NFC North preview: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
By Kalika Mehta
Last Updated: 04/09/19 3:36pm
The wait is nearly over and the new NFL season is almost upon us!
The league's 100th year begins on Thursday, September 5 when the Chicago Bears host the Green Bay Packers, live on Sky Sports.
Before then, it's time to assess 2019's contenders.
We are previewing all eight divisions, and here you can find our views on the NFC North and cast your vote on who you think will win below...
Head coach: Matt Nagy
Key man: It is hard to overstate how vital Khalil Mack's impact for Chicago was in his first season with the team in 2018. He picked up 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles as he stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries.
His performances are even more impressive when you consider that his late trade from the Oakland Raiders deprived him of a training camp or a preseason. Having completed both of those with the Bears this summer, they can surely only expect even greater things from this season.
Major additions: Most of the Bears' key work in revamping their side was done last offseason and it paid dividends as the topped NFC North. This time around, the big addition was third-round rookie David Montgomery.
Montgomery forced an astonishing 185 missed tackles on carries over his last two seasons at Iowa State and looks to be the perfect tonic for the loss of Jordan Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Last season: Giving up a 20-0 lead to lose in Week One against the Packers may have had some Bears fans fearing for the worst but they need not have worried.
A huge change in personnel from the top down saw a big change and the defeat at Lambeau Field was one of just four that Chicago suffered as they stormed to a 12-4 season record, topping the NFC North with ease.
But, they suffered an agonising 16-15 wildcard loss to the Eagles as kicker Cody Parkey missed a 43-yard kick - known as the 'double doink' after hitting the upright and crossbar - in the final moments of the match.
Prospects: Having added to their offense and keeping top defensive talent, the Bears remain favourites and look like the team to beat in the NFC North.
Prediction: 1st (13-3)
Head coach: Mike Zimmer
Key man: You have to turn to Kirk Cousins. Can he take the Vikings to the next level? Minnesota let go of Case Keenum after he led them to a 13-3 season and place in the NFC Championship game, and handed $84 million fully guaranteed because they didn't see Keenum as the man to win it all.
However, with Cousins at the helm, Minnesota dropped to 8-7-1 despite their new QB throwing for career bests in completions, touchdowns, and completion percentage. Cousins must come up with the goods this season, or the Vikings will search for their next signal-caller sooner rather than later.
Major additions: The acquisition of Irv Smith Jr in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft gives them another option at tight end alongside Kyle Rudolph. In contrast to Rudolph, he is lightning quick and able to gain yards after the catch. If he is given the chance with snaps early, will offer help for Cousins in the middle of the field.
First-round rookie center Garrett Bradbury will protect Cousins, who has been sacked at least 40 times in each of the last two seasons, and create lanes for Dalvin Cook, who returns after missing the majority of 2018 with an ACL injury.
Last season: Though the Vikings strung together a run of three victories to take them to 4-2-1 after seven weeks, Minnesota lacked consistency all season.
They finished with an 8-7-1 record for the year and seventh in the conference as they failed to make the playoffs. With their postseason fate in their hands on the final day of the season, they were comfortably beaten 24-10 at home by Chicago, and the Eagles snatched the last wild card spot.
Prospects: Their offense has one of the best groups of skill-position players in the league, but Cousins hasn't yet proven he can run an attack to be feared. However, they have too many playmakers not to put points on the board.
What the defense accomplishes this season looks to depend on their offense too and if the attack is able to limit turnovers, complete long drives and dominate possession, it'll pay dividends at the other end of the field.
Prediction: 2nd (10-6)
Green Bay Packers
Head coach: Matt LaFleur
Key man: You cannot look much further than Aaron Rodgers, the man who holds most of the Packers' hopes in his hands. The quarterback struggled to find his usual rhythm last season and was not helped by a lack of protection as he was sacked 49 times and threw just 25 touchdowns.
35-year-old Rodgers will require all his nous to show he can make his relationship with new coach LaFleur blossom into something as fruitful as Rodgers' early partnership with Mike McCarthy.
With plenty of weapons at his disposal and a lot to prove - having claimed he wanted to play to at least another 10 years - Rodgers will likely bounce back to near his best.
Major additions: It was all about the defense this summer for Green Bay. Free agents Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos come in to start immediately.
First-round picks Rashan Gary (edge rusher) and Darnell Savage Jr (safety) will also play early and often. The new additions will provide a spark for a defense that has failed to impress in recent years.
Last season: The Packers began the season with a 'Rodgers special' with the comeback win over the Bears - overturning a 20-0 deficit to pick up a 24-23 victory - but they were crushed 24-17 in the return match, with the QB being sacked five times.
A disastrous season saw them finish 6-9-1. Despite having Rodgers available for the whole season, they suffered a worse campaign than the year before, when they were without their QB for half of it.
Prospects: With a new coach, a refreshed Rodgers and a better-looking defense Green Bay look to be packing a punch this season. They face heavy competition but a better outing than the last couple of years looks on the cards.
Prediction: 3rd (9-7)
Head coach: Matt Patricia
Key man: Wide receiver Kenny Golladay impressed for Detroit last season but perhaps did not pick up the plaudits across the league that he deserved. He picked up over 1,000 yards in his second season, adding five touchdowns.
The 25-year-old has provided Lions fans with Calvin Johnson-esque moments, which says a lot.
Major additions: Detriot have been lacking a pass rush so picking up free agent Trey Flowers was their big acquisition. Flowers teams up with head coach Patricia once again having been together at the New England Patriots.
The 25-year-old had 6.5 sacks, 28 quarterback hits and 24 pressures last season and led New England in sacks both in 2016 and 2017. Meanwhile, C.J. Anderson, Danny Amendola and Jesse James are strong veteran offensive pickups, and first-round pick T.J. Hockenson is viewed as someone who could break into the Travis Kelce/Zach Ertz level of tight ends.
Last season: There was very little joy for the Detroit Lions as they propped up the NFC North table in 2018, although they did do the double over conference rivals Green Bay - including a mind-blowing 31-0 victory at Lambeau Field in the final week of the season to give their supporters bragging rights heading into the offseason.
They shocked the Patriots in Week Three, but the Lions were only able to string together back-to-back wins once all season (Weeks Six and Eight) and ended the year 6-10.
Prospects: When will the Lions reach the level of a team that can win a playoff game? The last time they managed it was in 1991, despite eight postseason appearances since then.
It seems unlikely this will be the year but new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell could be a major help. Kerryon Johnson impressed as a rookie (118-641-3) when given opportunities, and will be heavily involved this season.
QB Matthew Stafford have plenty of targets this year, and the defense will be much-improved in Patricia's second season in charge.
Prediction: 4th (8-8)
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