The VSiN pro football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 32 teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.
Here are the team previews and best bets for the NFC North:
Green Bay Packers
The “Black and Blue Division” has been dominated by the Green Bay Packers, who have won three straight NFC North titles and nine of the last 12 with the only exceptions being the Vikings in 2015 and 2017 and the Bears in 2018. The Packers’ latest three-year run began after Matt LaFleur replaced Mike McCarthy in 2019. LaFleur has led the team to 13 wins in each of the last three seasons alongside superstar QB Aaron Rodgers, who is the two-time defending NFL MVP. They haven’t had as much success in the playoffs as the Packers lost in the divisional round last year after back-to-back losses in the NFC title game in LaFleur’s first two seasons. Still, DraftKings has the Packers as the odds-on choice to win the NFC North again at -190 with the Vikings (+ 265) as the only real threat.
Green Bay’s biggest news of the offseason (aside from every time Rodgers spoke or did anything in front of a camera) was the trade of star WR Davante Adams to the Raiders. Adams was obviously Rodgers’ go-to guy the last five years and last year was targeted 169 times, more than 100 more than any other offensive player. He’s going to be missed, but how much? Rodgers (37 TD passes, 4 INTs last year) is the straw that stirs the drink. It’s interesting to note that Rodgers is 10-1 in his last 11 games without Adams with 24 touchdown passes and three interceptions, so it’s clear he can elevate the performance of whoever the coaches trot out there — fans might remember the game against the Cardinals last year when Rodgers won without Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard. Valdes-Scantling left for Kansas City as a free agent, but Lazard and Randall Cobb are back along with Sammy Watkins from the Chiefs and draft pick Christian Watson. In addition, the Packers hope TE Robert Tonyan plays more than eight games this season. Rodgers can also rely on the 1-2 RB punch of Aaron Jones (799 rushing yards, 10 TDs) and AJ Dillon (803 rushing yards, 7 TDs). Jones is also the top returning pass catcher with 52 receptions last year, so even without Adams we don’t expect much of a dropoff from the offense that averaged 26.5 points per game.
With all of the focus on Rodgers, no one gives the Green Bay defense the credit it deserves. Statistically, it performed as well as the offense as it ranked No. 9 in the league. Probably more impressive is the pass defense ranked No. 13 despite teams trying to keep up with Rodgers in shootouts. CB Jaire Alexander played only four games in 2021, so his return should make the pass defense even better with Eric Stokes on the other corner. First-team All-Pro LB De’Vondre Campbell leads the linebacking corps and is joined by Quay Walker, the No. 22 overall pick in the draft. The weakness is the run defense, which allowed 4.7 yards per carry. As a side note, the Packers’ special teams finished last or next to last in four of the past six years and special teams cost them the divisional playoff loss to the 49ers. The Packers need to clean up their special teams if they’re going to improve their recent postseason performance.
DraftKings has the season win total at 11. Even with such a high total, it’s hard to make a case for the Under, especially with a team that has back-to-back-to-back 13-win seasons. Even if you think they’ll miss Adams, it’s hard to imagine they slip all the way to 10-7. A 12-5 record seems more likely, especially with a favorable schedule to start the season against the Vikings, Bears, Buccaneers, Patriots, Giants, Jets and Commanders before a Week 8 game against the Bills. There could be other challenges along the way — most notably against the Cowboys, Titans, Rams and a Week 17 game versus the Vikings that could decide the division — but they might need to lose all of those to fall to that 10-7 record needed for the Under to cash.
Pick: Over 11
Last season ended with an 8-9 record and Mike Zimmer was fired after a second consecutive losing season. Zimmer, a longtime defensive coordinator, had a fairly successful run with an eight-year record of 72-56-1 (56.3%), two NFC North titles and three playoff berths, but the Vikings only had two playoff wins and played second fiddle to the Packers in the division. The Vikings are again the second betting choice to the Packers at + 265 at DraftKings under new coach Kevin O’Connell, who spent the last two seasons as the Rams’ offensive coordinator under Sean McVay, so there should be a renewed emphasis on the offensive side of the ball.
