(Editor's note: Midwest native Stephen Nover has been following the NFL since 1963 when he was a young boy. Stephen has paid particularly close attention to the NFC North Division. This is his season preview of the division. His choice to win the division? The Vikings at a plus $2.85 price. )
Minnesota Vikings – Notching a franchise-low 23 sacks last season after combining for 98 sacks the previous two years, the Vikings have retooled their defense to their previous high standards after surrendering the fourth-most points in the league. Minnesota added Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods and Mackensie Alexander to its secondary, had run-stuffer Michael Pierce opt back in after missing 2020 while dominant lineman Danielle Hunter and linebacker Eric Kendricks return from injuries. The Vikings' offense is the most explosive in Mike Zimmer's eight years at Minnesota. Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielan are among the best skill position players in the league. Cook rates as the second-best all-around running back in the NFL next to Christian McCaffrey. Given these weapons, Kirk Cousins averaged 292.2 yards passing with a 23-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio during the last nine games of 2020. Minnesota produced at least 27 points in eight of its final 10 games.
Green Bay Packers – Green Bay is the safe pick to win the division having gone 13-3 each of the past two years, reaching the NFC title game both times. Certainly with Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones, Davante Adams, an outstanding offensive line, decent pass rush and above average secondary the Packers are again serious Super Bowl contenders while vying to win the division for the eighth time in the last 11 seasons. There is a caveat, though. Rodgers and Packers management have to maintain peace and keep in harmony as they navigate what might be Rodgers' final season in Green Bay. It's also going to be difficult for Rodgers to duplicate his MVP 2020 season when he threw 48 touchdown passes. The Packers also rated low again in special teams. This has been a long-time problem – aside from kicker Mason Crosby – that third-year coach Matt LaFleur has so far failed to fix.
Chicago Bears – The Bears are excited to have drafted Justin Fields, but the cold reality is this: There's a better chance of Matt Nagy getting canned before the season ends than Chicago winning the division. Nagy may not make it past Thanksgiving given his team faces the Rams, Browns, Packers, Buccaneers, 49ers and Ravens during their first 10 games. Beyond Allen Robinson and David Montgomery's strong finish against weak opponents, the Bears don't show much at the skill spots. Andy Dalton hasn't been good in five years. Fields' opportunity is likely to come early. Defense has been Chicago's saving grace. But now that defense isn't elite. First time defensive coordinator Sean Desai must replace six of the team's 12 best defenders and rebuild a secondary minus star cornerback Kyle Fuller. Khalil Mack has a string of six straight Pro Bowls. Mack, however, hasn't reached double-digit sacks either of the last two seasons.
Detroit Lions – It's a different era in Detroit with team career passing leader Matthew Stafford going to Los Angeles, a new general manager, Brad Holmes, and new head coach Dan Campbell. Different doesn't mean better. Aside from a solid offensive line and promising breakout star, tight end T.J. Hockenson, the Lions have major issues as the new brain trust tries to clean the 13-29-1 debris of Matt Patricia. This includes a defense filled with holes, probably the worst wide receiving corps in the league and taking a huge hit behind center going from Stafford to Jared Goff. The Lions are slow defensively. They lack pass rushers. Their cornerbacks and linebackers struggle in coverage. A major fix is needed. Detroit's ground game is serviceable, but Goff goes from having a strong supporting cast and the sharp coaching of passing guru Sean McVay to the behind-the-times style of Campbell and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn.