2021 NFC North Preview

September 6, 2021

Getty Images/Wesley Hitt

For the overall 2021 NFL Preview click here, and see the links below for the rest of the divisional previews.

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NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

Overview | Playoffs | Awards

Packers 13-4

It’s great that football season coincides with Marvel’s ‘What If …’ because that’s a big question in Green Bay.

As if being haunted by Matt LaFleur’s mind-boggling decision at the end of the NFC Championship weren’t enough for the Packers’ offseason, their future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers was apparently a coin flip away from retirement in one of the most overwrought NFL storylines since — well, since Green Bay had the yearslong “will he retire or won’t he?” game with Brett Favre that led the Packers to draft Rodgers in the first place.

My mind was again boggled when the Packers — clearly in an attempt to placate Rodgers — traded for Randall Cobb (a receiver who’s truly had three good seasons out of 10) and re-signed Aaron Jones to a lucrative contract extension even though the league has devalued running backs (and Green Bay spent a second-round pick on A.J. Dillon last year), but let a first-team All-Pro center (Corey Linsley) walk in free agency and still haven’t locked up Davante Adams (perhaps the NFL’s best receiver) — all while David Bakhtiari is out for the first six weeks of the season with the torn ACL that cost him the end of 2020.

If anything is left of my mind to further boggle, the Pack hired Joe Barry as defensive coordinator, apparently valuing a lot of bad experience over a lack of experience. Barry will preside over a unit that ranked ninth in yardage last season and 13th in scoring defense, and whose only “big money” acquisition was De’Vondre Campbell at $2 million for one year (which I suppose is considered big money in Green Bay).

So, why the gaudy prediction for the Packers, you ask? Aaron. F-ing. Rodgers. The man has a competitive drive like peak Michael Jordan, and this year has a “Last Dance” kind of feel to it. I don’t have them clutching the trophy named for their legendary coach as season’s end, but I do see them in the mix come playoff time.

Bears 8-9

I don’t know what it is about Ohio State quarterbacks getting drafted into messy situations, but add Justin Fields to the list.

Chicago made the playoffs in 2020, but you wouldn’t know it based on the consternation surrounding this team. The Bears cited an idiotic reason for keeping GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy despite mediocre results — including, but not limited to, the franchise-altering decision to trade up to take Mitch Trubisky second overall ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Now, they get a shot at Fields, who figures to be really good — even if it’s not ultimately for them.

Darnell Mooney enters his second season with high expectations and franchise-tagged Allen Robinson II remains the most underrated receiver in the league, so Fields should have weapons — the only question is how long Nagy keeps starting the underwhelming Andy Dalton behind what might be the worst offensive line in the league. I expect to see Fields on the field by October.

The Bears’ defense remains among the league’s most talented, but this unit was uncharacteristically middle-of-the-road last season. If Khalil Mack has a third straight season without double-digit sacks, it could be the beginning of a defensive decline they can ill-afford with such a questionable offense.

Chicago’s schedule will probably keep them from being significantly better than they were last year — the Bears play seven games against teams that had double-digit wins in 2020 — so count on another mediocre season that may or may not blow change into the Windy City.

Vikings 5-12

If you follow the Minnesota Vikings regularly, this prediction may be rather surprising. But hear me out.

Under Mike Zimmer, the Vikes have never put together strong seasons consecutively. And while last year’s 7-9 season implies a turnaround in 2021, I smell a letdown coming.

Kirk Cousins leads a talented offense highlighted by Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson, two explosive players. But talk that Cousins’ vaccine status might be causing a locker-room rift may not be totally off-base, and another COVID protocol absence could upend the Vikings offense for a week or two at any time. Irv Smith is likely out for the season with a knee injury, so that won’t help an offense that was ranked 11th in scoring last season and has some questions along the O-line.

Dalvin Tomlinson is a nice pickup for the defense, but Everson Griffen and Patrick Peterson may not have enough left in the tank to shore up a unit ranked 25th in pass yardage last season, sixth-worst in total yardage and fourth-worst in scoring. I know they’re healthier and have a defensive-minded coach, but this feels like the new Chargers — a talented team that finds a way to lose close games at an alarming rate.

Don’t get me wrong — I think Zimmer is a terrific coach. But even Andy Reid, one of the three best coaches in the league, has a four-win disaster on his ledger. And he’s in a better place because of it.

I expect Zimmer to be fired at season’s end and then land back in Dallas if Jerry Jones owns his Mike McCarthy mistake. Whether that counts as a better place than Minnesota is a different question altogether.

Lions 2-15

New coach Dan Campbell straight-up doesn’t care if you think he won his rather, well, colorful introductory press conference.

He’s an old-school throwback that literally threatened to take the Lions back to 1998 (he would actually have to go back further to find a time when the Lions were relevant, considering neither they nor Washington has been back to the NFC title game since they met there 30 years ago), which is fitting because Campbell’s coaching staff looks like a Pro Bowl roster from the 1990s.

The Matt Stafford-for-Jared Goff trade will define the foreseeable future in Detroit; Goff’s contract is an obvious albatross, but the Lions need the extra first-round picks more than they need the cap space. If new GM Brad Holmes can make the most of said picks, it could lay the foundation for a return to relevance in Motown (assuming Campbell is a better coach than his meathead persona implies).

On defense, Jeff Okudah’s got a new number and (he hopes) new mojo after a disappointing rookie campaign. Otherwise, this unit could be a disaster in 2021, because Michael Brockers is the only consequential name added to a defense that ranked dead last in both yards and points allowed last season.

Even if they won’t call it a rebuild, it’s going to take some time for Detroit to climb out of the hole dug by Matt Patricia. Goff would need a Brees-like resurgence to pull the Lions into immediate playoff contention, so while I think Detroit will be competitive, they won’t be any good in Year 1 of the Campbell era. Kneecaps beware.

Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is WTOP's Senior Sports Content Producer, which includes duties as producer and host of the DC Sports Huddle, nightside sports anchor and sports columnist on WTOP.com.

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