1- Minnesota Vikings: 1-0
2- Green Bay Packers: 1-0
3- Detroit Lions: 1-0
4- Chicago Bears: 0-1
In our first look at the NFC North this season, the sky is already falling for the Chicago Bears (not). After one week, due to their 23-14 loss to the Houston Texans, the Bears sit alone in last place in their division. This could shape up to be one of the toughest if not the most difficult in the NFL this year given the talent in place with the Bears’ counterparts.
Let’s take a spin around the North, see what happened in Week 1, and preview what to expect for next week.
Green Bay Packers (1-0): Win at Jacksonville Jaguars, 27-23
As long as the Packers employ quarterback Aaron Rodgers, they’ll always be in contention for this division title and more. Following a loss in last year’s divisional round to the Arizona Cardinals, the Packers are one of the chic picks in the NFC to win the Super Bowl. This team isn’t necessarily as deep on every front, but because they possess the best player in the league, they’ll always have a chance to win.
On Sunday against a plucky rising Jaguars team, Rodgers was at his best.
We’ve seen the 32-year-old perform that kind of wizardry before. That’s often the difference in talent and execution between the very best. Ultimately, if you look at his stat line, the numbers don’t necessarily impress. 20-34, 199 yards, two touchdowns through the air, and one ran in by himself, are not the typical standards to expect in Green Bay. And yet in watching the game, you could sense he was in complete control and already comfortable with the return of his number one receiver in Jordy Nelson (six receptions, 32 yards, one touchdown).
That’s absolutely haunting to consider for NFL defenses.
The likely question with this team all season will be whether they can effectively weather the storm on defense. This is a team that has finished 15th in total defense each of the past two seasons, being particularly struck down in the ground game, with an average 22nd overall ranking. Gash the Packers on the ground, and you’ll likely win, because not only has the defense proven to be able to be moved up front, it also keeps the ball out of Rodgers’ hands.
Green Bay did largely shut down the Jacksonville ground attack (48 total yards), but the Jaguars aren’t the strongest running team. They also garnered some pressure on Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles with three sacks, but he did eventually get into a rhythm to keep the contest close.
Rodgers is going to be Rodgers so the defense needs to complement the quarterback if they’re to reach their potential. With the Vikings on the horizon this week, a team with a strong defense and running game that pummeled the Packers late last year, it’ll be fascinating to see how they respond.
Week 2: At Minnesota Vikings (1-0) Sunday Night Football
Minnesota Vikings (1-0): Win at Tennessee Titans, 25-16
In a trade that shook the NFL landscape, mostly because everyone wondered what exactly Minnesota was thinking, the Vikings traded a first round draft pick and a conditional pick for the bland quarterback Sam Bradford. Following the loss of the young Teddy Bridgewater, this was a trade for a player who can manage the game with a talented roster around him, as the Vikings possess, to potentially push Minnesota to new heights.
That height and mountain being the Super Bowl. Well, let’s just say we’ll see. They are still a playoff contender given their tremendously talented young defense led by Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, etc. and they do have one of the league’s best running backs in Adrian Peterson, so not all hope is lost. Given that Bradford is likely still learning the confines of the offense (at least I hope he is, otherwise that trade looks even more horrendous), the Vikings elected to start their incumbent Shaun Hill against the Titans with that aforementioned defense and tailback.
I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you, but, they are quite good.
Winning on the road in the NFL is never easy. It doesn’t matter who your competition is. The Titans might still be rebuilding, but the Vikings flexed their muscles on Tennessee in a way that suggests great things for the 2016 season.
Minnesota scored two defensive touchdowns, which is just unfair. One from linebacker Eric Kendricks-the NFC Defensive Player of the Week-on a 74-yard interception return, and the other from defensive end Danielle Hunter on a mishandled handoff between Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back DeMarco Murray.
Simply put, the Vikings defense harassed Mariota and company all afternoon, carrying over their dominance from last season. If Minnesota can win games like this, we have some shades of the 2005 Bears here (gasp). Shaun Hill wasn’t spectacular by any means (18-33, 236 yards) but he’s exactly what this team needs and what Bradford will need to do once he steps in. Manage the game and don’t make any mistakes.
This was all done without their best offensive player in Peterson making much of an impact either (19 carries for 31 yards), so you can only expect the Vikings to grow. Something to monitor will be their kicker in Blair Walsh, who made four field goals but missed two. You know him by now from his famous miss against Seattle in the Wild Card game last season. If he’s broken mentally in any sense, a team built around defense and running the ball cannot afford lost points.
Still, overall, not all hope is lost in Minnesota.
In fact, this team might still be as terrifying as we thought in the offseason. A big test in their new stadium comes against the Packers in prime time. If the Vikings are able to corral Green Bay without a quarterback who can test defenses, the sky’s the limit for the ‘Purple People’. Stay tuned.
Week 2: Vs. Green Bay Packers (1-0) Sunday Night Football
Detroit Lions (1-0): Win at Indianapolis Colts, 39-35
Common sense would have you believe that the Lions offense would become worse following the retirement of one of the NFL’s best offensive players ever (they’ve done it twice now). Calvin Johnson after all, was a generational talent at receiver and is likely to be in the Hall of Fame someday. Over the course of a nine-year career, one became accustomed to Detroit building their attack around the 6’5 230 lb. freak.
One thought that all the Lions do is throw the ball up to the aptly named "Megatron", and if you were able to slow him down (tough task), you’d have nothing else to worry about on offense. Without him, the Lions attack was supposed to be in shambles. You just can’t replace a talent like that so easily.
Or can you?
Quarterback Matthew Stafford picked up right where he left off from last season on Sunday, when offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter took over (still the greatest name in the NFL). In last year’s second half, Stafford put up a blistering 110.1 passer rating where he threw for 17 touchdowns to one interception. He’s still red-hot and it doesn’t matter who he’s throwing to.
What was once an offense of chucking the ball up to a freakish talent is now all pace and space. The Lions don’t push the ball down the field. They just get the ball to open athletes in space like running backs Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah, and expect plenty of yards after the catch. It’s a model of efficiency that is unstoppable if ran to perfection. Someone is always open. A team with a shoddy defense, one of the worst in the league, actually, in the Colts, has no chance of stopping it.
Stafford himself was the perfect maestro for the continued renaissance of this offense against Indianapolis. 31-39, 340 yards, and three touchdowns gave him one of the best quarterback performances in the league for the first week. I know the Colts defense is a tire fire, but I don’t want to take away too many brownie points from the Lions.
Their performance was masterfully impressive and should scare other defenses in the North. Yes, even the Vikings. This has been a continued growing trend from last season, so it’s no longer a fluke. What will ultimately hold the Lions back is their own atrocious defense, as they blew a big 18-point lead to the Colts, who largely only have one player doing all the work in quarterback Andrew Luck. The front seven still needs work and the secondary has nothing much reliably doing outside of corner Darius Slay.
For now, the Titans visit Detroit in their home opener. Expect the same symphony on offense from Stafford and company against a bad team.
And who knows? Maybe they can contend if they just outscore everybody. Maybe Stafford won’t let the defense drag this team down. They’ll be fun to watch, I can tell you that much.
Week 2: Vs. Tennessee Titans (0-1)
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.