Green Bay Packers (13-3, lost to San Francisco in NFC Championship)
What happened last year
After a two-year postseason hiatus, Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Jones carried the Packers to their third conference championship in six years. First-year head coach Matt LaFleur returned Green Bay to 2017 form as the emergence of Jones coincided pleasantly with the stellar play of Rodgers. The future hall-of-fame quarterback surpassed 4,000 yards passing while tossing 26 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Jones tallied over 1,500 all-purpose yards and 19 trips to the end zone.
A top-10 offensive line that was anchored by pro-bowler David Bakhtiari paved the way for a relentless rushing attack and gave Rodgers enough time to garner proficient results his receiving corps. Not to be overseen, the Packers defense was one of the best in the league finishing 9th best in opponent scoring and 7th in forced turnovers.
Key Additions: QB Jordan Love, RB A.J. Dillon, TE Josiah Deguara, OT Rick Wagner, LB Christian Kirksey, LB Kamal Martin
Key Departures: LOLB Blake Martinez, TE Jimmy Graham, WR Geronimo Allison, DB Tramon Williams, OT Bryan Bulaga
Week 8 vs. Minnesota Vikings: One of the most intriguing division title quests will pit Rodgers-Jones against Cousins-Cook in a mid-season showdown. The result of the series could play a major-contributing factor heading into the second half of the season.
Week 16 vs. Tennessee Titans: With a closing margin of error, Green Bay will welcome 2019’s AFC runner-ups into the Sunday Night spotlight. With playoff seeding on the line for both teams, stakes will be very high and could prove crucial for season results.
Week 17 at Chicago Bears: While Minnesota looks to handle the Lions, Green Bay will try to withstand a Chicago Bears team that could be vouching for a spot in the postseason. This Sunday will have major playoff implications; if the Packers seal a win, they’ll likely take the division.
X-Factor – Team Chemistry
Few of the Green Bay faithful were necessarily pleased with the drafting of Utah State quarterback Jordan Love at 26th overall. Oh, and Aaron Rodgers himself, who couldn’t have taken too kindly to his potential replacement being drafted so soon. This due in part by the team’s decision to let go of Geronimo Allison and Jimmy Graham and failure to add a complimenting receiver to Davante Adams.
This decision could either spell trouble or pay dividends. Rodgers was granted two new threats in second-round running back A.J. Dillon and third-round tight end Josiah Deguara.
If Aaron Rodgers can take full advantage of an improved offensive line with a stellar backfield of Jones, Dillon and Williams, Green Bay’s offense will be amongst the best in the league. Look for HC Matt LaFleur and OC Nathaniel Hackett to spread the field with the rushing tandem and Jordan Love. Hackett directed 2017’s number one rushing offense in Jacksonville.
To be a playoff contender, similar production will be expected from a defense that returns nearly all of its starters. Green Bay has the cards in their hands to take the NFC North.
Minnesota Vikings (10-6, lost to San Francisco in Divisional Round)
What happened last year
Kirk Cousins delivered for the Vikings in his first-career playoff win to spoil the New Orleans Saints’ hopes once more. The following week, San Francisco was a step ahead and sent Minnesota packing. A defense compiled of veterans within Mike Zimmer’s era including linebacker Eric Kendricks, safety Harrison Smith, and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes held opponents to the 5th lowest scoring total.
Despite a bottom-tier offensive line, Kirk Cousins continued his successes of 2018 passing for over 3,600 yards with 26 touchdowns opposed to just six picks. Cousins posted his best passer rating and did a much better job of avoiding sacks. This was enough to earn the nod for a 2-year, $66 million dollar extension.
