If the roster moves, incoming rookies, and depth chart uncertainties of the NFL offseason and preseason have left you unsure where to fix your gaze for the kickoff of the regular season, rest assured that the Frozen Tundra will host two of the most significant games in the NFC in Weeks 1 and 2.
Home to two of the teams experts have determined to have some of the best odds in the league for making the Superbowl this year, the NFC North enjoys a schedule front-loaded with a couple of season-shaping games. The second is the clash between those two highly-touted teams, and the first is one of the league’s oldest and most iconic rivalries between a playoff favorite and an old foe entering the season with a new regime approach.
NFL Week 1 Sunday Night Game: Chicago Bears @ Green Bay Packers
This game should sound exciting to you no matter what the year and regardless of the roster details. Every team and fanbase believes they have the best rivalries, but there’s no question that the Monsters of the Midway against the Cheeseheads from Titletown boasts some of the deepest roots and fiercest pride. This year, however, both teams are bringing a heaping helping of excitement to the game as well, and it’s happening at prime time on Week 1.
The return of Aaron Rodgers doesn’t just alter the atmosphere at the tip of the Bay, it alters the atmosphere of the league. Experts have given the Packers 12–1 odds for making the Superbowl this year after they missed the playoffs entirely last year with Rodgers out for the majority of the season. Computer generated simulations to predict the Packers season average out at a final regular season record of 12–4.
While the Bears are no lock for the playoffs or even to finish in the top half of this difficult division, they’ve certainly put some effort into generating some interest and excitement around the team’s future. Hitching their wagon for the second season in row to second-year Quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the Bears doubled down on their bet by using the offseason to surround Trubisky with four new receivers (Robinson, Gabriel, Burton, and Miller). They also injected a massive amount of talent into that legendary defense, adding rookie linebacker Roquon Smith and superstar pass-rusher Kalil Mack.
Significance: While jumping to conclusions based on Week 1 results can sometimes be foolish, this game could tell us whether or not the Packers might live up to this season’s hype. More specifically, if they lose, it could hint to us that they might not. Personally, I predict the Packers final record slightly lower at 11–5, or even 10–6, but I still see them earning a playoff slot and winning this game. They may still get there if they lose this exciting Week 1 Primetime rivalry game against the Bears, but then it will certainly need to involve a come-to-Jesus meeting and a quick turnaround.
NFL Week 2: Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay Packers
The most likely scenario is that both of these teams enter this game with a win each and no losses between them. They also enter the season with the 5th and 6th best odds respectively to win the Superbowl. It’s no secret that the NFC North is a hotbed this year for wins and playoff potential, but one of these two teams has to come away from this game with its first loss. Whoever it is could very easily have the rest of their season affected by it.
Significance: For two teams in the same division both looking at a small number of losses and playoff positioning, wins against each other can mean everything, regardless of when they occur in the season. Traditionally, quite a bit rides on finishing the season as the division leader and on earning first round byes in the playoffs. Neither of these teams will be unaware of this, so this game matters in a major way that we don’t always see in Week 2 games.
Divisional Breakdown and Predicted Finishing Order
- Minnesota Vikings — NFC North Division Winners
The Vikings have a cake schedule and a badass defense. The entire NFC North plays relatively soft non-division opponents this year, but the Vikings and the Packers only have to play half as many great teams as the Bears and the Lions do. The Vikings picked up Cousins in the off-season, which may have really catapulted them into the stratosphere if their wide receivers were superstars and their offensive line wasn’t questionable. That’s not the case, though. Everyone will be focused on who comes out on top between the Vikings formidable defense and the Aaron Rodgers-led Packer offense, but those two games will really be won by the victor of the battle between the Vikings offense and the Packers defense.
2. Green Bay Packers — NFC Wildcard
The Packers are solid, and they will be one of the best teams in the league. The difference between them and the Vikings will be a game or two, and their division position and playoff entry spot could easily be flip-flopped with the Vikings if they gain the upperhand in their two games against them. Rodgers comes into the season poised and motivated to dominate the league in a truly wondrous way, but the Packers are not without some questions and concerns at certain positions. Jimmy Graham, Davante Adams, and Randall Cobb sound like an All-Pro receiving corps, and they may be, but Graham and Rodgers had some early problems meshing after Graham’s arrival, and the two WRs are smaller guys. Geronimo Allison provides an increase in size at the WR3 slot (I really like him), but he’s relatively inexperienced. Finally, Mike Pettine’s (I like him too) defense was not terribly stingy in the preseason, a fact that he acknowledges but attributes to a conscious effort to run a vanilla scheme until the season starts.
3. Chicago Bears — Solid Season, But Miss the Playoffs
The Bears will probably end up being the main victims of the division they’re in. They’ve accumulated some talent both in this most recent off-season and in previous years, and they are going to start putting it all together if/when Trubisky begins to really shine. Aside from facing four very difficult games against the Vikings and the Packers, the biggest challenge to the Bears will be newness. Kalil Mack just got to the team, and may or may not need a moment to settle in. Roquon Smith may eventually grow into a legend, but he’s got a steep learning curve to tackle in the professional game. Trubisky’s getting help and support from the organization, but he still needs time to grow and learn before he can impose his will on offense. Let’s not forget, either, that their head coach is also entering his first season wearing the big boy headphones.
4. Detroit Lions — Losing Ground
The Lions are going to tally some wins. In fact, I’ve picked them as my lock to win in a survivor pool in Week 1. The problem is that they are also going to suffer a number of losses to their division mates. I’d be really surprised to see them avoid losing at least 3 out of their 4 games against the Vikings and the Packers, and they’ll most likely struggle with the Bears as well. They’ll probably pull in more wins than losses in their non-division games, but, unlike the Bears, they still wouldn’t have been playoff contenders had they been outside of the NFC North.
Pay Attention to the NFC North Early
Everyone has high expectations for their favorite team prior to Week 1. Hell, I’ve been a Browns fan since they started up the new team, and I still get excited to see them start what will soon turn out to be a painfully obvious failure of a year. Do yourself a favor this year, though, and pay some special attention to what happens in the first couple of weeks in the NFC North. By the time the playoffs roll around, you’ll feel like you’ve watched a good portion of it unfold from the beginning.