirk lead the Vikings to a second consecutive NFC North title?

Heading into the 2018 season, the NFC North looks as strong top to bottom as any division in football. Coming off a conference championship appearance, the Minnesota Vikings are the early favorite, but with the return of Aaron Rodgers, the presence of Matthew Stafford, and the expected improvement of the Chicago Bears, nothing is guaranteed. 

With the season kicking off this week, here’s a look at how the division could play out.

Minnesota Vikings    

It’s no fun picking the defending champs to repeat, but when a team adds a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback to one of the most complete rosters in the league, chances are they’re on the short list of Super Bowl contenders. There’s a chance Kirk Cousins isn’t even an upgrade over Case Keenum, who was a fringe MVP candidate last season. But he doesn’t need to be. 

When fully healthy, this is one of the most dynamic offenses in the league no matter who’s under center. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen make up the league’s best wide receiver tandem, Kyle Rudolph is as consistent as they come, and Dalvin Cook has only scratched the surface of his potential as a workhorse back.  

But as good as the offense is, Minnesota’s defense is its breadwinner. They return almost the entirety of a unit that featured four ProBowlers and allowed the fewest points and yards in the league last season. It’s scary to think they could take another step forward, but a loaded secondary featuring Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, and Anderson Sendejo got even deeper this offseason with the addition of Mike Hughes, one of the draft’s bestcorners.   

A team is never without flaws, but the Vikings have as few as any team in the NFL. Barring an otherworldly season from a certain Green Bay quarterback, which is always a possibility, they look like a good bet to seize their second consecutive divisional crown. 

2018 Record Prediction: 12-4

  

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Green Bay Packers    

Aaron Rodgers is the best football player on the planet, and even if you disagree, there’s no denying he’s the most important to his team’s success. Look no further than the Packers’ 2017 season for all the proof you need. Coming off eight straight postseason appearances, Green Bay looked well on their way to a ninth after starting the season 4-1. But Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone in Week 6, and the Pack would go just 3-8 the rest of the way.   

Rodgers is back to full health, and quite frankly that’s all that matters. Any team with the two-time MVP is an automatic playoff contender. But for what it’s worth, his supporting cast isn’t too shabby either. Running back remains a question mark, and the decision to move on from Jordy Nelson leaves the receiving core thin on proven playmakers. But Devante Adams is one of the best in the league, and Jimmy Graham instantly becomes the best red zone target Rodgers has ever had.  

There are concerns on the defensive side of the ball, especially in regards to an inexperienced secondary. But a front seven headlined by Mike Daniels, Clay Matthews, and offseason addition Muhammed Wilkerson claimed the top spot in PFF’s run defense rankings for the upcoming season. An improved pass rush and a healthy season from Rodgers could be all the Packers need to leapfrog the Vikings. 

2018 Record Prediction: 11-5


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Detroit Lions    

The Lions appear to be stuck in neutral after a second consecutive 9-7 season and an offseason thin on impact additions. Take a closer look, however, and you see two fresh faces with the potential to get Detroit over the hump—head coach Matt Patricia and running back Kerryon Johnson.  

Early returns on the pair have been mixed. The Lions went just 1-3 in the preseason, but more concerning than the record is how inept the defense looked. For a new head coach with a defensive guru reputation, it was hardly an ideal start to the year. With that being said, preseason performances should be taken with a grain of salt, and the Lions have enough playmakers to figure it out. 

Johnson, on the other hand, has looked as good as advertised, rushing for over 4.5 yards per carry in limited touches. Running back has been a black hole for the Lions for the past 15 years—since 2004, just one Detroit rusher has topped the 1,000-yard mark. Johnson is set to begin the season in a committee with free agent addition LeGarrette Blount and pass-catching extraordinaire Theo Riddick, but the Auburn product has the tools to emerge as a dynamic three-down back.   

It may seem like a stretch to suggest the Lions are an improved defense and a competent running back away from surpassing the Vikings and Packers, but we have yet to see what Matthew Stafford can do with a bell-cow back at his disposal. This may be the forgotten team in the division, but don’t be surprised if they make some noise.   

 2018 Record Prediction: 9-7 (again!)


Chicago Tribune

Chicago Bears  

Already one of the trendiest breakout picks in the league, the Bears added fuel to the fire a week ago by trading for disgruntled stalwart Khalil Mack. Chicago immediately signed the dominant pass-rusher to a record-setting extension, locking in another piece to an impressive young defensive core that already featured Adrian Amos, Leonard Floyd, and first round draft pick Roquan Smith.  

The Mack deal shifted the spotlight to the Chicago defense, but the offense enters the season with significant expectations as well. Mitchell Trubisky and company have been compared favorably to the 2017 Rams throughout the offseason, but while they should take a step forward under head coach Matt Nagy, expecting a meteoric rise may be setting the bar a bit high. Trubisky has the tools to be a solid starting quarterback, but he’s not the same type of player as Goff, and as good a Jordan Howard is, he’s no Todd Gurley.   

The Bears have put together an impressive collection of young talent, and the late addition of Mack certainly makes them all the more dangerous. But the fact remains that they were the fourth lowest-scoring team in the league last season. That number will surely improve, and the franchiseis in an enviable position for the long-term. But based on the strength of thedivision alone, it may be another year before they are a surefire playoffcontender. 

2018 Record Prediction: 8-8

Edited by Jazmyn Brown.

SQuiz
How many times have the Lions won the NFC North?
Created 9/5/18
  1. 0
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