As usual, the road to . . . well, maybe not the Super Bowl, but at least the playoffs goes through Green Bay. And while Aaron Rodgers and the Packers aren’t as dominant as they once were, despite going 13-3 in Matt LaFleur’s first season as a head coach, no one else in the division has really stepped up to challenge them for the crown. At the same time, the Packers haven’t done much to improve from last year, and only time will if Rodger’s initial displeasure over not getting the help he wanted at wide receiver, and instead getting his presumptive replacement at QB in Jordan Love, will impact his play. Minnesota has a history of looking good on paper only, no one knows what to expect from the Chicago’s QB carousel, and the Lions are still the Lions. Green Bay goes into the season as the favorite by default.
In 2019, the NFC North was expected to be a powerhouse division, maybe even the class of the league. One year later, the NFC North could be the most under-achieving division in the NFL.
2 / 7
Covid Response: The Bears will have to make due without nose tackle Eddie Goldman, a staple of the defense. Goldman is in the second year of his 4-year, $42 million deal. Having experienced asthma in the past, Goldman falls into the high-risk category and has thus opt-ed out. He’ll receive a $350,000 stipend for the season.
Outside The Lines: In August, the Bears were forced to distance themselves from Hall-of-Famer Brian Urlacher, after the retired superstar linebacker, whose social media had been somewhat Trump-adjacent in the past, suggested that NBA players should not have walked out in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police because Brett Favre once played a Monday Night Football game the day his father died. Urlacher also liked a post calling for the release of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who killed two protestors in Kenosha with an AR-15-style rifle as part of a white militia group. And just like that, Lance Briggs is my favorite Bears linebacker.
Oh, he’s here now?: Oh, hey, the Bears signed TE Jimmy Graham five years past his prime, so suck on that, Green Bay! Chicago also brought in OLB Robert Quinn to draw some attention away from Khalil Mack.
Where’d he go?: A certain segment of Bears fans will miss being able to scream for head coach Matt Nagy to bring QB Chase Daniel in off the bench — he’s now holding a clipboard and adding to his fortune (more than $34 million and counting!) in Detroit. Chicago also said “smell ya later” to free safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, who was released by Dallas last week.
Fans in the stands: Not for now. The Bears released a statement in August saying “this is not the time to welcome fans back to Soldier Field.” With COVID-19 spiking across the country and a mayor hell-bent on getting the spread in Chicago under control, it’s looking increasingly dubious that fans will watch football on the lakefront any time soon.
What to expect: If there’s no quarterback controversy, is it even football season in Chicago? Despite a brief respite in which GM Ryan Pace assured fans they’d found their franchise guy, Bears fans spent last season gazing longingly at Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, both of whom remained on the board after the Bears traded up to get Mitch Trubisky with the second pick in the 2017 NFL draft (no, we’re not over it). The solution? Sign Nick Foles in the offseason! Unfortunately, Foles wasn’t able to win the starting spot from Trubisky, and the Bears’ only effort at shoring up the offensive line came in the form of the underwhelming Germain Ifedi. Nagy may be a delicate genius when it comes to designing an offense, but it doesn’t work if your QB can’t run the offense, and that’s a big part of the reason the Bears finished a disappointing 8-8 in 2019.
Unless the offense gets itself sorted, Chicago will once again have to rely on the defense to put them in a position to win games, making it imperative defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano figures out a way to free up Mack more than he did last season, and for the Bears to come up with a way to turn safety Eddie Jackson back into the turnover machine he was in 2018.
3 / 7
Covid Response:. Defensive lineman Michael Pierce is the lone opt-out for the Vikings, due to a history of asthma concerns. Pierce signed a three-year free agent deal worth $27 million with Minnesota in March.
Outside The Lines: More Vikings probably wished they had opted out after QB Kirk Cousins used a podcast to announce that he was cool with getting COVID, even if he died from it, saying “If I die, I die,” and simultaneously sending the entire internet in search of Ivan Drago gifs. On the same podcast, Cousins revealed a love of Creed and admitted that he once tried to sign the band for a private concert. I’m not sure which revelation is more upsetting.
Oh, he’s here now?: Minnesota upgraded its defense in a big way, trading for standout pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue from Jacksonville. On the offensive side of the ball, the Vikes are hoping for a big season from rookie wideout Justin Jefferson, whom they drafted 22nd overall, and who has reportedly distanced himself from other receivers in camp.
Where’d he go?: Are you ready for this list? Wide receiver Stefon Diggs (Bills), defensive linemen Everson Griffin (Cowboys) and Linval Joseph (Chargers), and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes (Colts), Mackensie Alexander (Bengals) and Trae Waynes (Bengals) have all moved on since 2019. That’s an awful lot of familiar names on defense and a key playmaker on offense. Minnesota may have added to their pass rush, but their effectiveness in the secondary remains to be seen.
Fans in the stands: The Vikings won’t have fans at U.S. Bank Stadium (which, let’s be honest, was supposed to look like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude but wound up looking like an REI) for at least their first two games of the season, but the organization has been adamant that they want fans in the stands.
What to expect: Like just about every other team in the division, the Vikings are a giant question mark. There are times when Cousins makes the offense look like world beaters, but they’re also 0-4 in their last four matchups with the hapless Bears. The loss of Diggs puts added pressure on both WR Adam Thielen and flashy RB Dalvin Cook to have healthy, productive years, something they’ve struggled with in the past. And, as every year, it doesn’t matter how good Cousins is under center if the offensive line can’t give him time in the pocket — an issue Minnesota hasn’t done a lot to address. But the Vikings have a tendency to surprise us when no one expects much of them, and let us down in years when they look poised to get over the hump. They’ll either win the Super Bowl or finish dead last in the division.
