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Here is the 2021 Pro Football Betting Guide preview for the NFC North.
THE FAVORITE: GREEN BAY PACKERS
The NFC North futures market was more volatile than the stock market this offseason. Coming off back-to-back division titles at 13-3 and back-to-back trips to the NFC championship game, the Packers were obvious favorites, but then the Aaron Rodgers soap opera began. When rumors circulated about Rodgers retiring, the Vikings were made the chalk, with a lot of books taking the division off their boards. But with Rodgers agreeing to new contract terms, the Packers regained their role as favorites around -200.
Rodgers, who won his third MVP award last season with career highs of a 70.7% completion percentage and 48 TD passes, is obviously the straw that stirs the drink. Davante Adams is the team’s best WR and arguably the best in the NFL at a deep position, but Rodgers also spreads the ball around. RB Aaron Jones is a notch below Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, but he has had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons with 30 TDs over the last two years. Green Bay’s defense ranked No. 7 in yards allowed last season, feasting on weaker teams, but its shortcomings often get exposed against better teams. So the Packers are the class of the NFC North until proven otherwise but not as good a bet in other futures markets.
LIVE DOG: CHICAGO BEARS
The Bears went just 8-8 the last two years while trying to figure out whether Mitchell Trubisky was their QB of the future, but the core of this team also went 12-4 in 2018 and could steal the division again at a juicy price (+ 850 at William Hill). The reason for optimism is that the Bears traded up to draft Ohio State’s Justin Fields, and he looks like he could be the franchise’s best quarterback since Jim McMahon.
The Bears don’t have the skill players to match the Packers and Vikings, but they have a solid group of RBs with David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen and Damien Williams and an underrated receiving corps of Allen Robinson II and Darnell Mooney along with TEs Jimmy Graham and Cole Kmet. Fields ran for a TD and passed for another in his preseason debut, but just as encouraging for Chicago fans was that Fields said the game “slowed down” for him after having to face the Bears’ defense in practice. Chicago’s defense has been up and down in recent years but has the players necessary for the best defense in the NFC North with Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith and Eddie Jackson. That could be important in crucial divisional games against the Packers and Vikings, when it might be necessary to win shootouts against Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins.
PROP PLAY: DAVANTE ADAMS OVER 11 TD RECEPTIONS OR OVER 1,300.5 RECEIVING YARDS
No one was happier to see Aaron Rodgers back in Green Bay than Davante Adams. He has been Rodgers’ go-to guy, and he’s still head and shoulders above the supporting cast. His Over/Under stat numbers are high, but they’re high for a reason, and we think the Over 11 TD receptions or Over 1,300.5 receiving yards at DraftKings are solid prop bets. Also check out his odds for leading the league in receptions, receiving yards and TDs. He’ll be among the favorites and, barring injury, should be right in the mix.
BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD
Green Bay at Chicago (Oct. 17)
If the Bears are to contend for the NFC North title, this is a big early test. The Packers have a relatively tough early schedule, facing the Saints and 49ers on the road and the Steelers at home. But the Bears’ early schedule isn’t bad except for games at the Rams and Browns. So there’s a chance both could come into this game 3-2 or within a game of each other. The advance line is Packers -6.
Green Bay at Minnesota (Nov. 21)
This is the key game in the NFC North. The Packers are on the road, but the advance line is Green Bay -1.5, which could change a lot depending on what happens in the first 10 weeks of the season.
Chicago at Green Bay (Dec. 12)
If the Bears upset the Packers in Week 6 or are otherwise able to keep up in the division race, this could determine the NFC North champion. NBC obviously hopes so as it’s the “Sunday Night Football” game. If the Packers are pulling away in the division, the 9-point advance line might look like a bargain in four months.
Minnesota at Green Bay (Jan. 2)
If the season win totals are right and the teams are separated by one or two games, this could be the game that decides the NFC North. The advance line is Packers -6, and that sounds about right if the Vikings are still within striking distance.
Green Bay Packers
It was a wild offseason as Packer Nation waited to see what Aaron Rodgers would be taking his talents to a new NFL city or as permanent “Jeopardy!” host, but he’s back for at least one more season. Rodgers has become increasingly vocal throughout his career about the lack of support around him and wanting to have more say in personnel decisions. The front office did get him three new offensive lineman during the offseason, but this is pretty much the same team we’ve seen the last two years -- which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as they’ve made two straight trips to the NFC Championship Game.
The Packers’ Over/Under has been all over the board and still hadn’t totally settled by mid-August with some books dealing O/U 10 wins and others at 10.5. Green Bay has a fairly difficult schedule to navigate with early road trips to New Orleans and San Francisco and another road date at Kansas City in Week 9. They shouldn’t have too much difficulty with their other first-half of the season games (Lions, Bengals, Bears, plus tougher opponents in Washington Football Team and the Cardinals), so a 6-3 record at the nine-week mark looks reasonable -- and possibly 7-2 or better if they can pull minor upsets in those rough road games. The key in those games could come down to the defense (a lofty No. 7 in the league, allowing just 329.9 yards per game), which sometimes built up its stats on weaker foes and didn’t come through against tougher opponents.
The second half of the season might actually be a little tougher with home games vs. the Seahawks, Rams and Browns, but if the defense improves, Rodgers should get his share of wins. When we applied our Money-Line Estimate (MLE), which takes into account the advance point spreads and correlated money lines for all 17 games, the Packers came in at 10.613 wins. That makes Over 10 the play as that looks like the bottom for this Green Bay team. After all, the Packers are projected to be favored in 14 games this season and they’re coming off back-to-back 13-win seasons in 16-week schedules, so it’s really hard to see this team only winning single digits in a 17-week season unless Rodgers misses significant time or there’s a cluster of other injuries. Since you need 11 wins anyway to cash the Over bet, some bettors will opt for the Over 10.5 if they get a better price.
