NFC North preview: Will the Vikings remain kings of the North?
MINNEAPOLIS — Will the Minnesota Vikings pick up where they left off, following their surge to the NFC championship game last season?
Or will the Green Bay Packers rebound forcefully enough to take back the division they’ve mostly dominated for two decades?
The annual report on the NFC North has almost always focused on the Packers, the Vikings or both of these fierce rivals since the NFL’s most recent realignment produced the current eight-division format in 2002.
With new head coaches in Detroit (Matt Patricia) and Chicago (Matt Nagy) this year, a big breakout by the Lions or Bears would be necessary to bump the Vikings and Packers from the lead story of 2018.
The Vikings overcame early season knee injuries to quarterback Sam Bradford and running back Dalvin Cook to finish 13-3 and beat New Orleans on the last-second touchdown pass from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs, before the league’s best defense was dissected and humbled by eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia in the NFC title game.
Bradford and Keenum departed with Teddy Bridgewater as free agents, but the Vikings signed the best available replacement on the market in Kirk Cousins . They upgraded at defensive tackle with Sheldon Richardson, too, toting as many top-tier players in the 22-man starting lineup as any competitor in the NFL.
With the aspiration of winning the Super Bowl for the first time in the franchise’s 58-year history, the Vikings must be concerned about an entire NFC that’s as stacked as ever. But for Minnesota, there’s no greater competition, now or over the past quarter-century, than Green Bay.
The Packers are past the pain of losing two-time league MVP award winner Aaron Rodgers, whose broken collarbone in the sixth game of the season effectively ended the dream scenario of hoisting the Super Bowl trophy on Minnesota’s home turf.
Five-time Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham has joined Green Bay’s dangerous offense. As if Rodgers needed anymore motivation to go with his game-changing ability, the Vikings are the very team that knocked him out of action when linebacker Anthony Barr flattened him with a hard hit.
So who’s the favorite here? Well, the answer will start to form quickly, when the Vikings visit the Packers in the second game on Sept. 16.
Here’s a quick tour around the NFC North:
TOUGH TASK: The pressure is heavy on Cousins to perform as well or better than Keenum did as a fill-in for Minnesota last fall. The offensive line is again carrying major question marks, with right guard Joe Berger retired and left guard Nick Easton likely out for the year with a neck injury. Center Pat Elflein has missed the entire preseason with his rehabilitation from shoulder and ankle surgeries moving slower than anticipated.
The schedule is stiffer for the Vikings, too, with road trips to NFC powers Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Seattle and a visit to AFC champion New England.
“It’s trying to just restart that process and make sure that we know that we’re not just getting handed 13 wins,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “Thirteen wins in the NFL is extremely difficult. It doesn’t matter how good you are.”
SECONDARY? MORE LIKE PRIMARY: Since winning the Super Bowl nearly eight years ago, in Rodgers’ third season as the starter, Green Bay has not been back. The pass defense has been the biggest culprit, and for a second straight year the front office used the top of the draft to add cornerbacks. Kevin King was the first pick in 2017, and Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson were the first two players off the board in 2018 . There’s a new defensive coordinator now, too: Mike Pettine.
Having a healthy Rodgers back was the biggest step the Packers could take toward returning to the playoffs, after their streak of eight straight appearances was stopped, but a deeper and stronger secondary was necessary to get back on that championship track.
“We all should be better for the negative experiences that we’ve encountered in the past,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
NEW BOSS: The Lions took two more significant steps toward lifting a lagging ground game by drafting Kerryon Johnson in the second round out of Auburn and signing LeGarrette Blount, who has carried the ball for two of the past three Super Bowl winners. There’s no more important addition in Detroit than Patricia, though.
Patricia was the defensive coordinator for the last six of his 14 seasons with New England, where he left with three Super Bowl rings. He’s joining a franchise that has won one playoff game in the past 60 years, so the change in mindset and atmosphere he has brought to the Lions is even more important than his acumen in engineering a defense.
“He laid down the law. He gave us the rules, and he came in with energy,” linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “He came in, made it clear, gave us the expectations, and now we have something we can chase.”
LETTING IT LOOSE: Over the past four regular seasons, the Vikings and Packers each went 39-25 and the Lions were close behind with a cumulative record of 36-28. The Bears went 19-45. That’s why Nagy is here, after serving as the offensive coordinator in Kansas City last year.
The most important part of his job for now will be guiding quarterback Mitchell Trubisky , the second overall pick in the 2017 draft who was brought along carefully after taking over as the starter midway through his rookie season. Trubisky was also handed three new targets: wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton.
“Just go out there and play freely and let your instincts take over,” Trubisky said. “And then when we make mistakes, just go back and learn from it.”
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Vikings, Packers, Lions, Bears.