Looking out at the NFL divisions from the summer is a hard exercise. It's tough to shake last year's results from our perspective.
The AFC North and AFC West are going to be good this year, but I still think the Ravens and Chiefs are going to win their respective divisions. The NFC West is incredibly tough, but the 49ers are still the favorite.
The NFC North? That is where things get interesting.
Picking a winner in this division is even trickier than it usually is in a competitive field. I'll go team by team to discuss my outlook, which should emphasize just how hard-fought the division will likely become.
Green Bay Packers: Regression inbound?
There's no doubt that the Packers are going to be a good team in 2020. Let's get that out of the way right now. They're the running bet for NFC North champions and deservedly so.
Aaron Rodgers is still a stunning passer who can create explosive plays out of thin air, and he's buttressed by top talents in running back Aaron Jones and offensive tackle David Bakhtiari. With another year in coach Matt LaFleur’s offense, hopefully, the offense will hit the ground running.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has helped breathe life into a previously dull pass rush by utilizing five-man surfaces and stand-up rushers to create deception and get stars Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Kenny Clark on isolated, one-on-one battles they regularly win. While there are still questions to be answered in the back seven, the Packers' pass defense was strong last year, captained by young stud Jaire Alexander at cornerback.
But the consensus seems to be the Packers will regress back from a huge 13-3 season. They were only a +63 in the point margin, went 8-1 in one-score games if you include the playoffs and didn't make any particularly thrilling moves in free agency or the draft. Green Bay is largely the same as it was last year and got pretty doggone lucky then.
The Packers are a good football team, that can maybe rack up double-digit wins, but 13-3 isn't coming back.
Minnesota Vikings: Much of the same
The Vikings, much like the Packers, are certainly a good football team. Kirk Cousins is a steady presence at quarterback who may not necessarily have star power, but he plays well enough to beat bad teams and hang with good ones. The offensive line has improved, though it still needs work, and the running game is healthy thanks to the premiere talent of Dalvin Cook and his fit in Minnesota’s aggressive, wide zone rushing attack.
And the defense? For as long as Mike Zimmer is the head coach, we should expect good things from that unit — though the loss of defensive coordinator George Edwards should not be ignored as a significant blow. The defense remains riddled with talent at all three levels, and if the Vikings can get quality play out of an uncertain cornerback unit, they'll be as stifling as ever.
The ceiling for Minnesota is set by Cousins, who agreed to a two-year, $66 million extension in March. With turnover at both coordinator positions and star wide receiver Stefon Diggs traded away, Cousins has a lot on his shoulders to lead the offense; considering cousins isn't a top-10 quarterback, the Vikings aren't likely to be a top-10 team either.
Again: The Vikings are a good football team and maybe better than the Packers, but this isn't a 13-win team either.
Detroit Lions: Don't sleep
The Lions, or everyone's favorite dark horse.
In veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford’s first season with Darrell Bevell as his offensive coordinator, he was very much his gunslinging self. Through eight games, Stafford threw for nearly 2,500 yards, logging 8.6 yards per attempt, 19 touchdowns to 5 interceptions and averaged the most completed and intended air yards, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Stafford's injury was the only reason the wind left the sails of a spunky 3-4-1 Lions teams.
Detroit had a quality receiving corps, in Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola, which benefitted from Bevell's downfield, play-action heavy approach. Across the course of multiple drafts, the Lions offensive line has really improved as well. Worryingly, it's the defense under ex-Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia that remains a huge liability. The Lions have to hope that replacements for quality defensive backs in Quandre Diggs and Darius Slay can quickly step into big shoes to shore up the pass coverage.
The Lions figure once again to be spunky in 2020, and Stafford can certainly win him some shootouts. He'll carry this team as far as the defense lets him, and there is more than a small chance that's through the NFC North and to a division championship — as long as he's healthy.
Chicago Bears: What can you say?
What can you say about the Bears, who finished 8-8 last season, yet somehow seemed to endure terrible disappointment for the duration of the year? As with all teams boasting a young quarterback, the spirit of the fanbase is directly tied to his play. Even in those slow-paced slobber knockers the Bears won, third-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky never seemed to find his foothold in a consistent, predictable level of play.
Chicago went 8-8 because its defense still has a lot of teeth left in it from Vic Fangio’s days; and while Chuck Pagano is doing well to send extra rushers and generate turnovers, the loss of Fangio and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks really set the defense back a few steps. The Bears will need heroic play from rookie Jaylon Johnson and veteran Tashaun Gipson to account for losses in the secondary and pray that veteran passer Nick Foles can catch fire like he does so well to power them into the conversation for the division's best.
David Montgomery, Anthony Miller, Cordarrellee Patterson and, of course, Allen Robinson bring flashes of excitement to this offensive depth chart. The ceiling remains high, but it's a long way away, especially if Trubisky remains the starter.
How tight is the NFC North?
It's tight. I don't want to bet on a single team to win the division, because I don't have confidence in any of the four to grab it and take control. This could easily come down to Week 17.
Realistically, there are three teams with a shot at the division — sorry, Bears fans — and it's a close race between Minnesota and Green Bay in most sportsbooks for the likeliest to win it all. Detroit is generally underrated, so we should look at this as a three-horse race, and expect a ton of fireworks from the NFC North this season. It never seems to disappoint.