Vikings fans have to be excited to watch their offense led by RB Dalvin Cook and the WR tandem of Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. The jury is still out on Kirk Cousins, especially when it comes to prime-time games and the playoffs, but he still puts up big numbers in the regular season, throwing for more than 4,000 yards in five of the past six season (the last three being in Minnesota). The one season he fell short, he actually posted his best passer rating of 107.4 with 26 TD passes and just 6 INTs. However, the big concern is the defense.
Head coach Mike Zimmer build his reputation on defense and was greatly disappointing as his team ranked 27th in yards allowed and 29th in points allowed last season. Zimmer undertook a major overhaul this offseason by signing 11 defensive free agents, led by Dalvin Tomlinson and Patrick Peterson, and also has starters like Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks returning from injury. It remains to be seen if that does the trick against a challenging schedule.
When looking at how the schedule lays out and the advanced betting lines for each game, the bad news for Minnesota is that the Vikings are only favored in eight games (and five of those are -3 or lower, so pretty much toss-ups). The Week 5 home game vs. the Lions is the only thing close to a “gimme” with the Vikings favored by 8.5. They’re not favored by more than 4 points in any other game. In the first half of the season, they’re not big underdogs in any games until being 7-point ‘dogs at Baltimore in Week 9, but they have several tough games against the Cardinals, Seahawks, Browns, Panthers and Cowboys that could go either way. The second half of the schedule looks a little easier (if they’re able to sweep the Bears and Lions in their NFC North rivalries), but they’re also 6.5-point dogs at San Francisco in Week 12 and 6-point dogs at Green Bay in Week 17 to go with other games that are closer to coin-flips.
When we applied our MLE (Money-Line Estimate converting point spreads into outright money-line projections), the Vikings only ended up with 8.368 wins. The play would be on Under 9 at plus-money as eight wins looks more likely than 10 that would be needed to lose the wager.
When looking over the Bears’ schedule and whether they’re more likely to go Over or Under their win total of 7.5, one has to figure out whether Andy Dalton will remain the starting QB (something coach Matt Nagy reiterated even after rookie Justin Fields’ impressive preseason debut) and if/when Fields will take over. And, of course, how much of an upgrade Fields will be. I believe Fields is a significant upgrade (even with the expected rookie mistakes) and the Ohio State product should be starting sooner rather than later. Home games vs. the Bengals in Week 2 or vs. the Lions in Week 4 look most likely if not starting the opener.
As of this writing in late August, none of the Bears’ advance lines have been adjusted, so this is one of the rare times I’m going against the fact that the Bears’ MLE (Money-Line Estimate converting point spreads into outright money-line projections) is just 6.674 and they’re currently favored in four games. We expect them to be favored in closer to half their games by the kickoff. Early bettors who saw this coming were able to bet Over 6.5, but the Bears still look like an overlay despite the oddsmakers’ adjustment to O/U 7.5 wins, as most books are still offering plus-money on the Over. To exceed their total, the Bears would have to go just 8-9 after going 8-8 each of the last two seasons (after this core group went 12-4 in 2018).
Chicago’s defense isn’t expected to rival the “Monsters of the Midway” or the ‘85 Bears or even the 2018 team when Khalil Mack arrived, but they ranked No. 11 in yards allowed last season and can still keep the team in games -- and maybe a QB like Fields can eventually turn some narrow losses into wins. The Bears have a tough opener at the Rams, but then have a fairly easy stretch (Bengals, Browns, Lions, Raiders) to see if they can have a winning record going into a Week 6 home game vs. the Packers. That will likely determine whether the Bears will be able to compete for a playoff spot. The Green Bay game is followed by three more tough games against the Buccaneers, 49ers and Steelers, but by that time that teams could be regarding the Bears as a tough team. If Fields lives up to the hype, that could very well be the case.
The Matt Patricia era is over, as the Lions went just 13-29-1 during his tenure. Matthew Stafford, who did the best he could since arriving as the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2009, requested a trade and was dealt to the Rams for Jared Goff and two first-round picks. Time will tell if those picks help the Lions turn it around in the long run -- in addition to new head coach Dan Campbell, who spent the last five years as assistant head coach under Sean Payton in New Orleans -- but the short-term prospects for this season aren’t too good.
The Lions let star WR Kenny Golladay leave for the New York Giants and didn’t replace him with comparable talent (unless Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman take big steps forward) and didn’t do enough to fix a defense that allowed franchise-high in points allowed (519, 32.4 per game) and yards (6,716, 419.8 per game, which ranked dead-last in the NFL). Our MLE (Money-Line Estimate converting point spreads into outright money-line projections) only adds up to 4.541 wins, so it’s really hard to find wins on the schedule, especially as only two games -- Week 6 vs. the Bengals and Week 8 vs. the Eagles -- have the Lions of underdogs of less than a field goal.
It’s a brutal start the season, as the Lions are the biggest underdog of Week 1 (7.5-point home dogs vs. the 49ers), followed by a trip to Green Bay and then a home game vs. the Ravens. Is it possible the Lions could pull an upset against divisional rivals Chicago or Minnesota in Weeks 4 or 5? If not, their best chance for their first win would be those aforementioned games vs. the Bengals and/or Eagles. If they don’t pick up at least a couple of wins by their bye in Week 9, it’s going to be really tough in the second half of the season with road games at Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver, Atlanta and Seattle. The home slate is only slightly easier vs. the Bears, Vikings, Cardinals and Packers.
Overall, they’re dogs of more than a touchdown a whopping 10 times in the advance lines! It’s tempting to go Under 5 as added insurance in case the Lions do scrape out five wins and get a push on that win total, but it’s probably a better bet to just go Under 4.5 and get plus money.