In the NFL, the strength of your division is often overlooked, and rarely over-stated. The strongest divisions this season appear to be the AFC West and NFC East, while the AFC South once again has no challengers for “Four teams overloaded with Mr. Irrelevant-types” as the Houston Texans look to default their way back to the playoffs.
But light is the head that wears the crown of winning of the NFC North.
When the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings meet on Thanksgiving day for the second time this season, it will give one of them sole possession of first place in the division; should the Lions win, it will give them an even stronger lead since they just beat the Vikings two weeks ago. Both teams are 6-4, but it’s clear that no Super Bowl favorite will emerge from the North this season. It didn’t seem that it would be this way only a few months ago, but in reality this predicament of having a division with no legit contenders was predictable, and the reasons for it quite simple.
Winning in the NFL usually requires either a great defense, a great quarterback, or in rare instances a combination of both, and the majority of successful teams have built their rosters through the draft. No team in the NFC North has both a great quarterback and a great defense, and for the most part, they’ve all been drafting pretty poorly.
For the Green Bay Packers, a team that has been to the playoffs in each of the last seven seasons, they had the best opportunity to take advantage of a championship window – the prime years of Aaron Rodgers – but they blew that chance with terrible drafting and talent evaluation from a front office led by general manager Ted Thompson. The Packers have insisted that they can build a consistent champion with almost no outside free agents, except that since 2010 they’ve drafted 60 players and produced just two Pro Bowlers: Eddie Lacy and Randall Cobb, both of whom got that honor just one time and have painfully regressed in the last two seasons.
Thompson built a solid offensive line through the draft, picked up a couple of above-average defensive players, but it’s not nearly enough for a team that is struggling to help Rodgers, who himself has turned into the David S. Pumpkins of the ball: Since the start of 2015, Rodgers is 15th in passer rating, and 40th in yards per attempt. Yes, behind 39 other quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts since the start of last season. With an average offense and an average defense, Green Bay finds themselves at 4-6 and facing a rebuild season in 2017, possibly with a new GM and head coach.
With the fall of the Packers, the opportunity to hold Green Bay’s head under water for the first time in over two decades finally presented itself in the lap of the Vikings, but they have promptly swept said opportunity under a thick layer of midwestern black ice. Minnesota has been successful at drafting and has a defense capable of going deep in the playoffs (second in points allowed, thirds in yards allowed) but an offense that is so comically inefficient, it’s a wonder how they ever get into the end zone. The Vikings are averaging an NFL-worst 2.7 yards per carry and while quarterback Sam Bradford is limiting his mistakes (just two interceptions) that’s not really a new skill for him; the problem with Bradford is that he can’t push the ball downfield, can’t take over a game in the fourth quarter when his team needs him, basically can’t do any of the things that QBs need to do in the playoffs to win.
As for the Chicago Bears, they do still exist. But they exist without a quarterback, without much talent on defense, and with a long list of notable players who aren’t playing right now like Alshon Jeffery, Kyle Long, Kevin White, Kyle Fuller and Lamarr Houston. The worst thing the Bears could do at this point is win a game, when instead they should be vying for a top-three pick in 2017.
But finally there are the Lions, the least-storied franchise in the division, but the one with the greatest chance of bringing respect back to the North within the next couple of years. Despite losing future Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson to early retirement, the team seems to have gotten more efficient this season: Matthew Stafford is posting career-highs in passer rating, Y/A, completion percentage, and has a league-best six game-winning drives. Defensively they’ve been mostly garbage (FootballOutsiders calls it the worst in the NFL) and yet they’re allowing just 22.5 points per game, good for 16th in the league.
Detroit’s running game is bad, but not as bad as Minnesota’s. Their quarterback may actually be better than Green Bay’s quarterback. Their defense is a mess, but was good enough to beat the Vikings in Week 9 – and on Thanksgiving Day, they’ll have a chance to solidify themselves as the class of a division that needs a quality team to emerge; a legitimate championship contender in which they can judge themselves against, much like the Packers were supposed to be.
Given another year of seasoning, another draft, another round of free agency, another year for Stafford, dont be surprised if the Lions are an actual contender next season, even if their defense is not nearly good enough to get them that deep into the postseason this year. It’s still a much better position to be in than starting over with a new GM or head coach, a very real possibility for division-mates Green Bay and Chicago.
But probably still a move that would benefit the NFC North as a whole by next season.