The NFC North hasn't had a repeat winner for five years, and it's had three different winners over the last three seasons. What if things could get even more unpredictable in 2020, however? What if, against all odds, the Detroit Lions should be favored to claim the division title? The Lions haven't won the North a single time in franchise history, last finishing atop their division in 1993, when it was called the NFC Central, but other circumstances might be pointing to a surprise breakout for Matt Patricia's overlooked competitors.
Aaron Schatz, of Football Outsiders, joined the Pick Six Podcast on Monday to forecast the 2020 NFL season (listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness), and arguably his boldest projection is a first-place finish for the Lions, who've gone just 9-22-1 in two seasons under Patricia. But Schatz cautioned that Detroit's predicted ascent is at least in part due to question marks surrounding the Lions' three division rivals.
"Those four teams are so close together in our projections," he explained. "It's very, very close. But mostly it's not just Detroit getting better. And remember, Detroit was 3-4-1 before Matthew Stafford got hurt. They went 0-8 with their second- and third-string quarterback. But also (we have) Green Bay and Minnesota falling back, which we're predicting."
The Packers came within one win of a Super Bowl appearance during the debut of new coach Matt LaFleur in 2019. But Schatz suggested that every piece of analytics points to a step back from Aaron Rodgers and Co.
"Green Bay was not a 13-3-quality team in the underlying stats last year," he said before addressing other concerns in the North. "We're really positive on Minnesota in the long run, but in the short term, you're talking about ... a bit of a step back. And then Chicago is Chicago, like Chicago always is. There's gonna be a good defense and questions at quarterback. So the whole division ends up floating around 8-8."
That leaves the Lions. Schatz admitted that Patricia is the biggest subjective question mark considering his spotty track record running the show since 2018. But everything else about Detroit's setup has him confident in a big step forward.
"If they can't get to at least 7-9 this year, he's gotta go," Schatz said. "Because the talent is there. They should go at least 7-9."
Schatz and host Will Brinson also go over how COVID-19 impacts projections, Bucs vs. Pats and much more about the 2020 season.