NFC North Preview: Can Aaron Rodgers Will Packers Back Into Division Title Contention?

The Green Bay Packers’ chances to win the NFC North in 2017 more or less dissipated when Aaron Rodgers was driven into the ground in a game against the Minnesota Vikings, resulting in a broken collarbone for the former MVP.

The Vikings went on to win the division and came within a game of reaching the Super Bowl and now look poised for another big season. Has the balance of power shifted in the NFC North, or are Rodgers and the revamped Packers gearing up for a return to prominence?

DIVISION ODDS
Minnesota Vikings +115
Green Bay Packers +150
Detroit Lions +600
Chicago Bears +900

DIVISION FAVORITE
Minnesota Vikings — It’s hard to bet against Rodgers, but his injury last season hid a dirty little secret for the Pack: The Vikings have gained ground and might have even passed them. Minnesota has followed the NFL blueprint to success by building a young, cost-controlled team with plenty of talent. That’s especially true on the defensive side of the ball, where the Vikings’ front seven is arguably the best in the league with ball-hawking playmakers in the secondary. The offense should be better this season, too, with quarterback Kirk Cousins coming aboard as the Vikes’ offseason splash. Don’t discount the return of Dalvin Cook, either, who looked destined for a fine rookie season in 2017 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Mike Zimmer also makes a strong case for the North’s best coach.

DIVISION SLEEPER
Detroit Lions — A lot would have to break right, but don’t be surprised if the Lions have a bounce-back season in 2018. New head coach Matt Patricia would have to buck the trend of former Bill Belichick assistants struggling on their own but he certainly is taking over a team that has some intriguing talent on both sides of the ball. Matthew Stafford won’t win the MVP, but the resilient quarterback will oversee an offense that came to life under retained offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Stafford will have a couple of new pieces, too, after the Lions signed the serviceable LeGarrette Blount and drafted rookie Kenyon Johnson to give them a solid 1-2 punch out of the backfield. And the defensive-minded Patricia will try to turn around a unit that showed signs of life down the stretch, allowing the fourth-fewest yards per play in the final three weeks of the season.

IMPACT NEWCOMERS
Vikings QB Kirk Cousins — The Vikings went out and got their man, signing Cousins to a deal that made him the NFL’s richest player. Now, he’ll look for a fourth straight 4,000-yard season.

Packers TE Jimmy Graham — Can Rodgers and the Packers revitalize Graham’s career? If he stays healthy, the former All-Pro could be one of the NFL’s top red-zone weapons with Rodgers slinging passes his way.

Bears LB Roquan Smith — Chicago had one of the best drafts in the league, highlighted by Smith at No. 8. The Georgia linebacker is likely to become the cornerstone for another important newcomer, new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, as the Bears continue their rebuild.

Bears DE Khalil Mack — The Bears mortgaged the future, but in the process, they acquired arguably the best defensive player in the league. Chicago’s defense is now an elite unit, and while they still might be a year or two away from truly contending, the Monsters of the Midway could be back on the big stage before long.

MAJOR STORYLINE
Can Aaron Rodgers stay healthy and perform at an elite level? The Vikings pretty much have a decisive advantage over the Packers at every position… except one: quarterback. Cousins certainly bridges the gap some, but if Rodgers is healthy and playing at his peak level, he’s arguably the best player in the NFL. That alone might be enough to give Green Bay a shot at the division title, but if he suffers another injury or his play isn’t what we’ve come to expect from the former MVP, the Vikings should run away with this division.

Thumbnail photo via Jim Matthews/Green Bay Press Gazette via USA TODAY Sports Images

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