The NFC North’s biggest offseason mystery revolved around whether or not Aaron Rodgers would return to the Green Bay Packers. Without the perennial Pro Bowler at quarterback, the Packers position atop the NFC North would have been in jeopardy (pun intended.) With Rodgers back, the Packers will look to build on back-to-back 13-3 seasons and run the division once again.

If the Packers were vulnerable, the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears would have been waiting in the wings to take over next. Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense can put up points, but their defense could hardly stop a nosebleed last season. The Bears had the opposite problem: a strong defense, but difficulty finding the endzone on offense. Chicago reloaded with not just one but two new quarterbacks: veteran Andy Dalton and rookie Justin Fields.

The Detroit Lions also made a swap at quarterback, shipping long-time quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for Jared Goff and draft picks. But for a roster with as many holes as Detroit’s, the quarterback change could be a lateral move at best and a step backwards at worst.

How will the NFC North shake out? Will the Packers claim a top seed in the NFC once again? Can the Bears and Vikings compete for one of the conference’s three wildcard spots? And how will Goff’s first year in Chicago play out?

More Predictions

1. Green Bay Packers (12-5)

Photo: AP Photo/Matt Ludtke

The Green Bay Packers are coming off back-to-back NFC Championship Game appearances, and realistically, this team could have won a Super Bowl title each of the last two seasons. They fell both times, to the San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Packers are a team right on the cusp of greatness.

Unfortunately, time is not on Green Bay’s side. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers will turn 38 this season, and has already threatened to leave the Packers due to competitive concerns. I hardly blame him, as the Packers organization used a first-round pick on a backup quarterback in 2020 despite being just one game, and maybe one piece, away from a Super Bowl appearence.

Offseason drama aside, Rodgers will be back under center for Green Bay in 2021-22. The Packers have gone 13-3 each of the last two seasons, earning the first or second seed in the conference each year. In 2019, the Packers won the NFC North by three games over the Minnesota Vikings, and last season, Green Bay had a whopping five-game lead over the second place-finisher, the Chicago Bears. Barring a catastrophic injury, the Packers should win the division for the third year in a row.

Offseason additions include wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, first round draft pick and cornerback Eric Stokes and second round selection Josh Myers, a center. Rodgers also gets one of his favorite targets back, Randall Cobb, though the soon-to-be-31-year-old had just 38 catches last year with the Houston Texans.

Record-wise, I have the Packers taking a slight step back from their 13-3 finishes, but still remaining one of the best teams in the NFC. Green Bay earns the second seed in the conference, behind only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

2. Minnesota Vikings (9-8)

Photo: Getty Images

In 2017, the Minnesota Vikings went 13-3, winning the NFC North and earning the second seed in the conference. Since then, the Vikings have been a very average team: 8-7-1 in 2018, a solid 10-6 with a wildcard berth in 2019, and 7-9 last season. Winning at a .500-level in the NFL for multiple years isn’t an easy feat, so I will give Minnesota credit for that. But I don’t see them breaking out with more than eight or nine wins in 2021.

Fortunately, a 9-8 record puts the Vikings just one game out a playoff spot in my projected standings. I have three teams finishing with 10-7 records, but if just one of them falters, Minnesota could be right there in the playoff mix.

The Vikings will be a competitive team in 2021, with an efficient offense led by Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, and Adam Thielen. Last season, the offense produced a solid 26.9 points per game, putting them among the top teams in the league. The defense, however, was horrendous, allowing 29.7 points per game, the third-worst mark in the league.

To shore up the defense, Minnesota brought in cornerback Patrick Peterson on a one-year deal. Peterson may be a step past his prime, as he wasn’t selected to the Pro Bowl in the last two seasons after being selected for eight straight years with the Arizona Cardinals. Still, Peterson should bolster one of the league’s weakest defenses.

In the 2021 NFL Draft, the Vikings selected offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw with the 23rd overall pick. They didn’t pick again until the third round, where they nabbed quarterback Kellen Mond, linebacker Chazz Suratt, offensive guard Wyatt Davis and defensive end Patrick Jones II with a slew of picks.

