2018 NFC North Previews


Minnesota Vikings 

Market Implied Wins: 9.9

After pulling off the Minneapolis Miracle versus New Orleans in the divisional round, the 2017 Vikings were unable to complete their dream of becoming the first Super Bowl team to play in their home stadium. Minnesota finished last season as the 5th-ranked team in our end-of-season ratings, but they clearly weren’t satisfied as they dropped ties with starting quarterback Case Keenum and brought in Kirk Cousins to replace him. Over the course of their careers, Cousins has been 2.6 points per game better than Keenum according to our metrics. However, it’s important to remember, Cousins is coming in to replace a career-year where Keenum outplayed the former Redskins quarterback by about 5 points per game. Also, quarterbacks typically see their performance drop by about a point in their first year with a new team. Both of these statements can be true: the Vikings have upgraded their quarterback position and the offense will likely see a drop-off in quarterback production from last season.

Dalvin Cook was at an impressive 4.8 yards per rush before getting injured in week 4 last year and his success rate finished 3.5 percentage points higher than the combined other Minnesota running backs. However, Cook’s return may be partially offset by the loss of solid all-around guard Nick Easton. The Vikings were a half yard per play worse in the 6 games Easton missed last season and they planned on having him back for 2018 before he required neck surgery this preseason. Minnesota must also replace offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who is now the head coach of the Giants, and overall we rank the Vikings’ attack just a bit better than average heading into this season.

While the offense should look much different, the defense should continue to be elite with 10 of 11 starters, including 3 All-Pros from last season in Everson Griffin, Xavier Rhodes, and Harrison Smith. Minnesota’s defense added Sheldon Richardson, who should provide another threat on the line with 35 pressures in 2017. We project the Vikings to have the top defensive unit in the NFL and, combined with an offense expected to play slightly above average, Minnesota should find themselves back in the playoffs this year.


Green Bay Packers

Market Implied Wins: 9.8

Green Bay’s 2017 season was defined by an injury to their star quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Backup quarterback Brett Hundley played about 5 points worse per game and according to our numbers, the Packers would’ve scored 73 more points replacing Hundley’s plays with Rodgers level of play. That difference would have moved Green Bay’s Pythagorean win projection up from 6.3 to 8.2 wins, which is still not impressive by Green Bay’s usual standard. The mediocre performance was caused by Rodgers himself playing about 5 points per game below his career average. However, our quarterback model sees this as an anomaly and ranks Rodgers as the 2nd best quarterback in expected points added for the 2018 season.

The Packers are hoping for a Jimmy Graham resurgence after he finished 22nd out 25 qualifying tight ends in yards per route run last season. Graham finished top 10 in yards per route run the previous six seasons and his drop-off last season may not be a fluke given that tight ends typically begin declining after age 29 and Graham is now 31 years old. Graham could be a disappointment and I expect Randall Cobb to get most of the action between the numbers from Rodgers.

It might surprise people that Green Bay’s rushing attack finished with the best success rate in the NFL last year. That rush success was enhanced by Hundley’s 7.5 yards per run on 36 quarterback runs but running backs Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones combined for 4.3 ypr and the offensive line is solid, led by the excellent tackle play of David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga.

Mike Pettine was brought in to take over the defense this offseason and he’ll be bringing the same aggressive pressing scheme he found so much success with under Rex Ryan in New York. The Packers know Pettine’s scheme relies on excellent cornerback play and attempted to sign Kyle Fuller, but the Bears matched the deal. Instead, Green Bay used their top two draft picks on cornerbacks and brought in Tramon Williams, who finished 9th last season in yards allowed per cover snap. The Packers also added Muhammad Wilkerson to bolster their pass rush alongside Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. Wilkerson finished 2nd in pressures amongst all defensive linemen in 2015 but has been disappointing since and Pettine is hoping a change of scenery will bring the best out of him. We’re expecting the revamped Green Bay defense to finish top 10 and the offense to be among the league’s best led by a healthy Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay is in win-now mode and should be on the shortlist for Super Bowl contenders.


