For the first time since 2010, a team not named the Green Bay Packers or Minnesota Vikings took home the NFC North crown, as the Bears soared to the top of the division under first-year head coach Matt Nagy while both Green Bay and Minnesota missed the dance, and of course, Detroit pulling in the rear. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Heading into 2019, the NFC North crown is shaping up to be a three-team demolition derby, with the Packers reloading their defense with talent and getting Aaron Rodgers back to full health, another year of developing rapport between Kirk Cousins and his weapons, and the Bears returning nearly everyone from last year’s division-winning club.
Last season: 12-4, lost in wild-card round
Players to watch: Mitchell Trubisky, Whoever Wins the Kicking Job, Haha Clinton-Dix
Prediction for 2019: 10-6
The Bears came into the 2018 season regarded as an intriguing team with a solid bunch of young talent that was a year or two away from putting it together and challenging for playoff contention. Then, they blew all expectations out of the water on the back of their elite defense that ranked 1st in points allowed per game (17.7), takeaways (36), defensive touchdowns (6), and 3rd in sacks (50). After starting 3-3, the Bears closed the regular season on a torrid 9-1 stretch and probably should’ve beaten the Eagles at home in the playoffs if not for the infamous double doink.
So, what’s the next step for Chicago, moving among the league’s elite or taking a step back after a overachieving season? Well, the Bears defense will return nearly all of their personnel, except for losing starting safety Adrian Amos to fierce rival Green Bay, whom they’ve replaced with Haha Clinton-Dix, and ace defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who is now the head coach of the Broncos, whom they’ve replaced with former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano. It’d be an all-time feat to repeat the chaos they caused in the takeaway and defensive touchdown department in 2018. The Bears should still field a dominant defense with the presence of Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, Roquan Smith, Kyle Fuller and Akiem Hicks.
The true answer to how Chicago’s 2019 season will play outlays in the hands of third-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The partnership of head coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich orchestrated a top 10 offense last season, leaning on their excess of offensive talent to make life easier on their young quarterback. Heading into this season, the Bears have kept relative autonomy on offense, bringing back all five offensive linemen, their top three receivers, both tight ends and the electric Tarik Cohen, as well as adding Mike Davis in free agency and David Montgomery & Riley Ridley through the draft. All the pieces are in place for the Bears offense to not only retain their top 10 offense but move upwards to the top five, but it all depends on Mitchell Trubisky becoming a quarterback who can’t be erased by the defense when the passing attack is keyed in on by opposing defenses. If Trubisky takes that step, he will take the Bears toward the top of the NFC, if not, the Bears will continue to peak around the Wild Card game.
Last season: 8-7-1
Player to watch: Dalvin Cook, Trae Wayans, Kirk Cousins
Prediction for 2019: 9-7
By all measures, the 2018 Vikings season was a failure. Coming into the year after finishing 2017 as the NFC runner-up and signing the biggest free-agent quarterback on the market in Kirk Cousins, the Vikings came into the season with Super Bowl aspirations. Instead, Mike Zimmer’s ball club sputtered to an 8-7-1 record and missed the postseason altogether, with the final nail placed in the coffin by division champ Chicago Bears in week 17.
The root of Minnesota’s troubles can be directly traced to the mediocre offense fielded all season long. The Vikings’ offense finished 19th in points per game during 2018, putting up only 22.5 points per game, a truly alarming number with the presence of two top 15 wide receivers in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, who both cleared 1000 yards, and the 84 million dollar man Kirk Cousins. So what went wrong? For starters, the Vikings offensive line was just awful, seldom opening lanes for the running game and leaking pressure in pass protection. Further speaking of the running game, Dalvin Cook never quite overcame his nagging hamstring all year and never regained his 2017 form. Also, the Vikings managed to give up the ball as many times as their defense took it away, setting their turnover differential at zero, a typical sign of a mediocre team.
GM Rick Spielman took it upon himself to pour serious capital into the long awful OLine unit, acquiring Riley Reiff and Josh Kline through free agency and drafted Garrett Bradbury in the first round of the 2019 draft, which should provide immediate improvement. If Dalvin Cook’s legs can cooperate with him for 16+ games (big if), the Vikes have one of the more talented backs in the league and should field a quality running game. The final piece for Minnesota’s offense is Kirk Cousins not becoming a painfully average quarterback when facing talented defenses. Cousins’ well-documented struggles against good teams can be perfectly summed up by his box score against the Patriots, Seahawks, and Bears during the home stretch of the season, where he threw for 201 yards on 44 attempts, 208 yards on 33 attempts and 132 yards on 33 attempts respectively.
