Even as much of the league begins to take shape, the NFC North remains the toughest division to diagnose. It is the halfway point of the 2018 NFL season, more or less, and only one game separates the Bears, Lions, Packers and Vikings. And given that three of those teams still have five division games left to play, this thing is about as wide open as it can get.
Some of that will be remedied in the next four weeks. The Bears, Lions and Vikings all have three division games over that stretch and that Packers have one. If one of those teams gets on a winning streak, this whole discussion could be moot. But as it stands now, the NFC North is the epitome of inconsistent.
The Vikings and Bears have generally looked like the class of the division. They boast the more talented defenses and high-flying offenses. Yet, they have been hamstrung at times by some potentially crippling weaknesses. For Chicago, it is their oft-inaccurate quarterback and come-and-go secondary. For Minnesota, it is the offensive line. Those things have kept what look like complete, balanced, playoff-ready teams from ascending to the upper-echelon of the NFC alongside the Rams and Saints.
As for the Packers and Lions, they are truly week-to-week. Detroit has on their resume losses to the Jets and 49ers, allowing at least 30 points both games. They also have convincing wins over the Patriots, Dolphins and Packers. Kerryon Johnson is a Rookie of the Year candidate and the offensive line is much improved from a year ago, but they just traded away leading receiver Golden Tate. So the Lions may look to be competitive, only a game out of first despite being in last place. But the powers at be in the organization are playing for the future.
Then there is Green Bay. Their quarterback will always have them among playoff contenders, but little else inspires such faith. None of their three wins have been particularly convincing: not even the 22-0 shellacking of the Bills. Truth be told, their best performances were in the recent loss to the Rams and the tie against the Vikings in week two. Plus, they too made a move at the deadline, trading away arguably their best defensive player in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. So they too seem to be more future-oriented.
With regards to remaining schedules, all face similar degrees of difficulty. The Bears and Lions have yet to play the Rams (both get them at home), while the Packers and Vikings still have to face the Patriots (both in Foxboro). Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit all have to play each other twice. Everyone but Minnesota has theoretically easy games remaining down the road. As such, there is a distinct possibility all four teams remain on one another’s hip for the duration of the season.
If we are to prognosticate, the Vikings and Bears seem best equipped to hold on at the top. But while they both seem too talented to spend January on their couches, that is certainly a possibility. After all, if the season ended today, the Bears would take the division and the Vikings would narrowly miss out on the playoffs. The division crown may very well come down to a week 17 game at U.S. Bank Stadium between the the two. Further adding to the drama, the loser may be left out of postseason action entirely.
Of course, all of this could be a fruitless exercise. The Packers or Lions could sweep the remaining games, take the division and leave everyone looking foolish, mouth agape. Such is the ephemeral nature of NFL analysis.
But for the sake of a prediction, here is a guess at how the four teams will shake out.
- Vikings 10-5-1
- Bears 10-6
- Packers 8-7-1
- Lions 7-9
Before the season, this writer predicted three teams to come out of the NFC North. At this point, that seems unlikely, with the Panthers, Seahawks, Eagles and Redskins all trending towards postseason contention. However, one NFC North wild card seems like a safe bet. The Packers and Lions will likely hang around, but this upcoming run of division games is going to make or break their chances of hanging with Chicago and Minnesota.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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