As Aaron Rodgers fades, NFC North is up for grabs, so who’s next?

The Bears have a solid argument that they’re the ones best positioned to reign next. That’s quite a statement about a team that might finish 3-14 and winless in the division, but they’ll have a lot working in their favor starting in 2023.

SHARE As Aaron Rodgers fades, NFC North is up for grabs, so who’s next?
A photo of Aaron Rodgers reacting to throwing an interception against the Eagles.

Rodgers’ 92.9 passer rating would be the second-worst of his career if it holds.

Getty

When Ryan Poles declared his intent to “take the North and never give it back” on Day 1 as Bears general manager, there was no other way to interpret it than as a bold warning shot at the Packers.

In the two decades since the NFL reformatted to eight divisions, the only division more predictable has been the Patriots-dominated AFC East. The Packers have won the NFC North 12 of 20 times.

They rolled from Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre to an all-time great in Aaron Rodgers, and over that 30-year run, they’ve had the second-best record in the NFL.

So if you want the North, you have to pry it from the Packers.

Or so everyone thought.

The Packers arrive at Soldier Field on Sunday in shambles. Rodgers is still good, but he has been far from great, and now he’ll be playing through a rib injury in addition to the broken thumb that has affected him for most of the season. He’s 39, and retirement talk is coming up regularly.

At 4-8, the Packers are only a game better than the Bears, which is stunning considering how different their goals were going into the season. It’s the Vikings who are running away with the NFC North at 9-2. They’re the ones who started the Packers’ freefall by clobbering them 23-7 in the opener.

This type of season has happened before, of course. The Vikings cruised to the division title when Rodgers was hurt in 2017, and the Bears’ overwhelming defense got them to the top the next season. The Lions even snuck one when — just kidding, that never happens.

But while those felt like aberrations, there’s nothing fluky about the Packers’ plunge this season. And the Vikings’ sparkling record belies how unimpressive they’ve actually been. They aren’t top-10 in any key statistics on either side of the ball, and they’ve managed a plus-5 point differential for the season. There’s a reason three other teams have better betting odds to win the NFC.

So the Vikings will “take the North” this season, but there’s no expectation that they’ll keep it. The division looks like it’s going to be wide open beginning in 2023.

That’s perfect timing for the Bears because that’s when they should start to see meaningful returns on their rebuild.

When Poles inherited a 6-11 team riddled with bad contracts and light on up-and-coming talent, a reasonable timeline would be to bulldoze the roster and gut out this miserable season, be competitive in 2023 and contend in ’24. General managers don’t often get more time than that to show they’ve got a team headed the right way.

The Packers’ demise certainly would help Poles stay on schedule.

It would’ve been nice for the Bears to overtake the Packers when Rodgers was in his prime, but they’ll take what they can get amid his apparent demise.

His 92.9 passer rating would be the second-worst of his career if it holds. He has gone 17 consecutive games without throwing for 300 yards, and he’s on the brink of hitting double digits in interceptions for the first time since 2010. Maybe he’ll have a resurgence, but with his decline and his non-football interests, the end is in sight.

As for who could be the next king of the North, the Bears and Lions are in a race to rebuild, and the Vikings are probably starting one soon.

Kirk Cousins has never been a game-changing quarterback, and that’s surely a concern for first-year Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. Cousins is 34, and his 88.6 passer rating is the lowest he has ever had as a full-time starter.

The Vikings have been good but never great throughout his five seasons. And a reset at quarterback usually triggers a large-scale rebuild.

The Lions, who are 4-7 with wins over the Packers and Bears, are always rebuilding. And at the moment, with the Bears seeing a lot of promise from Justin Fields, the Lions’ project is proceeding slower than the Bears’.

All three of those teams are exuberant over Rodgers slipping and eager to see how they’ll fare with him out of their way.

In regular-season games, Rodgers is 23-5 against the Bears, 18-7 against the Lions and 16-11-1 against the Vikings. Collectively, he has hit them for 172 touchdown passes with just 29 interceptions. He also has bounced the Bears and Vikings from the playoffs.

Be careful what you wish for, though, because the Bears couldn’t wait to see Favre go. Jordan Love might be a problem, too.

Regardless, the Bears have a solid argument that they’re the ones best positioned to reign next. That’s quite a statement about a team that might finish 3-14 and winless in the division, but they’ll have a lot working in their favor starting next season.

The Bears’ hopes hinge predominantly on Fields continuing his trajectory and growing into a franchise quarterback, but they also fall on Poles. Once he gets through this season, he’ll have everything he could have wanted when he took the job: a young quarterback on the rise, a high first-round pick and endless salary-cap space.

Well, not endless, but their $125.3 million in space next year is by far the most in the NFL and quadruple what the Lions have. The Packers and Vikings are significantly behind them, as well.

The Bears also are the most certain of any team in the division that they have a long-term answer at quarterback. And that means they can probably parlay their upcoming first-round pick into multiple picks and accelerate their timeline.

The combination of draft capital and spending money should enable Poles to fortify his roster’s many deficiencies.

So the past belongs to the Packers, but the future? Anyone could take that, including the Bears if they keep their rebuild on track. Poles holds the opportunity to “take the North” in his hands. Now he just has to make the right moves to get there.

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