Detroit Lions

Market Implied Wins: 7.6

Former head coach Jim Caldwell finished with a winning record in three of his four seasons at the helm, including two playoff appearances, but the Lions decided to part ways with him and brought in Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to lead the charge. Bill Belichick has had four coordinators receive head coaching jobs – Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, and Bill O’Brien – and none of the four have a career record above .500. However, all of them improved their teams drastically in the first season by an average of 7.5 points per game. It should be pointed out that hiring a new coach usually means a team was on the negative end of some unlucky variance the prior season and point differential improvement is likely exaggerating the impact of the coaching change. Our end-of-season power ratings show the Belichick disciples actually improved their teams more on the order of 3.5 points per game in their first season. However, all of the previous four took over bad teams, which tend to improve in general, and the Lions have less room for upward mobility. In fact, our projections don’t expect much of an improvement at all in Patricia’s first season in charge.

The Lions tied for the league-lead in pick-6’s and gained the 3rd most points from takeaways in 2017 according to our metrics, but that good fortune is unlikely to continue. The year-to-year correlation of expected points added from takeaways is just 0.02, which is less than the correlation of takeaway rate because it is dependent on even more luck in the form of field position and return yards. The 2018 Lions defense will not be able to count on these points gained from takeaways, especially considering they will play a less aggressive style. Patricia will bring over New England’s ‘bend but don’t break’ defensive scheme best quantified by the statistic yards allowed per point allowed where the Patriots never ranked outside the top 7 in his six years as coordinator. The scheme relies on never getting beat over the top and Detroit has one of the NFL’s best free safeties in Glover Quin, who ranked 4th last season in yards allowed per cover snap. Regardless, our projections still ranks the Lions’ defense in the bottom half of the league.

Quarterback Matt Safford’s career record against winning teams is just 6-52 but the Lions will run him out there again along with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter because they might have been on to something in the second half of last season. Detroit’s offense averaged 1.5 more yards per play after their bye week as Stafford’s deep pass rate went from 9.8% to 14.1%, which would be the highest of his career. Jim Bob Cooter will look to build on this vertical boon while improving the league’s worst rushing attack last season. The Lions took guard Frank Ragnow in the first round, traded up in the second round to draft running back Kerryon Johnson, and added RB LeGarrette Blount to bolster their ground game.

Overall, Detroit’s offense should be around league average and it will be a challenge for the Lions’ defense to offset last season’s turnover luck in the first year of a new scheme. Detroit is a decent team with some upside potential but the fourth most difficult schedule in the NFL means the Lions will likely be on the outside looking in for what’s shaping up to be a very competitive playoff race in the NFC.


Chicago Bears

Market Implied Wins: 6.6

The Bears hired Andy Reid disciple Matt Nagy to be their new head coach after finishing as my 30th rated offense last season. Mitch Trubisky finished as the 29th quarterback in expected points added per play but Nagy will hope to bring the former 2nd-overall draft pick to the next level. There were 10 quarterbacks drafted in the top 3 this decade before Trubisky and 7 of them improved in their sophomore season while 3 dropped off. Recency bias will lead many people pointing at Jared Goff as a reason for optimism because he had an excellent second season after the team hired a young offensive-minded head coach. Although, it’s worth noting that Goff’s dramatic improvement was clearly an outlier among his peers due to a terrible rookie season much worse than Trubisky’s first year. Excluding the largest improvement and largest drop-off, Goff and Robert Griffin III, our metrics show the average development among these highly touted quarterbacks was +1.9 points per game from their rookie to sophomore season. Still, Trubisky will get every chance to succeed and it’s not crazy to think he can improve more than the average. Per Warren Sharp, Trubisky ran 98% of his college snaps out of the shotgun formation but the Bears only ran it on about half their plays last season. Meanwhile, Nagy’s Chiefs used the shotgun 72% of the time. Nagy will look to use Tarik Cohen in the Tyreek Hill role and I expect Cohen to receive much more looks down the field after only getting 2 deep ball targets last season. Hill saw 24 targets on passes thrown more than 20 yards for Nagy’s Chiefs in 2017. I’m not as optimistic about Chicago’s two receiver signings, Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel. After inking a $42 million deal, Robinson comes in after missing basically all last season with an ACL tear and wasn’t impressive at all the year prior in 2016, finishing 60th out of 92 qualifying wide receivers with only 1.3 yards per route run. The Bears will need Robinson to play more closely to his performance in 2015 where he finished 12th in the same category. Meanwhile, Gabriel was even worse by finishing with just 1.0 yards per route run last year (72nd). Our projections expect the Bears’ offense to be near the bottom of the league again but there’s certainly potential for them to break out ala Jared Goff and the 2017 Rams given that Nagy’s attack is light years ahead of the ultra-conservative and predictable offense that Trubisky was forced to run last season (a.k.a. let’s run on first-down every time and set up our rookie QB into 2nd-and-long situations as often as possible).

