NFC North Landscape – Part One – The Vikings/Packers Balance

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Last season represented a changing of the guard in the NFC North, as the Vikings wrested the divisional title from the Packers, who had won it four years in a row. It also marked the first time that Minnesota had won it since 2009. Although it’s unlikely the Vikings will remain the NFL’s lone unbeaten for much longer, they do seem poised to repeat as NFC North champs. That would be the first time since the 2008-09 seasons that they accomplished that feat.

Before I proceed, I’d like to acknowledge that I was wrong in projecting the Vikings’ season this year. Even before Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson went down with injuries, I had them pegged as a .500 ball club. My reasoning was that they won an unusual number of close games, and I thought they would regress to the mean as AP turned over another calendar. I also mocked their trade for Sam Bradford. Needless to say, they’ve been nothing less than stellar, and their young defense could be one of the best in the NFC North – and indeed the league –  for years to come. All that said, what I’m about to say isn’t intended to take away from their success this year.

The Fall of Aaron Rodgers

The last time they repeated as NFC North champions coincides with Aaron Rodgers’ first full two seasons as the starter in Green Bay. Taking a glance at his stats from those years (’08-’09) we see that he had not yet transcended to the ranks of the elite yet.

2008: 341-536 (63.6%), 4038 yds, 28 TDs, 13 INTs
2009: 350-541 (64.7%), 4434 yds, 30 TDs, 7 INTs

2008 was a mediocre statistical season, albeit not bad for a first-year starter. 2009 was a good year, but it wasn’t  a great one, and Rodgers went 0-2 against his former mentor Brett Favre, although I doubt Rodgers would ever call him that.

And while I was wrong about the Vikings, I seem to have been right about Aaron Rodgers. In the off-season, I made the claim that “despite being just 32, Rodgers’ best years are behind him.” Last season, Rodgers was one of only four eligible quarterbacks with 500+ passing attempts and 4000> yards. The other three were Ryan Fitzpatrick, Derek Carr, and, coincidentally, Sam Bradford. And get this – Rodgers is actually playing worse than he did last year.

2015: 347-572 (60.7%) 3821 yds 31 TDs, 8 INTs
2016 (current, through five games): 109-181 (60.2%) 1172 yds 10 TDs 4 INTs
2016 (projected): 349-579 (60.2%), 3750 yds, 32 TDs, 13 INTs

At his current rate, Rodgers is on pace to finish with a lower completion rate, less yardage, and the same interception total as he did in 2008. Again, that was his first full season as a starter. Against teams that rank in the top ten in passing DVOA (Minnesota, 4th; Jacksonville, 7th) he went 40-for-70 passing (57.1%) for 412 yards, 3 TDs, and an INT. Four of his ten passing TDs came against the Lions, who rank 31st in pass DVOA. He also didn’t play well against the 18th-ranked Giants, as he went 23-for-45 (51.1%) for 259 yards and threw two TDs and two picks. The Cowboys, who are ranked 25th, let him have a decent game (31-for-42, 294 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) but he didn’t run roughshod over them either, which is what one would expect a so-called elite quarterback to do.

Rodgers has also met media criticism with a petulance disguised as apathy, and was quoted as saying he was going to “go home and have a glass of scotch,” after their 30-16 loss to the Cowboys. Although he bristles at the notion that he’s lost his edge, this is a twenty-one game trend and not an outlier based on a small sample size. Which is to say, it isn’t just a slump. As blasphemous as it is to say, Aaron Rodgers is no longer elite, and it’s time we acknowledged that. He’s no longer the best quarterback in the division, much less all of football.

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The Rise of Minnesota

While the Vikings’ success isn’t merely a byproduct of Rodgers’ decline, it would be a lot more difficult for them to win the division with a great defense and a ball control offense if Rodgers was still in his prime. Their 2012 season is Exhibit A, B, and C in that regard. An historic 2000-yard season and an MVP campaign from Adrian Peterson, coupled with a pretty good defensive unit, wasn’t enough to win the division that year. Of course, this was the year after the Packers went 15-1 en route to winning the Super Bowl and an Aaron Rodgers MVP award. However, the Packers were oft-injured as only three of their starters on offense and only three starters on defense played all sixteen games. Still, Rodgers had a great year (371-552, 4295 yards, 39 TDs, 8 INTs) and it was enough to go 11-5 and win the division. The Vikings split the regular season series with a 14-23 loss on the road and a 37-34 win in Minnesota, but they went on to lose to the Packers the following week in the Wildcard Round 24-10 at Lambeau.

Now, you’re probably thinking that the Vikes’ 2012 defense wasn’t nearly as good as the 2016 squad is, and you’d be right, but they weren’t slouches either. They had defensive end Jared Allen, a five-time Pro Bowler; defensive tackle Kevin Williams, a six-time Pro Bowler; linebacker Chad Greenway, a two-time Pro Bowler; and cornerback Antoine Winfield, a three-time Pro Bowler. They also had a younger Everson Griffen, a younger Brian Robison, and a rookie Harrison Smith, who are all on the current iteration of the defense.

The Balance in the NFC North

Simply put, the coincidental timing of Rodgers’ regression and the ascension of the Vikings’ defense has benefited them greatly. These factors considered, they seem poised to take grip of the NFC North, a division that has recently been dominated by the Packers. However, their defense is largely constructed of talented young players on rookie deals, so sustainability is a big question mark for them moving forward.

In the next part of this article, which will drop tomorrow, we’ll examine how the Vikings’ cap situation could play out over the next couple years and speculate as to whether or not they can keep their great, young defense intact.

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