The NFC North has gone from a middle-of-the-pack division to one of the best in football—NFL.com even has the Black-and-Blue division all the way up to number two. The Vikings are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, anything is possible when Aaron Rodgers is under center, the Lions are building a more balanced team, and even the Bears have the potential to turn a few heads this year. Here’s why each team will and will not win the NFC North.
Why they will: Potential on defense
The Bears had one of my favorite picks in the draft this year in Roquan Smith. He has the potential to play 10+ years and bring back the leadership and intimidation of past Bears’ defenses. He joins a top-10 defense led by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio that will face a tall task in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, and Matthew Stafford.
Why they won’t: Trubisky isn’t there yet
Chicago had better hope that Trubisky pans out after what they gave up to move up in the draft to pick him, and he showed flashes of potential last season. But seven touchdowns and seven interceptions through 12 starts is not going to get it done and their 5-11 record is a direct reflection of quarterback play. The addition of Allen Robinson and the continual improvement of Tarik Cohen will help the young quarterback, but he needs to become the leader of this team, and he needs to do it quickly.
Why they will: Matt Patricia
This is Patricia’s first stint as a head coach, but for the past thirteen years he has studied under one of the top coaches in the history of the game in Bill Belicheck. In his five years as defensive coordinator, the Patriots have finished in the top-ten in points allowed. The combination of a defensive-minded coach with a veteran quarterback and an offense that finished seventh in PPG last season could very well push the Lions to the top of the North.
Why they won’t: The Lion Curse
Call it a copout answer, but when you haven’t won your division in 25 years, it may be time to start believing in curses. The Lions have had several opportunities to claim the division crown, including a pair of winner-take-all Week 17 matchups against the Packers in 2014 and 2016, but they have yet to close the deal, and it doesn’t get any easier this season with the return of Aaron Rodgers and the emergence of the new Vikings.
Why they will: Kirk Cousins
The big free agent splash of the offseason could be enough to push the Vikings over the edge. It remains to be seen whether or not Cousins will be worth the giant contract, but he’s thrown for over 4,000 yards in the last three seasons and has a much better supporting cast in Minnesota than he did in Washington. Thielen and Diggs have formed one of the best receiver duos in the league and Dalvin Cook is back. Cousins has yet to win a playoff game, but that could easily change this season.
Why they won’t: Their difficult schedule
When you’re one of the top teams in the league, there’s a target on your back and you’re scheduled against the best teams for high viewership. The Vikings have a pretty solid homefield advantage after losing only one game in U.S. Bank Stadium last season, but they face a brutal away schedule this season: @ Packers, @ Rams, @ Eagles, @ Jets, @ Bears, @ Patriots, @ Seahawks, and @ Lions. The Bears and Jets games should be fairly winnable, but winning on the road in the division is never easy. The Seahawks have an elite homefield advantage, and the Rams, Eagles, and Patriots are Super Bowl favorites.
Green Bay Packers
Why they will: Enhanced secondary
In order for this section to work, we have to lean towards the optimistic side of this unproven group—the Packer’s first two picks, Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, are generating a lot of hype in Packerland, and the addition of Tramon Williams brings a familiar, veteran presence to mentor the rookies. If the defense can finally catch up to the offense, the Packers could find themselves back on top of the NFC North, and if the stars align, the top of the league.
Why they won’t: Another key injury
If it’s not obvious which key injury this is in reference to, it’s worth noting that the Packers were 4-1 last season with Aaron Rodgers, and 3-8 without him. It’s both a testament to the greatness of Rodgers and the undeniable truth that the Packers as a whole team simply aren’t as talented as the Vikings or other top-tier NFL teams. If Rodgers goes down again, the Packers’ missed playoff streak would likely continue.