The NFC North is so tightly packed that Detroit can go from worst to first by the time Sunday ends.
As the NFL’s only division without a five-game winner, the last-place Lions (3-4) are a game behind the first-place Bears (4-3). Another Detroit win at U.S. Bank Stadium, a Bears loss at Buffalo and a Packers loss at New England would put Detroit and Chicago atop the division at 4-4.
“It’s a good division,” said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. “I think anybody can win it. It’s filled with good quarterback play. It’s filled with good defenses, good pass rushers.
“It’s the way I envisioned the NFC North being. I’m sure it could come down to the last few weeks of the season.”
Going into Week 9, the Bears are one win from matching last year’s total. The Vikings (4-3-1) already have matched last year’s loss total. The Lions are 2-0 against Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. And two classic fourth-quarterback comebacks have the Packers sitting at 3-3-1 instead of 1-5-1.
“I thought Chicago would be good on defense, but I think adding [Khalil] Mack has helped a defense that was top 10 a year ago,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Detroit is running the ball better than they have in the past. And Green Bay is always Green Bay.”
Over the next four weeks, the Vikings will play host to Detroit, take their bye, travel to Chicago and face the Packers on a Sunday night at home.
So as this month-long NFC North tour embarks, here’s a look at how the Vikings’ division opponents surprised us in the first half of the season and what their focus will be in the second half:
How they surprised us: The Bears had eight interceptions in each of the past three years. They have 11 through seven games this year. Mack terrorizing quarterbacks since his liberation from Oakland isn’t a surprise. But how quickly the 10 defenders around him raised their games to an even higher level than last season is. After four straight last-place finishes, the Bears rode Mack’s defensive player of the month award for September to a confidence-boosting 3-1 start.
The next step: As good as the defense can be, the Bears need more consistency from second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky if they are going to reach the playoffs for the first time in eight years. He needs to cut down on the wild misses and dial in the kind of accuracy that was a big reason the Bears traded up to pick him second overall. That could come as he gets used to the NFL’s array of pressure looks.
Green Bay Packers
How they surprised us: It took coach Mike McCarthy too long to recognize that running back Aaron Jones is his offense’s second-best athlete behind Davante Adams. He was determined to go with a three-back rotation. But with Jones now averaging 6.2 yards per carry, the Packers traded Ty Montgomery this week.
The next step: If McCarthy really wants to mimic such young gun coaches as the Rams’ Sean McVay and the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan, he’s going to need defenses to respect Rodgers’ play-action run fakes. The defense is showing a pulse and will need to weather the Ha Ha Clinton-Dix trade. A more consistent run game will help the defense and Rodgers. The Packers are fifth in yards per carry (4.82), so they have the ability.
How they surprised us: It’s been a long time since the Lions could run the ball effectively. They were last in yards per game (76.3) and per carry (3.4) last season. With an improved front wall and a real-deal rookie running back in Kerryon Johnson, the Lions are averaging 109.7 yards per game and 4.7 per carry.
The next step: New coach Matt Patricia has an entirely different defense, so it’s going to take time. The Lions rank seventh against the pass, but that’s mainly because teams don’t have to pass much to beat Detroit. The Lions are 31st against the run (144.6). They have already given up more than 150 yards rushing four times. They have lost all four games.