(Carry Edmondson/USA Today Sports)
By Stephen Brown
We work clockwise and go from the NFC West to the NFC North. Full disclosure: I’m a Bears’ fan. So, if I predict them to go 17-0, that’s why. But in all seriousness, this division has been dominated by the Packers for years and with the Bears and Lions currently rebuilding, there’s no reason to think they won’t dominate again. But could there be a dark horse candidate this year to dethrone the Packers?
1. Green Bay Packers, 13-4, 1st place, Lost in the Divisional Round to 49ers
Another Aaron Rodgers MVP, another disappointing playoff defeat for the Packers. Despite dominating the regular season and securing the one seed, the Packers’ offense managed to only muster 10 points against the Niners at home in the playoffs. The Packers are poised to run it back albeit, without their biggest offensive weapon.
The first thing you have to mention when talking about the Packers’ offense is the loss of Davante Adams. He was traded to the Raiders this offseason and has been by far Rodgers’ best weapon for years. The Packers still return some key pieces, such as Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon, Allen Lazard, and Randall Cobb. They also should be returning LT David Bahktiari, who’s been out since December 2020. In the offseason, this team added Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs via the draft and Sammy Watkins via free agency. This wide receiver room is crowded between Lazard, Watkins, Cobb, Watson, Doubs, and 2021 3rd-round pick Amari Rodgers. Whether someone steps up to be the WR1 or if each week, someone different shines remains to be seen. There are reports that both Dillon and Jones will see a heavier workload to help mitigate the loss of Adams. Between the emphasis on the run game and the return of Robert Tonyan at tight end, we are likely seeing a very different looking offense this year.
The defense was strong last year and is still littered with former first round picks, including Rashan Gary, Jaire Alexander, Kenny Clark, Eric Stokes, Darnell Savage, and 2022 first-round picks Devonte Wyatt and Quay Walker, the latter of which will replace Zadarius Smith, who signed with the Vikings this offseason. Add on the return of De’Vondre Campbell and Adrian Amos and this defense should be as good, if not better than last year.
The Packers have been regular season heroes for years, partly because of how weak the north has been for years. However, a lack of playoff success continues to plague this team. While losing Adams hurts, Aaron Rodgers is still there to distribute the ball and with the weapons being “good enough” on offense, this should still be a potent team all season long.
Final Record Prediction: 13-4
2. Minnesota Vikings, 8-9, 2nd place
The Vikings always seem to be on the cusp of breaking out, but just never seem to get there. Another year of mediocrity finally got Mike Zimmer fired. Now, former QB and Sean McVay mentee Kevin O’Connell takes over as the Vikings’ head coach. Zimmer was a very old school, defensive minded coach. O’Connell’s offensive approach will be a very different look for the Vikings.
On offense, the Vikings return everyone important: Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, Adam Theilan, and Dalvin Cook. They also get back uber athletic tight end Irv Smith Jr, who missed all of last season due to injury. People like to bash on Kirk Cousins, but he’s thrown for 4000 yards in 6 of his 7 careers seasons as a starter. He always puts up great stats and with an actual offensive minded coach who doesn’t hate him running the show, I expect Cousins and this offense to be explosive.
Defensively, this team is pretty average. They have some good players like Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks, some solid veteran presence with Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson, and they added some good players like Jordan Hicks and Za’Darius Smith. They also used their first two picks on secondary players, drafting Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth Jr. with their first- and second-round picks respectively. This defense should be middle of the pack, but don’t expect to see the stout, top 10 defense that the Vikings have been known for for years.
With an average to above average defense and an explosive offense, this team is poised to make some noise in the NFC North. This team was 8-9 last year, and had a record of 1-7 in one score games. Even if they were just average in one score games, they would’ve been 11-6. In fact, my hot take for the year is that the Vikings win this division and the offense ends up in the top 3 for scoring offenses. A lot of that success will ride on O’Connell’s success as an offensive mind, but if he’s as good as people say, this offense will be a force to reckon with.