Many people believe the Vikings could have used a higher-level offensive mind in recent years to elevate the talent they have compiled. Kirk Cousins might not be a Top 5 QB (he ranks sixth in the league in passer rating since becoming a starter in 2015), but he’s certainly capable of putting up big numbers and fantasy owners love him. He should benefit from reuniting with O’Connell, who was his QB coach in Washington. The Vikings have one of the NFL’s top WR tandems in Justin Jefferson (108 receptions, a whopping 1,616 yards, 10 TDs last year) and Adam Thielen. And, when healthy, Dalvin Cook (1,159 rushing yards, 5th in the NFL, 6 TDs last year) is one of the best running backs in the league. This trio has been compared to Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Robert Smith from the 1998 Vikings team. On paper, the 2021 Vikings should have averaged more than 25.0 points a game (No. 13 in the league), but the hope is O’Connell will be able to bring all that potential together and show improvement.
Despite defense being Zimmer’s calling card, the Vikings’ defense ranked 30th in yards (383.6 per game) and 24th in points (25.1 per game). One of the reasons for the defense’s decline was losing pass rusher Danielle Hunter after just seven games as he was on his way to a Pro Bowl season with six sacks. He returns to headline the defense along with LB Eric Kendricks and S Harrison Smith, plus the additions of LBs Za’Darius Smith from the Packers and Jordan Hicks from the Cardinals as the VIkings move from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Ed Donatell.
The Vikings get an early test against the Packers. At least the game is at home, though the Packers are 2-point favorites. The Vikings then travel to Philadelphia in Week 2 for “Monday Night Football.” Most people know about Cousins’ woes in prime time as he’s just 2-9 on MNF, with the only wins coming against the Bears. The schedule gets easier with games against the Lions (home), Saints (in London) and Bears (home) after not taking the post-London bye week. There are certainly other challenges along the way — Week 10 at the Bills, Week 11 versus the Cowboys and Week 17 at the Packers — but it’s hard to not see the Vikings improving on their 8-9 record to get to at least nine wins — which would be a push on their season win total. They have a great chance to surpass nine wins if it all comes together.
Pick: Over 9
The Lions had another dismal record last season (3-13-1) but were surprisingly one of the best bets in the league with an ATS record of 11-6, trailing only the Cowboys, Bengals and Packers. They started 0-8 SU under first-year coach Dan Campbell, but they had near upsets of the Ravens (who needed an NFL-record 66-yard FG by Justin Tucker at the final gun) and Vikings (on Greg Joseph’s 54-yard FG). In fact, it was a historic event as the Lions were the first NFL team to lose two games in a season on field goals of 50 yards or more on the final play of regulation. The tie came against the Steelers after the 0-8 start and the Lions continued to be competitive despite their poor record as they lost five games by four points or fewer. Many people are high on the Lions’ chances to improve and they’re getting a boost in popularity from appearing on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”
The offense finished near the middle of the pack in passing yards (No. 18) and rushing yards (No. 19), outperforming the Lions’ overall record. Jared Goff replaced Matthew Stafford at QB and did the best with what he had to work with. He should have better receivers this year with the emergence of Amon-Ra St. Brown, first-round pick Jameson Williams and new arrivals D.J. Chark from the Jaguars and Josh Reyolds from the Rams. His favorite target will probably continue to be TE T.J. Hockenson. The Lions’ top weapon is running back D’Andre Swift when he can stay healthy (he’s missed seven games the past two seasons). He was coming off 100-yard rushing games against the Steelers and Browns and was leading the NFL in passing targets per game when he injured his shoulder against the Bears in late November. Jamaal Williams is a capable backup and they form a solid tandem. It might be a stretch to think the Lions can be a Top 10 offense, but they’re moving in the right direction.
