With the NFL season kicking off this Thursday with the Philadelphia Eagles opening up the defense of their Super Bowl LII title against the Atlanta Falcons, what better time to preview the season, especially now that rosters are mostly set after a mostly ignored preseason.
These previews are going to feature a quick look back at last season, any major personnel moves that may affect the upcoming season, and a prediction for how we think each division is going to play out. At the end of the week, we’ll post a separate post that combines them all and predicts the playoff participants, as well as who we think will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on February 3, 2019.
Our first two divisions were the NFC East and NFC South, which featured the teams facing off in the first game of the season. Now, we’ll move around the rest of the NFC starting with the NFC North, which could compete with the NFC South in contributing multiple teams for the playoffs. Minnesota just missed out on playing the Super Bowl in their home stadium last year, but they still look to repeat as division champions, but might have to go through the highest-paid player in the league.
The Minnesota Vikings are coming off of a division championship, a thrilling victory against the New Orleans Saints, and an underwhelming performance in a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champions in the NFC Championship. Now, with a new quarterback – more on him in a middle – they look to return to the top of the division. After beginning the season 2-2, they went on an eight game winning streak, and ending the season on an 11-1 stretch. It was a return to the playoffs after a 0.500 season in 2016, and the first time they had a first-round by since 2009.
The Detroit Lions finished in second place, not being formally eliminated from playoff contention until a loss in Week 16 to the Cincinnati Bengals. They started the season 3-1, but split the remaining 12 games to end the season 9-7 and one game behind the Atlanta Falcons for the last playoff spot (which they lost to in Week 3 at home). Matt Stafford remains the most consistent quarterback in the division, at least when it comes to starting games consistently, having played in all 16 games per season since 2011. He had his best Quarterback Rating last season (99.3), the 6th best in the league, and had the third-most passing yards (4,446) as well.
The Green Bay Packers will most likely be better this season, especially if Aaron Rodgers – the newest highest-paid player in the league – plays more than the seven games he did last season. The team was off to a 4-1 start before Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 6, and finished the season 7-9. The lower place in the standings will give the Packers a slightly easier schedule, and they hope to bounce back into form and compete for at least a playoff spot, if not a division title.
Finally, the Chicago Bears finished 5-11 in their first season without Jay Cutler in 8 seasons, and the third season under John Fox, who lost his job after three losing seasons. After a 1-3 start under Mike Glennon, they turned the reins of the offense over to rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who didn’t improve the club’s prospects all that much. They also failed to win a divisional game for the first time since 1969, something they hope to improve on this season.
Major Personnel Moves
As alluded to earlier, the biggest move involving division teams was the arrival in Minnesota of quarterback Kirk Cousins, who signed a fully guaranteed three-year contract worth $84 million, the first fully guaranteed contract in NFL history. This was after two seasons of playing under the franchise tag in Washington, where he was one of the highest paid players in football the past two seasons.
The Bears also shocked the league with their late preseason trade with the Raiders for former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack, followed by inking him to a record-setting six-year, $141 million extension, the highest average salary for a defensive player in NFL history. They mortgaged their future a bit to pick up Mack, trading away two first round draft picks for the right to pay Mack so much money, but they hope that he will improve their defense enough to allow Mitch Trubisky to continue in his development. Also, after firing John Fox at the end of last season, this will be their first season under new coach Matt Nagy, who spent the prior season as Offensive Coordinator for Andy Reid in Kansas City.
Aaron Rodgers returns to the Packers without his favorite target in Jordy Nelson, who left in free agency to the Oakland Raiders. However, he will have a couple of new targets joining Devante Adams and Randall Cobb, with tight ends Jimmy Graham and Mercedes Lewis joining the club. The Lions shored up their defense, signing a few linebackers in Christian Jones (Bears) and Devon Kennard (Giants), as well as many other players to round out their roster.
The Vikings hope Cousins will bring some consistency to the quarterback position that has seemingly been missing for the past few season, and their top defense from last season remains mostly intact. Aaron Rodgers makes the Packers dangerous as always, so it will probably be a fight for the top of the division between the two, with Detroit and Chicago fighting for scraps and trying to surprise everyone.
1. Green Bay Packers – 12-4 (5-1 division)
2. Minnesota Vikings – 11-5 (4-2 division)
3. Detroit Lions – 7-9 (2-4 division)
4. Chicago Bears – 5-11 (1-5 division)