COACH: Mike Zimmer, 5th season (39-25, .609)
LAST SEASON: 13-3, 1st place
PLAYOFFS: beat New Orleans, 29-24, in divisional; lost to Philadelphia, 38-7, in NFC Championship.
OUTLOOK: Coach Mike Zimmer did a terrific job of winning the division and getting to the NFC Championship Game with Case Keenum as his quarterback. Now that the Vikings have Kirk Cousins, they’re thinking even bigger. And why not? Minnesota has one of the league’s top defenses, and with Cousins now running the offense and with running back Dalvin Cook returning from a knee injury, there is legitimate hope of a Super Bowl run for the first time since the days of the Purple People Eaters.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
COACH: Mike McCarthy, 13th season (121-70-1, .633)
LAST SEASON: 7-9, 3rd place
OUTLOOK: Aaron Rodgers is still going strong at age 34, which means the Packers will always have a chance if he’s in the lineup. Rodgers might be the best player in football, and he’s at the peak of his physical ability and mental acuity. The presence of tight end Jimmy Graham is a huge plus for Rodgers, who hasn’t always had a playmaking tight end. Davante Adams is emerging as an elite receiver. Defense has always been the big question mark in the Rodgers era, and the Packers hope new coordinator Mike Pettine, who replaced Dom Capers after last season, can orchestrate a more reliable group. This is clearly a playoff team, but the Vikings are the class of the division.
COACH: Matt Nagy, 1st season
LAST SEASON: 5-11, 4th place
OUTLOOK: GM Ryan Pace took a huge swing to get Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack, surrendering first-round picks in 2019 and 2020 to get the coveted pass rusher. He joins a defense that will rely heavily on the front seven, which also includes first-round linebackers Roquan Smith (2018) and Leonard Floyd (2016). The Bears believe second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will benefit from getting plenty of playing time as a rookie. He struggled through most of the season, but with new coach Matt Nagy, regarded as a quarterback whisperer, there’s a chance Trubisky elevates his game considerably.
COACH: Matt Patricia, 1st season
LAST SEASON: 9-7, 2nd place
OUTLOOK: Patricia takes over as head coach after an impressive apprenticeship under Bill Belichick in New England. He inherits a team that has dealt with the same issues for years: lack of a running game and unreliable defense. Matthew Stafford has a big-time arm and will throw for a ton of yards, but unless Patricia can give his quarterback a more trustworthy running game, it will be more of the same this year. Patricia’s presence alone will help the defense, since he’s one of the brightest strategists in the game.