Right around the time Aaron Rodgers ended an offseason of uncertainty and arrived at Packers headquarters for training camp in July 2021—donning his favorite The Office T-shirt—and certainly after he signed a four-year contract extension after the season, it seemed the NFC North would belong to the Packers for the foreseeable future. The loss of All-Pro receiver Davante Adams to the Raiders, great as he is, does nothing to change that.
Rodgers on his own is enough to make Green Bay the heavyweight of the division. He has won consecutive MVPs while mastering coach Matt LaFleur‘s scheme. And during Rodgers’s three seasons under LaFleur, the Packers played seven games without Adams and won them all, averaging 31.6 points. Their system makes it easier to break in new receivers, which they will have to do with Marquez Valdes-Scantling also gone (he signed with the Chiefs). The returning pass catchers include receivers Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb and tight end Robert Tonyan (due back from an ACL tear). Still, Green Bay will need its new wideouts, veteran Sammy Watkins and rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubsto get up to speed quickly.
But it helps that the offense is paired with a strong defense. The unit thrived despite injuries in the secondary last year, including a shoulder strain that limited star cornerback Jaire Alexander to four games. With the continued emergence of edge rusher Rashan Gary and late-blooming linebacker De’Vondre Campbellthe Packers could have the best defense in football this year.
Green Bay also has margin for error in a retooling division. The Lions, despite coming off a three-win season, look relatively solid. Dan Campbell‘s rebuilding squad fought hard and played its best football in late 2021. The draft’s No. 2 picks, Aidan Hutchinson out of Michigan, will galvanize the pass rush, and you shouldn’t sleep on the offense. The line is quietly effective, and QB Jared Goff should be more comfortable during his second season in Detroit. Last year rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown was a revelation, and the corps added speedy Jameson Williamsa first-round pick out of Alabama, and 6′ 4″ veteran DJ Charksigned from the Jaguars.
The Vikings will, for the first time since 2013, be coached by someone besides Mike Zimmer. Kevin O’Connellmost recently a Rams assistant, will build an attack around wide receiver Justin Jefferson and running back Dalvin Cook. The bigger question is whether new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell can fix a surprisingly leaky pass defense, one that hopes to get a pass-rush boost with the return of end Danielle Hunter from a torn pectoral muscle and the arrival of former Packers edge Za’Darius Smith.
in Chicago, Matt Eberflus, known for his overachieving defenses in Indianapolis, will try to bring about a Monsters of the Midway revival as the Bears’ new coach. Though he’ll have to do it without Khalil Mack (traded to the Chargers) and with two second-round rookies—cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker—likely to start in the secondary. Meanwhile, second-year quarterback Justin Fields will work with former Packers QBs coach Luke Getsy as his new offensive coordinator. But it won’t help that the O-line is full of question marks and the supporting cast is short on weapons beyond rising star wide receiver Darnell Mooney.
SI’S PROJECTED STANDINGS
1. Green Bay Packers: 11–6
Best Cases: Rodgers shows no signs of slowing down at age 38, winning a third straight MVP award. Complemented by a dominant defense, the Packers get it done in the postseason, too, with Rodgers lifting the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in 11 years.
Worst Case: New receivers struggle in Green Bay, leaving Rodgers frustrated. The defense, henceforth, is hit by injuries once again. The Packers limp into the postseason as NFC North champs but lose a playoff game in Lambeau Field for the third straight year.
2. Detroit Lions: 9–8
Best Cases: Goff looks reborn as the Lions shred defenses with their array of offensive weapons. While the defense is still a work in progress, it is opportunistic enough to create 25 takeaways, up from 19 last year. The franchise earns its first playoff berth since 2016.
Worst Case: The offense merely treads water while the young defense too often breaks. After early stumbles the team loses some of its fighting spirit and realizes it needs a new quarterback to truly thrive. Campbell keeps his job but enters 2023 in the hottest of seats.
3. Minnesota Vikings: 7–10
Best Cases: The Sean McVay coaching tree does it again as O’Connell coaxes a stunning season out of QB Kirk Cousins, while Jefferson wins Offensive Player of the Year honors. Thanks to a smoke-and-mirrors defense, the Vikings get to 10 wins and the playoffs.
Worst Case: Cousins is no Matthew Stafford, and it shows as O’Connell’s offense remains middling. Meanwhile, a secondary that’s one part too old and one part too young struggles, particularly without Zimmer there to coach it up. Minnesota finishes 2022 thinking “rebuild.”
4. Chicago Bears: 3–14
Best Cases: It’s a coach’s league, and Eberflus and Getsy get the most out of their respective units. The scrappy Bears are a tough out every week, with Fields showing signs that he is a QB franchise. Chicago finishes below .500, but optimism is high going into 2023.
Worst Case: There is simply not enough talent on the roster to win games. But, even worse, Fields’s development remains stuck in the Soldier Field mud playing behind an offensive line that can’t protect him and a group of receivers that can’t get open.
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