NFC North; comfortable for the Packers again?

Based on win totals from 5 UK-based bookies, best prices from Oddschecker.com

Last season will go down as a disappointing one for all four teams in the NFC North. Yes, the Packers won the division again, but they put up another poor showing in the playoffs losing to the 49ers in the Divisional Round. The Vikings and Bears endured painful final seasons under coaches Mike Zimmer and Matt Nagy and couldn’t wait to fire them both when the season ended. The Lions only managed three wins (and a tie) but did claim some big scalps which will have them feeling optimistic for the season ahead. 

Looking forward to 2022 it is hard to see anything other than the Packers reigning over the division again with the others not yet ready to compete with a team that includes the back to back MVP and arguably the best defence in the league. Early in the off-season they would have had hope that Rodgers would either retire or force a trade but as soon as he put pen to paper on that three year deal, the reality is he signed the Vikings, Lions and Bears up to three more years of fighting for second place.

That is not to say that the Packers will have it as easy this time around, the Vikings in particular should be able to put more pressure on Green Bay than they have in the previous three years. The hope will be that having someone other than Zimmer as head coach can help the offense realise its potential. The Lions are the story of the off-season thanks to being this years Hard Knocks team and should be improved from last year (it would be hard for them not to be). The Bears look to be set for more of the same, but at least it’s more of the same with no Matt Nagy… 

Chicago Bears

2021 was a mess for the Bears and rightly marked the end of Matt Nagy’s four year tenure as head coach. Nagy had made a solid enough start to his head coaching career, taking the Bears to the playoffs in two of his first three seasons. But he was exposed last season and it was obvious all year that the team would be making a change in the off-season. The handling of the quarterback situation was particularly bad with the Bears signing Andy Dalton to be the starter and then a few weeks later trading up in the draft to take Justin Fields with the 11th pick. 

Neither guy really got a proper run through various injuries and the offense was just drab in general. The key this year for new head coach Matt Eberflus and OC Luke Getsy will be able to build a system that suits Fields and gives him every chance to succeed. They need to know if he is the guy heading into 2023 where they will probably end up with a top five draft pick. Issues with the offensive line and with Darnell Mooney as the only real presence in the receiving room doesn’t inspire much confidence though. 

On the other side of the ball the Bears lost their only real star in Khalil Mack to the Chargers. The defense was once the best in the league after acquiring Mack but has regressed year after year and is now ranked 29th by PFF. It is hard to find anything to be positive about with this roster to be honest. 

I think the Bears finish bottom of the division (5/4 at Sky Bet) and the only thing stopping them being a guarantee for a top five pick is that their schedule should be much easier than the other teams that will be there or thereabouts. But I still don’t see them getting near to the 6.5 win total you can get from a lot of bookies. 

I don’t think I will be looking to take on any bets on this offense but I have picked out a couple that may be of interest. On Sky Bet the passing line for Fields is just 3,350.5 yards, which is the lowest I can find for any QB. That’s under 200 a game which seems easy enough to beat and I think he should but the team had a total of 3,200 last year and honestly who knows with this offense.

In the running game there has been a lot of talk that second year back Khalil Herbert might be better suited to the new scheme which could spell trouble for current lead David Montgomery. Montgomery has been the only shining light for the offense over the last two seasons and has certainly won people some fantasy championships with his late season performances. The bookies are very split on the backfield too and you can get his rushing yards line at just 800.5 on Paddy Power or up to 925.5 on Bet365. 

Detroit Lions

As is normally the case with the team that appears on Hard Knocks, there has been a lot of hype and optimism about the Lions over the last few weeks and months. While there is reason to be optimistic about most teams heading into a new season it is easy to forget that this is a team that won just three games last season and didn’t get off the mark until week 13. They came close on multiple occasions to improving on that three win mark, none more so than the week 10 tie with the Steelers that neither team wanted to win. 

The Lions had (and still have) a lot of work to do to rebuild this team when Dan Campbell took over as head coach prior to last year and they have made some reasonable, if not game-changing improvements. They went some way towards fixing the defence that allowed the second most points in the league last year by adding Aidan Hutchinson with the second pick in the draft. They will need him and their other young players to make a big step forward to be competitive this year though. 

The offensive line should be among the best in the league and they have some more weapons at receiver with the signing of DJ Chark and 12th pick Jameson Williams. If we can see Jared Goff return anywhere close to the level that took him to the 2017 and 2018 pro bowls they could have an outside chance of a playoff push thanks to another favourable schedule. But that is a big if and I think we see them skirting around the seven or eight win mark. 

While I would not be confident enough to take the over on the 6.5 win line, I do think they should have more than enough for a third place finish in the division which you can get at 17/10 with Paddy Power. 

Again with question marks over who is going to be the leading receiver and a split backfield the player props are difficult. Hutchinson is the favourite for defensive rookie of the year and 5/1 seems to be the best price with Coral or Ladbrokes. 

Amon-Ra St Brown was the leading receiver with just over 900 yards last season and was really only a factor in the second half of it. This year his line is 850.5 but there is uncertainty over how much Chark and Williams will eat into his target share and I wouldn’t be confident either way. I really like D’Andre Swift but he is sharing the backfield with Jamaal Williams also there, making it tough to predict what the split of opportunities will be. 

