At least according to Las Vegas, the NFC North is wide open in 2019. The Vikings, Packers and Bears all have 2-to-1 odds to win it via VegasInsider.com. But ties are no fun. So who should be favored to win the division?
First take: Michael Rand
Those odds don’t seem to give the Bears much respect, do they? Chicago was 12-4 a year ago, and this year their over-under win total sits at nine (as does that of the Vikings and Packers).
Minnesota won eight games last year. Green Bay won six. Case closed?
Well, not exactly. If you think the Vikings underachieved last year and will improve on last year’s 29th-ranked offensive line (per Pro Football Focus), they’d be a good bet. Green Bay still has Aaron Rodgers. If he uses offseason criticism as motivation and he gets some help from his defense, the Packers could be right back in the mix.
Vikings writer Ben Goessling: Vegas seems to be treating the Bears like one of those teams that’s due for a regression after having everything go right last year, and I suppose if you’re going to make that case, you’d look at their turnover numbers.
They had 36 takeaways and a plus-12 margin last year, and it’s probably difficult to assume they’re going to have quite that many takeaways this year, even if (in Brett Favre’s voice) the pieces are in place on defense.
I do think the division is going to be tighter — the Lions’ roster is improved, the Vikings hope they’ve got a better offensive identity, and the Packers still have Aaron Rodgers — but I’d still put the Bears at the top of the list, provided the loss of coordinator Vic Fangio doesn’t harm their defense too much.
Rand: One interesting thing to note is how the schedule could impact what looks on paper like a very close race. The Vikings, for instance, play all three of their division home games in the final four weeks of the season.
Non-division schedules are very similar under the current NFL format, but the Bears, Vikings and Packers have two different opponents based on how they finished in 2018.
Chicago has to play New Orleans and the Rams; the Vikings get Atlanta and Seattle; and Green Bay gets the 49ers and Panthers.
ESPN’s Mike Clay projects the Bears as a slight underdog against New Orleans (49% chance to win) and a big one at the Rams (34%). The Vikings are favored in one and underdogs in the other. The Packers are favored in both. Might that schedule difference tell the story?
Goessling: It could — though it’s probably a little difficult at this point to know exactly how big of a difference there will be between teams such as Atlanta and Carolina, for example. I certainly think for the Bears, having games against both of the NFC finalists is a more difficult assignment than either the Vikings or the Packers face; the Saints and Rams have built enough equity that it’s a little easier to trust them at this point.
The most important thing the Vikings have to do is figure out how to win a couple of those division road games early. In the two years they’ve made the playoffs under Mike Zimmer, they’re 6-0 in NFC North road games; they’ve won just one division game on the road otherwise.
Rand: At least we can agree on one thing: The answer to the question of who will win the NFC North next year is not “the Detroit Lions.”
Final word: Goessling
Yes, that’s probably true. They’ve improved, but I wouldn’t put them at the top of my list right now. It’d be the Bears for me, with the Vikings and Packers in a race to see who can get on solid footing quickly enough to challenge Chicago.