The defense is more of a concern for Detroit as it gave up the second-most points in the league (467, 27.4 per game) and was near the bottom of most categories (No. 28 in rushing, No. 22 in passing and No. 30 in sacks). The good news is the team’s poor record allowed the Lions to draft local favorite/edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson from Michigan. Former No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah returns after rupturing his Achilles in Week 1 last year. Not a single Lion was named to the Pro Bowl, with linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin the only defensive player named as an alternate. CB Amani Oruwariye did have six INTs.
If Goff can fill the role of game manager with the improved talent to work with, the Lions should certainly improve on last year’s 3-13-1 record. Before the Week 6 bye, the Lions host the Eagles (as 4-point dogs) and Commanders (pick-’em), travel to the Vikings, host the rebuilding Seahawks and then travel to the Patriots. A 2-3 start isn’t outside the realm of possibility. It’s hard to see the Lions pulling off too many upsets against top-tier teams (two games against the Packers and Vikings plus Cowboys and Bills), but there are winnable games with two against the Bears plus the Giants, Jets, Panthers and Jaguars. If they were to go 4-2 in those six games, they’d have a shot to go Over their win total of 6.5 with another upset mixed in, but we’re leaning to the Under at 6-11.
Pick: Under 6.5
The 2021 preseason started with first-round pick Justin Fields getting a standing ovation, with Bears fans hoping they finally had a quality starting QB. However, even after taking over the job from Andy Dalton, Fields was inconsistent in his rookie season and the Bears went 6-11 (and 6-11 ATS), costing Matt Nagy his job. Enter new coach Matt Eberflus, but expectations for this Bears team aren't any higher after losing several top players to free agency. In fact, the Bears (14-1 to win the NFC North) have even longer odds than the Lions (10-1) in the division and their season win total has been bet down from 7.5 to 6.5. Many bettors view the Bears as one of the worst teams in the league and have been betting against them in several markets, including 8-1 odds to finish with the NFL’s worst record.
As Fields goes, so goes the Bears’ offense, as it’s being built around his skill set. Fields played in 12 games last year and started 10. He threw 10 INTs, lost five fumbles and was sacked 36 times. Part of that was him not making the right reads and getting rid of the ball on time, but part of it was also the subpar play of the offensive line that lost James Daniels to the Steelers and hasn’t re-signed Jason Peters. If you think the line is depleted, the skill positions are also sparse with the loss of WR Allen Robinson and TE Jimmy Graham. The running game could be in good hands if David Montgomery can stay healthy along with Khalil Herbert. Darnell Mooney is the top returning receiver and Byron Pringle comes over from the Chiefs, but it’s mostly an unproven WR corps, though Tajae Sharpe has looked sharp early in the preseason. With this offense, Eberflus would need to do a Coach of the Year-worthy job to get this team to contend for a playoff spot.
The offseason news was just as bad on the defensive side as the Bears traded six-time Pro Bowler Khalil Mack to the Chargers and DT Akiem Hicks is now with the Buccaneers. The news doesn’t get any better in the linebacking corps with top player Roquan Smith making noise about a contract extension or trade, though he has backed off his stance in recent days. With all those players — plus Robert Quinn’s 18.5 sacks — the Bears ranked in the Top 10 in total defense and several other categories. They still allowed 407 points (23.9 per game), though part of the blame falls to the offense for not sustaining drives and putting the defense in too many bad positions. But with all of the losses, the defense will be hard-pressed to have even that much success.
The early schedule doesn’t do the Bears any favors as they have to host the 49ers as 7-point dogs and then travel to the Packers as 10-point dogs on “Sunday Night Football.” The schedule gets considerably easier with their next two games against the Texans and Giants. After another tough stretch against the Vikings, Commanders, Patriots, Cowboys and Dolphins, they do get another easier run against the Lions, Falcons and Jets. Even with all their problems on both sides of the ball, the Bears have enough winnable games to get to at least four or five wins. Whether they can get Over the total of 6.5 is another matter. DraftKings has the Bears Over 6.5 -190, so we would certainly pass on laying that much juice, though that is the lean at that number. If you find a 7, we’d lean Under as the Bears might get to 7-10 for a push, but 8-9 seems far less likely than 6-11.
Pick: Over 6.5