Danny Trevathan is known as the quarterback of Chicago’s defense and plays an important role calling audibles at the line of scrimmage. The Bears were 0.8 yards per play worse when Trevathan missed time in the middle of last season. We expect Chicago’s defense to finish slightly above league average due to the high quality of opposing offenses they will face, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the top 10 if they can stay healthy, particularly Trevathan. The market has the Bears as clearly the worst team in the best division in football, but they definitely have the upside potential to make some noise in Nagy’s first season in charge.


Free Week 1 Regular Season Best Bet


Dr Bob Sports NFL Best Bets Service

2016 was the first season using the new play-by-play model and my NFL Best Bets the last two seasons are a very profitable 137-101-2 (58%). Prior to 2016 my NFL Best Bets were based on situational analysis and my original math model, which performed very well for many years but offered very little value in later years. My NFL Best Bets were 57.8% from 1987 through 1998 but were just 50.6% from 1999 through 2012, which is when I decided to stop handicapping the NFL until I had a better model.

The new play-by-play model was introduced in 2016 with very good results and an improvement to the model was introduced starting in week 11 of the 2017 season that improved results (21-10-1 on Best Bets the last 10 weeks of the season). Work was done this summer to fine tune the model and the back-tested results were very good – particularly on totals, which have underperformed the last two seasons. I am very excited about the improvement to the play-by-play predictive model and look forward to a profitable 2018 season.

2016-17 NFL Best Bets were 137-101-2 (57.6%)  – 92-48-2 on sides, 44-48 on totals, 1-2 1st-half totals, 0-1 team totals, 0-1 teasers, 0-1 season win totals.

2016-17 NFL Strong Opinions were 92-71-4 (56.4%) – 41-43-3 sides, 43-27-1 totals, 1-0 1st-half totals, 7-1 Super Bowl prop bets.

2017 NFL Best Bets were 37-32-2 (26-22-2 sides, 10-5 totals, 1-2 1st-half totals, 0-1 team totals, 0-1 teasers, 0-1 season win totals) and Strong Opinions were 28-19 (14-13 sides, 7-4 totals, 1-1 1st-half totals, 6-1 Super Bowl prop bets).

View All Dr. Bob Sports Best Bet subscription packages


Dr Bob College Football Best Bets Service

My College Football Best Bets are 2038-1679-64 (55%) on a Star Basis for +219.6 Stars Since 1999 (+222.7 Stars on Sides, -32.7 Stars on Totals, and +29.6 Stars on season win totals and futures) and the Strong Opinions are a profitable 637-560-15 (578-498-14 on Sides and 59-62-1 on Totals).

My 2017 College Best Bets were a decent 56-47-2 but I feel my level of handicapping was better than that record. My 101 Best Bets (excluding the 4 season win totals) combined to cover by a total of 229 points, which is an average of +2.3 points, despite my side Best Bets being -9 in fumble margin, which is random and worth about 36 points. A line differential of +2.3 points would normally equate to a win percentage of 56.1% winners, which is the best indicator of my handicapping level in 2016.

View All Dr. Bob Sports Best Bet subscription packages

View information on all Best Bet services

Share this