An equal-opportunity division recently, the NFC North hasn’t seen a repeat champion since 2013-14, when the Packers claimed back-to-back crowns. In the last three years, each member has hung the banner — except, of course, the Lions, who haven’t done so since the division was named the NFC Central and the year was 1993.
Speaking of the Central, the Buccaneers play in the NFC South, but they have won the Central more recently than the Lions despite being realigned two decades ago. In 2016 the Lions looked poised to snap that streak. As hefty preseason 10-1 underdogs to win the division, according to sportsoddshistory.com, they sat at 9-4. They needed only one victory in their last three games to make good on that bet.
However, the drought prevailed. They lost all three contests, including a de-facto division title game in the season finale at home to the Packers, who overcame a 5-6 start to storm to the winner’s circle. The Packers won their last five games in the regular season and two more in the playoffs to improbably reach the NFC championship game, where they have been throttled twice in four years, getting outscored a combined 81-41.
The 2016 Packers rewarded those who took them as -200 chalk to win the North before that season, but playing on division favorites has not been a profitable endeavor recently. In the last five seasons, the Packers’ other two division titles came as sizable 2-1 dogs. The Vikings won it twice, once at 3-1, the other at 5-1. The Bears in ’18 made it to the window as a lofty 8-1 long shot.
This year the oddsmakers have drawn a clear line, with the Packers and Vikings co-favored at less than 2-1 while the Bears and Lions are priced to tempt dog bettors at 4-1 and 7-1, respectively. Will history repeat itself and reward a contrarian pick, or will Minnesota or Green Bay extend the dominant stretch in which these two teams have combined to capture eight of the last nine division titles?
Week 1: Green Bay + 3.5 at Minnesota. Mike Zimmer has been one of the most successful coaches in league history in covering the spread, covering 62% of home games and winning 70% of home games outright. But the noisy dome in Minnesota won’t be nearly as noisy for this one. Road teams early in the season are usually not as encumbered by traveling, even under normal circumstances, because fatigue and lack of prep time is not an issue in Week 1. The other circumstance created by the pandemic is an abbreviated offseason. The Vikings drafted 15 players, many of whom they expect to contribute right away, as three-fourths of their starting secondary has moved on. New hires need time to be trained. The Packers won decisively last season in Minnesota on a Monday night in an ugly game a couple of days before Christmas. Getting over a field goal is an early gift this year.
Lions to make the playoffs: Yes + 320. Great value here based on the very misleading three-win season. The Lions have an explosive offense with a high-quality quarterback. The season got off track when not only Matthew Stafford got injured but backup Jeff Driskel did as well. With Stafford, they led most of the way against the Cardinals, Packers and Chiefs but came away with only a tie and two losses. Even with the bad losses, they stood at 3-4-1 and had hopes of competing for a wild card. Without Stafford, they were dysfunctional. They lost every game in his absence, perhaps validating his value as much anything he has done on the field. When he played, he was outstanding. He had his highest career passer rating and was on pace to throw nearly 40 TD passes. Ironically, the franchise most known for a great running back has struggled to develop a running game in Stafford’s tenure. The brief glimpse of Jahvid Best’s Olympic speed nearly a decade ago gave hope to Lions fans but was short-lived. The Lions hope they solved the problem of finding a feature back with the 35th pick in April’s draft. D’Andre Swift will not help the Lions’ subpar defense make any tackles, but he should contribute right away in the running and passing games as well as help keep the defense on the sideline. The first “7 seed” in the NFC just might be the Lions.
Week 1: Lions -1 vs. Bears. Taking the Lions here for many reasons stated previously. They are a high-quality offense hosting a team that scored the fourth-fewest points in the league last season. Both matchups in 2019 were decided by a touchdown or less. Stafford did not take a snap in either game. David Blough had the Lions in position to beat the Bears on Thanksgiving, staking his team to a 10-point lead while throwing two touchdown passes in the first 10 minutes. After that impressive first quarter, Blough threw only two more touchdown passes the rest of the season to go along with six picks. The upgrade at quarterback is enough to swing last year’s close losses into a Lions victory in this year’s opener.
Packers to make the playoffs: No + 120. As misleading as the Lions’ three-win season was, the Packers’ three-loss season was equally confounding. They were nearly dead even in yards allowed vs. yards gained as well as points allowed vs. points gained. Who cares? They won the games. That’s all that matters, right? Sure, the wins don’t come off the board, but as far as using them as a predictive tool, they are quite relevant. As evidence of their significance, look at their season win total: nine. Vegas is anticipating considerable regression. Aaron Rodgers’ production has been on a steady decline, and at his age, with only Davante Adams as a reliable target, it’s hard to see why that trend will reverse. While 13-3 is an incredible season, it loses its luster when you read the names of some of the quarterbacks Green Bay beat: Derek Carr, Daniel Jones, Joe Flacco, David Blough, Matt Moore, Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen and Mitch Trubisky twice. The Lions had them beat twice, getting robbed on Monday night and blowing a 14-point lead at home in the season finale. The Lions’ improvement, along with a first-place schedule, will make the road to January far more fraught with peril than it was a year ago.