What a long and predictable journey it has been in the NFC North. Or, to be more accurate, the division that has had different names but always housed the Packers, Lions, Vikings, and Bears.
Could the Los Angeles Rams be the main catalyst towards finally shifting power in the division away from Green Bay and over to Detroit? Sean McVay and Les Snead may have more to do with it than you think and it goes well beyond the Rams-Packers Disappointing Season Bowl on Monday Night Football.
Though the Packers were rarely competing for the playoffs in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Green Bay’s championship victories in the first two NFL Super Bowls, combined with a dominant streak dating back to 1993 has them as the usual favorites to come out of the NFC North.
When Mike Holmgren became the head coach in 1992, replacing Lindy Infante following a 4-12 season, the Packers finished 9-7 and finished second in the division. It helped that Brett Favre was also making his debut with Green Bay in ‘92. The Packers made the playoffs with a 9-7 record in ‘93, only their third trip to the postseason since winning the Super Bowl in ‘67, but the Lions won the NFC Central with a 10-6 record behind the play of star running back Barry Sanders.
The Lions won the division in the final week of the regular season, defeating the Packers 30-20 as they intercepted Favre four times and running back Eric Lynch—not Sanders—had 115 yards and two touchdowns.
And such would be the last time that Detroit would best Green Bay. Only six days later, the Packers defeated the Lions 28-24 in the wild card round as Favre hit Sterling Sharpe for the game-winning touchdown despite Sanders rushing for 169 yards.
January 8, 1994: Favre to Sharpe. NFC Wild-Card Round.— This Day In Sports Clips (@TDISportsClips) January 8, 2021
Jim Irwin & Max McGee on the call. pic.twitter.com/L7vtLxAhPt
That was the last time that the Detroit Lions won their division. 30 years ago.
Though the Lions would make the playoffs in four of the next five seasons, Detroit went 0-4 in those wild card games and only once finished better than third place. The Lions had a top-five offense in ‘95 and ‘97 but other than a brief appearance back at the top with Matthew Stafford in 2011 (fourth in scoring), they haven’t been close to that mark since.
With Jared Goff playing behind his best offensive line since probably 2018 with the Rams, the Lions are now tied with the Bengals for the fifth-most points per game in the NFL. At 7-7, Detroit is just a half-game out of a wild card spot in the NFC and they have a realistic chance to win 10 games and to reach the postseason for the first time since 2016.
If the Rams beat the Packers on Monday night, the Lions will have a two-game advantage over their division rivals with three games left; the two teams meet in the season finale at Lambeau Field. The Lions beat the Packers 15-9 in Week 9 and intercepted Aaron Rodgers three times.
Of course, this isn’t just about how the Rams traded Goff to the Lions (along with two first round picks and a third) for Matthew Stafford in 2021, although that is important. Not because Goff is an upgrade to Stafford, not because the Rams made any mistakes with the trade, but because Detroit was desperate for a tone shift after 30 years of massive, historic, ungodly ineptitude.
And that tone shift didn’t start with the Stafford trade. It started when the Lions hired Brad Holmes to be the general manager after a long career in the Rams organization, then paired him with head coach Dan Campbell to form a partnership that some would say is the new duo that has the most potential of any in the league.
Then it was Holmes who completed the deal with his old boss to secure two first round picks and a third. It was Holmes who drafted tackle Penei Sewell with his first selection as a general manager in 2021. Holmes who convinced Lions brass that Goff was capable enough of being Detroit’s starting quarterback for longer than just one season.
Not only are the Lions on the come up after winning six of their last seven games, but they’ve timed it perfectly with Rodgers having his worst season. Ever.
The Lions path to the Super Bowl is now:— Jack Willia〽️s (@jackwilly83) December 19, 2022
- Sam Darnold
- The Bears D
- Decaying Aaron Rodgers
- Kirk Cousins (hopefully not at 1 PM)
- Fraudadelphia Fraudles
- Third String QB Brock Purdy
- Mahomes/Josh Allen/Burrow (admittedly really good)
With the first pick that Detroit got from L.A., the Lions selected defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu in the third round in 2021. But then Holmes used the Rams’ 2022 first round pick—32nd overall—to trade up for receiver Jameson Williams. Though he has yet to make an impact (a 41-yard touchdown in his debut three weeks ago, but no other receptions), Williams could be a spark in these final three games and one of the most exciting players in the postseason if the Lions get that far.
Then when Detroit is on the clock for the first time in 2023, it will not be with their own first round pick, but with the last one coming over thanks to Snead and Stafford. Right now, that pick is situated at fifth overall.
Nobody is doing more to shift the balance of power in the NFC North than a team not in the NFC North. We don’t have to stop in Detroit to make that point.
At 11-3 following the biggest comeback in NFL history, the Vikings have won the NFC North already. If the Vikings reach the Super Bowl, it will be Kevin O’Connell’s second appearance in as many seasons. And people will be calling him the new Sean McVay.
And teams be calling his offensive coordinator Wes Phillips, formerly of the Rams, to eagerly ask for time to get an interview for an open head coaching position.
But perhaps nobody deserves more credit for the Vikings success than Johnny Mundt. Too far?
The Packers did finish in third place in the division in 2017 and 2018, but in one of those seasons Green Bay started Brett Hundley at quarterback for nine games. The Packers fired Ray Rhodes after one season for going 8-8. The Packers fired Mike Sherman after going 4-12 even though he had been 10-6 or better in each of the previous four seasons. The Packers fired Mike McCarthy after the 2018 season, when Green Bay finished 6-9-1 even though McCarthy had won a Super Bowl.
Could Matt LaFleur survive if the Packers finish 5-12?
The Rams can help be a reason why that could happen, if L.A. can pull off the upset on Monday night. But the Rams won’t strike their hardest blow against the Packers just because of one game result.
They’ve already been punching at the NFC North for the last couple of years, we just didn’t quite appreciate it yet.