It’s the second week of November, and lo and behold, there is no clear favorite in the NFC North. Whether you currently count the languishing in last place 2-6 Bears at still having a shot for the division title or not, the top three teams all are at least within one game of each other.
And who could have predicted this a month ago?
Who would have thought that the North would be the worst division in the NFC? In every other division, there is a team that’s stronger as a whole than any one mired in the pack in the North. Before we discuss the muck of this division, let’s examine the other competition that’s had the North slide in such a fashion.
NFC East: The East - which has the most depth of quality - currently possesses the 7-1 Dallas Cowboys, who some are considering the NFC favorite. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, his fellow first year partner Ezekiel Elliot, and a dominant offensive line, have the Cowboys humming along, even with a relatively mediocre defense. Not lagging too much behind them are the Giants, Redskins, and Eagles - who are all above .500.
None of these squads are perfect. The Giants have consistency issues on offense. Washington is bipolar on either end. And Philadelphia - who is expected to be number one in Football Outsiders’ DVOA-efficiency rating this week - the overall quality rating of a team, is currently having Carson Wentz experience rookie struggles.
DVOA preview: @Eagles are still No. 1. Really. Down 1.1% from last week, and worst team to ever rank at No. 1 after Week 9. (1/?)— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) November 8, 2016
Yet, still, all of these teams could be seen as figurative dark horses. This division could very well have two or three playoff teams given the current landscape.
NFC West: In the West, you have the 5-2-1 Seattle Seahawks, a perennial Super Bowl contender with one of the best quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and defense’s in the NFL. They have offensive line issues that may cost them against teams with better defense’s, but there aren’t many great teams in the NFC with a defense to take advantage.
There’s the 3-4-1 Arizona Cardinals as well, who while currently dealing with offensive issues due to the decline of quarterback Carson Palmer, still have a top defense and one of the best running backs in the league in David Johnson.
NFC South: Then, finally, you reach the South, which would normally make a run at the flux and inconsistency title in the NFC, but just may have the number one contender to Dallas or actually is the overall favorite in the 6-3 Atlanta Falcons, depending on who you speak to.
Atlanta leads in almost every relevant offensive statistic and has a leading MVP candidate in quarterback Matt Ryan. They are a finely tuned buzz saw that doesn’t lack sharpness on offense. Considering their weapons in the backfield in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, receivers such as the freakish “Megatron” heir apparent in Julio Jones, and a great offensive line, the Falcons attack is match-up proof.
Question their defense all you want, but a pass rush that currently features the NFL’s fifth leading pass rusher in Vic Beasley and company gives this team a dimension it needs once it builds a lead.
You finally reach the North, and you see nothing but mediocrity, confusion, and chaos.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings are a team that is somehow still in first place at 5-3 while on a three-game losing streak and just recently had it’s offensive coordinator resign in Norv Turner. Turner reportedly thought he was holding the offense back.
Well, he was wrong, given the lack of talent and numbers available. Minnesota traded for quarterback Sam Bradford with Super Bowl goals in mind, but forgot to upgrade an abhorrent offensive line.
The Vikings had a defense that was ranked first in the NFL in almost every relevant category just a few weeks ago, and is now instead expected to pick up the heavy slack for the league’s last place offense in yardage.
The DVOA and scoring numbers aren’t kind to the offense at 24th and 25th respectively either. With the second to last running game, there’s no balance to take pressure off of Bradford.
And, it also doesn’t help when your rookie receiver Laquon Treadwell doesn’t have a catch until the eighth game of the season. You need guys to step up. There aren’t many weapons to count on reliably sans tight end Kyle Rudolph or Stefon Diggs.
No defensive unit can withstand that kind of grind and excessive workload, especially morale wise. Teddy Bridgewater and an over-the-hill Adrian Peterson weren’t going to fix these present issues.
Detroit Lions: In Detroit, the 5-4 Lions have come back to win in the fourth quarter in all five of their wins this season. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is an underrated candidate at MVP given his production in leading this charge. He currently possesses the league’s fifth highest passer rating at 101.6 and has a sparkling 18-5 touchdown to interception ratio.
The space and pace offense is working out well in Detroit on the back of Stafford.
And yet, the Lions can’t stop anyone.
The 27th ranked defense in yardage and a defense mired near the very bottom of DVOA ratings, is the primary reason the Lions have to comeback. That’s not a recipe for success even while Stafford has matured incredibly to take his team by the reins. They’re only alive because of the state of the North, not because of their overall quality on defense. You can’t be the “Cardiac Cats” forever.
Green Bay Packers: Move over to Green Bay and for whatever reason, quarterback Aaron Rodgers isn’t a fire breathing dragon anymore. Compared to his previous standards, a 96.1 passer rating - good for 11th in the NFL - is modest and extremely understated. Green Bay has a sterling offensive line, Rodgers is among the least pressured quarterbacks in turn, yet something seems off.
He doesn’t make the same eviscerating tight window throws, sails normally accurate passes, and outside of receivers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, he doesn’t have many options. Of course, it doesn’t help when your running back is a wide receiver hybrid in Ty Montgomery too.
And as a whole, the Green Bay team is decidedly average.
The only statistic they’re near the top or lead in is rushing defense at number one. Otherwise, there’s a distinct lack of quality everywhere else execution-wise. The decline has been gradual, but as the Packers sit at 4-4 and .500 following a loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, there’s no denying it anymore.
Chicago Bears: Where does this leave the Bears you ask?
Are they still in the thick of things to contend for the division?
Realistically, no. This team is more about developing their young talent for next year. 2-6 is a deep hole to dig out of. Chicago isn’t as bad as their record suggests with a 15th and 13th overall defense and offense in DVOA respectively. Those underlying numbers speaks to more of an average team that let two close defeats fall through their grasps in the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis.
The remaining schedule does feature games against seven conference opponents - including the opposing North trio - but in all likelihood, it’s too late.
Sure, who knows what could happen if they go on a magical run, but it's essential to stay grounded.
Though, the Bears are relatively healthy coming off of their bye week and at least have hope available, however minute.
In the end, the NFC North leaves plenty to be desired, and if you have a horse in this “tense” race, tentatively start biting your fingernails for the impending roller coaster.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.