NFL division preview: NFC North
Will this be Aaron Rodgers' final season in Green Bay? When will the Justin Fields era begin in Chicago? How will the rebuild in Detroit turn out?
There's so many questions to answer in the NFC North.
USA TODAY Sports+ examines each division prior to kickoff of the 2021 NFL season. And there's plenty of intrigue surrounding this unique year, which features 17 games after the NFL expanded its regular season for the first time since 1978.
The playoffs will begin the weekend of Jan. 15 and Los Angeles will host Super Bowl LVI Feb. 13, 2022.
Now, let's get into it.
Team to beat? Green Bay Packers
It might be Aaron Rodgers’ last season in Green Bay. It may even be DeVante Adams’ last season with the Packers, too. And what better way to send them out than with a deeper run in the playoffs?
Rodgers enters his 17th season hoping for a second Super Bowl trip.
Green Bay didn't capitalize on a 13-3 season last year, falling one game short of the Super Bowl. Questionable playcalling and a poor defensive lapse before halftime ended the Packers' season in the NFC championship game.
Add in a tumultuous offseason, which ended with a re-negotiated contract for Rodgers, and you have one of the NFL’s most fascinating storylines of 2021.
Team on the rise? Chicago Bears
The Justin Fields era in Chicago likely won't begin Week 1 because Bears coach Matt Nagy plans to gradually bring along Fields – the No. 11 pick in the 2021 NFL draft –during his rookie season. Veteran Andy Dalton is expected to begin the season as starting quarterback.
The Bears watched Fields slide early in the first round of the draft and traded up to snag him 11th overall, quickly rejuvenating the Chicago fanbase after four disappointing seasons with former No. 2 pick Mitch Trubisky under center.
The Bears snuck into the playoffs with an 8-8 record last season and should keep the same pace in the NFC North with Dalton as the starter. When Fields joins the fray, the Bears have a talented quarterback who could help them immediately contend for a division title.
Team with some intrigue? Minnesota Vikings
There’s always some frustration surrounding the Vikings, who have the talent needed to contend in the division and NFC playoff race but were plagued by a 1-5 start last season and finished 7-9.
Starting quarterback Kirk Cousins returns for his fourth season, while running back Dalvin Cook and receiver Justin Jefferson are rising stars.
Cook, who had 1,917 total yards and 17 touchdowns in 14 games last year, appears ready to stake his claim as one of the NFL's best running backs.
Jefferson, who had 1,400 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, is the perfect complement to veteran Adam Thielen.
Cousins just needs to start the season like he finished his last 10 games, where he threw 24 touchdowns with a 113.6 passer rating and a 6-4 record.
Team with ground to make up? Detroit Lions
The Lions have a new starting quarterback, a new head coach and a lot of ground to make up in the NFC North, where they've finished last three seasons in a row.
Detroit sparked its rebuilding effort by sending former No. 1 pick Matthew Stafford away in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams that netted new quarterback Jared Goff.
And it continued with new coach Dan Campbell’s infectious energy. During his introductory news conference, Campbell told Lions fans their players are “going to bite a kneecap off” opponents.
Tight end T.J. Hockenson, cornerback Jeffrey Okudah and new first-round right tackle Penei Sewell highlight Detroit’s talent heading into the 2021 season.