NFC North, the Best Division in the NFL?

Phil Kennett

Let’s face it, this season has been an inconsistent and strange season for the NFL. We have had countless injuries to star players, a high number of mismatched games resulting in a bigger number of ‘blowouts’ and not to forget the off-field activities that took centre stage at the beginning of the season (Ezekiel Elliot, among others).

However, in all this, we have had an extremely entertaining, high octane and highly watchable NFC Conference. The usual NFC powerhouses including the Packers, Seahawks, Giants and Falcons have not nearly been as successful or entertaining as the past few seasons, and although this is probably due to a number of injuries to key players, what this has done has created the opportunity for new NFC playoff bound teams such as the Rams, Saints and Eagles to illustrate their progression and
worth. Who would have thought that at the beginning of the season?

Although the NFC South is a strong contender for the best league in the NFL, with 3 top teams vying for the guaranteed play off place (sorry Buccs!), the NFC North is extremely competitive with 4 good teams vying for that 1st place spot!

The Vikings, the current leaders with an impressive 7-2 record boast one of the best defences in the league. They are in pole position to finish in 1st place but the teams below them will push them all the way. It is often said that offense wins games and defence win you titles and this is certainly the case for the Vikings.

They have only let opposing teams’ score 20+ points against them on two occasions this season and with the likes of Stefon Diggs returning from injury, Jerick McKinnon looking useful and Adam Thielen having a productive, impressive season, the Vikings appear to have everything in order to secure that top spot. However, their upcoming fixtures might prove a problem.

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The Vikings have 3 fixtures on the road in a row after playing the Rams this weekend. These on the road games include divisional rivals the Lions followed by the Falcons and Panthers. They finish the season again against 2 divisional rivals in the Packers and Bears whom will both be fighting tooth and claw to gain a potential wildcard spot.

With the Falcons looking rejuvenated after their best performance of the season against the Cowboys last week and the Panthers in good form, the Vikings will have to keep their foot on the pedal to secure top spot and won’t be able to afford any slip ups. If Case Keenum does fall away, as he has done previously, we simply don’t know how good
Teddy Bridgewater is going to be after such a long time out with injury which could prove costly for the Vikings playoff run.

The Lions in 2nd place have a 5-4 record and compared to the Vikings have a much easier schedule on paper for the remainder of the regular season. It’s never easy to win any game in December but the Lions play the likes of the Bengals, Ravens and Bucks whom will all have nothing to play for. It was this time last year that the Lions put together a 5 game winning streak to secure a playoff spot and the Lions could easily replicate this again this season.

What makes the Lions interesting is their ‘never say die attitude’ which has resulted in a number of memorable 4th quarter comebacks over the past couple of seasons. Also, Matthew Stafford is arguably having a better season this season and is currently ranked 5th in the NFL for passing yards and add into the mix that Golden Tate and Marvin Jones have looked explosive on offensive plus the 11 interceptions they have had on defence, this makes the Lions an interesting and enjoyable team to watch that will push the Vikings all the way!

The Lions and Vikings game on Thanksgiving this Thursday will be a huge game in deciding who secures top spot in the NFC North and securing that all important bye week in the post season.

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Where do you start with the Packers? With a same 5-4 record as the Lions it is clear the Packers miss Aaron Rodgers and which NFL team would not miss the best Quarterback in the NFL? The Packers would not be in this position if it were not for Rodgers injury, and that is no disrespect to Brett Hundley but Mike McCarthy must take some criticism, surely?

McCarthy is classed as an ‘offensive coach’ having worked as both an Offensive Coordinator at both the Saints and 49’ers previously as well as a Quarterbacks Coach with Chiefs and Packers before securing the top job in Wisconsin over 10 years ago. However, he clearly has not got the best out of Hundley or this Packers offense.

The most alarming aspect is that the likes of Jordy Nelson have not looked the same since Rodgers went off injured in Week 6 and Hundley has not been able to get the best out of his wide receivers.

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Does this fall down on Hundley or McCarthy? All season, even before Rodgers injury, the Packers haven’t been able to run a successful ground game and you would have thought that with Hundley’s in-experience that this is something McCarthy would have looked at to get the offense moving more reliably.

Having said all that you can never rule out the Packers and the talented rooster they possess. Couple this with the fact they have games against the Ravens, Bucks and Browns over the next 4 weeks they could be sitting 8-5 going into the final 3 weeks when Rodgers could be nearing a return. Never say never with the Packers!

Finally, the Bears sit in last place with a 3-6 record with the hopes of making the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season. Although it would take a small miracle for the Bears to reach the playoffs, it is not completely out of the question which keeps all 4 teams in the NFC North fighting for that playoff berth.

Firstly, the Bears defence has stepped up this season and are currently the joint 6th best team in the NFL for sacks recorded. The Bears have lost 6 games this season by 8 points or less highlighting that their defence is keeping them in games and just require more output on offense.

Since Mitchell Trubisky’s debut in week 5 it feels like he has been wrapped up in cotton wool and we still do not know what he is truly capable of. Each week it feels Trubisky is allowed more and more influence on offense yet we still do not know how good a passer he is as the Bears are a ‘rush first’ offense with Jordan Howard, Benny Cunningham and Tarik Cohen. This could be due to the fact that Trubisky does not have the same weapons Deshaun Watson, another Rookie QB, had around him earlier this season so do not want to throw him in the deep end just yet.

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On the flipside the Bears do have the easiest run in for the rest of the season with games against the 49’ers, Bengals and Bears. Win these 3 games and take into account they play the Lions twice before the end of the season, the Bears could easily sit 7-8 going into the final game of the season against the Vikings, which makes things very interesting.

Throughout the NFL divisional games are always important in how each division shapes up but it feels even more important in the NFC North. Each team has at least 2 divisional games before the end of the regular season and the importance of each of these games cannot be disputed in how the overall NFC North playoff scenario plays out. All we do know is that it will be a topsy-turvy, entertaining ride in deciding who achieves 1 st place and this is the reason why the NFC North is the best division in the NFL. Enjoy the ride!

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