With the NFC North well represented in the latest Super Bowl odds, one of the biggest subplots in the upcoming 2016 NFL season will revolve around the Green Packers and Minnesota Vikings long-standing rivalry and likely showdown for the division crown.
Along with the NFC West and AFC North, the NFC North has two teams, Minnesota and Green Bay, among the 10 teams with the best odds to raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Houston come February.
The Packers are firmly atop the short list of oddsmakers’ Super Bowl contenders. After the heavily favored New England Patriots, Green Bay’s next up at +850 to win its first Super Bowl since 2010. However, the Vikings aren’t too far back at +1600 odds to secure the first Super Bowl in franchise history, the seventh-best odds of any team in the league, according to Bovada.lv.
But Las Vegas prognosticators don’t expect Minnesota to repeat as division champions for the first time in nearly a decade. Having claimed the NFC North the four previous seasons, the Packers are the clear favorites to reclaim the division at -140 odds, followed by Minnesota at +200, the Chicago Bears at +900, and the Detroit Lions at +1000.
Given the personnel changes, both through free agency and the draft, as well as players returning from injuries that kept them out all of last season, it’s more than reasonable to peg the Packers or Vikings as championship contenders both in the NFC North and the Super Bowl.
The debate must begin at the very top of each team, quarterback, and Green Bay owns a decisive advantage. The Packers will roll out perennial MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers, who is coming off a down year but is still considered the best all-around field general in the NFL, while Minnesota looks for Teddy Bridgewater to parlay a mostly solid sophomore season into a breakout third year.
Rodgers tossed his usual 30-plus touchdowns with single-digit interceptions and a 60-plus completion percentage, but the Packers offense lumbered with leading receiver Jordy Nelson suffering an ACL tear in the preseason and missing all of 2015, receiver Randall Cobb playing hurt and below expectations, and running back Eddie Lacy battling fitness issues as well as an ongoing ankle injury. With Rodgers posting a career-worst 92.7 passer rating, the Packers would still go 10-6 but ranked 15th in points scored and only 25th in passing yardage (218.9 yards per game).
But the Packers are primed for a bounce-back year. Nelson, who scored 43 touchdowns between 2011 and 2014, will return and Lacy’s reportedly slimmed down before he enters a contract year. General manager Ted Thompson also hit free agency and signed tight end Jared Cook, who’s averaged 47 receptions and 613.6 yards over the last five seasons.
Rodgers could also return to form if his offensive line can stay healthy. Green Bay’s starting offensive lineman missed 10 combined games in 2015, with center Corey Linsley sitting out three and right tackle Bryan Bulaga four, which led to Rodgers taking 46 sacks, the second-most of his career in a single season.
A lack of reliable targets or much speed on the sideline, as well as the offensive line’s woes, limited Bridgewater’s development and the Vikings offense. But general manager Rick Spielman addressed both issues by selecting former Ole Miss standout receiver Laquon Treadwell to pair with 2015’s breakout star Stefon Diggs, and signed former 49ers guard Alex Boone to a four-year, $26 million deal with $10 million guaranteed.
Spielman also added more depth to the line with one-year deals to former Bengals starting right tackle Andre Smith and retained guard Mike Harris. The total cost was $5.5 million.
And a young Vikings defense, which already fielded stars like linebacker Anthony Barr and free safety Harrison Smith, was made even stronger in the draft with Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander a potential second-round steal.
With each side retooling and building off what worked last year, the NFC North race should be one of the closest in the league next season. And it could even build a road towards the Super Bowl.