NFC North preview: With Aaron Rodgers back, Packers lead the pack

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

As the Aaron Rodgers rumors swirled and the offseason drama dragged on, there was a period where it looked like the reigning MVP’s time with the Packers was over and the NFC North was going to be up for grabs.

At least, that was until Rodgers ended the stalemate with the front office and returned to the team when training camp began in late July, meaning the road to the conference crown will once again run through Green Bay.

With Rodgers under center, the Packers have dominated the division — winning it seven times in the last 10 years — and are favored to maintain their stranglehold with a third straight conference title.

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have reached the NFC Championship Game four times in the last seven years.

Chasing them are the Vikings, a squad looking to bounce back from its first losing season since 2014, a Bears team that’s dealing with a quarterback quandary and a rebuilding Lions crew that's looking to avoid a fourth consecutive campaign with 10-plus losses.

Here’s a look at how the NFC North break downs heading into the 2021 season (in predicted order of finish):

Green Bay Packers

► Last season’s record: 13-3

► Key additions: LB De’Vondre Campbell, C Josh Myers, WR Amari Rodgers, CB Eric Stokes

► Key losses: LB Christian Kirksey, C Corey Linsley, OT Rick Wagner, RB Jamaal Williams

► Outlook: Despite the offseason turmoil, the Packers returned most of their key starters and are geared up to make another deep playoff run. With All-Pro WR Davante Adams, Pro Bowl RB Aaron Jones and Rodgers back in the fold, the Packers will likely have one of the NFL’s most potent offenses again. But after losing in the NFC Championship Game each of the last two seasons, the key to breaking through lies with the defense, which will look to take another step and become more consistent under new coordinator Joe Barry. Given Rodgers’ uncertain future, this may be the franchise’s best shot at reaching the Super Bowl for some time.

Minnesota Vikings

► Last season’s record: 7-9

► Key additions: CB Bashaud Breeland, OT Christian Darrisaw, CB Patrick Peterson, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, DT Sheldon Richardson

► Key losses: S Anthony Harris, OT Riley Reiff, TE Kyle Rudolph, LB Eric Wilson

► Outlook: Since 2015, the Vikings have made the playoffs every other year. In order to keep the trend going, they’ll need to get back to a familiar formula — pairing a staunch defense with a run-heavy attack. Last season, the offense held up its end of the bargain behind RB Dalvin Cook, WR Justin Jefferson and WR Adam Thielen. The blame fell on the defense, which took a major step back and ranked near the bottom of the league in points allowed. If the defense can return to form and the offense can produce like it did last year, the Vikings will have a shot to dethrone the Packers.

Chicago Bears

► Last season’s record: 8-8

► Key additions: QB Andy Dalton, QB Justin Fields, OT Teven Jenkins

► Key losses: CB Kyle Fuller, LT Charles Leno Jr., RT Bobby Massie, QB Mitchell Trubisky

► Outlook: After four years of mediocre QB play, the Bears decided to move on from Trubisky, replacing the former No. 2 overall pick by signing Dalton and moving up to draft Fields. The hope is one of those moves will help boost an offense that has ranked in the league’s bottom half in total yards and points scored each of the past two seasons. Regardless of how the QB situation shakes out, the Bears will hang their hat on the Khalil Mack-led defense, which figures to remain a strength despite the unit’s regression the last two years.

Detroit Lions

► Last season’s record: 5-11

► Key additions: DT Michael Brockers, QB Jared Goff, OT Penei Sewell, RB Jamaal Williams, WR Tyrell Williams

► Key losses: WR Kenny Golladay, RB Kerryon Johnson, WR Marvin Jones Jr., K Matt Prater, QB Matthew Stafford

► Outlook: The Lions hit the reset button and brought in a new regime after ex-coach Matt Patricia and his version of “The Patriot Way” flamed out in Detroit. Stafford, the longtime starter, was shipped to L.A. in a trade that involved Goff, who has a chance to prove he’s more than a one-year stopgap. But with a lackluster cast of receivers, the hope is the offense can at least boast a respectable ground game, led by D’Andre Swift, behind a solid O-line. Defensively, the Lions have no place to go but up under first-year coach Dan Campbell following last season’s historically poor performance.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins