Vikes, Pack make NFC North 2-horse race

The favorites: Vikings and Packers. This is expected to be a two-horse race. Some sportsbooks make the Vikings slight faves, while others have the teams with identical odds to win the division, such as + 150 on both at William Hill and + 165 on both at Circa Sports with a big gap to the Bears and Lions. It really appears to be a coin flip. However, while the Vikings would be considered slight consensus favorites to win the NFC North, several books give the Packers better odds to win the Super Bowl. While the Vikings were 28-1 at William Hill and Caesars Palace as of Aug. 24, the Packers were 16-1 at Caesars and 18-1 at Will Hill. The assumption is that while bettors might think the Vikings and Packers are equals in the division race, they’re more likely to trust Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers over Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins in the playoffs.

Live dog: Bears. The Bears went only 8-8 last year, but this is basically the team that went 12-4 in 2018 and lost in the playoffs to the Eagles on the “double-doink” missed field goal. The big question this offseason has been whether free-agent signee Nick Foles would beat out former first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky as the starting QB. With no preseason games to publicly showcase the batte, there are conflicting reports from training camp about who’s ahead. When in doubt, I always turn to the betting market. Caesars has Foles at 60-1 to lead the NFL in passing yards while Trubisky is 300-1, so you know which way they’re leaning. I wouldn’t trust this Bears team as chalk. But with a defense that wasn’t as spectacular as 2018 yet still had enough talent to rank No. 8 in yards per game, they should be live in the underdog role. They’re worth a flier at 4-1 (as high as 9-2 at Westgate and Circa) to win the NFC North for the second time in three years.  

Prop players: Lions QB Matthew Stafford is 10-1 to lead the NFL in passing yards. He missed the second half of last season with a back injury, but if you double his 2,499 passing yards in eight games for a full season, he would have been just 111 yards behind leader Jameis Winston. As recently as 2017, Stafford finished third in passing yards, and you know the Lions will be playing from behind a lot. Minnesota RB Dalvin Cook also needs to avoid the injury bug, but he’s talented enough to claim the rushing title at 20-1 if he does. The Packers’ Davante Adams is the only wide receiver with 4,000 receiving yards and 40 TDs since 2016. He’s clearly Aaron Rodgers’ No. 1 target in Green Bay, so why can’t he lead the NFL in receiving yards at 14-1?

Big games on the board

Green Bay at Minnesota, Week 1: Whoever wins the opener will have the upper hand in the NFC North. The schedule maker did the Vikings a favor in making them the home team. This line has been bouncing back and forth between Vikings -3 and -3.5, though some books make Packer backers lay -120 to get the + 3.5.

Green Bay at New Orleans, Week 3: If the Packers knock off the Vikings in the opener, this could be a key game in the race for a first-round bye. Even if they lose, this could be a key game in the wild-card race. The Saints are six-point home favorites in Westgate’s Games of the Year.

Minnesota at Green Bay, Week 8: The second Vikings-Packers meeting, this one at Lambeau Field, could be just as important in the NFC North race, especially for the team that lost the opener. With the change of venue between these evenly matched teams, the Westgate has the Packers as three-point home faves, while PointsBet has it slightly lower at Packers -2.5.

Chicago vs. Minnesota and at Green Bay, Weeks 10 and 12: We couldn’t settle on a fourth big game for the NFC North, so we’ll just say that if the Bears are going to challenge the Vikings and Packers, these prime-time games will be pivotal. The Vikings are pick-’em at the Bears in Week 10 in a Monday nighter, and the Packers are -5 vs. the Bears in Week 12 on a Sunday night.


Minnesota (Over 9 + 100, Circa)

The Vikings have one of the more balanced teams in the NFL on offense and defense. RB Dalvin Cook is a stud, and QB Kirk Cousins puts up big numbers. Minnesota traded disgruntled WR Stefon Diggs to Buffalo but replaced him in the draft with first-round pick Justin Jefferson. While Mike Zimmer’s defense slipped a little to No. 13 in yards allowed per game last season, the Vikings ranked better at No. 6 in scoring defense with 19.4 ppg allowed. 


Minnesota opens with a tough stretch of five games against four playoff teams from last year (Packers, Titans, Texans and Seahawks) but has enough talent to get through that and build a winning campaign. The key to overcoming the Packers in the NFC North is to avoid getting swept like they did last year, so those are key games in Weeks 1 and 8. Even if the Vikings are struggling around the .500 mark halfway through the season, the schedule gets easier starting in November with two games each against the Lions and Bears, and one against the Jaguars. They face the Cowboys, Panthers, Buccaneers and Saints in that stretch, but this team is good enough to at least split those and get to 10 wins. 


Green Bay (Over 9 + 115, Westgate)

The Packers are coming off a 13-3 season, Matt LaFleur’s first as head coach. But I always thought they were doing it with mirrors, as the offense ranked 17th and the defense 18th. They were ultimately exposed with two blowout losses to the 49ers, falling 37-8 in Week 12 and 37-20 in the NFC Championship Game. Other reasons the Packers might regress? They open with four of six games on the road and then have to travel back to San Francisco for the Thursday nighter in Week 9. In addition, the front office took a long-term approach in drafting Utah State QB Jordan Love in the first round instead of giving Aaron Rodgers another weapon. 


Still, it’s hard to imagine a Packers team -- with Rodgers having something to prove -- falling all the way to 8-8, which is what it would take for an Under-9 ticket to cash. For all the obstacles facing the Packers, Over 9 at plus money is the way to bet.


Chicago (Over 8 + 115, Circa)

Whether or not you think Nick Foles would be an upgrade over Mitchell Trubisky at QB, this total seems too low for a team that’s pretty close to the one that went 12-4 just two years ago. Matt Nagy went from Coach of the Year that season to 8-8 last year. Despite Trubisky’s struggles, WR Allen Robinson still had 98 receptions for 1,147 yards and was the third-most-targeted receiver in the NFL, so he’s clearly the go-to guy. Anthony Miller also steps up at times, and Chicago added TE Jimmy Graham to an offense that also has weapons in RBs David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen and Cordarrelle Patterson, who is attempting a conversion from WR to RB.

 If Graham is seen as an aging veteran taking one more shot at glory, the Bears’ defensive equivalent is LB Robert Quinn, who comes to a defense led by DE Khalil Mack and ranked No. 8 last season. It all adds up to a team that has a better chance of getting back over .500 at 9-7 than it does of slipping even further to 7-9.   


Detroit (Under 7 + 105, Westgate)

Matt Patricia continues to bring in players from his former employer in New England, but despite his championship pedigree earned under Bill Belichick, he’s only 9-22-1 after two seasons in Detroit -- and went 3-12-1 last year. That came after starting 2-0-1, and it’s unlikely the Lions will start that fast again since their first four opponents are the Bears, Packers, Cardinals and Saints. Potential wins dot the schedule (Week 6 at Jacksonville, Week 7 at Atlanta, Week 10 at home vs. Washington), but it’s hard to see them adding up to the 8-8 record it would take to win an Over-7 bet.


Patricia can certainly make the excuse that he would have had a better record last season if QB Matthew Stafford hadn’t been injured for the second half of the season, but the Lions were only 3-4-1 with Stafford. Besides, the Lions’ bigger problem was the defense -- Patricia’s supposed specialty -- which ranked 31st in yards allowed per game. The upside looks more likely to peak at 6-10.


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