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Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are the favorites to win the NFC North.
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are the favorites to win the NFC North.
Jeffrey Phelps/AP

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Packers are still North’s stars

With Aaron Rodgers and most of his supporting cast back, Green Bay is again the favorite to win the division.

The day Aaron Rodgers finally landed in Green Bay, someone asked Bears inside linebacker Roquan Smith what he thought about the Packers quarterback ending his cold war — at least temporarily — against the team brass.

“I like playing against him,” Smith said. “He’s a good guy. I’m a competitor, so I like going against the best.”

The Bears can’t actually like facing Rodgers, who has beaten them 21 times in 26 meetings. After this season, though, they might not have to worry about him. As Rodgers enters what might be his final season with the Packers, here’s how the NFC North — led as always by the Bears’ rival — shapes up:

Packers

Few stars have had an offseason as melodramatic as Rodgers. An hour after the Packers chose to kick a field goal in the NFC title game rather than let Rodgers try for a touchdown, the quarterback said that “a lot of guys’ futures, they’re uncertain — myself included.” The next month, he was named NFL MVP. Then came a stint hosting “Jeopardy!” and word was he wanted the job. Hours before the start of the NFL Draft, reports surfaced that Rodgers wanted out of Green Bay.

Rodgers didn’t show up to OTAs or mandatory minicamp and kept the Packers — and their fans — guessing about whether he’d be there when training camp started. He returned, but only after reworking his contract. In a candid news conference, Rodgers said he contemplated retirement during the offseason. He wasn’t upset over money, he said, but, rather, his bosses’ refusal to give him more input into team decisions.

“I think we can all understand, you know, Green Bay isn’t a huge vacation destination,” he said. “People are coming here to play with me, play with our team, knowing that they can win a championship here, and the fact that I haven’t been used in those discussions was one I wanted to change moving forward.”

That leaves Rodgers with at least one more season in Green Bay, even though his contract runs through 2022. Whether he becomes Michael Jordan in “The Last Dance” — the image he tweeted when camp started — depends on factors beyond the Packers’ passing attack.

They re-signed running back Aaron Jones to a four-year, $48 million contract after he finished the season with the fourth-most rushing yards in the NFL. They lost one of his most consistent blockers, though, when Corey Linsley, perhaps the NFL’s best center, signed a five-year, $62.5 million deal to play for the Chargers.

No one caught more touchdown passes than Davante Adams’ 18 last year, and only one receiver had more catches than his 115. Head coach Matt LaFleur’s job will be to continue to develop other pass-catching options beyond him.

The Packers’ defense finished 13th in points allowed and ninth in yards allowed last season but crumbled in the NFC title game — namely, when they allowed a 39-yard touchdown heave from Tom Brady to Scotty Miller at the end of the first half. After the 31-26 loss to the Buccaneers, the Packers fired defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and replaced him with Joe Barry. The Packers hope a different voice will spark the defense — their personnel remains mostly the same as it was last year.

Pettine, meanwhile, became a Bears senior defensive assistant.

The Packers play among the league’s toughest schedules — the Steelers are the only other team to play 10 2020 playoff qualifiers this season — but if Rodgers can come close to putting together another MVP-worthy season, the Packers are the favorite to win the NFC North.

Next year, though, might be a different story.

Vikings

The Vikings took losses all preseason for their handling of the coronavirus. In July, offensive line coach Rick Dennison refused to get vaccinated and had to be demoted to senior offensive advisor. In August, the team put three unvaccinated quarterbacks — including starter Kirk Cousins — on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

When he was activated off the list, Cousins said he was thinking about putting plexiglass around his seat in meeting rooms.

The whole thing was frustrating to head coach Mike ZImmer.

“I don’t know if it’s misinformation,” he said. “It’s their belief, so whatever they’ve heard or read or been told. Maybe they don’t believe what [NFL top doctor] Dr. [Allen] Sills and the NFL are telling them either. I shouldn’t say it, but some of the things they read is just, whew, out there.”

The Vikings have made the playoffs in odd years dating to 2015, and there’s some reason for optimism this time around. Edge rusher Danielle Hunter had 14½ sacks in 2018 and ’19 before missing all of last season because of a neck injury. He’s back, as is defensive tackle Michael Pierce, a big-money acquisition last season who sat out because of coronavirus concerns.

The Vikings will have to improve on a unit that last year ranked as one of the NFL’s worst run defenses. Healthy edge rushers will help on passing downs — and the Vikings hope former Cardinals star Patrick Peterson will also. At 31, the cornerback is looking to prove he can still play at a Pro Bowl level.

On offense, new coordinator Klint Kubiak has two stars with which to work with: running back Dalvin Cook, who ranked second in the NFL in rushing last year, and second-year receiver Justin Jefferson, who was fourth in receiving yards. As usual, the Vikings’ offensive line is a major question mark, though the team hopes first-round tackle Christian Darrisaw can be the answer for a decade.

Lions

New head coach Dan Campbell is a walking football caricature. He drinks two 40-ounce coffees with two shots of espresso every morning. In his introductory news conference, he gave a speech that would have seemed ridiculous even in a movie.

“When you knock us down, we’re going to get up,” he said. “On the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off, all right, and we’re going to stand up, and then it’s going to take two more shots to knock us down. And on the way up, we’re going to take your other kneecap, and we’re going to get up and it’s going to take three shots to take us down. When we do, we’re going to take another hunk out of you. Before long, we’re going to be the last one standing. That’s going to be the mentality.”

This year, they’ll need it, as they’ll get knocked down a lot.

Campbell is the face of the franchise now that quarterback Matthew Stafford is gone. New Lions general manager Brad Holmes agreed to Stafford’s trade request and dealt him to Holmes’ former team, the Rams, for quarterback Jared Goff and three draft picks. Goff is 42-20 as a starter the last four seasons, but his four-year, $134 million contract is an albatross. The Lions probably will give him two seasons at the helm.

Two years after playing in the Super Bowl, Goff will lead one of the NFL’s most inept offenses, particularly after the Lions lost receiver Kenny Golladay in free agency. First-round pick Penei Sewell, a tackle, might be their best offensive player as a rookie. The Lions figure to finish as one of the NFL’s worst teams.

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