Dalvin Cook broke out for 1,135 yards and 13 scores on the ground while hauling in over 500 yards through the air. Backing him up was 2019 third-round pick Alexander Mattison who showed explosiveness averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
Key Additions: DE Yannick Ngakoue, WR Tajae Sharpe, WR Justin Jefferson, CB Jeff Gladney, T Ezra Cleveland, CB Cameron Dantzler, LB Troy Dye
Key Departures: WR Stefon Diggs, OC Kevin Stefanski, DC George Edwards, CB Xavier Rhodes, CB Trae Waynes, CB Mackenzie Alexander, DE Everson Griffen, DT Linval Joseph, LB Stephen Weatherly, S Jayron Kearse
Week 8 at Green Bay Packers: A mid-season clash will likely give an indication of the playoff clinching results within the division. In a race that should come down to a game or two, the matchups between these teams will be pivotal for their season results. A classic rivalry will hold as much substance as ever.
Week 16 at New Orleans Saints: These two teams have gotten familiar with seeing each-other late in the season only, it’s gone in favor of Minnesota each of the past two years. Making a playoff push down the stretch could certainly see a tremendous boost with a win over Drew Brees and company on Christmas Day. Wouldn’t that leave a sour taste in New Orleans?
Week 17 at Detroit Lions: While Green Bay will be battling out the conclusion of their season, Detroit and Chicago could be playing for a wild card spot too. The result of the final Sunday will form the NFC North’s playoff appearances.
X-Factor – Dalvin Cook/Class of 2020
There will be plenty of new faces on the Minnesota roster after making 15 selections in the 2020 draft. First-round pick Justin Jefferson will be tasked with replacing the production of Pro Bowl receiver Stefon Diggs. Fellow first-rounder Jeff Gladney will also see a starting role, his coming alongside cornerbacks Mike Hughes and Holton Hill who will look to fill the holes left by Waynes and Rhodes. Third-round corner Cameron Dantzler out of Mississippi State will be vouching for significant playing time within the secondary and second-round offensive tackle Ezra Cleveland will add improved depth to the line.
Dalvin Cook will need to improve upon his 2019 performance that earned him a Pro Bowl appearance if the Vikings are going to pace the division. Look for Cook to step up as a receiver and further establish himself as a cowbell back.
A team that was knocked off in the NFC Divisional round just a year ago has a new look with changes made throughout the roster. With three teams setting the bar high, rearrangements will need to solidify quickly. A healthy Adam Thielen will give Kirk Cousins a top-tier target to pair with Jefferson and the sky is the limit for Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison. Gary Kubiak who served as assistant head coach a year ago will step into the offensive coordinator role for Kevin Stefanski who took over the head coaching job in Cleveland. The shortcoming of the team over most of the last decade has been the offensive line and despite recent efforts to improve, they have a long way to go.
Defensive play-calling will see a shuffle with Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer splitting defensive coordinator duties.
Chicago Bears (8-8, missed playoffs)
What happened last year
In head coach Matt Nagy’s second season at the helm, the Bears had a volatile year and finished .500. Chicago flashed signs of their 12-4 team just a year prior by starting off 3-1; after losing four straight to fall to 3-5, they won four of their next five games. A Week 15 loss to the Packers and a Vikings win closed the door on their postseason hopes.
Mitchell Trubisky was not far off from his sophomore performance as he enjoyed the receiving tandem of Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller throwing for over 3,100 yards and 17 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Rookie tailback David Montgomery rushed for 889 yards and six scores.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s squad boasted three Pro Bowlers with shut down corners Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson while Khalil Mack earned his 5th consecutive selection. The Bears allowed the fourth fewest points per game.
Key Additions: DE Robert Quinn, OC Bill Lazor, QB Nick Foles, TE Jimmy Graham, TE Cole Kmet, CB Jaylon Johnson, DB Tashaun Gipson, WR Ted Ginn Jr., DL John Jenkins, OL Germain Ifedi
Key Departures: LB Nick Kwiatoski, DT Nick Williams, CB Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, CB Prince Amukamara, WR Taylor Gabriel, ILB Kevin Pierre-Louis
Week 10 vs. Minnesota: The Bears won both of their match-ups with Minnesota a year ago. Heading into a late bye week, Chicago will need all the momentum they can muster in this Monday night battle as they will see Green Bay in Sunday night action two weeks later. Whether it’s Trubisky or Foles under center at this point, wins within the division will be essential.
