With the regular season beginning in just a couple days, when the Lions face the Chiefs on Thursday night, let’s take a look at the regular season division schedule for the NFC North and how it may affect the division outcome at the end of the season.
NFC North Schedule and Early Lines
Below is the schedule for each NFC North team and the early lines for each game, which of course are subject to change. But overall we can get an impression of the market view for each team in the division and also some of the scheduling quirks that could affect the final results in the division at the end of the season.
Let’s take a look at each NFC North team’s schedule and draw some insights into how it may affect divisional results.
We will learn a lot about how much better/worse this Vikings team is compared to last season early on. The key measuring stick will be the Thursday night matchup on the road against the Eagles. All eyes will be looking to see how the Vikings fare compared to their Week Two matchup last season, when the Vikings got beat soundly by the eventual NFC Champion Eagles. And while the Vikings will be focused initially on the Buccaneers, certainly a lot of planning has already gone into their matchup against the Eagles on a short week. A close game or an upset on the road will cause a re-think of the Vikings prospects this season. Similarly, a victory at home against the Air Coryell 2.0 Chargers would improve the Vikings’ outlook, especially with a suspect coverage unit.
Apart from matchups against the Chiefs and 49ers (both home games), the Vikings schedule looks very manageable through Week 14 at the Raiders following their bye week. But the last stretch of four games will be crucial, as two of them will be against their leading division rival Lions, along with a tough matchup against the Bengals. My guess is that the Packers will have been eliminated from post-season contention by Week 17, so that game at home may be easier than expected as the Packers may have packed it in for the season.
Brian Flores vs. Young Quarterbacks and Jared Goff
Perhaps the biggest theme of this season for the Vikings will be how effective Brian Flores’ blitz-heavy scheme will be. It’s not a defense NFL offenses see much. The challenge for opposing offenses is to get their protection call right and for the quarterback to make a quick, accurate read and get the ball out quickly and accurately. That’s easier said than done, especially for young quarterbacks, and especially if it’s well disguised. Even more experienced quarterbacks, such as Jared Goff, have been rattled when facing Flores’ defense.
In the NFC North, the Vikings have six games against young, relatively inexperienced quarterbacks, and Jared Goff.
Goff has faced Flores’ defense twice, once in the 2018 season Super Bowl and again in 2020 in Miami. His combined passer rating over those two games was 62.86, with two lost fumbles as well.
Jordan Love has a small sample size, but has not done well when under pressure, with a 26.4 PFF passing grade on 31 dropbacks under pressure since 2021. Last season his PFF passing grade under pressure was 45.0, also poor.
Justin Fields has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league under pressure, and against the blitz, and tends to hold the ball- he had one of the longest time to throw stats in the league last year by starting quarterbacks.
Other quarterbacks that have ranked relatively poorly under pressure and/or against the blitz include Baker Mayfield (Week 1), Jalen Hurts (Week 2), and Brock Purdy (Week 5). There are a couple other young quarterbacks on the Vikings’ slate that don’t have a lot to go on at the NFL level in Bryce Young (Carolina) and Desmond Ridder (Atlanta), but it wouldn’t be a surprise if one or both of them struggled against Flores’ scheme too.
The key for Flores’ defense in all of these games is not only can they get to the quarterback, but also tackle well on the perimeter to defeat the most common counters to his blitz-heavy scheme. Not allowing much success on the long ball counters as well will be key.
Overall, the Vikings are either favored or neutral in ten games, which is close to the 11-game win total I projected for the Vikings this season, and over the 8.5 over/under win total projected by the betting market.
It’s all about Justin Fields when it comes to the Bears this season. Can he make a Josh Allen-like jump in his third season? The odds are firmly against it, but anything is possible. They have arguably the best linebacker duo in the league now defensively, but not much beyond that either up front or in coverage. The big addition offensively is WR DJ Moore, but how often can Fields connect with him?
The matchup this Sunday against the Packers should be an interesting measuring stick for both teams. My guess is that the Bears will fired up at home against their oldest division rival and eager to change the rivalry narrative in the post-Aaron Rodgers era. The Packers have not started well for the last two seasons under Matt LaFleur, getting blown out by the Vikings and Saints the last two seasons in Week One. The Bears had their biggest upset Week One last season, beating the 49ers 19-10 at Soldier Field in the pouring rain.
Four of the Bears’ first five games could go either way, so it will be interesting to see what their record will be when the Vikings come to town Week 6. They will be without their best pass protector in left guard Teven Jenkins for at least four weeks as they placed him on injured reserve with two calf strains. Beyond Jenkins, the Bears’ offensive line has been banged up too and that could affect how the team fares through the first part of the season. If the Bears struggle through the early part of the season, their season could go south in a hurry, riding that negative momentum.
