The time for talking is nearly over, with the 2021 NFL season just around the corner. And as kickoff edges ever closer, Sky Sports NFL writers are breaking down all eight divisions from the key men to the marquee acquisitions.
Thursday, September 9 is the date to mark in your diaries as the reigning Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys, which you can see live on Sky Sports NFL from 1.20am in the early hours of Friday morning.
For now, let’s take a look at the contenders – here, we cover last season’s MVP Aaron Rodgers, his Green Bay Packers, and the rest of the NFC North…
Green Bay Packers
Head Coach: Matt LaFleur
Key Man: Just when you thought Aaron Rodgers could not get any better, he tossed a career-high 48 touchdown passes in 2020, put up his second-best passer rating (121.5), and led the Packers to a second straight 13-3 season. He was named MVP for the third time, and voted to the Pro Bowl for the ninth time. He is ridiculous.
Despite an offseason of being disgruntled, Rodgers turned up and is back with the team. Is this his last dance with the Packers?
Major Additions: The return of outstanding left tackle David Bakhtiari after he suffered an ACL injury on the final day of 2020 should be considered a massive boost – he was sorely missed in the postseason – but another big change on the offensive line is the addition of a new starting center, second-round pick Josh Myers.
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Rodgers gets one of his former favourites back in Randall Cobb, who returns after a pair of seasons away in Dallas and Houston, and another outside weapon in third-round pick Amari Rodgers. Green Bay used their first-round pick on cornerback Eric Stokes, who would ideally replace veteran Kevin King – we all remember King’s disastrous NFC Championship performance – but the rookie hasn’t quite got there yet.
Last Season: It was supposed to be their year. 13-3 for the second season under LaFleur. Rodgers MVP. No 1 seed. Won six straight games heading into the postseason. Scored the most points in the regular season (31.8 per game).
But it wasn’t to be. Tom Brady and company came into Lambeau Field and broke their hearts and handed them their second straight NFC Championship loss.
Prospects: The trend would suggest they simply go 13-3 against, and lose in the NFC Championship game again. How about this time around, they slip a little in the regular season but come up big in the playoffs and reach Rodgers’ second Super Bowl? As long as he is around, they will be in the NFC mix come the end of the season.
Prediction: 1st (11-6)
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer
Key Man: The man most responsible for Minnesota’s success (or failure) is their quarterback – but we will come to that later. The player who makes the offense tick is running back Dalvin Cook. Over the past two seasons, Cook has produced 2,692 rushing yards, 29 touchdowns on the ground, and added 880 yards through the air too. This attack should funnel through him.
Major Additions: The major changes this season come on the defensive side of the ball. After signing a three-year contract last offseason then opting out of 2020, Michael Pierce returns to anchor the defensive line – and he is joined by Dalvin Tomlinson to form a solid DT duo.
Eight-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson is the big-name signing – he left the Cardinals after nine seasons. He will be a stud in a much-changed secondary, as Bashaud Breeland and Xavier Woods also join. We are used to seeing a top-tier defense here under Zimmer, but Minnesota allowed over 29 points per game last year. Changes have been made.
The interesting player to watch is third-round quarterback Kellen Mond. He is a different athlete to starter Kirk Cousins and could be worked into the offense at some point.
Last Season: It was over quickly, as the Vikings started the season 1-5. They won five of the next six to return to .500, but lost their way down the stretch to end 7-9. While the defense was dreadful, as mentioned already, they did manage to score the third-highest points in team history (430 – 26.9 per game).
The real story of the season was rookie receiver Justin Jefferson, who managed a whopping 1,400 receiving yards – a rookie record – and seven touchdowns on 88 catches. The emergence of an elite playmaker was fun to watch.
Prospects: The frustrating thing about the Vikings is that they appear to have been on the brink of success for quite some time, they just haven’t had the quarterback to take them there. Sam Bradford, Case Keenum, Cousins… it’s all the same – mediocre and underwhelming. After last year’s 7-9 record, Cousins fell back to an apt 51-51-2 record as a starter in his career.
