From The Land Of The Ice And Snow: 2020 NFC North Preview

  • By Alex Bab
  • September 3, 2020
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Alex Bab

The NFC North was one of the more perplexing divisions last year. The Green Bay Packers went 13-3 but never seemed that impressive in doing so. The Minnesota Vikings won less games but by the eye test seemed possibly better than the Packers.

Then there’s the Chicago Bears, who backslid from a solid 2018 campaign to a .500 record due to a severely anemic offense and a defense that couldn’t replicate 2018’s otherworldly performance. The Detroit Lions did typical Detroit Lions things, gaining less than five wins and also having to settle for a tie.

The NFC north breeds toughness but can it produce a champion this year? All four teams need to correct a lot of things from last season before that can be determined.

 

 Chicago Bears

Record in 2019: 8-8

Key Player: Quarterback – Mitch Trubisky

Player To Watch: Nose Tackle – LaCale London

The 2018 Bears were excellent thanks to a stellar defense headlined by Khalil Mack and an offense that could break just enough big plays, especially thanks to shifty running back Tarik Cohen. 2019 saw different results with the defense understandably unable to duplicate 2018 and a complete lack of production from the offense.

This is truly a make or break year for Mitch Trubisky. His 2019 performance actually wasn’t statistically as poor as people think: 3,138 passing yards, 17 touchdowns, 10 interceptions while completing 63% of his throws. Those are solid numbers…in 1994. That kind of production just isn’t going to cut it in the modern NFL, which was reflected in the team finishing 29th in offensive rating.

A dearth of skill position talent isn’t going to help much, either. Wide receiver Allen Robinson is a solid producer but other than that, the Bears are relying on veteran reclamation projects like receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and tight end Jimmy Graham. They’ll need to rely heavily on the running back combination of Cohen and David Montgomery to actually produce.

The defense will be stout with Mack, Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan and Akiem Hicks returning. Undrafted rookie LaCale London is slated to start at Nose Tackle week one: he’ll get plenty of opportunities as opponents focus on Mack and Hicks. If he can capitalize, this front seven will wreak havoc. The defense will have to be sensational because Trubisky and those weapons aren’t going to be able to play from behind. Prediction: 5-11

 

 Detroit Lions

Record in 2019: 3-12-1

Key Player: Running Back – Kerryon Johnson

Player To Watch: Cornerback – Jeff Okudah

There isn’t much positive to say about the Detroit Lions in 2019, other than that even though they only won three games, they also only lost 12. They were middle of the pack offensively and bottom barrel defensively and just seemed kind of rudderless all season. It’s going to be time to move on from Matthew Stafford in the relative near future…can the Lions get something going before that time comes?

Offensively they should be decent and have the chance to be better than average. Stafford has always been able to sling it and receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones have always been an underrated tandem. Running back Kerryon Johnson has shown some skill in his first two seasons but has been nailed by the injury bug. Their offensive line was ranked 11th last year and they’ll need to do better this year for Stafford and company to have a chance to make some noise.

The Lions were ranked 26th in total defense last season which has to be frustrating to Lions’ fans, considering head coach Matt Patricia is supposed to be a defensive whiz. Trading away star corner Darius Slay isn’t going to help matters. First round draft pick Jeff Okudah has some very big shoes to fill, especially having to face Davante Adams and Adam Thielen twice a year. If this defense doesn’t shape up this season, Patricia is likely out in Detroit. Prediction: 3-13

 

 Green Bay Packers

Record in 2019: 13-3

Key Player: Running Back – Aaron Jones

Player To Watch: Wide Receiver – Allen Lazard

The Packers went 13-3 last season but never really felt like a juggernaut. They narrowly squeezed out a few wins against seemingly inferior competition. A mid-season drubbing by the eventual NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers should have raised more flags. Realistically, we are nearing the end of the Aaron Rodgers’ era, evidenced by the drafting of Bryce Love. Can Rodgers get the Pack to one more Super Bowl before that time comes?

Green Bay ranked 15th in rushing last season, at 109 yards per game. While that’s solid, they’ll need to improve that as Rodgers continues to age. Aaron Jones broke the 1000 rushing yard plateau for the first time last season and he will need to replicate that or improve upon it for continued success.

Rodgers has always been at his best with multiple passing options. While Davante Adams continues to be one of the top outside threats in the league, can the “other guys” step up and become viable targets? Allen Lazard showed flashes last season, with 35 catches for 477 yards and three touchdowns. He needs to improve and become a true number two receiver to help this offense.

Green Bay finished ninth in defensive ranking last season and they’ll need more of the same this year. As strange as it is to say of an Aaron Rodgers led team, the Packers best bet at success is a run-based, defensive, time of possession strategy. That will let Rodgers save his best for the most important moments. The Packers’ defense doesn’t have a lot of flashy names but collectively should be able to contain opponents enough for positive results. Prediction: 10-6

 

 Minnesota Vikings

Record in 2019: 10-6

Key Player: Fullback – C.J. Ham

Player To Watch: Wide Receiver – Justin Jefferson

Early in the 2019 season, the Minnesota Vikings went full “ground and pound,” feeding running back Dalvin Cook early and often. Cook responded by breaking out for 1,135 yards. However, the receivers, especially Stefon Diggs, were not happy. As the season progressed, the Vikings found more balance. They’ll want to maintain that to try to improve from last year.

Despite what some may tell you, Kirk Cousins can produce (3,603 yards, 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions in 2019). Diggs’ public complaints last year may have contributed to his trade to Buffalo in the offseason. Enter rookie Justin Jefferson, who has high expectations out of the gate. He’ll need to jump right in to help Adam Thielen much like Diggs used to.

The key to this balanced run-pass attack? Surprisingly for the modern NFL, it’s fullback C.J. Ham. He acts as a lead blocker for Cook, can be used on pass plays to protect Cousins and is a sneaky receiver out of the backfield when defenses forget about him. There’s a lot of big name talent on this offense but the guy who does the dirty work may be the lynch pin.

Defensively, Minnesota will be fine. They were the fifth ranked overall defense last year and return many of their key players. Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks provide a solid foundation. They did release cornerback Xavier Rhodes, so rookie Jeff Gladney will get picked on by opponents but this veteran defense should help his transition. This team could be a Super Bowl dark horse if everything breaks right. Prediction: 11-5

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