The Bears have a Thursday night game against the Commanders the week before their first matchup against the Vikings, so the Bears will have the advantage of coming off a mini-bye week at home.
The Bears will also be coming off a bye week when they play the Lions at home Week 14, which is another advantage against an NFC North rival.
Overall, the Bears are underdogs in ten games at the moment, not far off from my prediction of an 8-9 season.
The Lions schedule is unusual in that they have three Thursday night games this season. The first one this Thursday to start the league season off against the Chiefs, and then two more- both against the Packers- one being their traditional Thanksgiving Day game.
The Lions have a couple early challenges against the Chiefs and Seahawks, but then have perhaps the easiest stretch of their schedule between Week 3 and 6, facing the Falcons, Panthers, and Bucs during that stretch. The Lions will be without first-round draft pick WR Jameson Williams for the first six games of the season due to his suspension for violation of the league gambling policy.
They have a mid-season bye week with a couple tough games near either side of it with road games against the Ravens and Chargers, before finishing with the toughest part of their schedule beginning Week 13. Four of their last six games are on the road, and most will likely be against teams in position to make the playoffs or improve their playoff standing, including two games against the Vikings over the last three weeks of the season. It will be interesting to see if the Week 18 matchup in Detroit is for the division crown or not.
There is a lot of hype for the Lions this season, and they open as the betting favorite to win the division, although not as clear a favorite as the Packers were last year at this time. The early lines have the Lions favored in 11 games, a couple more than my prediction of a 9-8 record for the Lions this season. But the Lions still have a lot of question marks on defense and nobody seems to mention that they had only 4 turnovers in the last 11 games of the season last year (along with 17 takeaways), and how that might not be sustainable. The Lions lost every game in which they did not win the turnover battle last season.
There are a number of pundits out there that believe the Packers will win more games this year without Aaron Rodgers than they did last season with him. I’m not one of them. Current games lines have the Packers favored in just 5 games this season, not far off my prediction of a 4-win season for the green and gold. Still, some think they could be a playoff team this year.
Be that as it may, the easiest part of the Packers schedule comes early on, before their early Week 6 bye week. Things get tougher after that when the Packers are favored in just one of their next 8 games. They have a couple easier matchups prior to the Vikings matchup Week 17, at which point they’ll likely be eliminated from playoff contention and could end up mailing it in at US Bank stadium. We’ll see.
The issue for the Packers is that all their skill position players in their passing offense have two years or less of starting experience. QB Jordan Love has just one start since being drafted in 2021, which is one more than slot receiver Jayden Reed and TE Luke Musgrave. Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs are the senior men now in the Packers’ passing offense- both are second year players. They combined for just over 1,000 receiving yards last year.
Given that, the Packers may be looking at running more of a play-action, run-heavy scheme this year compared to the Aaron Rodgers era. The Packers are reportedly interested in trading for Jonathan Taylor, despite having two good backs in Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon on the roster. Apparently the issue is that this may be the last year for Jones and the Packers are looking at opportunities to find his replacement.
Be that as it may, the Packers may find themselves with an anemic offense this season, and a team that can’t afford to fall behind in games, which would put increased pressure on their passing game.
Defensively, the Packers have a good unit on paper but also one that ranked 17th last year in points and yards allowed. They’re going to need more from that unit to stay competitive and I’m not sure they’ll get it. That could lead to a long season for the Packers but also put them in range to draft a top quarterback next year. In that sense it would be better if the Packers won 6-7 games this season than the four games I’m predicting.
I still believe the division crown will be between the Vikings and Lions, with the first few games and the last few games of the season being particularly important for both teams. If the Lions stumble out of the gate and go 0-2 against the Chiefs and Seahawks, ‘the same ol’ Lions’ refrain is bound to be heard and their confidence could well be shaken. Similarly, how the Viking fare against the Eagles and Chargers early on will be telling. And then the last games of the season, in which the two teams play each other twice in the last three weeks, could well be decisive.
I see the Bears and Packers battling for 3rd and 4th place in the division, and ultimately the Packers being the cellar-dwellers. How Sunday’s matchup goes will be the first measuring stick between the two teams on different trajectories after last season. But the Packers have a more difficult schedule and could be facing their most difficult season for quite some time.
Which team is the best value bet to win the division, given the odds?
This poll is closed
Detroit Lions +145
Minnesota Vikings +260
Green Bay Packers +350
Chicago Bears +430