The NFC North ran through Green Bay, Wisconsin from the beginning of the 2010s into the 2020s, with the Packers winning eight of the last 13 division titles while Aaron Rodgers put together one of the greatest quarterback careers in NFL history. Now that Rodgers is in the with the New York Jets, the Minnesota Vikings, the 2022 NFC North champions, and the Detroit Lions, the 2023 offseason's buzziest team, each have a new opportunity to establish divisional supremacy. However, the drop off from the 2022 version of Aaron Rodgers, who dealt with a broken thumb on his right throwing hand, to Jordan Love may not be as steep as anticipated.
The Chicago Bears, who earned the first-overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft with a 3-14 record, are still a few years away. Their defense ranked last in the league in scoring (27.3 points per game allowed), third downs (49% conversion rate allowed), passing yards per attempt allowed (8.0) and sacks (20). Quarterback Justin Fields improved as the 2022 season progressed (20 total touchdowns and seven turnovers in his final nine games after compiling five total touchdowns and six turnovers in his first six games), but their offense is also a work in progress.
Here are the pathways to how each of the non-Bears NFC North franchises could take home the division crown in 2023.
The Vikings were the 2022 NFC North champions with a 13-4 record, but they were the most flimsy team with at least 12 wins in NFL history. Minnesota earned the notorious distinction as the only team in NFL history to have 12 or more wins and a negative point-differential (-3). Eleven of their 13 wins were by one score, the most such wins in a single season in league history. On the flip side, all of the Vikings' losses were by at least 10 points: 11 points (34-23 loss at the Detroit Lions in Week 14), 17 points (24-7 defeat at the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2), 24 points (41-17 loss at the Green Bay Packers in Week 17), and 37 points (40-3 defeat versus the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11).
Worst point differential by 12+ win team in NFL history
* Only team on list that won 13 games
A team as reliant on close-game finishes as the Vikings were could be in for a steep regression in 2023, given only four of the prior 12 teams with at least nine one-score victories in a season returned to the postseason the following year. However, Minnesota does employ the league's reigning Offensive Player of the Year in wide receiver Justin Jefferson, a soon-to-be 24-year-old who has already made Vikings and NFL history. His league-leading 128 catches and 1,809 receiving yards were both the most in a single season in Vikings history, and that output allowed him to break Hall of Famer Randy Moss' record for the most receiving yards in a player's first three seasons (4,163) by 662 yards (4,825).
Naturally, Jefferson's 1,809 receiving yards accounted for 37.5% of his team's total receiving yards, the highest rate in the NFL, so Minnesota added a young running mate for him in USC wideout Jordan Addison, the 23rd overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. He's far from the most physically imposing receiver in his draft class at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, but the 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner had some of the better route-running chops in the most recent draft. Jefferson and Addison should provide enough options out wide for quarterback Kirk Cousins, who will turn 35 prior to the start of the upcoming season, his last under contract.
The biggest question mark in the Vikings' effort to go two-for-two on NFC North titles under head coach Kevin O'Connell is their defense, the worst of any team to make the playoffs in 2022. That side of the football ranked in the NFL's bottom five in scoring defense (25.1 points per game allowed, T-28th), total defense (388.7, 31st), pass defense (265.6 passing yards allowed per game, 31st), and yards per play allowed (5.9, 30th).
Vikings defense in 2022 season
Total YPG Allowed
Pass YPG Allowed
* All worst among 2022 playoff teams in each category
Due to that poor showing, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was relieved of his duties. O'Connell replaced him with former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who spent the 2022 season as the Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers coach/senior defensive assistant on Mike Tomlin's staff. One of the biggest areas Flores will likely be focusing in Year 1 running Minnesota's defense will be their pass rush. The Dolphins were a top-five team across the board in getting after opposing quarterbacks his final season as their head coach in 2021, but last year's Vikings were below average in that department. Having a strong pass rush takes a ton of responsibility off of a secondary, something that would be a significant benefit for the Purple and Gold.
Brian Flores' 2021 Dolphins pass rush vs. 2022 Vikings pass rush
|2021 Dolphins||2022 Vikings|
Minnesota made two big moves to supplement their defense on the field in free agency this offseason: signing former New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Marcus Davenport to a one-year, $13 million contract and signing former Arizona Cardinals cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. to a two-year, $17.5 million deal. Davenport led New Orleans in pressure rate in each of the last four seasons, and his cumulative percentage since 2019 of 14.8% is the 10th-highest in the league, mere percentage points behind Cleveland Browns All-Pro pass rusher Myles Garrett in that span. If Flores can get the Vikings defense to just league average in Year 1 in 2023 and take a little pressure off of Cousins and Jefferson, there's a realistic road for Minnesota to repeat as NFC North champions.
The Lions are the 2023 offseason's "it" team. They are currently the odds-on favorite to win the NFC North (+120) and their +2500 odds to win the Super Bowl are their second-shortest preseason odds in the last 25 years. The NFL even included them in the 2023 season opener against the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs! Detroit won eight of its final 10 games in 2022, which included eliminating Aaron Rodgers and the Packers from playoff contention in the final game of the regular season on "Sunday Night Football." Jared Goff's resurgence helped power a top-five scoring offense (26.6 points per game, fifth-best in NFL) as he led the league in touchdown to interception ratio, 29 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. Goff closed out the season on fire, throwing 15 touchdowns and no interceptions in the Lions' final nine games. His 324 consecutive passes without an interception mark the longest such streak in franchise history.
