The Green Bay Packers came just a game away from the Super Bowl in 2016. But to get there, they relied on an almost miraculous eight-game stretch that included some thrilling and historic finishes.
Through Week 11, the Packers sat at 4-6 and in third place in the NFC North. By “running the table” and knocking off the Detroit Lions in Week 17, Green Bay won the division and secured their eighth straight postseason appearance.
While the Packers undeniably earned their spot in the NFC Championship Game, it is still worth noting how easily they could have missed out. If not for simultaneous collapses by the Lions and Vikings, it is unlikely Green Bay even would have made the playoffs–even with their season-ending six-game winning streak.
The Packers will rightfully be the preseason favorites to win the division in 2017, but it is important to realize now that it won’t be easy. Green Bay must be wary of improved competition within the NFC North. They might not have the benefit of two divisional opponents falling apart at the same time again.
While the Packers should also improve before next season begins, Detroit and Minnesota will be true contenders in the division, and even the Bears will pose a bigger threat.
In all likelihood, Chicago will be the basement dwellers in the North again. They’re set to move on from Jay Cutler, and could also part ways with star receiver Alshon Jeffery. But if the Bears find themselves a quarterback, they have the pieces to be a tough match up for the Packers. Running back Jordan Howard burst onto the scene as a rookie, and would have received much more recognition if Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott didn’t steal the show in Dallas. His 1313 yards ranked second in the entire league, behind only Elliott.
Chicago also had a defense that ranked in the top half of the league, and its many young pieces will continue to improve. They have over $52 million in cap space–the most in the NFC North–and could be poised to add a few more impact players. Let’s not forget that the Bears almost beat Green Bay in Week 15, when the Packers were on a hot streak and the Bears were on their third QB of the season.
While the Bears are unlikely to really contend for the divisional title, both Minnesota and Detroit could do just that. Both teams were in contention late in 2016, as the NFC North came down to the season’s final week for the fourth straight year.
The Lions used a little good fortune to nearly win the division last season, winning what seemed like every game after mounting a fourth quarter comeback. That being said, the division was theirs to lose after Week 14; the problem is, they lost it. Detroit dropped three straight games to end the regular season, including the defeat to the Packers to give Green Bay the division.
Their defense is only marginally better than Green Bay’s, and the Packers boast a better offense (when it’s playing well). But Matthew Stafford has the ability to will his team to victory, and continues to emerge as one of the top QBs in the NFL. On paper, Green Bay definitely has an edge over Detroit, but the Lions will be in the hunt for an NFC North title in 2017. They nearly had the division last season, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll regress so much where they won’t compete with the Packers again next year.
The biggest threat to Green Bay will likely be Minnesota. The Vikings started 2016 on fire, winning the first five games on their way to being the last undefeated team in the NFL. But they fell apart after that, losing four straight contests to sit at 5-4. Minnesota followed that up by losing four of their last six, finishing at just 8-8 and missing the playoffs after looking like division favorites early in the year.
Again, the Packers cannot bank on the Vikings enduring such a collapse again. Their offense is nothing special, especially with the aging Adrian Peterson not expected to return. However, their passing game could take a step forward in 2017. Sam Bradford looked like the perfect fit for the Vikings, completing an NFL-record 71.6% of his passes. That all came despite Bradford not joining the team until a week before the season started. After an entire offseason with the team, Bradford should be a more dynamic quarterback for Minnesota in 2017.
But the Vikings real strength remains its defense. Even though the Packers hung 38 points on Minnesota in Week 16, the Vikings’ defense emerged as a truly elite unit last year. They finished third in yards allowed and sixth in points allowed, and almost all of their key pieces will be returning. That defense shut down Rodgers and Co. in Week 2, and could be just as good next season.
Just because their divisional opponents could all improve in 2017 does not mean the Packers will be relegated to the underdog. Green Bay will (and should) be the favorite to win the NFC North, even if Chicago, Detroit, and Minnesota all play up to their highest potentials.
The Packers should also improve in the offseason, and have earned their reputation as a perennial contender with their eight straight postseason appearances. But heading into 2017, the team must be wary of its divisional foes. They are all set to be better, with the Lions and Vikings likely to contend for the division. Green Bay won’t be able to bank on the late season collapses that helped vault the Packers into the postseason, and must assert that they’re the team to beat right out of the gate next year.——————
Sean Blashe is a Packers fan who grew up in Bears territory and is currently a journalism and history major at Marquette University. Sean is a writer with PackersTalk.com and you can follow him on twitter at @SeanBlashe .