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Are the 2018 Vikings the strongest NFC North rival in the Packers’ Rodgers era?

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The Packers have dominated the division for years, but the Vikings have re-asserted themselves of late. Is this Green Bay’s biggest test yet?

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers has long owned the North, but is this Vikings team his best challenger to date?
Rick Wood-USA TODAY Sports

The same year Aaron Rodgers made his first trip to the postseason, Brett Favre took his team to the NFC Championship game. Watching perhaps the most important player in Green Bay Packers history take a hated rival to the cusp of the Super Bowl was a pain only salved by the Vikings’ ultimate implosion and failure.

It’s a wonder Minneapolis hasn’t outlawed cereal at this point given their history with bowls.

But after Rodgers slayed the purple dragon with Favre at the helm, the Packers dominated the division, winning NFC North titles in 2011, ’12, ’13, ’14 and ’16. In 2010, the Packers had failed to win the division, this time ceding that honor to the Chicago Bears, but a win over the Bears in Week 17 earned Green Bay a playoff spot and ultimately a run to a Super Bowl title.

An Aaron Rodgers injury in 2017 robbed us of the showdown between the nascent Mike Zimmer Vikings and the perennial kings of the North. It didn’t take a Ron Wolf-tree scout to see how well concocted this Vikings roster looked, how balanced and dynamic they are with diverse depth.

Had they wrested the mantle away from the Packers while we weren’t looking? Could they have beaten Green Bay both with or without Rodgers?

We can’t know the answer for what would have happened, only what happens this season. And that could very well also provide insight into a more pressing general question: is this Vikings team the biggest threat the Packers have faced since Rodgers took the helm?

In order to make a determination, we must first establish what this Vikings team will look like in 2018. Minnesota adds Kirk Cousins, Sheldon Richardson and a healthy Dalvin Cook to a 13-win team. A year ago, they were fourth in DVOA and weighted DVOA, the latter prioritizing how a team is playing at the end of the season.

Mike Zimmer’s team finished fifth in offense by DVOA and second in defensive DVOA, along with having the greatest third-down defense in NFL history. In short, they were really good last year and should be even better this year.

It’s not unreasonable to think the Vikings will once again be a top-five team on both sides of the ball, though it’s likely a defensive regression on third down hits them as well as some questions about the depth in their secondary.

Favre’s 2009 team, which beat the Packers twice, actually finished well behind the Packers in DVOA, and did so in offense and defense. In fact, that 2009 Packers team probably should have gone further than it did in the postseason given its efficiency numbers, but ran into an all-time great performance by Kurt Warner (plus an all-time shit sandwich from a Dom Capers defense, a foreshadowing of future culinary crap creations from Capers).

This iteration of the Vikings should stand well above that team even if they don’t reach the NFC Championship game.

Much like the two years prior, the Packers once again led the division in DVOA in 2010, despite a Bears’ division title. The Jay Cutler team put up just the 28th-ranked offense in efficiency despite a top-five defense. That team rolled over for Green Bay in that Week 17 matchup rather than fight to keep the Packers out of the playoffs. Then, they rolled over again (although Cutler probably couldn’t be bothered to roll over — maybe he just laid there clutching his knee) in the NFC Championship Game despite playing at home.

That team can’t hold a candle to this version of the Vikings.

In fact, that wasn’t even the best Bears team of the last decade. The 2012 team that won 10 games boasted the best defense in football and finished just a shade behind the Packers in total DVOA even with a bottom-10 offense.

Given the lack of balance on that squad, they can’t be considered for the top spot of Packers rival teams, but they’re the best version of the Bears we’ve seen since Rodgers took over.

The only other season before 2017 in which the Packers didn’t lead the North in DVOA was 2013, when the Lions took that honor, but they still finished as a middle-of-the-pack team overall. That too, wasn’t even the best iteration of the Lions we’ve seen (2014).

To be sure, there are other ways to measure a team’s quality. There is no silver bullet method, but DVOA has been the most consistent, well-established metric as well as the one with the most established data over time. We don’t have much advanced data, like ESPN’s FPI for example, going back 10 years.

Last season, the Vikings mounted the best challenge the Packers have seen inside the division in the Rodgers era. However, we weren’t able to find out if Green Bay had been up to the task of beating them because the 2017 team didn’t include the most significant single player of said era. Beating down Brett Hundley twice no doubt boosted the Vikings’ standing, not just in wins but by the numbers.

This season we’ll see for sure, with a bigger, badder version of last year’s team. This time, we’ll have proof as to whether the Packers are up to the challenge, but it seems clear no team before has posed a more formidable hurdle to Rodgers’ dominance in the North.