In the grand scheme of the NFL, the NFC North is right in the middle of the road in terms of competition, third in the conference for win totals and fifth in the NFL. But the inner workings of the division reveal massive inequality: the Green Bay Packers, who have won five of the last six titles and are top-four in the Super Bowl futures, are pulling the North north, while the rebuilding Bears are dragging the division toward the deep south — like “screw that meddlesome Atticus Finch” south — and the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions lie somewhere in between.
Are the Lions, who haven’t won the division since 1993, back when it was the NFC Central, going to have their second straight winning season? Will Minnesota push for a playoff berth in the post-Adrian Peterson era? Will the Bears’ huge (and very strange) bet on Mitchell Trubisky and Mike Glennon work out? Let’s answer those questions in the context of the teams’ 2017 Over/Unders, which you can wager on at any of our list of recommended gambling sites.
Green Bay Packers: Over 10.0
The Green Bay Packers live or die by the performance of Aaron Rodgers. When he was playing like a very good quarterback, the Packers struggled to a 4-6 record. When he got back to being an extremely good quarterback, they won eight games in a row, beat five playoff teams, and make the NFC Championship game.
It takes more than one guy to win the Super Bowl, however, and since Rodgers is creeping up on his boat-buying and Birkenstocks years, GM Ted Thompson (finally) made the decision to get aggressive in free agency. The Packers signed tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, corner Davon House, offensive lineman Jahri Evans, and defensive end Ricky Jean Francois. They also made an effort to plug obvious holes in the draft, going defense with their first four picks and also taking three running backs.
The Packers built this team to make the playoffs, and betting on them is a measure of your faith in that project. They’ve won exactly ten games in each of the last two seasons, so it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to see them improve in 2017, particularly with the weird difficulties they faced at the beginning of 2016.
Minnesota Vikings: Under 8.5
The Vikings haven’t won two football games in a row since October 9th, 2016. After going undefeated through their first five games, the Vikings lost two offensive linemen to injury and their offensive coordinator to snap resignation, precipitating the removal of the band-aids that were covering up for the loss of Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater. From there, they lost to the woeful Bears, got swept by the Lions, and only beat the struggling Arizona Cardinals and the 3-13 Jacksonville Jaguars.
While Peterson has signed with the Saints, Bridgewater could be on his way back at some point in 2017, Sam Bradford is still in the huddle, and the Vikings have spent the offseason trying to create some semblance of an offense. Drafting Florida State running back Dalvin Cook in the second round could be huge — he showed flashes of genius as a Seminole — and the addition of Latavius Murray two years off a thousand-yard season can’t hurt. But getting the ground game going will rely on the terrible offensive line becoming … not terrible. Adding Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, both stout run-blockers, is a step in the right direction, and a necessary one, since the combination of Bradford, Stefon Diggs, and Adam Thielen makes for a mediocre passing attack at best.
They’ve developed a reasonable strategy, intuitively at least, but it’s still not clear that the Vikings have done enough to build an effective offense that can win games. It was the defense that led them to a 5-0 record at the start of last year, and counting on defensive scores/brilliance week to week is not a safe bet.
Detroit Lions: Over 8.0
Fun fact: the Detroit Lions have not won a playoff game since I was born. They have not won a divisional title since 1993.
This offseason, the Lions head office decided to prioritize keeping Matt Stafford upright, and maybe-just-maybe establishing a run game, by signing right tackle Rick Wagner and then getting in a money-fight with the Seahawks over T.J. Lang, figuring that a veteran right guard could help protect their investment in Stafford. They also traded for Greg Robinson, who was a star at Auburn but has so far struggled with the NFL, in a move that could pay huge dividends if Robinson finds his comfort zone in Detroit’s simpler offensive line.
Using the draft to bring up a struggling defense, the Lions added linebacker Jarrad Davis to work alongside Tahir Whitehead. They also got some help in the secondary, signing D.J. Hayden from the Raiders and finding Teez Tabor and Jamal Agnew in the draft. They’ll need the help; the Lions finished last in passing defense efficiency last year.
After watching their prized pivot throw for over 4,000 yards last year, the Lions are doubling down on their strategy of letting Stafford carry this team on his right arm. It’s not a bad model in today’s NFL, and hopefully with some help on defense and on the offensive line, this will be a more complete, playoff-ready team.
Chicago Bears: Under 5.5
Remember that stat about the Vikings failing to win consecutive games since early last year? Get ready for it to seem a lot better: the Chicago Bears have not won consecutive games since November of 2015. Their three wins last year came against the Lions, the imploding Vikings, and the woeful 49ers.
The Bears had a controversial offseason, signing Mike Glennon to an eight-figure contract before trading up to the second pick in the draft to secure eight-win UNC icon Mitchell Trubisky. This move had some fans scratching their heads, as it’s unlikely that teams were lining up for Trubisky at no. 2 and the Bears held the no. 3 pick already. Many thought the Bears would take a defensive tackle (like Jonathan Allen) in the no. 3 spot, which would have immediately upgraded their unit to competitive status. Less polarizing was the addition of Prince Amukamara, Marcus Cooper, and Quintin Demps in free agency, who should help the woeful secondary, as should the drafting of safety Eddie Jackson.
It’s not entirely clear that this team is significantly more talented than the 2016 edition, and improving from three wins to six against this very daunting schedule is a huge task. (Look at their schedule and try to figure out when their first win will come; go ahead, we’ll wait.)