2019 NFL Preview: NFC North

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In the NFL's 100th season, one of two founding franchises will be hoping to hold off the league's most successful team in the NFC North.

The Chicago Bears, who began life as the Decatur Staleys, will kick off the century campaign on Thursday at home against a Green Bay Packers team turning over a new leaf after rookie head coach Matt LaFleur was hired to revive the 13-time champions following a 6-9-1 campaign in 2018.

Chicago's decision to turn to a first-time offensive-minded head coach paid off last year as Matt Nagy led the team to their first division title since 2010 and Coach of the Year honours for him.

The Packers, meanwhile, have the best quarterback in the division — and arguably the NFL — executing LeFleur's plays and a defense with top-10 potential on the other side, so the expectations are high in Green Bay.

"I think there's an incredible amount of talent here," LaFleur said at his introductory news conference back in January. "Obviously when you have a quarterback of the calibre of Aaron Rodgers, we're going to have high expectations. We are going to be process-driven in the pursuit of bringing a Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay."

 

Player to watch

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings running back

Do not tell those with a keen interest in who wins Thursday at Soldier Field, but there is another NFC North team with aspirations of a deep playoff run. The Vikings had the number one-ranked defense when they made the NFC championship game two seasons ago, and quarterback Kirk Cousins was supposed to be the final piece of the jigsaw when he arrived in 2018.

Instead, Minnesota went 8-7-1 last year and missed the playoffs, though there is reason for optimism anew in 2019, particularly if Cook can finally stay healthy. A second-round pick in 2017, he has missed 17 of 32 games due to knee and hamstring injuries but has flashed potential in averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He also ripped off an 85-yard touchdown run this preseason to suggest he could finally breakout.

Crucially, the Vikings' troublesome offensive line should be better after they drafted center Garrett Bradbury in the first round and acquired guard Josh Kline in free agency. Even more important, Super Bowl-winning coach Gary Kubiak is on board as an offensive adviser and Cook should thrive in his zone-blocking scheme.

"Most great players that I've been around in this business are workers and when you come out here every day, you see why he's a great player, really works hard," Kubiak told reporters of Cook in August.

 

Impact rookie

David Montgomery, Chicago Bears running back

Chicago had no first- or second-round picks in the 2019 draft, but they were not prepared to stand pat and moved up in the third round to land Iowa State back Montgomery.

"We didn't have a first-round pick, we didn't have a second-round pick … and when he was sitting there, to us, he was a first-round talent," Nagy recently told Yahoo Sports.

Montgomery led college football in broken tackles last season and is expected to slot in as the Bears' primary back after Jordan Howard's departure, with the electric Tarik Cohen and bruising Mike Davis also in the mix.

The consensus in Chicago is that Montgomery is a better fit for Nagy's offense than Howard due to his versatility and ability to contribute in the passing game. At a position where rookies can often shine, Montgomery could really wow right away in the Windy City.

 

Coach on the hot seat

Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions

A fine coordinator who impressed with the New England Patriots failing to deliver as a head coach? We have been here before. The evidence so far is that Patricia will not buck the trend after a 6-10 debut season.

Patricia has the comfort of being the handpicked selection of general manager Bob Quinn — himself a former Patriots staffer — but seven losses in their final 10 games of 2018 could not have gone unnoticed by the Lions hierarchy.

The Lions do look strong on both sides of the trenches, but if quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for just 3,777 yards in 2018, disappoints again, Detroit may consider ripping it up and starting over (again) in 2020.

A first winless preseason since 1989 has only given Patricia's naysayers more fuel. Though Lions fans will remember the team went 4-0 in the 2008 preseason, only to go 0-16 in the regular season.

 

Key matchup

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers, December 15

Thursday's opening clash between these two in Chicago could set the tone, but the Packers beat the Bears at Lambeau in week one last year only for Nagy's team to win the division.

We will have a better idea of these two teams by Week 15, when they will meet for the 200th time.

That is Green Bay's final home game of the season and the Packers will want to record a fourth successive victory over the Bears at Lambeau given they finish the season with tricky road games against the Vikings and Lions.

Interestingly, the Bears have a 10-day break between hosting the Dallas Cowboys and visiting the Packers. With contests against the Chiefs and Vikings to round out the season, Week 15 could be crucial to their postseason aspirations too.

 

Predicted finish

Number one ranked defenses typically tend to fall back to the pack the next year — the Vikings went from the top in 2017 to ninth in 2018, for example — and as well as losing key personnel in the secondary like Adrian Amos (now a Packer) and Bryce Callahan — their defensive coordinator Vic Fangio departed to become Denver Broncos head coach.

Even if quarterback Mitchell Trubisky takes a significant step forward in his third season, the Bears may struggle to duplicate their 2018 record, especially with the Packers primed for a comeback. Rodgers will be determined to prove it was ex-head coach Mike McCarthy and not him who was holding the Packers back, while an exciting young defense should improve if Jaire Alexander and Kenny Clark move themselves into the elite category.

The jury is still out on Cousins with the Vikings, though it would be no surprise to see them get a wild card in a stacked division. The Lions may struggle to keep up if only because of how strong the other three are.

1. Packers

2. Bears

3. Vikings

4. Lions