Biggest NFC North questions and a prediction for 2023

Friday, December 9, 2022

The last time the top two teams in the NFC North played in a Week 14 game and neither wore green and yellow was 2018. That was also the last time the Green Bay Packers missed the playoffs.

The division seems to be going through a shift in the balance of power, and that's reflected in Sunday's showdown at Ford Field (1 p.m., ET, FOX), where the upstart Detroit Lions (5-7) host the division-leading Minnesota Vikings (10-2). The Vikings can wrap up their first division title since 2017, but these aren't the same old Lions. In fact, Detroit is a 2.5-point favorite, according to Caesars Sportsbook. The Lions are 3-0 against the spread this season against division opponents, and they're 5-0 ATS over their last five games. That's the league's longest active streak.

"Expecting a heck of a home environment from the Lions there," Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell said. "They've got a lot of good things going right now, and a lot to be excited about."

There's also some excitement in Chicago, despite the Bears losing their last six. That's because Justin Fields is starting to look like something Chicago hasn't had since World War II: a franchise quarterback. Fields is the NFL's top rushing quarterback, and he's adding success in the passing attack. With a ton of cap space and draft picks next year, the Bears may be in position to challenge for the division crown in the near future.

But what about next season? Will the Packers' regression continue, and will Aaron Rodgers be around for it? ESPN NFL insider Matt Bowen has a pick that may surprise some to win the NFC North in 2023.

Do the Vikings look poised to lead the division beyond this season?

Vikings reporter Kevin Seifert: It depends. The Vikings are in the midst of what general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah called a "competitive rebuild" when he was hired in January. In other words, they are trying to squeeze as many wins as they can from their veteran core -- a group that includes quarterback Kirk Cousins, tailback Dalvin Cook, receiver Adam Thielen, linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith -- while they identify and begin developing younger replacements.

If they choose to keep that core largely intact for 2023, they could well be favorites to win the NFC North again, especially if the Packers move on from Aaron Rodgers. If they blow up the roster this offseason, a not unreasonable decision if it comes to that, their short-term future will be decidedly less clear.

Key stat: The Vikings' last nine wins have come by one score, the most consecutive one-score wins in a season in NFL history. And only two teams in history have won 10 games by one score in a single season: the 2019 Seattle Seahawks and 1978 Houston Oilers.

Who's been the Lions' biggest surprise this season?

Lions reporter Eric Woodyard: Running back Jamaal Williams, without a doubt.

There are flashier players with more popular names on the Lions' roster, but the emergence of Williams, in his sixth season, has been a huge boost. Williams has been the most consistent player on the team, scoring a league-high 14 rushing touchdowns and posting the 13th-most rushing yards in the NFL (769). For context, in Williams' first five seasons, he totaled 13 touchdowns. And his 601-yard season in 2021 marked a career-best prior to this year.

Williams said he prepared his body for this season and isn't surprised by his production. He's also benefited from backfield mate D'Andre Swift being limited with shoulder and ankle injuries since Week 4. He is the squad's preferred goal-line back and has helped the Lions post the NFL's highest efficiency rate in the red zone this season (73.9%).

"I'm learning that maturing and everything happens every year," Williams told ESPN last month. "You should never want to feel stagnant, and you should never feel that you're too good to improve, because you can always improve no matter how old you are."

Key stat: The Lions are averaging 31.9 points per game at home this season, second only to the Buffalo Bills. They are on pace to break the previous franchise mark in the Super Bowl era (31.0 in 1995).

Is Justin Fields the franchise QB the Bears have been waiting for?

Bears reporter Courtney Cronin: Being a franchise quarterback in a city that hasn't had one in over 70 years is a monumental undertaking. It requires a QB to not only possess the physical gifts, but the leadership to galvanize a team through a rebuild while simultaneously giving a fan base hope that brighter days are ahead.

There's a growing belief that Fields, whom the Bears moved up nine spots to pick him No. 11 overall in 2021, will live up to that challenge.

Fields is a dynamic rusher whose ability to turn nothing into something has him on pace to rush for over 1,200 yards, which would be an NFL record. Against Green Bay on Sunday, he turned in his most complete performance and showed signs of developing as a passer. The next step is the most important for Fields: Winning games. Fields and the offense have had four opportunities in their last five games to cap off a game winning drive, and they have failed to do so. When he finally checks that box, Fields will move closer to proving he's the answer the Bears have been searching for.

Key stat: Fields is the only quarterback since 1950 (position designations were tricky before that) with three rushing touchdowns of at least 50+ yards in an entire career. Fields has done it in his last four games.

Will the Packers' regression be temporary?

Packers reporter Rob Demovsky: It's no longer as simple as saying that as long as they have Aaron Rodgers, they're a contender. And right now, we don't know what Rodgers' status is for 2023.

Would he walk away from $59 million guaranteed and retire? Even if he's back in Green Bay for another year, this season was evidence enough that having Rodgers is no longer the only thing that matters. The Packers thought they had built an offense around him to offset whatever struggles the offense would have after they traded away All-Pro receiver Davante Adams, and the defense crumbled. Perhaps a change at defensive coordinator (Joe Barry) would turn around what looks like a talented group on paper. And perhaps the emergence of rookie receiver Christian Watson will change the Packers' offense. There are signs that it already has.

But if the Packers end up turning to current backup quarterback Jordan Love next season, then they could have another season of growing pains. Even if Love is the long-term replacement for Rodgers, it's not likely to be an instantaneous success. As good as Rodgers was in his first season as a starter (2008), the Packers lost several close games on the way to a 6-10 record. Their run of eight straight playoff appearances didn't begin until Rodgers' second season as the starter.

Key stat: Watson has eight touchdowns in his last four games. That matches the most TDs in a four-game span by any rookie in the last 35 seasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau. He's the first rookie wide receiver to do this since Randy Moss in 1998, and the first at any position since running back Clinton Portis in 2002.

Who wins the NFC North in 2023?

Bowen: The Detroit Lions. Maybe it's a stretch to say Detroit here, and I might be a year early, but this is a team that is trending upwards under head coach Dan Campbell.

The Lions have built an offensive line of powerful movers. There's pass-catching talent on the perimeter. And Jared Goff can hit the defined throws in this system.

The question here is the defensive side of the ball, where the Lions have young players with upside, but lack difference-makers. This is where Detroit has to use their draft assets and cap room. The club has five picks in the first three rounds of the draft, including two in the first. And they currently own the 11th most cap space in the league. They are in a position to add pass rushing talent, second-level speed and tempo setters -- with ball skills -- in the secondary, while also possibly drafting the quarterback of the future.

If Detroit can address its defensive needs through the draft and free agency, with immediate contributors, then give me the Lions to win the North in '23.

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