If the changes along the offensive line, continued the health of Dalvin Cook, and the improvement of Kirk Cousins manifests for Minnesota to match their perennial top ten defense (21.3 ppg allowed in 2018), the Vikings can easily attain their status as a top team in the NFC once again. Question is, are the flaws embedded in Cook, who has dealt with injuries since college, and Cousins, who owns a paltry 4-24 against winning teams in his career, too deep to be reversed? The answers to those questions will dictate the success of Minnesota in 2019.
Green Bay Packers
Last season: 6-9-1
Player to watch: Jaire Alexander, Rashan Gary, Davante Adams
Prediction for 2019: 11-5
Heading into 2019, the Pack are in pretty rare territory for the history of this franchise. Green Bay has now missed the playoffs in back to back seasons, losing 9 games in both of those seasons. The Packers finally dropped long-time head coach Mike McCarthy, who appeared to have lost the respect of Aaron Rodgers and the locker room by the end of his tenure, and replaced him with young offensive-minded coach Matt LaFleur in hopes of providing a kickstart to a dormant offense.
A critical reason for Green Bay’s struggles in both 2017 and 2018 was the health of Aaron Rodgers. In 2017, Rodgers only played 7 games due to a fractured collarbone and in 2018 he suffered a knee injury in week 1 that he clearly never fully recovered from despite playing all 16 games. A full year of healthy Rodgers will immediately clear up offensive warts Green Bay has been plagued with over the past two seasons. Rodgers will also be aided by his young receiving core headlined by the rapidly ascending Davante Adams, who Rodgers seems to trust as much as he’s ever trusted any receiver over the course of his career, as evidenced by his whopping 169 targets during 2018, and Jimmy Graham, who Green Bay signed in free agency this offseason.
With the combination of Aaron Rodgers, his trusted #1 Davante Adams, and offensive guru Matt LaFleur, the Packers offense should enjoy a return to previous peak form, but the real fate of Green Bay’s season falls on their retooled defense. General Manager Brian Gutekunst entered the offseason with a clear agenda to add talent to their 22nd ranked defense and add talent he did, with the addition of Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos through free agency and the uber-talented Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage Jr in the first round of the draft. Under the guide of proven defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the talent acquired in free agency in addition to the continued improvement of the young guys on the roster such as Jaire Alexander, the second-year man who’ll be assuming the #1 corner role during this year, the defense will be in good position to take a leap from bad to respectable at the very least, if not good.
Last season: 6-10
Player to watch: Teez Tabor, Kenny Golladay, Kerryon Johnson
Prediction for 2019: 5-11
Despite my jest at Detroit in the intro of this piece, this franchise has for the most part been respectable. After all, it was just two seasons ago when the Lions narrowing missed the postseason at 9-7. Unfortunately for them, they plummeted from 2nd in the NFC North to dead last in just one year.
The culprit? While neither the offensive or defensive unit was any good last season, the offense was by far the lesser of the two evils, as they only managed 20.3 points per game, good for 25th in the NFL. Under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, the running game was nonexistent despite the success Kerryon Johnson found (5.4 yards-per-catch) and Matthew Stafford posted his worst ANY/A (adjusted net yards per attempt, 5.79) in a full season, suffering through a check-down and short-throw heavy approach from JBC. As a result, Cooter was ousted and replaced by former Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Will a change in philosophy from Bevell open up the passing game and lean into their talented young running back?
On defense, Patricia’s unit was quite literally middle of the road, finishing 16th in points allowed per game. The Lions made two quality signings in Trey Flowers and Mike Daniels to bolster the defensive line, taking the unit from an average bunch to a problem for opposing teams in just one offseason. However, the true key for the Lions’ progression on defense rests on the development of Jarrad Davis, their starting middle linebacker, and Teez Tabor, who will take on #2 corner duties this season. Davis has been solid thus far in his career but the same certainly cannot be said of Tabor, who has struggled in his first two seasons. The Lions already have an ace #1 corner in Darius Slay, if Tabor can be more than a turnstile on the other boundary for Detroit, their defense will be in much better shape than the previous season.