Week 12 at Green Bay Packers: Coming off their bye, the Bears could make waves with consecutive wins over their top two rivals. Nagy’s team couldn’t benefit more from back-to-back primetime victories with a week of rest in-between.
Week 17 vs. Green Bay Packers: The season finale should have no shortage of fireworks as all four NFC North teams face-off. Chicago could be playing for a wild card spot.
X-Factor – Offensive Development
A defense that already was amongst the top in the league just got better. The offense will have an entirely new look as Matt Nagy overhauled his staff bringing in four new offensive minds that will help him right one of the worst offenses in the league last season. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, offensive line coach Juan Castillo and tight ends coach Clancy Barone all specialize in specific areas of need.
The question looms on who will command the offense, whether it be Nick Foles or Mitchell Trubisky. For now, Trubisky has the position to lose. The backfield of David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen will need to make strides behind an improved offensive line in year two to justify an imposing threat.
The tight ends group was upgraded from a liability to an asset. Rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson and veteran safety Tashaun Gipson will boost a top-tier secondary. With a much-improved scoring attack, solid draft and polishing on defense, Chicago is set to push for a date in the Wild Card round.
Detroit Lions (3-12-1, missed playoffs)
What happened last year
First-year head coach Matt Patricia didn’t truly get to show his value with Matthew Stafford having missed the final eight games of the season to injury. The Lions spiraled to an 0-8 finish with David Blough and Jeff Driskel commanding the offense. Receivers Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola all had strong 2019 campaigns despite their sub-par passers.
Rookie running back Kerryon Johnson showed promise in seven starts accumulating over 400 yards and three touchdowns.
Key Additions: LB Jamie Collins, CB Desmond Trufant, DT Danny Shelton, DT Nicholas Williams, QB Chase Daniel, S Duron Harmon, CB Jeff Okudah, RB D’Andre Swift, OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, CB Tony McRae, LB Reggie Ragland, DE Julian Okwara, DC Cory Undlin, RB Adrian Peterson
Key Departures: DT Damon Harrison Sr., OT Rick Wagner, CB Darius Slay, LB Devon Kennard, RB J.D. McKissic, G Graham Glasgow, DT A’Shawn Robinson, CB Rashaan Melvin, P Sam Martin
Week 15 at Tennessee Titans: By this point in the season, Detroit will have shown their identity. Matthew Stafford will need a strong finish more than ever on a quest to return to the postseason for the first time since the 2016 season. With a match-up against Tom Brady and the Vikings looming, a win over 2019’s AFC second-place finishers could fuel the fire.
Week 16 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: One of the best-looking rosters on paper will be vying for a playoff seed when Tom Brady and his new team come to Detroit. If they Lions could sneak a win past the future Hall of Famer they could flip the script of the NFC North race heading into Week 17.
Week 17 vs. Minnesota Vikings: To cap-off a pivotal three-game stretch, the Lions will welcome Minnesota who will have plenty to play for. On a final Sunday will so much to decide within the division, Detroit could cause a shake-up if they bring their A-game.
X-Factor – Defense
The Lions had one of the worst defensive units in the NFL in 2019. Without Matthew Stafford keeping pace with opponents scoring, Detroit was hung out to dry under defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni.
With the addition of new defensive coordinator Cory Undlin, who coached a defensive secondary in Philadelphia over the past five seasons and many offseason upgrades, the squad should see improvements. Undlin did wonders with the defensive backs with the Eagles developing young players like Jalen Mills and Avonte Maddox while earning a Super Bowl ring in 2017.
Alas, Matthew Stafford returns to a team that needed him so desperately. With an average offensive line, upgraded backfield and new passing targets, Stafford is primed for a superb year.
Second-round running back D’Andre Swift will highlight a halfback set that includes Kerryon Johnson and newly acquired Adrian Peterson. Tight end T.J. Hockenson should take-off in year two to compliment a talented receiving group.
The strides made by the defense will decide if Detroit is playing for games in January.
(Cover Photo: design by Ryan Waldis, photos via USA Today Sports, Minnesota Vikings, and Getty Images)