Getty

Green Bay Packers

In Matt LaFleur’s third season as head coach, the Packers kept up his 100% record of winning the division and then following it with a disappointing performance in the playoffs. We have become accustomed to watching Aaron Rodgers struggle to get past the Championship game but last season the team fell at the first playoff hurdle to the 49ers, who definitely seem to have their number in big games. The big news in the off-season was that Rodgers is sticking around but his favourite target and the best receiver in the league isn’t. Davante Adams was traded to the Raiders for a 2022 first and second round pick, leaving the wide receiver room in Green Bay seriously lacking in proven NFL talent. 

Rookies Christian Watson and camp star Romeo Doubs join the likes of Allan Lazard and Randall Cobb leaving us all guessing as to who will be the first to gain Rodgers’ trust and become the primary target. In reality no one is going to be able to fill Adams’ boots and we are likely to see more of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon in the passing game to try and help fill the void. The lack of Davante Adams is a serious blow to Rodgers’ chances of becoming the first player since former teammate Brett Favre to be the league’s MVP three years in a row. He is still priced in the top five to retain his title at 10/1 on Paddy Power but I think we are better off steering clear. 

They will hope that the defense are able to be a major contributor in taking the pressure of the receiving corps, and PFF are ranking the unit as the best in the league. Star cornerback Jaire Alexander is returning from injury to a unit that allowed a league low of 16.3 points to opposing offenses at home. 

The Packers should win the division again, the best odds for them to do so are 4/7 with Betfair which is decent enough. If you think this is the year they take the next step and win the Conference it’s 5/1 behind only the Buccaneers. 

In terms of player props we can’t get many odds on the passing game because of the uncertainty over who is going to the leading target. Lazard had 513 yards last season and Paddy Power has his line at 750.5, so the under is tempting here but I wouldn’t have any real confidence. If you believe in the camp hype for Romeo Doubs you can get him at 12/1 (again with Paddy Power) to lead all rookies in receiving yards. One bet I think I would take though is Rodgers under 6.5 interceptions (10/11 Paddy Power). He hasn’t had over that since 2017, posting interception rates of 1% or under in each of the last four seasons.

The backfield is set to be a two man committee again with Jones and Dillon sharing work and also mixing into the passing game. It’s hard to call who is going to get the most work and it might change on a weekly basis. We could look at touchdown markets here, last year Jones only had four on the ground to Dillon’s five. I think that swings back the other way and you can get Jones over 5.5 on Paddy Power (4/6), if you disagree you can go under 6.5 with Bet365.

Minnesota Vikings

Mike Zimmer had eight seasons as the head coach of the Vikings and in truth his sacking was overdue. While it was obvious to everyone on the outside looking in that a change was needed (probably a couple of years ago) it is difficult for a team to do that when they are on the verge of, or in the playoffs every year. The Vikings are one of those teams that could easily put together a run of games and make the playoffs but equally wouldn’t surprise you if they finish on just six or seven wins. Part of that falls to having a decent but not elite quarterback like Kirk Cousins. 

An offensive minded head coach in Kevin O’Connell might just be able to more out of Cousins and this passing game than the all too conservative Zimmer ever could. The talent is there with Justin Jefferson looking like a true superstar just two years into his NFL career plus one of the best backfields in the league with Dalvin Cook and backup Alexander Mattison. Defensively it’s all about keeping their best players healthy, newly signed Za’Darius Smith from the Packers should form a top combo with Danielle Hunter if they can both get on the field. 

Aside from the signing of Smith there has not been many notable changes to the roster in the off-season, with the main changes being the coaching staff and new GM. Fans will be hoping that a new front office and head coach will bring life back to the team and have them pushing Green Bay for the division title. With seven teams from each conference making the playoffs these days there really is no reason why the Vikings should not be there, even if they will inevitably get ousted in the Wild Card round by one of the big boys. 

Player bets of interest start with Dalvin Cook, who after posting 29 touchdowns in 2019 and 2020 combined only managed six last year. So we will probably see some positive regression here with pushing closer to, if not over the double figure mark. At Bet365 his line is 9.5 which is fair but with Paddy Power it’s 8.5 and I would lean the over there. 

The bookies have Cousins’ passing line right at where he was last season, 4,200.5. With the offense seemingly being more pass heavy this year, he should be able to beat that but I wouldn’t be taking the bet. Jefferson was obviously electric with over 1,600 yards receiving and his line is down at 1,350.5 this year. I fancy him, as does everyone else, to lead the league in receiving yards this year (15/2 favourite) so he’d have to be over that line to have a chance. We might also want to take a look at Adam Thielen who somehow came away from last season with ten touchdowns. But his line this time out is 7.5, I would lean under but not with great confidence as he seems to be Cousins go to guy in the red zone. 

What should we be betting on? 

The NFL rarely plays out exactly how we expect but I do think we have a good handle on this division. I have made it pretty clear above I think the Packers win the division again with the Vikings, Lions and Bears behind them in that order. That finishing order is 7/2 with Paddy Power though which isn’t fantastic. 

If you don’t want to go that far then I would go for the Bears to finish bottom which you can get at 5/4 with Sky Bet as mentioned earlier. 

The Packers are right there among the favourites to win the conference but I just feel like they fall at or before the Championship game again. 

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