Jared Goff's Lions career
|FIRST 22 GAMES||LAST 9 GAMES|
Goff's connection with 2021 fourth-round pick wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown shined bright as he broke out with 106 receptions, 1,161 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns, which led to the first Pro Bowl selection of St. Brown's career. According to The Athletic's Nate Tice, St. Brown led the NFL with an 18% success rate per target given the total amount of routes run, meaning the second-year wideout made the most of the chances he received from Goff given all of the chances he could have received.
Their offseason moves have only added to the hype train. Detroit swiftly addressed their secondary, which surrendered the third-most passing yards per game (245.8) in the league, through free agency -- signing cornerbacks Cameron Sutton (three years, $33 million), Emmanuel Moseley (one year, $6 million) and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson (one-year, $6.5 million, co-led NFL with six interceptions) -- and the 2023 NFL Draft -- selecting the draft's top safety, Alabama's Brian Branch, in the second round, 45th overall. General manager Brad Holmes also bolstered Goff's cast of playmakers, adding Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta with the 34th overall pick in the draft and bringing back wide receiver Marvin Jones, whose 36 receiving touchdowns with Detroit are the third-most in team history behind Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson (83) and Herman Moore (62). The draft's first inside linebacker selected, Iowa's Jack Campbell at 18th overall, is the type of player head coach Dan Campbell dreams about anchoring the middle of his defense. The selection of Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs, 12th overall, could give their offense the all-purpose juice they didn't get enough of from the oft-injured, now-traded D'Andre Swift.
The 2023 NFC North favorites have high expectations as well as the infrastructure to meet them when it comes to their divisional potential.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers are entering their first season since 1991 without either Hall of Famer Brett Favre or future first-ballot Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers as their starting quarterback. The Green and Gold have used two starting quarterbacks, Favre and Rodgers, in their past 30 season openers with each starting 15 Week 1 contests. Every other team has used at least five different Week 1 starting passers in that span. As the David Bakhtiari.begins, it marks the Packers entering the dreaded r-word stage, rebuilding, according to Green Bay All-Pro left tackle
"The Packers are rebuilding whether you think so or not," Bakhtiariin April. "[People will say] 'Could they be good, I don't know.' More people are going to think they're [the Packers] going to be more bad than good, right? That's fair to say."
Trading Rodgers to the Jets certainly removes the "Super Bowl or bust" narrative that has surrounded the franchise for the last several years, but that doesn't they can't contend for the NFC North title. Even though Love has only thrown 83 passes in his career since being selected 26th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, he displayed plenty of growth in 2022. He completed six of his nine passes when he came off the bench in Week 12 of the 2022 season on "Sunday Night Football" while on the road at Philadelphia Eagles for 113 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown pass to Christian Watson. Love's second and final drive of the night culminated in a 33-yard field goal by kicker Mason Crosby, the final points in a 40-33 defeat.
Green Bay quarterbacks coach Tom Clements, who nurtured Aaron Rodgers' career from 2006-2016, came out of retirement to coach him once again last season. He is choosing to remain on staff with the Packers in 2023 because of Love's development. Clements cited Love's footwork as one of his critical areas of improvement earlier this month.
"That's [footwork] really a big aspect of playing quarterback," Clementson May 19. "If you can try to watch a quarterback's feet and not watch anything else, you might have a good idea if it's going to be a good throw. If you can have your feet in position to make a throw -- assuming everyone in the NFL has a certain degree of talent -- you're going to have a chance to have a successful play. … He [Jordan Love] bought into it because he saw the drills we did with Aaron, saw the success Aaron had, so he worked hard at it and had some improvement."
Love has categorized his own growth since becoming a Packer as "drastic." Green Bay agrees as it went all in on his development by becoming the fourth team in Common Draft Era (since 1967) with four wide receivers and tight ends drafted in the first five rounds, joining the 1979 Rams, the 2016 Browns, and the 2018 Ravens. Now, at 24 years old, Love gets to help lead the growth of his wide receivers and tight ends, just about all of whom are younger than him: 2022 second-round pick Christian Watson (23 years old), 2022 fourth-round pick Romeo Doubs (23), 2022 seventh-round pick Samori Toure (25 years old), 2023 second-round pick Luke Musgrave (22), 2023 second-round pick Jayden Reed (23 years old), and 2023 third-round pick Tucker Kraft (23 years old). Yes, Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones (28 years old) is still around, and he's to work with Love. Overall, 2023 marks a dramatic age shift in comparison to the mostly veteran-laden group that was present during Love's first three seasons with Rodgers as the starting quarterback.
"I think it's great," Love most of his pass-catchers. "We'll get the opportunity to grow together, learn each other... It's easier with younger guys that haven't been around other guys [quarterbacks] who want it a certain way. It's easier to get my point across about how I want things to run. It'll be great to be around these younger guys."when asked about being older than
The young passer will be insulated by one of the best offensive lines in football, as the Packers front five allowed a pressure on 26.6% of dropbacks, the second-fewest rate in the NFL.
His defense is also full of talent with seven former first-round picks and three Pro Bowlers or All-Pros: defensive tackle Kenny Clark, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, cornerback Jaire Alexander. If Love catches the NFL off guard in his first season running the show at Lambeau and his defense plays up to its potential, the Packers could be the 2023 NFC North champions by surprise for a change.