NFC North Preview

Three of these teams have reason for optimism in 2021. Rodgers is back in Green Bay, and by all accounts seems focused and ready to bring the intensity he brought last year. The Bears drafted an exciting rookie quarterback. The Vikings added significant reinforcements to their defense. And then there’s the Lions, who likely will begin rebuilding for 2022 and beyond. With matchups against the AFC North and NFC West and an extra road game (against teams from the AFC West), the whole division will be facing an extremely difficult schedule this season. That makes it less likely that two playoff teams will be able to emerge, unless two teams really step up. More than likely, this will be a tough divisional battle that yields only one playoff team. This makes divisional matchups even more important and places the Packers in the driver’s seat, having won 11 of 12 divisional games in the last two seasons. But their stranglehold on the division is not a guarantee, particularly having lost some offensive line strength after a dominant performance in 2020. Ultimately, despite the hype around Justin Fields, I think it will be up to the Vikings to get in their way.

Team-by-Team Breakdown

Green Bay Packers

2020 Recap

Record: (14-4), L v. TB in NFC Championship Game
Off. Rank: 2nd
Def. Rank: 8th
Net Rank: 1st
Context: Rodgers and the Packers offense abused an easy schedule, rushing and passing with efficiency. Their slow, methodical drives kept the defense fresh and put them in a position to succeed. But in the few instances where Rodgers was consistently pressured, they stumbled.
Full 2020 Team Study

Key Offseason Changes

-Lost C Corey Linsley and drafted a potential replacement in Josh Myers
-Replaced DC Mike Pettine with Joe Barry
-Drafted CB Eric Stokes to compete for starting role opposite Jaire Alexander

2021 Narrative

We finally have some clarity on the Aaron Rodgers situation (for now). It looks like he will return to Green Bay after airing his grievances and securing agency in his future after 2021. This likely means Davante Adams will remain on board for at least another year, and they also signed Aaron Jones to an extension. So the core of the offense will return. But will Green Bay’s dominant offensive line play in 2020 continue without Corey Linsley? They have other pieces, of course, but this loss could end up being significant. Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but given all the offseason turmoil there are some concerns with how he will react if things get tough in 2021. After playing an easy schedule in 2020, they now face the AFC North and NFC West, along with Kansas City, New Orleans, and Washington. This will be no cake walk.

This could present problems for the defense. They played extremely well last year, but they are a defense built to defend the pass with weakness in the middle of the field. Running backs like Kamara and Dalvin Cook took advantage, but against most teams their elite offensive production forced their opponents into relying on the pass. This played into Green Bay’s strengths, particularly the elite play of Jaire Alexander. If the offense is less successful, the defense may start to crack. We saw this last year in a 38-10 beatdown at the hands of the Bucs, who were able to pressure Rodgers consistently and control the game. Brady only passed for 166 yards in that game, but they didn’t need to pass. Ultimately, with elite quarterback play, it’s tough to be too pessimistic on the Packers. They face a tough schedule, but Rodgers is the type of player who can win tough games. Things almost certainly will be more rocky than in 2020, but this expectation is baked into the perception of this team, with a Win Total line set around 10 or 10.5 after winning 13 games last year. I expect regression, but that’s far from a bold prediction.

Key Early Matchups

Week 1 @ NO
If the Saints defense is nearly as good as it was last year, this will be a stout test for the new-look offensive line.

Week 3 @ SF
Another tough road battle, particularly for the offense. The Packers will need to prove they can compete in these matchups if they look to make a Super Bowl run.

Week 6 @ CHI
The entire NFC North has a brutal schedule, so in-division matchups will carry extra weight.

SharpClarke Outlook: Neutral
Projected Regular Season Wins: 10.67
Projected Season Result: 1st in NFC North (Loss in Divisional Round)

Chicago Bears

2020 Recap

Record: (8-9), Loss @ NO in Wildcard Round
Off. Rank: 29th
Def. Rank: 7th
Net Rank: 22nd
Context: A fraud playoff team that benefitted from weakness in the NFC and several fortunate wins, the Bears stood no chance against the Saints in the Wildcard Round. Offensive play did improve late in the year but not against any good defenses. Their defense played well overall, particularly in the red zone, but did not create many negative plays.
Full 2020 Team Study

Key Offseason Changes

-Lost CB Kyle Fuller
-Signed QB Andy Dalton
-Drafted rookie QB Justin Fields
-Replaced DC Chuck Pagano with Sean Desai

2021 Narrative

The 2020 Bears really had no business being in the playoffs. Trubisky was bad to start the year, so he got benched. Nick Foles was worse. Then, after Matt Nagy handed off play-calling duties, Trubisky took over again and looked a little better. Behind a poor offensive line, Foles was simply too statuesque to play the style of football he prefers. Trubisky was able to use his mobility to counteract some of the pressure and get the ball out on shorter throws. So I was very confused when the Bears reached out and signed Andy Dalton as the replacement quarterback. He is not particularly mobile, and throughout his career he has relied on weapons and offensive line play for success. He is not a creator and does not elevate the players around him. That’s a problem on this offense. But things got interesting on draft day when the Bears landed Justin Fields, who is a much better fit for this offense with his mobility. Mobile quarterbacks tend to be less reliant on the quality of their weapons. The big question is how quickly he will take over.

Defensively, the Bears are still very strong. They were not able to create a lot of negative plays in 2020, but that can regress, particularly with strength on the front 7. They were better against the run, with solid tackling and decisiveness in a well-designed scheme. But their relative weakness against the pass may be a bigger problem in 2021 because they lost Kyle Fuller, a solid cornerback. They also have a new Defensive Coordinator so there may be a transition on defense. They should continue to play well against conservative offenses but may be vulnerable to strong passing teams. And while they are making these transitions on offense and defense, they face off against an absolutely brutal schedule. It’s very difficult to see how they improve enough over last year to justify any playoff expectations, unless Justin Fields is excellent as a rookie and transforms this offense. Behind a bad offensive line and with few weapons to speak of, color me skeptical.

Key Early Matchups

Week 3 @ CLE
The Bears defense should match up well against the Browns offense. If they can handle a strong offensive line, they could potentially pull off a major road upset here.

Week 4 v. DET
If the Bears want to compete for the NFC North, they’ll need to easily take care of the Lions at home. They should have lost both games to the Lions last year, albeit with Matthew Stafford.

Week 6 v. GB
The season’s major test comes in Week 6 at home. This could be the game that defines their season; a bad loss here could derail any remaining playoff hopes.

SharpClarke Outlook: Bearish
Projected Regular Season Wins: 6.59
Projected Season Result: 3rd in NFC North (Miss Playoffs)

Minnesota Vikings

2020 Recap

Record: (7-9), Missed Playoffs
Off. Rank: 19th
Def. Rank: 24th
Net Rank: 21st
Context: The Vikings played very well offensively in terms of yards per play, but choked away too many games they could have won. As a team that benefits from playing with the lead due to their reliance on the run game and play action, their poor defensive play (due in large part to Covid opt-outs and injuries) really hindered their performance on both sides of the ball.
Full 2020 Team Study

Key Offseason Changes

-Replaced T Riley Reiff with (currently injured) rookie Christian Darrisaw
-Bolstered the defense at both levels, headlined by key signings of DT Dalvin Tomlinson and CB Patrick Peterson
-Replaced OC Gary Kubiak with his son, Klint Kubiak

2021 Narrative

The Vikings under Mike Zimmer have been built to win by playing strong defense, running the ball well, and using play-action to create favorable passing situations. But in 2020 their defense fell apart. Michael Pierce opted out of the season due to Covid concerns and they let several key players walk in free agency. When the injuries started piling up, they were a shell of a defense that teams were able to abuse. This was a problem for the offense, because Kirk Cousins is a much more effective quarterback when the defense has to respect the run. When it all fell on his shoulders in games they were trailing, he often failed to deliver. The Vikings had some flashy offensive numbers, but they were at their worst in key moments and that’s why the ended the season at a disappointing 7-9.

So the Vikings addressed their defensive issues in the offseason. They signed stud defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. They also signed cornerback Patrick Peterson, who received a lot of criticism last year but still looked fairly good to me. He’s also a strong defensive leader with a lot of experience. They get Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, and Anthony Barr back. The off-season was all about adding talent and depth on defense. If they can improve this unit, it will not only help them by holding opponents to fewer points; it will put the offense in a more comfortable spot. I anticipate a bounce-back year for the Vikings. However, their schedule will do them no favors. They are fragile on offense, and could suffer if either Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, or Adam Thielen is injured. In a long season, with two brutal four-game stretches late in the year (BAL-LAC-GB-SF and PIT-CHI-LAR-GB), they will have to stay healthy to make some noise in the NFC. But if they do, they have the talent and coaching to win a playoff game or two.

Key Early Matchups

Week 2 @ ARI
If the Packers once again control this division, this matchup between two wildcard hopefuls could be key in jockeying for position in the NFC.

Week 3 v. SEA
A rematch from last year’s season-defining loss after the Vikings had the ball in Seattle territory up by 5 points but turned the ball over on downs and let Russell Wilson lead a 94-yard game-winning drive that put SEA at 5-0 and MIN at 1-4.

Week 4 v. CLE
Two teams with a similar narrative and build facing off against each other, looking to take a step forward in their respective conferences.

SharpClarke Outlook: Neutral
Projected Regular Season Wins: 8.64
Projected Season Result: 2nd in NFC North (Miss Playoffs)

Detroit Lions

2020 Recap

Record: (5-11), Missed Playoffs
Off. Rank: 14th
Def. Rank: 32nd
Net Rank: 28th
Context: The Lions were only competitive in 2020 because Matthew Stafford gave them life behind a strong offensive line. Their defense was bad and suffered injuries that made it impossible for them to either pressure the quarterback or cover receivers. They went into a tailspin late in the year and finally fired their inept head coach.
Full 2020 Team Study

Key Offseason Changes

-Replaced HC Matt Patricia with Dan Campbell
-Replaced QB Matthew Stafford with Jared Goff
-Lost WRs Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones
-Drafted T Penei Sewell
-Bolstered the defensive line with DT Michael Brockers and rookie DTs Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill

2021 Narrative

The Lions have not won a playoff game since 1991 and it looks like that streak will hit 30 years this season. The Lions sent Matthew Stafford to the Rams in exchange for Jared Goff, which is obviously a downgrade. But on top of that, Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola left the team and they did not get adequately replaced. This leaves Jared Goff with very few weapons. He has performed much better in his career when not under pressure, and the Lions do have a very respectable offensive line. But he just isn’t the type of quarterback to take control of a game, particularly when his defense is not helping. It’s really difficult to imagine Goff leading the Lions down the field for a game-winning touchdown or field goal with this set of weapons.

A lot has been made of Dan Campbell’s strange opening press conference. He was obviously a bit over the top, and I’m very skeptical that kind of schtick is something young athletes respond to in today’s NFL. But it’s particularly problematic when the on-field play is unlikely to support that kind of intensity. When you are dominating offenses with pressure and tackling hard all over the field, the rah-rah coach can get away with it. But this Lions defense just doesn’t look like it’s going to live up to that level of production. This can lead to a major disconnect between players and coach if he maintains that demeanor. They could improve on defense, of course. In fact it’s likely. But they’ll need to improve a lot to be the type of unit that can consistently put Goff in a position to win. More likely than not, this will be a season full of growing pains and against a tough schedule, any win will be a pleasant surprise.

Key Early Matchups

Week 4 @ CHI
A rebuilding team needs to show it can hang with the other teams in the division to start building momentum for this year or next.

Week 5 @ MIN
Another divisional game where the Lions can try to prove they are worth respecting in the NFC North.

SharpClarke Outlook: Bearish
Projected Regular Season Wins: 4.20
Projected Season Result: 4th in NFC North (Miss Playoffs)

Chalky Prediction

The Lions are as bad as anticipated. The Dan Campbell era gets off to a rough start and they struggle to win two games. But the upside is they land a top pick in next year’s draft and have the cap room to make a step forward in 2022.

Bold Prediction

I’m fairly in-line with the market on this division, so I don’t have anything too bold. But with everyone already crowning Justin Fields the starter in Chicago, my bold prediction is that the Bears stick with Andy Dalton for at least eight weeks.

Sharp Angles

  • To beat Aaron Rodgers you must get pressure on him. Teams that excel in the secondary but do not exert pressure at a high rate will struggle, because Rodgers is extremely adept at finding anyone who is open when given time. Favor high-pressure defenses against the Packers.
  • With Andy Dalton, the Bears are extremely reliant on Allen Robinson and David Montgomery on offense. Fade them when facing teams with a strong shutdown corner or an excellent run defense, as they will struggle to move the ball.
  • The Vikings offense will benefit from a better defense. However, the offense is very fragile with reliance on three key players. Overplay the Vikings offense if all three are healthy but look for value against the Vikings if they must play without one or two of their offensive studs.
  • Although the Lions are likely to win very few games in 2021, they should be able to cover big spreads. With a strong offensive line and a quarterback who has shown he can pass successfully when not under pressure, expect the Lions to score in garbage time against soft coverages.

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