Final Record Prediction: 13-4
3. Chicago Bears, 6-11, 3rd place
No, I am not predicting the Bears to go 17-0. Far from it. The biggest move the Bears made this offseason was firing their GM Ryan Pace and their HC Matt Nagy. They still have Ryan and Matt, but now it’s new GM Ryan Poles and former Colts DC Matt Eberflus. The theme of this season should be getting Justin Fields as comfortable as possible. It should be all about making sure he’s “the guy”. Unfortunately, the Bears’ offseason moves didn’t reflect that.
The biggest offseason move the Bears made on offense is *checks notes* signed Byron Pringle...? They really didn’t do much on offense at all. They signed Pringle and Equinameous St. Brown, and spent a third-round pick on Velus Jones Jr. They did boost the offensive line a bit, signing Riley Reiff and signing waived 2021 first-round pick Alex Leatherwood. They also return Darnell Mooney, Cole Kmet, and David Montgomery. This offense is really uninspired and unless new OC Luke Getsy has some tricks up his sleeve, it’ll be tough sledding for Fields.
The defense is a Who’s Who of “who are you?”. Other than the staples of Roquan Smith, Jaylon Johnson, Eddie Jackson, and Robert Quinn, this defense is weak. They used two second-round picks on defense, drafting DBs Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker. Eberflus had very successful defenses in Indy, so I still have hope that it can be successful. But with the lack of talent they possess, I can’t see this team being much better than middle of the pack.
I was ecstatic when the Bears drafted Fields. I had him as my QB2 in the 2021 draft so the fact that they got him outside the top 10 as the fourth QB taken was a steal in my opinion. The previous regime showed that they had no idea how to handle QBs, so I’ll give Fields a pass on last year. This new regime either has so much confidence in him that they think he doesn’t need talent around him to succeed or they have so little confidence in him that they don’t even care to give him talent. Either way, I don’t love the approach and it could end up cutting Fields’ time in Chicago short.
Final Record Prediction: 6-11
4. Detroit Lions, 3-13-1, 4th place
People are currently really high on the Lions. This seems to happen every year to the team featured on Hard Knocks. People aren’t expecting them to win the division, but a lot of people are expecting massive improvements. Even odds makers have their over under around 6, with numbers juiced to the over. This is largely thanks to the bravado of Dan Campbell and the number of heartbreaking losses they endured last year.
On offense, this team returns a lot of the same players. Jared Goff, DeAndre Swift, TJ Hockenson, and Amon-Ra St. Brown all return. DJ Chark, who missed nearly all of last season for the Jaguars, was added via free agency. There really isn’t much to say about the offense. They were good at times last year and I expect the same this year. They have solid weapons and a good offensive line. It really all boils down to how Jared Goff plays each week. At some point this season, first-round WR Jameson Williams will also return. He’s currently recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered in the national championship.
On defense, this team is similar to the Bears. They have some decent pieces but most of their players are below average at best. They return some good veterans like Michael Brockers, Alex Anzalone, and 2020 first-round pick Jeff Okudah. The biggest addition to this team was number two overall pick Aiden Hutchinson. Hutchinson was considered the most pro ready of the top DEs in the draft, so the Lions are lucky he fell to them at two. His development will be one of the most important things for this defense this year.
There really isn’t much to say about this team. They returned a lot of the same players as the team that won 3 games just a year. That team wasn’t very good and this one won’t be either. Maybe they’ll surprise some people and get to 6 or 7 wins, but I just don’t think they have the talent, especially on defense, to do so. The strength of this team will definitely be the offense. While I don’t think they’ll crack the top ten, they should still at least be top half of the league.
Final Record Prediction: 4-13
Final NFC North Standings
1. Vikings, 13-4
2. Packers, 13-4
3. Bears, 6-11
4. Lions, 4-13