Are The Vikings Going To Run Away With The NFC North?

The NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings head into the week 7 bye with a record of 5-1, and the only multi-game divisional lead in the NFL. The Vikings currently lead the division by effectively three games (two-game divisional lead plus the head to head tiebreaker) over the second-place Green Bay Packers.

Each of the Vikings’ fellow divisional rivals (Packers, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions) have experienced significant struggles this year on both sides of the ball. The Packers are 3-3 but an ugly 3-3, while the Bears and Lions sit at 2-4 and 1-4, respectively.

With the struggles of their divisional rivals this season, is it fair to assume that Minnesota will run away with the division just six weeks into the season? Let’s take a look.

What Do The Vikings Have Going For Them?
The Vikings may not be pretty themselves, but this team has perfected the art of situational football. According to an article by CBS Sports, the Vikings in two-minute aka clutch situations lead the league in point differential with a staggering plus-33. This means that when it comes down to the final two minutes of either half for the Vikings, they have outscored their opponents by 33 points. That’s an incredible turnaround for a team that was a league-worst minus-73 last year in this same category.

The Vikings defense also seems to be getting better by the week. In the past three weeks, the defensive front has collected ten sacks, including six in Sunday’s win over Miami. They don’t collect a lot of takeaways but the takeaways they do collect have been clutch. Against the Bears, the Vikings secondary sealed the game with a forced fumble, and against the Dolphins they collected two key turnovers (one fumble recovery and one interception) that allowed them to go up 24-10 at one point in the game.

We’ve also seen the offense at its best. When it is firing on all cylinders, such as in the first half against the Bears and in key moments against the Lions, Saints, and Dolphins, it is nearly unstoppable. Kirk Cousins is playing the most crisp and efficient football of his career under new coach Kevin O’Connell.

Now, let’s take a look at each of the three divisional rivals and examine their issues.

What’s Wrong With The Packers?
Although I am a Vikings fan, I do watch a lot of Packers games. And I’m wondering the same thing you probably are- what the hell has gone sideways for this team?

What has suddenly happened to the Packers offense? It went from being the league’s most productive and producing a two-time league MVP to one that is really hard to watch. This offense does not score in the second half, as they have only 39 second half points this year. Speaking of points, the Packers as a whole have scored only 109 points over the past six weeks for a grand total of 18.1 points per game. Was Davante Adams really that important to this team? Where is the clever coaching from Matt LaFleur? Is it possible that we perceive LaFleur as an elite coach but in reality he just benefits from a weak division that gives him 4-5 free wins a year? I don’t know what to say about the offense right now and I’m not sure if it will get better. Aaron Rodgers must take a lot of blame for this, he has not provided enough leadership to this team and doesn’t seem to trust his rookie receivers just yet.

The defense has also regressed, in large part due to the coaching by defensive coordinator Joe Barry. Barry’s soft coverage schemes have burnt the Packers this year. The secondary went from a strength last year to, outside of All-Pro Jaire Alexander, a weakness this year. Alexander and pass rusher Rashan Gary seem to be the only consistently productive players on this side of the ball. The Packers defense has a case to be one of the league’s biggest disappointments this season.

This is a team that has a lot of issues that may or may not be easily fixable. I’m not going to count them out as we have seen them make some last season surges and win the division before, but this Packers team doesn’t have the makings of a playoff one.

Lions Must Win By Shootout, Which Is Concerning
The Detroit Lions have the making of a Midwestern version of the Arizona Cardinals. They have an offensive-minded coach, as well as a talented QB, but they must win by shootout or not win at all.

This offense is very productive when healthy. I’m not sure if Jared Goff is the answer at QB, but they have some nice pieces such as Amon-Ra St. Brown, D’Andre Swift, and rookie Jameson Williams. When it’s at its best, this unit is nearly unstoppable.

However, a big reason why the Lions are only 1-4 this year is their defense, which has been repeatedly gashed this year. Cornerback Amani Oruwariye has been a liability in coverage this year, and is the weakest link of this defense, while the pass rush isn’t doing itself any favors with its inconsistency. Outside of the first half against the Commanders, this defense can’t seem to get out of its own way and has been historically bad.

Many see the Lions as a playoff threat, but I do not. They have an offense that will keep them in game, but they don’t have a defense that will enable them to close out games.

Bears Appear Promising, But Aren’t A Playoff Threat By Any Means
New Bears head coach Matt Eberflus has installed a new philosophy for the team: H.I.T.S, which stands for Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways, and (playing) Smart. While the Bears are only 2-4 to start the year, this philosophy appears to have been working, as this is a team that plays their hearts out every week and, outside of the Week 2 game against Green Bay, doesn’t go down without a fight.

However, the Bears are not a threat to make the playoffs by any means this year.

Their problems mainly start on offense. You can tell that this team doesn’t trust second-year quarterback Justin Fields quite yet. Their run-pass play ratio in their first six games is telling- 37:17, 27:11, 40:17, 32:22, 24:21, 37:27. This is a team that is really committed to the run and in today’s NFL that is a major concern. You need to be able to throw the football in today’s game. Some of this, however, is that the Bears don’t seem to have any receivers outside of Darnell Mooney. On a championship team, Mooney is probably a second or third option.

The defense has shown promise but is still not great under a first-year coach, which is okay. A big reason why they have lost games against the Packers, Giants, and Vikings is because the defense has allowed those offenses to drive up and down the field ad nauseum. This defense is inconsistent and will hold the team back at times this year.

So, Where Does This Leave The Vikings?
It’s very possible that the Vikings end up running away with the NFC North title in 2022, but I don’t know if I can say that yet. The meat of the schedule from Weeks 10-17 (at Bills, Cowboys, Patriots, Jets, at Lions, Colts, Giants, at Packers) is going to say a lot about this team. Plus, you know the Packers under Aaron Rodgers will always be a threat, until proven otherwise.

The only way I can see the Vikings running away with the division is if this team can come out and play their best ball following the Week 7 bye. If this team, outside of the situational phase of the game, can get right, they will look like a top-five team in the NFL. If they rely on their situational football and continue playing with fire, it will come back to bite them during the meat of their schedule.

Plus, what happened the last time the Vikings started 5-1? They went 3-7 over the remainder of the season to finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs. And, this is the Vikings- the only team in league history to start a season 5-0 or better twice (2003, 2016) and miss the playoffs.

It’s very possible that the Vikings will run away with the division, but it is not something that can be taken to the bank for now. This scenario will depend on both the Vikings’ play down the stretch as well as how their rivals do.
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