The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers enter this season feeling the pressure. The Vikings made Kirk Cousins the highest-paid quarterback in the history of the NFL, hoping he can be the missing piece to put them over the top and win their first Super Bowl. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers back after injury in Minnesota last season turned 2017 into one lost year for Green Bay. Rodgers turns 35 in December and opportunities to win a second Super Bowl won’t keep coming around much longer.
Both the Vikes and Pack have a Super Bowl-or-bust feel about them in 2018. This is already a hot NFC North rivalry. The heightened expectations in both camps are sure to make Minnesota-Green Bay the most emotional divide in the Midwest this side of the Industry vs. Agriculture battle looming over the Trump Administration’s trade policies.
What I’m going to do here is put on my lawyer’s hat and argue each team’s case to the best of my ability. We’ll then take a look at what the smart money in Las Vegas says and I’ll wrap it up with my own opinion.
THE CASE FOR MINNESOTA: The Vikings have had a better overall football team than the Packers, from the defense to the offensive line, for three years now. Getting Cousins at quarterback eliminates the one big deficiency, in the same way that the Rodgers injury last year did.
Furthermore, Minnesota’s defense is not just better than Green Bay, it’s better than most everyone. The Vikings ranked first in the NFL in points allowed. Free safety Harrison Smith is one of the best all-around players in football. The defensive line is fearsome, keyed by Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen.
Minnesota can also expect the running game to be be better. Dalvin Cook got off to a good start last season, averaging close to 18 carries and 90 yards in the first four games before being sidelined. If he’s healthy—and right now there’s no reason to expect otherwise, the Vikings will have another playmaker. The receiving corps is steady. Stefon Diggs can make big plays, Adam Thielen is exceptionally reliable as a possession receiver and Kyle Rudolph is a steady tight end.
THE CASE FOR GREEN BAY: The Packers were 4-1 last year and looking every bit the part of a Super Bowl contender before the Rodgers injury sent them reeling. Over the past quarter-century, as long as Rodgers or Brett Favre have been behind center, Green Bay has been the team to beat in the NFC North. And they will be again this year.
Green Bay’s defense has the potential for excellence now that they’ve moved on from Dom Capers as coordinator, albeit at least five years too late. The Packers defensive front could be as good as Minnesota’s, with Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark anchoring the 3-4 scheme and tying up blockers. That enables Clay Matthews and Nick Perry to turn it loose on the outside with a pass rush and in turn provides cover for a developing secondary.
Speaking of that secondary—the Packers struck gold on draft day when they got Louisville free safety Jaire Alexander in the first round and then stole Jowa’s playmaking corner Josh Jackson in the second. After the first round went by, I went on record as saying that the omission of Jackson was shocking and that whomever got him would have the steal of the draft. If both rookies develop fast, Green Bay’s defense will be complete. And if Rodgers and the defense are both in form, head coach Mike McCarthy can usually piece together enough of a running game to win.
THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: This is as close as close gets. Both teams have Over/Under win totals of 10. The futures odds for the division title though, lean ever so slightly to Minnesota. The Vikings get 6-5 odds to repeat in the NFC North. The Packers odds sit on 7-5. A similar narrow margin exists in pricing for the conference title and Super Bowl championship.
PREDICTION: There’s so many variables in this race that it could take a book to unpack them all. For the Vikings, the big variable is how much better Cousins will be than Case Keenum was last year. In the big picture, I don’t think Keenum could duplicate his 2017 performance again, but that career year does serve as the benchmark for understanding how much better Minnesota will or won’t be.
For Green Bay, the variable is the injuries. There’s rumbling discontent in Packerland at how often seasons seem to be derailed by a variety of nagging injuries. Matthews and Perry are prime examples—if they aren’t healthy, the defense is not going to be great.
My own view is as conflicted as that of the Vegas betting market. This is a tough call, but I’ll make a slight lean to the Packers. As a Redskins fan, I feel like Kirk Cousins is one of those quarterbacks who is just good enough to break your heart and I don’t fully trust him in big games. Green Bay will either win the NFC North or go further in the playoffs than Minnesota—and probably both.