You like to think Minnesota have the offensive firepower and improved defense to get them to the playoffs, but they are capped by their QB.
Prediction: 2nd (9-8)
Head Coach: Matt Nagy
Key Man: Previously, Khalil Mack would have been the easy choice. He is among the elite players in the NFL. But now in Chicago, it’s all about the new quarterback on the block, Justin Fields. Yes, Nagy is going through the same old story of announcing a veteran as the starter before he gets yanked for the rookie saviour… we’ve seen it all before.
Don’t be mistaken – if the Bears want to win, they will play their 11th overall pick and college standout. After they start their season with Andy Dalton facing the Rams defense on the road, does Week Two at home to the Bengals seem like a good time to start Fields? Let’s get this new era started.
Major Additions: The quarterbacks – Dalton and Fields – are the big ones, but there are a few more new faces in the attack. The Bears dipped into the 2020 Covid opt-out pool to sign receiver Marquise Goodwin and running back Damien Williams, veterans who will definitely see playing time this season.
In a tough break for Chicago, second-round pick Teven Jenkins requires back surgery, so they acquired 39-year-old tackle Jason Peters just a couple of weeks ago, who was on a fishing boat at the time after being released by the Eagles this summer. Peters will be a Hall of Famer when he retires – there’s no denying what he has achieved as a nine-time Pro Bowler – but he has really struggled to stay healthy and perform over the last two seasons. Offensive line is a worry.
Last Season: Despite finishing 8-8, the Bears managed to secure a playoff berth as the seventh seed in the NFC – but they were handily dispatched by the New Orleans Saints 21-9. Unlike the Vikings, Chicago started hot at 5-1, but petered out and went 5-7 the rest of the way. In fact, they became only the third team in NFL history to have a six-game losing streak during the regular season and qualify for the playoffs.
Nick Foles wasn’t good, Mitchell Trubisky was good at times and bad at others, the defense was mediocre. Overall, they needed improvements – Fields is the key to whether or not this offseason was a success.
Prospects: Simply because Dalton starts the season at quarterback, expectations should be low. They have a fairly tough schedule, Fields may take time to hit his heights if and when he starts, and there are plenty more teams in the NFC who are ready to compete now. It might get a little worse before it gets better for Chicago.
Prediction: 3rd (7-10)
Head Coach: Dan Campbell
Key Man: A key man will emerge from this intriguing group during the season, but for now let’s focus on second-year runner D’Andre Swift. While everything around him on offense has changed, Swift remains the constant from last season. A 2020 third-round pick, Swift provided some excitement with 10 total touchdowns and just under 900 scrimmage yards – but he has special talent and could be primed to break out.
Major Additions: Campbell made headlines with his quote: “when you knock us down, we’re going to get up and on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off” this summer, so he and his coaching staff will certainly be in the spotlight…
On the field, it’s all change. New quarterback (Jared Goff), new backfield mate for Swift (Jamaal Williams), new receiving group (Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams, Kalif Raymond, and fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown). It may take some time for this group to gel. It helps that they added highly-regarded offensive tackle Penei Sewell with the seventh pick in this year’s draft.
As on offense, the defense looks different too with free-agent Michael Brockers joining the interior defensive line alongside rookie third-rounder Alim McNeill, while former Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone will play.
Last Season: In their third and final season under Matt Patricia, the Lions went 5-11 (Patricia went 4-7 before he was fired in November). The experiment didn’t work, as they missed the playoffs for a fourth straight year. The defense had one of the worst seasons ever – they set a franchise record for points and yards allowed (both were the third-worst marks in NFL history). It was unpleasant.
Prospects: Between a complete change of coaching staff, an overhaul of the offense, a likely downgrade at quarterback from Matthew Stafford to Goff, it’s hard to see much room for improvement. Detroit need to rebuild both the roster and the culture, and that takes time.
Prediction: 4th (4-13)