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NFC North Update: Where the Packers stand halfway through the preseason

We check in with the other teams around the division (and take a slightly wider look around the NFC as a whole).

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Most football fans can agree that the NFC far outweighs the AFC when it comes to conference difficulty.

In the NFC East, the Cowboys are looking for another strong year despite the current status of RB Ezekiel Elliott. The Giants, who are led by two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning have built up an impressive receiving core with Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and the newly acquired Brandon Marshall. Despite a rough start to the preseason, with Kirk Cousins playing for a hearty future contract could drive Washington to be sneaky-good in that division.

In the South, the Falcons of course are coming off of one of the most devastating losses in Super Bowl history but managed to keep much of the same team from last year. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones could light it up in that division if their revenge tour comes to fruition. While the Bucs are a big question mark from year-to-year, Jameis Winston is now moving into a comfortable third season with two of the top receivers in the league, Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson.

When looking at the NFC West, the competition is obviously less competitive but shouldn’t be undervalued. The Seahawks are routinely a difficult opponent for the Packers, and a week one matchup at Lambeau will prove to be a tough test to open the year.

That brings us to the NFC North. The Packers are the strongest competition in this division, winning the title in six of the last seven seasons, with the fall being in 2015. With Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the Packers offense is one of the most explosive in the league, despite dealing with major injuries to Randall Cobb last season and Jordy Nelson the year before. The defense however, is a much different story. An offense is only as strong as it’s defense and the Packers struggle year after year in this area. If the Packers can improve on defense and maintain their success on offense, not only will they likely win the division title once again, but they could also be a strong contender for a Super Bowl title.

But first, let’s look more into the Packers’ NFC North competition.

Detroit Lions

Last season, the Detroit Lions nearly snuck in their first division title since before Brett Favre made a name for himself in Green Bay. But Rodgers managed to run the table and go on a six-game win streak that pushed the Packers over the Lions.

That does not negate the fact that Matthew Stafford has one of his strongest seasons in recent memory, throwing for 4,327 yards, 24 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. The Lions also led the league in fourth quarter comebacks last season, which means the team knows how to thrive late when their opponents are traditionally gassed out.

Unfortunately for the Lions, the injury bug has hit early in Detroit. The team lost defensive end Kerry Hyder to a torn Achilles last week and this week WR T.J. Jones was diagnosed with a hamstring injury. The Lions have won both of their preseason games, but those games have been against the Jets and the Colts.

Overall, the Lions lack explosive playmakers and face a tough schedule coming out of the gate with the Cardinals, Giants and Falcons being their first three opponents. Detroit will need another strong year from Stafford if they stand any chance of being competitive in the North.

Chicago Bears

Ask any Packers fan which team they despise the most and the Chicago Bears are likely to be the words you hear. The archnemesis to the South, the Chicago Bears have historically been a giant headache for the Packers.

However, to the pleasure of the green and gold, the Bears have been in a rebuilding phase for the last few seasons. Although the team had one of the worst records in the league last year (3-13), it’s looking like the embarrassing season could soon be a distant memory.

In the 2017 draft, Chicago traded up to grab North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky second overall. A questionable move considering Trubisky started just 13 games in his college career. However, it looks like John Fox and co. may have known something everyone else didn’t. Trubisky is already proving he’s got the poise to handle the NFL field and could quickly take the starting position away from QB Mike Glennon.

Despite the QB position looking like it could be improving in Chicago, the Bears lack viable receiver options outside of Victor Cruz. Fox has even admitted that the team has a lot of room for improvement on offense.

Improvement seems to be the word flying around the Bears’ facilities because it looks like the defense could use some of it as well. Last season, the Bears struggled to create turnovers but added safety Quintin Demps, who had a career-high six interceptions with the Texans in 2016. Adding Demps to the roster was an important move for improving the young defense.

Overall, the Bears are making progress but the progress has been slow. It looking like this season will be another one of rebuilding, meaning the Packers will likely coast past their southern rivals.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings will most likely be Green Bay’s toughest opponent in the division. Minnesota had a rough start to their 2016 season, losing Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson to injuries, but somehow managed to tough out a 5-0 start, including a stadium-opener against Green Bay in week two. Minnesota lulled soon after and finished the season at 8-8.

The biggest strength in Minnesota this year is the defense, which the Packers will go up against in week six. The secondary may have struggled against deep passes from Russell Wilson last week, but they were also short two starters (Trae Waynes and Andrew Sendejo).

In addition to a loaded defense, the Vikings have added RB Dalvin Cook, who was more than impressive in the short time he played against Seattle. Not only will Cook be a hot fantasy commodity, he could be a big pain point for opposing defenses.

Now, with confidence in Sam Bradford, a healthy Mike Zimmer and a stacked roster, the Vikings will be the team the Packers need to watch in the NFC North.

The Verdict

Just two weeks out from the start of the regular season, we’re finally able to see a clearer picture of where the Packers competition stands. As it happens every season, if Green Bay is able to stay healthy and improve on defense, the division title could be handed to the Packers once again.

The road to the Super Bowl is right around the corner.