4 / 7
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers
Covid Response:. Aaron Rodgers wanted help at outside receiver, so Green Bay went out and got Devin Funchess, who then opted out of the season after caring for relatives who had COVID during the offseason. Funchess was expected to compete for the No. 2 receiver spot, but looks like that role will now go to Allen Lazard.
Outside The Lines: There’s really only ever one storyline in Green Bay: Is Aaron happy? Is Aaron talking to his family, whom he reportedly upset in January by talking smack about their religion on Danica Patrick’s podcast? Is Aaron happy with head coach Matt LaFleur, who seems to want to rely, increasingly, on the run game? Is Aaron upset with rookie QB Jordan Love, who, through no fault of his own, winds up as the heir apparent to Number 12 in Green Bay? Is Aaron happy at all, given his reported split from Patrick? One thing is for sure: the happier Aaron is, the better for the Packers.
Oh, he’s here now?: Funchess was supposed to be the help in the receiving corps Rodgers was looking for, but with Funchess opting out due to COVID concerns, Rodgers is pretty much left with the same receivers he had last season. Meanwhile, Green Bay added rookie A.J. Dillion to help shore up the run game. Of course, Love will be waiting in the wings, should anything keep Rodgers sidelined. On the defensive side of the ball, ILB Chris Kirksey came over from the Browns to reunite with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, and who has impressed in training camp.
Where’d he go?: The rest of the NFC North will be relieved not to have to face linebacker Blake Martinez twice a season, as the NFL’s leading tackler the last seasons signed with the Giants. Over on the offensive line, longtime Packer Bryan Bulaga signed a three-year deal with the Chargers. Wide receiver Jake Kumerow was released just last week, and has landed on the Bills’ practice squad.
Fans in the stands: Like the Vikings, the Packers won’t allow fans in Lambeau for at least the first two home games, but they’ve left open the possibility of having 10,000 to 12,000 fans in the stadium beginning on November 1 against the Vikings.
What to expect: Green Bay was the class of the NFC North last season, grinding their way to a 13-3 record, though they only head the 14th-toughest strength of schedule in the league. This season, Green Bay has the 15th-toughest strength of schedule, making it more than likely they’ll find themselves in the playoffs once again. The offensive line, anchored by David Bakhtiari, gives Rodgers ridiculous amounts of time to do Aaron Rodgers-type things. And while Rodgers is once again left to make his receiving corps, including Davante Adams, look better than they are, the Packers’ backfield is absolutely stacked, with Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, and rookie A.J. Dillon. No matter what issues fans of rival teams hope and pray for in Green Bay during training camp, Rodgers and company always seem to get it done in the end. There’s no reason to think 2020 will be any different.
5 / 7
COVID Response: Wide receiver Geronimo Allison, defensive tackle John Atkins, and offensive lineman Russell Bodine all opted out due to COVID concerns, though none of them were expected to make much of an impact. Atkins probably had the lone shot at a spot in the rotation on the D-Line.
Outside The Lines: Off the field, the Lions had a pretty quiet offseason, in that I didn’t remember they existed until I sat down to write this preview. Given that past off-the-field issues have included Nate Burlesonbreaking his arm in a pizza-related car crash and decades-old sexual assault allegations against head coach Matt Patricia surfacing, this is always a good thing for the Lions. I’m sure someone tweeted out something objectionable at some point, but like I said, I hadn’t thought about the Lions since last year until just this second. The main controversy surrounding Detroit is how Patricia manages to look like he slept in his car for three days when the NFL is picking out his clothes?
Oh, he’s here now?: Adrian Peterson makes his (quality to be determined) return to the NFC North in blue and silver. Peterson signed a one-year deal with Detroit on Sunday. And because the Lions were looking to up their rushing game even before Peterson came on the market, throw rookie running back D’Andre Swift into the mix. Coming to the rescue of a miserable defense are cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Jeff Okudah and nose tackle Danny Shelton, and defensive lineman Nick Williams.
Where’d he go?: Given that the Lions finished 31st in the league in 2019 in points against, it’s no surprise that a lot of that defense has moved on. Gone is pro-bowl cornerback Darius Slay (Eagles)and CB Rashaan Melvin (Jaguars), linebacker Devon Kennard (Cardinals), nose tackle Damon Harrison (free agent), and defensive tackles Mike Daniels (Bengals) and A’Shawn Robinson (Rams). Offensive lineman Graham Glasgow, one of the few bright spots on the Lions of late, went to play for Vic Fangio in Denver.
Fans in the stands: Not for now. Like everyone else in the NFC North but the Bears, the Lions have committed to empty stands for the first two home games, saying they will re-evaluate their decision after that.
What to expect:Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp wants the team to win now, but, as the team is the Detroit Lions, that’s unlikely to happen. This is a truly terrible organization and, despite the Matthew Stafford-to-Kenny Golladay tandem, they can never do much on either side of the ball. Even with the ‘Matthew Stafford is elite’ movement that’s taking over social media, Detroit finished 22nd in the league in points per game in 2019. Stafford may be elite, but does it even matter when everything around him is so awful?
All that said, Detroit’s offense has a chance to be good, even very good, this season, though there is plenty of doubt about the offensive line. And therein lies the perennial problem with the Lions — they can never seem to get all the parts working at the same time. Yes, the defensive will likely be better this year, but will it be good enough to complement the offense? Probably not. Will the Lions make it out of the NFC North basement? Probably not. Will we ever find out why Patricia has a pencil stuck behind his ear when all his charts are laminated? Probably not.
6 / 7
Check out the rest of our NFL previews for this strangest of seasons: