Everyone is always talking about the great rivalries NFC West, or the AFC East, or even the NFC East. People love to stroke the egos of teams like the Cowboys and Giants, Broncos and Chiefs, or Patriots and Jets, but what about the teams that have been playing each other the longest? I’m talking about rivalries that began in years like 1921 and 1930. The real old school heated rivalries lie in the snowy lands dominated by the NFC North.
The Packers, Bears and Lions have all been playing each other since the prohibition era. The Vikings joined the fun later on in 1961, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be included in the conversation. This has been one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL over the history of the game and I think that this year will be no different. The talking heads are already handing the division title this year to either the Packers or Vikings, and I get it. These are going to be two of the better teams in the league but I also think people are unfairly dismissing the Lions and Bears.
By the time December rolls around, I could see a situation where there may be somewhat of a three team race in the NFC North. This situation involves the Vikings and Packers jockeying for first place in the division and one of the other two teams sitting in striking distance and not yet mathematically eliminated. With most of the NFC North’s teams all playing each other toward the end of the season, who knows what could happen. Maybe my Lions hang around long enough that they steal away the division title from Green Bay at home in week 17. This is of course following a Packers loss at home to the Vikings in week 16 and a Vikings loss at home to the Bears in week 17.
There are reasons on each of these teams for fans to be optimistic. The division is going to end up being a lot closer than most people think at this point. Here are a few reason any given team could take home the title of NFC North Champion.
Green Bay Packers
This is the historical darling in the division. The Packers are always good because even when their roster isn’t all that great (you know like last year and maybe even this year?), they still have the man who is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL. That’s right, Aaron Rodgers is still among the best of the best at his position. It’s starting to get old, but the fact is that this guy is awesome. Sure, they still have Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews is back to his natural position, but it’s because of number-12 that the Packers are always in the hunt. Last year they had injuries all over the field, including their top receiver Jordy Nelson, and their running back was a bloated mess and Aaron still almost won them the division. This team lives and dies with Aaron Rodgers and if they win the division it’ll be off of his arm.
The Vikings are everybody’s trendy pick to win the division for the second consecutive year in 2016. If that does indeed come to pass it will be for two reasons. The defense and Adrian Peterson. I’m still not sold on Teddy Bridgewater, but all he really needs to do at this point is not make mistakes so big that it loses his team the game. The defense has the tools to have the top squad in the league and because of that, they should be competitive in every game they are in this year. Anthony Barr & company play as a unit and can stifle opposing offenses. If Adrian Peterson can continue to be dominant, as he has been almost every year of his career, the Vikings will be a very good team. If they can get competent and mistake free quarterback play they could be downright great. Last year they were an 11 win team and if they can build off of that campaign then they are a lock to win the division.
Admittedly, we have to start grasping at some straws when looking for reasons why these last two teams will win the division. Most people find it laughable to suggest that the Lions might win the NFC North this year but just bear with me. Matt Stafford looked awesome during the last 7 or so games in 2015. If he can carry that performance over to this year, and the Lions can find and sustain at least a mediocre run game, then the offense should be good enough to supplement the real reason the Lions have a shot at the division, the defense. In 2014, the Lions had one of the scariest defenses in the league. In 2015, they took a big step back due to the loss of Ndamukong Suh, but more importantly due to the fact that DeAndre Levy missed all but a single half of one game with a hip injury. In 2016, there are rumors that the retooled defensive line might be one of the leagues best and it looks like DeAndre Levy will be back and healthy. When combined with the fact that the Lions secondary could be much better than the last few years, the Levy factor along with a nasty d-line led by Ziggy Ansah, could return the Lions’ defense to greatness. If that happens, there’s a good chance the Lions are contenders in the NFC North.
If the Chicago Bears are to somehow win the division in 2016 it will be completely on the back of the defense. I hate this offense. They may have been able to retain Alshon Jeffrey, but they don’t have much else and as long as Jay Cutler is still behind center they will continue to turn the ball over on offense. For as many reasons as there are to be pessimistic about the offense, there are as many to be optimistic about the defense. The team brought in Danny Trevathan (who I wanted the Lions to sign) and Jerrell Freeman to bolster the linebacker corp and give Pernell McPhee a little help. The secondary isn’t awe-inspiring but if McPhee, Eddie Goldman, and rookies Leonard Floyd and Jonathan Bullard can generate a consistent pass rush, they might not need to be. With the pieces in place for a decent pass rush and two linebackers who excel against the run, anything can happen. Who knows, if Jay Cutler doesn’t shit the bed for a few weeks in a row, the Bears could be in the hunt come December.
I don’t care what anyone else says, the NFC North is the greatest division in the NFL. This year most of the teams are bookending their seasons with division games, with the end of the season being particularly loaded with rivalry games. Everybody thinks they have it figured out until the games are played and all preconceived notions get turned upside down. We’ve seen it all before. Once the games start it will all get sorted out, but at this point the division could belong to anyone and that’s that the NFL is all about. The NFC North is up for grabs. Will our team seize it or will they fall on their faces?