Home Sports NFC North preview and predictions: What quarterback tension means for Packers

NFC North preview and predictions: What quarterback tension means for Packers

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Ryan Dunleavy previews the NFC North as The Post gives division-by-division breakdowns ahead of the 2020 NFL season.

1. Green Bay Packers

Coach: Matt LaFleur

2019 record: 13-3

O/U wins: 9

Key additions: RT Ricky Wagner, OLB Christian Kirksey, RB A.J. Dillon

Key losses: ILB Blake Martinez, OLB Kyler Fackrell, WR Geronimo Allison, OT Bryan Bulaga, TE Jimmy Graham

First-and-goal: For the third time since his one Super Bowl appearance, Aaron Rodgers lost the NFC Championship game. If that wasn’t extra motivation enough, the Packers drafted his replacement, Jordan Love, despite no discernable drop-off in Rodgers’ performance. The parts around him are better than ever, too, starting with a rushing attack led by Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon. On defense, Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith had more sacks (25.5) than any other duo in their first season as teammates, and Jaire Alexander is a burgeoning top cornerback.

Fourth-and-long: The Packers were 8-1 in one-score games last season, which will be difficult to repeat. And the 49ers exposed weak run defense in both matchups, including the NFC Championship game. Opponents actually gained more yards than the Packers over the course of the season. Crazy, given their record. So, expect opponents to copy that blueprint because the weakness wasn’t really addressed in the offseason. The receiving corps is super thin — Marquez Valdes-Scantling? Equanimeous St. Brown? — especially after Devin Funchess opted out.

Bryce Love; Aaron Rodgers
Jordan Love; Aaron RodgersGetty Images (2)

Dunleavy’s Decision: 10-6. A step back, but still the cream of the crop in a division pulling every team toward .500.

2. Detroit Lions

Coach: Matt Patricia

2019 record: 3-12-1

O/U wins: 6 1/2

Key additions: OLB Jamie Collins, CB Desmond Trufant, OL Halapoulivaati Vaitai, S Duron Harmon, DT Nick Williams, DT Danny Shelton, CB Jeff Okudah, QB Chase Daniel, RB D’Andre Swift

Key losses: CB Darius Slay, OLB Devon Kennard, C Graham Glasgow, DT A’Shawn Robinson, DT Damon Harrison, RT Ricky Wagner

First-and-goal: QB Matthew Stafford was on a scorching pace last year before he suffered season-ending broken bones in his back. The Lions were 3-4-1 at the time, but didn’t win again, which made acquiring an insurance policy (Daniel) a point of emphasis. Patricia and GM Bob Quinn went with what they know to rebuild the defense, as Collins, Harmon and Shelton all came over from the Patriots to reunite with Trey Flowers. The Lions also have a solution for oft-injured running back Kerryon Johnson: Second-round pick Swift was the SEC’s leading rusher.

Fourth-and-long: Is Patricia just another failed member of Bill Belichick’s coaching tree, better off as a scheming coordinator? Seems that way so far, as he and Quinn enter the season on the hot seat. Now that Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins won a playoff game, the monkey on his back jumps to Stafford, who is 0-3 in the postseason. Of course, the offensive line has to do a much better job of keeping the pocket clean. Asking Okudah — the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft — to slide in for the All-Pro Slay is a tall task.

Dunleavy’s Decision: 8-8. Just enough improvement to buy Patricia another season. Still not the consistent 9-7 ways of fired processor Jim Caldwell.

3. Minnesota Vikings

Coach: Mike Zimmer

2019 record: 10-6

O/U wins: 8 1/2

Key additions: WR Justin Jefferson, CB Jeff Gladney, DE Yannick Ngakoue

Key losses: WR Stefon Diggs, DE Everson Griffen, CB Trae Waynes, CB Xavier Rhodes, CB Mackensie Alexander

First-and-goal: As productive as he was, Diggs acted like a malcontent whose trade to Buffalo might allow everyone around him to relax. Especially if Jefferson steps into the void. Running back Dalvin Cook reported to camp “full go” without a contract extension or a holdout. Safety Anthony Harris was franchise tagged to be the most important member of a defense about to test Zimmer’s mastermind label. Quarterback Kirk Cousins returns to coordinator Gary Kubiak’s offense for the second straight season — a rare comfort during his turbulent career. The Ngakoue trade in late August was a heist.

Fourth-and-long: The thought around the league is that the virtual offseason, caused by COVID-19, will make it more difficult than ever for rookies to make an impact, especially early. Not good news for the Vikings, whose 15-player draft class (four cut already) is the largest in the NFL since 1985. Instead of acting like they were in the NFC’s Final Four last season, the Vikings acted like they were entering a rebuilding process as they mostly avoided impact additions. Losing 233 games of experience at cornerback and turning to rookies, led by Gladney, is a formula for growing pains.

Dalvin Cook Vikings
Dalvin Cook carries the ball in last year’s NFC Divisional Round Playoff game against the 49ers.Getty Images

Dunleavy’s Decision: 7-9. Chance for a couple of disgruntled veterans if streak of no back-to-back playoff berths since 2008-09 continues.

4. Chicago Bears

Coach: Matt Nagy

2019 record: 8-8

O/U wins: 8 1/2

Key additions: QB Nick Foles, DE Robert Quinn, TE Jimmy Graham, WR Ted Ginn

Key losses: OG Kyle Long, OLB Leonard Floyd, ILB Nick Kwiatkoski, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, DT Nick Williams

First-and-goal: Nick Foles is a former Super Bowl MVP and Mitch Trubisky is the former No. 2 pick in the NFL draft. That’s the optimistic way to see the quarterback battle. After a 12-4 finish behind Trubisky in 2018, the Bears should be in the middle of a championship window, not regressing. The defense played out of this world in 2018, allowing a league-low 283 points and forcing a league-high 36 turnovers. Adding Quinn to Khalil Mack gives the Bears hope of again winning with defense.

Fourth-and-long: Foles has never had success outside of Philadelphia and Trubisky remains a fan-targeted draft bust. That’s the pessimistic way to see the quarterback battle. And the offensive line isn’t built to overcome flawed quarterbacks. Foles and Quinn are just two of the many injury-prone veterans on this roster, along with Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan, Graham, Allen Robinson, Kyle Fuller and Bobby Massie. The Bears aren’t deep at many spots except tight end, where they hoarded a small army of options in the offseason.

Dunleavy’s Decision: 6-10. Two quarterbacks means no quarterback. No quarterback means no playoffs.

Check out the other NFL division breakdowns from The Post for the 2020 season:

AFC East preview

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