On paper, I’m not sure the Vikings are much better than last season. Giving them a two-game improvement in the wins column is a vote of confidence that the offense can continue scoring in bunches, and the defense can get at least a little better. The Vikings ceiling isn’t much higher than 10-7, but their floor could be as low as 5-12 or 6-11.

3. Chicago Bears (8-9)

Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Chicago Bears started hot at 3-0 before stumbling to an 8-8 finish. Chicago had a good defense, a staple for the franchise, but struggled to find offensive consistency. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky was benched despite Chicago’s quick 3-0 start last year in favor of Nick Foles. The move didn’t pay off, and the revolving door at quarterback probably didn’t help. Still at 8-8, the Bears qualified for the postseason due to the advent of the third wildcard position in each conference. Chicago’s playoff appearance was easily forgettable though, as Chicago lost 21-9 to the New Orleans Saints in the Wildcard Round.

This year, Chicago had addressed the quarterback position in a big way. Mitch Trubisky, who led the Bears to a 12-4 record and NFC North title in 2018, was shipped to Buffalo. Nick Foles is still on the roster, but finds himself buried behind two new guys: veteran, former Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton, as well as Justin Fields, the 11th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft out of Ohio State.

The Bears haven’t officially committed to either quarterback as their starter, but either way, Chicago shapes up to be a seven-to-nine win team this season.

Personally, I would love to see Fields take the reigns in Week 1 and play out the entire season, growing pains and all. I think Chicago’s ceiling is higher with Fields, a dynamic playmaker, at quarterback. But I also could see some rookie mistakes and blown games late in the season as teams figure out how to defend Fields. Dalton isn’t a bad option at quarterback, but he’s not a great one either. Best-case scenario Dalton can be… Mitch Trubisky. Dalton’s abilities at this point in his career aren’t going to put the Bears over the top. However, the veteran could realistically hold the offense down in a game manager-type, churning out some victories while the defense does the rest of the work.

With either Fields or Dalton, the Bears could be a borderline playoff team, especially with their stout defense. An 8-9 record is only a couple breaks away from a wildcard position in my projected standings. But as currently constructed, I have nine teams ahead of the Bears in 2021: four division winners, three wildcard teams, and two other non-playoff teams.

4. Detroit Lions (5-12)

It’s almost easy to forget that Jared Goff led the Los Angeles Rams to a Super Bowl in the 2018-19 season. I wrote an article about how Goff was well on is way to being considered a Top Five quarterback, which didn’t seem outlandish for a signal-caller that went 24-7 in his first two full seasons a starter.

Goff cooled down over the last two seasons, going 18-13 a starter with 42 passing touchdowns and 29 interceptions. Still, Goff is a talented and above-average passer in the NFL. But is he a tangible upgrade over long-time Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was traded to Los Angeles in exchange for Goff? It’s hard to say.

Looking towards the future, assuming Goff stays in Detroit, the Lions get younger with the 26-year old Goff as compared to the 33-year old Stafford. The Rams are in win-now mode, while the Lions likely have accepted that they have some work to do on their roster before they can compete for a Lombardi trophy.

In terms of the 2021-22 NFL season, bringing in Goff doesn’t sway the Lions win total too much. If anything, even though the two quarterbacks could be considered about equally talented, the trade could potentially set the Lions back as Stafford’s chemistry with the team disappears. Conversely, the change at quarterback could spark a new flame in the offense, but the first scenario seems more likely to me.

The Lions went 5-11 last season, and didn’t make any huge splashes in free agency. Detroit’s biggest signing was running back Jamaal Williams, brought over from Green Bay on a 2-year, $7.5 million deal. The Lions lost wide receivers Kenny Golladay and Jamal Agnew, defensive tackle Danny Shelton, and cornerbacks Justin Coleman and Desmond Trufant in the offseason.

Detroit selected offensive tackle Penei Sewell with the seventh overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and spent their next two selections on defensive tackles Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeil.

The Lions didn’t do enough to get better in the offseason, and Goff will likely be ushered into Detroit with a subpar season.

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