A new season breeds new hope across the NFC North.
In Detroit, the Lions brought in more muscle up front in T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner to boost the team’s sputtering run game and offer more support for franchise linchpin Matthew Stafford.
In Minnesota, the Vikings revamped their offensive line and added running backs Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray to revive their dormant offense, while keeping much of their dominant defense intact.
In Chicago, the Bears are seemingly playing the long game and drafted Mitchell Trubisky with the hopes he can be the team’s next franchise quarterback to pair with standout back Jordan Howard.
But in Green Bay, the king of the North — Aaron Rodgers — returns with no plans of retiring or relinquishing his stranglehold on the division.
The Lions, Vikings and Bears had their shot last season to dethrone the Packers when Green Bay stumbled to a 4-6 mark and Rodgers wasn’t doing Rodgers-like things. By Week 6, he was Pro Football Focus’ 29th-ranked quarterback.
That was until Rodgers told everyone to relax and started playing to his own elite standard. Over the final six regular-season games, he posted a 121.0 passer rating and completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,667 yards, 15 touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Packers ran the table and swept the rug from under the Lions in the winner-take-all regular-season finale, claiming their fifth division crown in six seasons and stamping their postseason ticket for the eighth straight year.
Green Bay pushed its win streak to eight games before falling to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game — and one win short of the Packers’ second Super Bowl appearance in the Rodgers era.
Following that loss, Rodgers declared he had “a number of years left in me,” which should send shivers down the NFC North’s collective spine.
To make matters worse, Rodgers enters 2017 at helm at what could turn out to be Green Bay’s most prolific passing attack to date. He returns his powerful receiver corps — Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb — and has an added weapon in Martellus Bennett, who could become a stable solution and the most productive tight end Rodgers has had since Jermichael Finley. Elusive running back Ty Montgomery gives Green Bay’s offense another wrinkle and his pass-catching abilities create matchup issues for defenses.
The Packers also addressed their Achilles' heel in the secondary by drafting defensive backs Kevin King and Josh Jones and bringing back cornerback Davon House for a second tour. If that’s enough to help patch up their porous pass coverage remains to be seen, but it might not matter much for an offensive juggernaut that’s built for shootouts.
Meanwhile across the division, Stafford returns his own bevy of talented pieces and will be tasked with putting them all together, while hoping none of them crumble along the way.
With Detroit’s first-half schedule, the Lions will need Stafford to raise his level of play to his pay and put himself in the MVP conversation — much like he did last season before his injury — to have any chance at keeping pace with the Packers in the NFC North race.
The Vikings have the division’s nastiest defense but the Sam Bradford-led offense scares nobody. Minnesota’s ground game was the worst in the league last year and the conservative play-calling didn't help much either.
Bradford still has rising receivers, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, to work with, and both could produce 1,000-yard seasons if the Vikings open the playbook a little bit more and find a better balance.
And who is Bears quarterback Mike Glennon going to throw to? Leading receiver Alshon Jeffrey bolted for the Eagles, leaving Kevin White and Kendall Wright as the top two options. White, a former-first round pick, has played in just four games and Wright’s numbers have been in decline since 2013.
For a team coming off a historically bad season, it doesn’t seem like a recipe for success — or one that will help coach John Fox keep his job.
While aspirations are high throughout the division heading into Week 1, the reality is Rodgers is in his prime and the clock is ticking on Green Bay’s Super Bowl dreams.
“We’ve been to the playoffs eight straight years, which is an accomplishment. But you want more titles,” Rodgers said during the preseason. “I think us players got to take ownership of it and play better and finish this thing off.”
For the rest of the league, that doesn’t sound very promising.