This time last year, it felt like the Minnesota Vikings were a team on the precipice of a crisis.
A 5-0 start had turned to 8-8 and elimination from post-season play. They had been thumped by the Packers at Lambeau in the second to last game of the season, and during the first half of the game there was a controversy about whether or not the Vikings defensive secondary had freelanced their coverage as opposed to what they were instructed to do by the coaching staff. That resulted in Jordy Nelson running wild in the first half of a 38-25 loss.
It was a season marked by injuries to the starting QB, a trade for a new QB, a season long injury to their face-of-the-franchise player for the better part of a decade, and an offensive line decimated by injury. When you add in what looked like a mini revolt by the players against Mike Zimmer in Green Bay, it felt in some ways that the Vikings were a team that was closer to drifting away from the playoffs than they were to getting back to them.
Head coach Mike Zimmer’s first three years had been uneven, as two mediocre seasons had sandwiched a division title and a one and done playoff appearance. There was significant progress on defense and there were few issues there, so I don’t think Zimmer himself was on the hot seat. But after an offensive line rebuild orchestrated by GM Rick Spielman for 2016 failed miserably, the GM’s seat seemed to be warming up.
The 2016-17 offseason would make or break this franchise for several years going forward and if they didn’t nail it, jobs were going to be on the line. To their credit, the front office and coaching staff prioritized and fixed what needed fixing in free agency, and supplemented it with a really good draft. From the ashes of 2016 came a roster that can absorb some key losses and still keep winning.
As a result, the Vikings are 13-3, won the division, and have a first round bye. If you like their potential divisional round match up and don’t like Nick Foles as the answer for Philadelphia, you can see a path to the Vikings playing at least two and hopefully three more games at US Bank Stadium this season.
But for the rest of the division, things aren’t quite as rosy right now.
Over in Detroit, The Lions finished 2017 at 9-7, but made the playoffs as a wildcard last year. It was their second post season appearance in three years, and they signed franchise QB Matthew Stafford to a five year extension last August. They had a top 15 defense, and an offense that was a legit running back away from being a serious NFC threat.
They re-tooled their offensive line thinking that might be the issue with the running game, but it wasn’t enough. A three game winning streak in November got them to a showdown with the Vikings on Thanksgiving, and a win there would give them a legitimate chance to overtake the Vikings and win the division. But the Vikes won, the Lions got their doors blown off the next week by the Ravens, and they ended up missing the playoffs at 9-7. As a result, the Lions fired Jim Caldwell and are now looking for a new head coach and staff. I still think the Lions are closer to contending than they are to falling off, though. A good running game will take pressure off of Stafford, the defense will need to be tweaked, but they have good players at every level to build around. I’m not sure Jim Caldwell deserved the axe, (three winning seasons in four years, two playoff appearances), but his tenure raised expectations in Detroit, and he became a victim of his own success. If the next coach can get them a playoff win or two, it will have been the right call.
Chicago seems a lot closer to contending than they were a year ago. 2016 was a disaster at 3-13, and I think it’s fair to say that might have been rock bottom for them. They had a good off-season, and although people will talk about the draft day trade that secured them QB Mitchell Trubisky for years, he showed promise and got better as the season progressed. Ultimately, this team will succeed or fail largely on whether or not Trubisky does, but there are a lot more parts to work with.
The Bears parted ways with John Fox in what was an expected move, but Fox constructed a solid defense for this team to build around. It’s young and fast, and if the Bears can upgrade their offensive line and get some guys for Trubisky to throw to, it’s going to be a good unit. Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard might be the best RB combo in the NFL behind Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, but a lot of what happens will depend on what coach they hire and what Trubisky does moving forward.
And then there’s been perennial front runner Green Bay. In 2016, they made it to the NFC Championship for the second time in three years, and lost for the second time in three years. They looked as strong as ever, and knocking them off the mountain top would be a tough chore for as long as Aaron Rodgers was running the offense.
But then he wasn’t, and a lot of weaknesses bubbling just below the surface that Rodgers helped mask with his brilliant play were laid bare for the world to see. It led to the firing of defensive coordinator Dom Capers, and the reassignment of duties of GM Ted Thompson. Several other highly regarded Packers front office personnel have either left for other jobs or are rumored to be in the hunt for them, and what was once the most stable of front offices is undergoing a sea change.
In some ways it’s tough to argue against that sea change from happening, though. Brett Hundley, the QB understudy to Rodgers for the last three years, was mostly horrid. The offensive line suffered a series of injuries almost on par with the 2016 Vikings, but even when they were healthy they were a question mark, much like the 2016 Vikings o-line before all the injuries hit. The running game is middle of the road, and there isn’t a guy they can consistently lean on to take pressure off Rodgers and adequately balance the offense.
And what of Aaron Rodgers? His comeback game against Carolina was up and down, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and there is a legitimate question as to how much longer he has left with the Packers. If he comes back healthy, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with, but he is mortal, and he won’t be around forever.
The only sure thing to return at WR is Davante Adams, who just signed a big contract extension, but that’s a risky move. Not because of his play, but because of two serious concussions he suffered in 2017. If you’re Green Bay though, you still do the deal with Adams, because someone else most assuredly would. With Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb both owed a lot of money next year, I can see a scenario where Green Bay could let both of them walk depending on what they do in the draft and free agency, and they need continuity there.
Their defense is a mess, as the 3-4 base under Capers crumbled. They have some good players on that side of the ball, but will those players fit in a new defensive scheme? I think the secondary should be okay, and that’s the strength of the unit. It will be interesting to see what happens with the front seven and what changes will be made, because when you’re 22nd in yards, 26th in points, 28th in third down percentage, and 31st in red zone percentage...changes are coming.
While the rest of the NFC North is dealing with significant changes in their front office and/or coaching staff, the Vikings are resting up and getting ready for the divisional round of the playoffs in a couple weeks.
What a difference a year makes.