To go with our 2016 NFL predictions, FiveThirtyEight is previewing each division. Here, we look at the NFC North.
Last year’s NFC North race seemed pretty straightforward, with the Packers favored to take the division for a fifth consecutive season. But after a 6-0 start, Green Bay sputtered to a 4-6 record down the stretch, leaving the door open for the surging Vikings to overtake them with a victory at Lambeau Field on the final day of the regular season. And just like that, the Packers’ NFC North mini-dynasty was no more.
Our Elo ratings consider the North far more wide open this season, although the Green Bay Packers are favored to reclaim the division title. And the Pack might have more reasons for optimism than they did last year. For one, Green Bay’s schedule ranks as the second-easiest in football according to Elo, with plenty of winnable games against weak NFC East and AFC South opponents (and the Packers don’t have to play themselves, either, an underrated aspect of schedule strength for good teams). Also, wide receiver Jordy Nelson is back after an injury wiped him out for all of 2015, and there are the usual reports that running back Eddie Lacy has slimmed down.
Despite Green Bay’s reputation as a one-man team, there’s evidence that it was less reliant on quarterback Aaron Rodgers than usual last season. The end-of-season Elo ranking for the Packers usually follows Rodgers’s ranking among quarterbacks in defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR), but last season, Green Bay ranked much better in Elo (eighth) than Rodgers did in DYAR (17th):
That could be interpreted in a few ways: Maybe it means that Rodgers’ skills were declining at age 32. The one most favorable to Green Bay, however, is that the roster around Rodgers has improved and that a bounce-back performance from the QB could lead to big things this season.
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If the Packers falter again, though, Elo thinks the Minnesota Vikings are poised to take the North. Elo doesn’t know the Vikes lost QB Teddy Bridgewater to a knee injury in preseason, or that they drastically overpaid the Eagles in a trade to bring in Sam Bradford as a replacement. But the damage of that deal will accrue over the long haul; in the short term, Bradford should roughly approximate the production that Minnesota would have gotten out of Bridgewater. And after an otherwise solid offseason, that means the Vikings are on schedule to give Green Bay a run for its money, at least until they have to retool their aging defense.
The Detroit Lions are also waiting in the wings after closing out last season with wins in six of their final eight games. The Lions aren’t getting much buzz heading into 2016, and perhaps that’s fair after Calvin Johnson abruptly retired early in the offseason. But the team also ranked among the top half of the league in all three phases of the game last year, and it has the NFL’s easiest schedule this season (according to Elo). The defense is old and Matthew Stafford may not be an Elite QB™ anymore — his most similar retired passers last season were Bernie Kosar, Jeff George, Dave Krieg and Kerry Collins — but it would not be a shock if Detroit finished closer to its 11-5 record of 2014 than the 7-9 mark it posted last season.
After this division’s top three, there’s a bit of a drop-off before we get to the Chicago Bears. Chicago hasn’t finished in the top half of the NFL in Elo since 2012, which was (not coincidentally) the last time it had a winning record. Last year, the team continued to be undone by a decidedly un-Bears-like defense — second-worst in football. But Chicago has gone to some lengths to overhaul its D in recent offseasons, so the potential for improvement is there for what was the NFL’s third-youngest defense last year. And the Bears’ offense was surprisingly good in 2015, headlined by a solid passing season for Jay Cutler and a strong ground game (albeit one led by the now-departed Matt Forte). Add in one of the NFL’s easiest schedules, and a Bears renaissance isn’t inconceivable — although it’s unlikely, given the holes in Chicago’s secondary and offensive line.
That probably leaves Green Bay and Minnesota as the most plausible division winners, with an outside chance that Detroit will pull off a surprise. But no matter what happens, the NFC North should be entertaining. It’s not the best division in football — it ranks third in average Elo behind the two Wests — and it’s not the most tightly bunched, either — it ranks a distant second behind the NFC East in the standard deviation of team Elo ratings. But it may well combine those two factors — quality and competitiveness — better than any other division in the NFL.