The NFL tends to operate with the same basic barometer — Al Davis’ “Just win, baby!” — thanks to the parity that results from a hard salary cap and an annually impactful draft. The reality is, unless your name is Jeff Fisher, you have to make the playoffs in your first two years as a head coach or you’ll be looking for work.
But success can still be relative for teams that are either rebuilding, ascending or ready to contend. The strength of the division as well as the conference, and a team’s schedule can help determine how high the bar can realistically be set.
All22.com is taking a close look at each of the division races to see which teams have a legitimate shot at the postseason.
In this installment, the NFC North:
Minnesota Vikings (11-5, first place, lost to Seattle in wildcard round in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Vikings win 10 games and a playoff game. The return of wide receiver Jordy Nelson to the Packers makes Minnesota’s bitter rival the favorite in the division once again. The Vikings will be OK if the Pack rises to its normal position as long as they can avenge that painful wildcard loss to the Seahawks, when they were a missed 27-yard field goal away from winning the game.
Why it should happen: Minnesota had the perfect blueprint for success in the playoffs a year ago, managing a defensive slugfest in freezing temperatures at home. If kicker Blair Walsh connects on a chip shot, the Vikings knock off the lauded Seahawks and head off to Carolina. The division should be tougher than it was a year ago, but the Vikings are also better after adding Alex Boone and Andre Smith to a lacking offensive line and drafting LaQuon Treadwell to give Teddy Bridgewater a legitimate outside receiver. The defense should still be tough as nails, and one has to think that running back Adrian Peterson has another big season in him.
And if it doesn’t: It might just add another chapter to a frustrating playoff history for the franchise. Peterson is 31 years old, so it’s possible the Vikings will be faced with the need to find his replacement. That’s going to ramp up the pressure on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to make more strides than he did as a sophomore.
Green Bay Packers (10-6, second place, lost to Arizona in divisional round in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Packers win 11 games, take the division and reach the Super Bowl. That last achievement has only happened once for Aaron Rodgers so far, which isn’t how it’s supposed to work for the best quarterback in a quarterback’s league. Green Bay gets a bit of a pass last season after almost knocking off the Cardinals in Arizona despite key injuries, but the lofty expectations will be back along with Nelson this year, even in a stacked NFC.
Why it should happen: Nelson’s return should get Green Bay’s offense back to having a vertical threat, with proper spacing underneath and with more room for the running game. Randall Cobb is an outstanding slot receiver when he has that kind of space, and giving Rodgers options at different parts of the field should propel him back into the MVP conversation. Running back Eddie Lacy has shed a lot of the weight that literally held him back last season, and the offensive line is healthy… for now. Without injury, this team shouldn’t have a real hole on either side of the ball, and that’s something only a couple teams in the NFL can match.
And if it doesn’t: It’s going to be really frustrating, and fans are going to start directing that ire at coach Mike McCarthy. He might not be the right guy to blame, but it’s hard to imagine a talented team around Rodgers not making a Super Bowl in six straight seasons of his prime. General manager Ted Thompson is the best at retaining talent, but three offensive linemen have contracts up at season’s end. Next season might not offer the same promise as this one.
Detroit Lions (7-9, third place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Lions can win nine games. It’s not going to be easy in a division with no gimme games, and after losing wide receiver Calvin Johnson to retirement. Coach Jim Caldwell is likely going to produce a winning record if he wants to keep the job he came close to losing a year ago.
Why it should happen: Detroit is only two years removed from winning 11 games, and despite last season’s horrific 1-7 start, it enters this year riding a 6-2 finish that featured a formula that feels like it could be there again this season: tough defense and safe throws to receivers in space by quarterback Matthew Stafford. Wide receiver Marvin Jones is no Calvin Johnson, but he does have the talent to make plays all across the field. The Lions are hoping their investments in the offensive line will improve the league’s worst running game.
And if it doesn’t: Caldwell is likely gone, and Detroit could be in danger of really falling behind in a division where the Packers, Vikings and Bears all seem to be on the rise. This used to be a team built around a few dominant stars, and although it will surely do what it can to hold on to pass rushing freak Ziggy Ansah, one might start to wonder if the Lions have the offensive playmakers needed to be competitive.
Chicago Bears (6-10, fourth place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Bears can win nine games. After a 6-10 record in John Fox’s first season as coach, marking the third straight season the franchise has failed to win seven games, a winning record would represent a good season in a tough division. Last season’s team was too injured and lacking in talent to even win six games, so the ceiling for this season can’t move too much higher, especially with some injuries already setting in.
Why it should happen: Fox has his talented defensive coordinator back in Vic Fangio, and although Adam Gase left to coach the Dolphins, promoting Dowell Loggains from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator should maintain the connection that helped quarterback Jay Cutler have a career year. Fangio will have plenty more to work with this year after the Bears filled huge holes with inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrrell Freeman and defensive end Akiem Hicks. The offensive talent is worse after the losses of center Matt Slauson, tight end Martellus Bennett and running Matt Forte, but improved health and Kyle Long’s return to his right guard spot after a brief stint at tackle should help offset some of the losses.
And if it doesn’t: Like the Lions, the Bears would be faced with falling further behind the division’s two heavyweights that are building their rosters as talented as any in the league. The Bears also might inch a little closer to cutting ties with Cutler if he takes a step back.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.