Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was reminded early on in training camp that a team called the Green Bay Packers has pretty much ruled the NFC North since it was created in 2002.
There have been 15 NFC North titles awarded. The Packers have won nine of them. Yes, it does help to have a Favre followed by a Rodgers.
Since 2010, Green Bay has won five of six North titles. The only break came in 2015, when Zimmer and his ornery, third-ranked scoring defense went into Lambeau Field and won 20-13 in the winner-take-all season finale.
But back in late July, a reporter in Mankato wanted Zimmer to explain to the fans what he has done to convince them he is trying to keep the Packers from always winning the doggone division.
“Well,” Zimmer said, “I think we’re continuing to get better players.”
Then, the defensive-minded coach reminded the reporter that he has a decent track on that side of the ball. “I think we’ve probably been the best defense in this division for at least three years now,” Zimmer said. “So I think that’s a good start.”
He’s right. The Packers have the best quarterback, which makes them the favorite until Rodgers leaves. But the Vikings still have the best defense. And that makes them the best chance to unseat the Packers for the division title.
Last year, the Vikings stood far above the Packers, Lions and Bears in overall defense, scoring defense, sacks per pass play, first downs allowed and third-down conversions allowed. The Vikings also have led the division in fewest yards, points and third-down conversions allowed in each of the past two seasons.
Last year, the Vikings were third in the league in yards against (314.9 per game). Chicago was next among NFC North teams at No. 15 (346.8).
The Vikings were sixth in points against (19.2 per game). Detroit was next at No. 13 (22.4).
The Vikings were sixth in sacks per pass play (7.48 percent). Green Bay was next at No. 7 (7.01).
The Vikings were seventh in first downs against (19.0). Chicago was next at No. 14 (20.1).
And the Vikings were 14th in third-down conversion percentage (38.8 percent). Chicago was next at No. 22 (40.5).
Yeah, but didn’t the Vikings taper off defensively during their 3-8 slide last season?
Zimmer was asked that exact question toward the end of training camp. He didn’t care for the wording.
“We had two bad games,” he said. “I don’t know about ‘tapered off.’ ”
The two bad games came in Weeks 15-16 when the defense gave up 72 points in back-to-back losses to the Colts at home (34-6) and the Packers in Green Bay (38-25).
The Lions, meanwhile, set the NFL record for highest completion percentage allowed (72.7).
The Packers allowed Matt Ryan to complete 71.1 percent of his passes for 392 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 139.4 passer rating in Atlanta’s 44-21 NFC title game stroll.
And the Bears were, well, the Bears. They ranked last in the division in points allowed (24.9) while winning three games.
There are reinforcements on the way around the division. Notable new starters to watch are Jarrad Davis, Detroit’s first-round pick at a middle linebacker; Kevin King, Green Bay’s second-round pick at cornerback; and head-turning free safety Eddie Jackson, a fourth-rounder and the only defender the Bears drafted this year.
The Vikings still have the best talent defensively and, as Zimmer points out, “Now, we’ve just got to improve offensively.”
That, of course, is another matter entirely. But, defensively, the Vikings again have what it takes to unseat the Packers for the second time in three years.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @MarkCraigNFL E-mail: email@example.com