Has anything really changed in the NFC North?
Well, there is this: Who would've thought the Minnesota Vikings -- fresh off a 10-6 season that ended on the second weekend of the playoffs -- would be 1-5? Or that the Detroit Lions would have already matched their 2019 win total and sit at a respectable 3-3?
The Packers (5-1) don't play the Bears (5-2) for another month, but then they play twice in the final six weeks of the season. And if Green Bay beats Minnesota on Sunday, it will be its ninth straight NFC North win since Matt LaFleur took over as coach last year. LaFleur is just the fourth coach in the Super Bowl era to start his career 8-0 in division games, joining Steve Mariucci (who started 12-0), Chan Gailey (10-0) and Raymond Berry (9-0).
Here's a look at the NFC North teams from ESPN NFL Nation's Courtney Cronin (Vikings), Rob Demovsky (Packers), Jeff Dickerson (Bears) and Michael Rothstein (Lions):
Green Bay Packers (5-1, first place)
Most surprising player: Aaron Rodgers, QB. How many considered him on the decline after his statistically mediocre season (despite going 13-3) last year followed by the Packers drafting his potential replacement, Jordan Love? Instead, Rodgers has returned to MVP form. He has clicked with LaFleur and has shown heavy buy-in to the scheme. His 17 touchdown passes (with just two interceptions) are tied for his most through six games of a season, matching his first MVP year of 2011 and prompting Vikings coach Mike Zimmer to say this week: "This guy's the best in the business."
Most disappointing player: Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR. The Packers were counting on the third-year receiver to become consistent and push for the WR2 spot. He opened with a four-catch, 96-yard, one-touchdown game against the Vikings, but perhaps his two drops in that game should not have been overlooked. Since then he has had a one-catch game (for 5 yards in Week 3 vs. the Saints) and a no-catch game (Week 7 vs. the Texans). His reception rate (45.5%) ranks last in the NFL among receivers with enough targets to qualify for ESPN Stats & Information rankings.
Most telling stat: Plus-38. That's the Packers' point margin, 10th best in the NFL. And that includes the 28-point loss to the Buccaneers. When the Packers have been on this season, they've been nearly unstoppable. That's in contrast to last year when they eked out so many wins. But one thing has remained the same: When they lose, they lose big.
Key question for second half of season: Will the defense save them when Rodgers and the offense inevitably have an off day? The defense crumbled in last season's NFC Championship Game, failing to put up any resistance against the 49ers' run-heavy approach. This year, the pass rush has fallen off and they haven't forced the kind of game-changing turnovers that saved so many days for them last season. They have only have four takeaways (two interceptions and two fumble recoveries). Only the Cowboys and Raiders have fewer. -- Demovsky
Chicago Bears (5-2, second place)
Most surprising player: Darnell Mooney, WR. The rookie fifth-round pick is second on the team with 236 receiving yards on 21 catches. Mooney reminds many around the league of a young DeSean Jackson. The Bears drafted Mooney primarily because of his blazing speed (4.38 40-yard dash), but Mooney quickly developed into an all-around wide receiver -- capable of playing outside or in the slot.
Most disappointing player: Mitchell Trubisky/Nick Foles, QBs. Both deserve to be lumped together. Neither has played particularly well. Foles replaced Trubisky -- the second overall pick in 2017 -- in Week 3 but has since thrown six interceptions. Chicago's collective quarterback rating is 80.6. Perhaps the Bears eventually turn back to Trubisky -- the offensive line is terrible and Foles has taken a ton of hits in five appearances -- but the quarterback of the future does not appear to be on the roster. The Bears are forever stuck in QB purgatory.
Most telling stat: The Bears average 84 rushing yards per game, worst in the NFL. The Bears are once again near the bottom in virtually every offensive category, but their inability to run the ball is killing them. Chicago is 30th in yards per run play (3.8). And for good measure the Bears rank 30th on third down and 29th in the red zone. We could do this all day. Without any semblance of a run game, the Bears allow opposing defenses to terrorize Chicago's brutal offensive line, clog passing lanes and pressure Foles, who is nowhere near as fleet of foot as Trubisky. It is the perfect storm of offensive ineptitude.
Key question for the second half of the season: Can the Bears hang on and make the playoffs? The Bears are the shakiest 5-2 team in the NFL. That does not mean, however, that Chicago cannot still win nine or 10 games and reach the postseason, especially since the playoff field expanded in 2020. The Bears have fortunate future matchups against Minnesota (twice), Detroit, Houston and Jacksonville. That being said, the Bears are probably in for a rough next two weeks (Saints, Titans), but if they can just beat the inferior teams left on the schedule, coach Matt Nagy could have Chicago in the playoffs for the second time in three years, where they are likely to be throttled in the opening round. -- Dickerson
Detroit Lions (3-3, third place)
Most surprising player: Romeo Okwara, DE. He has emerged as a strong pass-rush threat for the Lions with sacks in three of his past four games (four overall). He has been the beneficiary of some one-on-one matchups while teams pay attention to Trey Flowers, but Okwara once again has shown the potential he did during a breakout 2018 season when he had 39 tackles and 7.5 sacks. He has also won 25% or more of his pass-rush attempts in each of the past three games.
Most disappointing player: Desmond Trufant, CB. This is through no fault of his own. Injuries are an unfortunate thing, and Trufant, who signed with Detroit on a two-year, $20 million deal, has been besieged by them. It's limited him to 91 snaps in two games, and he has made four tackles and has yet to break up a pass. Hamstring issues have been his biggest issue. The Lions signed Trufant with the plan he'd be the No. 1 corner opposite Amani Oruwariye or Jeff Okudah. Now, Trufant has to get healthy enough to be back in the lineup.
Most telling stat: 131.8 yards per game allowed rushing. This seems like a lot -- and at No. 26 in the NFL, it is a lot of yards. But how Detroit's run defense has gone has dictated how games have gone. When the Lions have allowed 109 yards rushing or less in a game, they've won, including 44 rushing yards allowed against Jacksonville and 66 against Atlanta. When they've allowed more, from 259 yards allowed against Green Bay to 164 yards allowed against New Orleans, Detroit has lost.
Key question for second half of season: Will the Lions' defense continue to improve? If it does, Detroit can find itself at least in the conversation for a playoff berth when December starts. The Lions have found more ways to bring pressure, both with more blitzing and rushing from different angles with linebackers and safeties while dropping defensive linemen into coverage. They've also mixed up man and zone coverages more than they have in the past under Matt Patricia. If that continues, it could bode well for Detroit's defense -- and the Lions as a whole -- for the rest of 2020. -- Rothstein
Minnesota Vikings (1-5, fourth place)
Most surprising player: Justin Jefferson, WR. He was a first-round pick for a reason, but he's easily the best wide receiver of the entire 2020 rookie class and has been one of the lone bright spots for a team off to a 1-5 start. One of my preseason predictions was that Jefferson would have nearly as good of a rookie season as Randy Moss did in 1998, and I was told I was wrong to put the former LSU slot star in that same category. Jefferson is averaging more than 19 yards per catch and is up to 537 yards and three touchdowns. He's already considered a Rookie of the Year candidate and has been applauded as a star in the making by coaches around the NFL. And I don't look so bad after all for my bold take.
Most disappointing player: Kirk Cousins, QB. Offensive continuity was the buzzworthy phrase the Vikings boasted throughout the offseason. Through six games, Cousins has not been able to carry his side of the ball, let alone an entire team that was relying on the offense to be the strength in 2020. Cousins has a league-worst (tied with the Eagles' Carson Wentz) 10 interceptions and doesn't look as if he has taken a step forward in his second season in Gary Kubiak's scheme. Some of that has to do with playcalling and the situations Cousins is put in. But it's very clear he cannot overcome shoddy offensive line play and his turnovers have been the catalyst in several losses.
Most telling stat: The Vikings are -7 in turnover differential, the third-worst mark in the NFL. Minnesota's defense has no pass rush and easily the worst group of corners (blame it on injuries, inexperience) in the NFL. So of course the Vikings took a step back this year. When rookie Jeff Gladney is allowing a passer rating of 140.3 as the nearest defender in coverage this season, the highest in the NFL among 76 cornerbacks to be targeted at least 20 times, the results are expected to mirror the state of things in Minnesota.
Key question for second half of season: Will the Vikings actually concede to a rebuild even though they publicly said they're still trying to win? The moves they make, from moving players to injured reserve to trading away expensive veterans ahead of the deadline on Tuesday, will determine the path Minnesota needs to take this offseason and just how long a rebuild might take. And if Cousins doesn't play better these final 10 games, the Vikings could be forced into making an expensive decision to move on from their QB and take advantage of their draft position to execute a full-on restructuring of the roster. -- Cronin