Continuing with our NFL divisional breakdowns, we shift to the NFC North, where three of the four teams had records of .500 or better in 2019 and two made the postseason. Here’s my look at what often seems the hardest division to predict, though it is almost always only a three-horse race, as the Detroit Lions haven’t come out on top since 1993.
2019 record: 8-8
2020 season win total: 8.5
2020 division odds: + 225
2020 non-division games: at Panthers, at Falcons, at Jaguars, at Rams, at Titans, Saints, Buccaneers, Texans, Colts, Giants
Coach Matt Nagy and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky were heroes in their rookie years in Chicago, finishing 12-4 and winning the division. Hopes were high entering 2019, but the team was completely average — an 8-8 record, 15th in DVOA, turnover differential of zero, above-average defense, below-average offense. The Bears were a disappointment.
Chicago has added Nick Foles to compete with Trubisky in 2020. I’m not sure Foles isn’t worse than Trubisky. I’ve always thought Foles was average at best, and it amazes me why teams open their checkbooks for him. Trubisky has his share of shortcomings but has shown to be a very effective weapon when Nagy designs plays for him to use his legs and run the offense while on the move. I don’t think adding Foles hurts the Bears, but I don’t see it as a game-changing improvement.
Adding tight end Jimmy Graham is a fairly vanilla move, but getting Robert Quinn to go alongside Khalil Mack on the defensive line is a big deal. This defense rated 11th against the pass in 2019 and 12th versus the run. The offense is where things are lacking. The Bears were 22nd in passing and 23rd in rushing, and the problem is worsened by the lack of draft picks. The Bears have no first-round pick, two second-round choices, no third-round selection and one fourth-rounder.
The skinny: I see the Bears as a seven- to nine-win team in 2020, but they are a pass for me as far as any wagers. The season win total of 8.5 looks to be spot on, and + 225 to win the division is not rich enough for my liking. I believe Chicago is more likely to finish last in the division than second.
2019 record: 3-12-1
2020 season win total: 6.5
2020 division odds: 12-1
2020 non-division games: at Panthers, at Falcons, at Cardinals, at Jaguars, at Titans, Saints, Buccaneers, Texans, Colts, Redskins
Matt Patricia is entering his third season as coach. He went 6-10 in his first year but won just three games in 2020. It cannot get much worse this time around, and I don’t expect it will. The Lions began last season 2-0-1 and should have been 3-0 but blew a 17-6 fourth-quarter lead over the Cardinals in Week 1 that ended in a tie. They lost their final nine games, and the last eight were without injured quarterback Matthew Stafford. Detroit ended the season with the third-worst record in the NFL yet was ranked 25th in DVOA. Five of this team’s 12 losses were by four or fewer points, and its turnover differential was -5.
The numbers on offense were not bad, ranking ninth in passing and 17th in rushing. Defense was the problem, as the Lions were dead last in the league in passing defense and 22nd against the run. A top-notch defensive back in Darius Slay left for Philadelphia, but draft picks were received in return. Linebacker Jamie Collins and defensive tackle Danny Shelton came over via free agency from New England, the league’s top-rated defense in 2019, and defensive back Desmond Trufant joins up from Atlanta.
The Lions’ poor record last season put them near the top of the draft with the third overall pick. I believe they will trade the pick and try to get two first-round selections, with which I expect them to load up on defense. They also need to add a solid running back who can lighten the load on Kerryon Johnson and alleviate his history of injury.
The skinny: If the draft goes in the Lions’ favor and they avoid injuries, I think they’ll improve to .500. I will play Over their season win total of 6.5 but will lay off winning the division at 12-1, though I do think that might be the best value play on the NFC North board.
Green Bay Packers
2019 record: 13-3
2020 season win total: 9.5
2020 division odds: + 125
2020 non-division games: at Texans, at Colts, at Saints, at 49ers, at Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers, Titans, Eagles, Jaguars
The 2019 Packers were the most fraudulent 13-win team I’ve ever seen. But from a betting perspective, this gives us a great deal of opportunity, as all the numbers on Green Bay in 2020 are lofty, though the season win total of 9.5 is not through the roof.
The Packers’ three losses came to the Eagles (9-7), the Chargers (5-11) and the 49ers (13-3) and were by an average of 17 points. They beat a three-win Lions team twice by a combined four points. They beat a three-win Redskins team by just five. They went to the NFC championship game and trailed San Francisco 27-0 at halftime. One method to their madness was ranking third in the NFL in turnover differential at + 11. That is unlikely to be repeated and is more likely to regress substantially.
Despite ranking 10th in DVOA, the Packers were an average team at 15th in passing offense, 12th in rushing offense, 16th in passing defense and 24th in rushing defense. The biggest news in free agency has been the loss of decade-long offensive line cornerstone Bryan Bulaga, who joined the Chargers. In response, however, Green Bay grabbed offensive tackle Ricky Wagner from Detroit. The Packers’ draft stock has good volume and could allow them to maneuver via trade, but the picks are not jump-off-the-page stuff. The Packers have 10 draft picks: one each in Rounds 1 through 5, all deep in the draw, and then five more picks in Rounds 6 and 7.
The skinny: I don’t want to call coach Matt LaFleur’s rookie season with the Packers beginner’s luck, but it reminds me a bit of Matt Nagy’s first season with the Bears, in which he too won the division. Chicago fell to 8-8 in Nagy’s sophomore season, and I would not be surprised if Green Bay does the same. However, Aaron Rodgers can almost single-handedly win a game for his team. Still, at 36, Rodgers is getting older and has shown signs of decline. There is no value whatsoever in betting this team to win the division at + 125, and I will play Under the season win total of 9.5.
2019 record: 10-6
2020 season win total: 8.5
2020 division odds: + 210
2020 non-division games: at Texans, at Colts, at Saints, at Seahawks, at Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers, Titans, Cowboys, Jaguars
Throughout last season, I thought the Vikings were better than eventual division winner Green Bay. In his second year with Minnesota, quarterback Kirk Cousins put up very solid numbers, completing over 69% of his passes, averaging over 8 yards per attempt and compiling a passer rating of 107.4. He threw 26 touchdown passes against just six interceptions. The Vikings’ fifth-ranked rushing offense helped them average 5.8 yards per play, ninth best in the NFL.
Some new faces will dot Minnesota’s 2020 roster, but I believe they have a good chance to be better for it. Stefon Diggs has been shuffled off to Buffalo in return for first-, fifth- and sixth-round draft choices. Everson Griffen, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Xavier Rhodes depart via free agency. Minnesota added defensive tackle Michael Pierce from Baltimore and has 12 picks in the draft, including two in the first and two in the third. The Vikings will need to reload in the secondary and on the offensive line and get a big-time receiver to replace Diggs.
Ranking third in the NFL in turnover differential at + 11 is cause for concern. This is not the type of number that can be easily sustained. The Vikings rated seventh in DVOA, and that seems about right. I could see them being in the top 10 in this metric again in 2020. Five of Minnesota’s 2019 losses were understandable — twice to Green Bay and to Seattle and Kansas City on the road. Also, they lost the final game of the regular season to the Bears but rested most of their starters, having clinched a wild-card spot.
The skinny: Cousins takes a great deal of flak, some of it deserved. But as evidenced in 2019, when he is equipped with an excellent running game and a stout defense, he can be a winner. Winning a playoff game last season at New Orleans was a big step for him. The Vikings had a good draft in 2019, and with 12 picks in 2020, I expect another successful weekend. I will play this team Over the season win total of 8.5 and at anything better than 2-1 to win the NFC North.