Thursday was a day many football fans circle on their calendar. It is a day when vacations can finally be planned, Sundays are blocked off, and predictions are made. This is the day the NFL schedule is released.
While the schedule release is important for fans, it’s just as important for the teams on the field. The Minnesota Vikings knew who they were going to play next season, but knowing that you’ll be going to a bye week destination and Las Vegas in December has to be better than frigid trips to Chicago and Green Bay.
The release also can tell the Vikings what’s ahead. Coming off a 13-win season, the Vikings should be favored to win the division. But if the NFL’s schedule tells us anything, it’s that they’ll be competing in what could be the most entertaining division in football.
The NFC North will play 15 games in primetime this season, including three divisional matchups. The Vikings are right in the middle of this group with five primetime games, including home matchups with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.
With the Vikings’ success a year ago – and Kirk Cousins‘ upcoming appearance in a Netflix docuseries – an expanded primetime schedule was to be expected. What might be more surprising is the amount of national exposure the rest of the division is getting.
The Bears were the worst team in the NFL one year ago, but they wound up with four primetime games. In addition to the standalone game, their Week 1 matchup against the Green Bay Packers is slated for a 3:25 p.m. kickoff, which attracts its own national audience.
There’s a possibility that the Bears are on national TV as a large media market and its status as one of the league’s most historic franchises. But during an interview with NFL Network’s Peter Schrager, VP of broadcasting and scheduling Nike North said that there is some steam towards the Bears taking a step forward next year.
“The fact they were a three-win team last year generally means you’re heading for a lot of Sunday noon starts,” North said. “But in that division now, [it’s] maybe a little more wide open than in the past. They got a haul from [trading the No. 1-overall pick] and what do any of us know? We keep hearing Justin Fields looks better than ever and he was nothing if not exciting last year when we watched him.”
Mystery quarterbacks seem to be the theme for the NFC North this year as the Green Bay Packers are also heavily featured on national television. In addition to five primetime games and their season-opener against the Bears, the Packers will also be in a standalone spot when they take on the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving.
This could go one of two directions for the NFL. Either Jordan Love takes a star turn and cements himself as the next great Packers quarterback or Green Bay turns into this year’s version of the Denver Broncos.
The Broncos were one of the darlings of last year’s schedule after making the trade to acquire Russell Wilson. With four primetime games in the first six weeks and a game in London, the Broncos were riding right into the living rooms of football fans as one of the league’s marquee attractions.
Unfortunately, the Wilson trade flamed out and Nathaniel Hackett floundered in his first stint as a head coach. The Broncos scored over 20 points just once in their first seven games and fans were begging the NFL to flex them out of primetime spots by mid-October.
If Love struggles or the Packers just can’t adapt to life without Aaron Rodgers, the Packers could be an afterthought. But even if they are successful, they might not be the Vikings’ biggest divisional adversary.
That’s because America loves the Lions. Detroit has been the doormat of the NFC North for so long that the last time they won the division, it was known as the NFC Central. But their appearance on Hard Knocks last summer turned out to be an inadvertent PR move as it established Lions head coach Dan Campbell as the league’s ultimate babyface.
Everybody wants to see Campbell succeed and after winning eight of their last 10 games and ending the Rodgers era in Green Bay. The Lions are one of the league’s most intriguing teams heading into next season.
“We really like that narrative around that team,” NFL VP of broadcasting Onnie Bose said during an interview on The Dan Patrick Show. “The culture that they’re building there, the way they finished that season…we really like that. There’s a lot of energy there.”
The Lions’ reward is four primetime games in 2023 including the league’s season-opening matchup against the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. While Detroit’s star turn will give them more national exposure, it sets up an intriguing scene for the NFC North as the Lions and Vikings will play each other twice in the final two weeks.
In past years, this would have been just a footnote on the schedule. But after the past two seasons, it could lead to a pair of the best games of the season.
In 2021, the Vikings and Lions produced two buzzer-beating victories as Greg Joseph’s 54-yard field goal defeated the Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium and Jared Goff connected with Amon-Ra St. Brown for a walk-off touchdown to secure Campbell’s first win as a head coach.
Last season, the Vikings came back from two 14-point deficits to defeat the Lions in Minneapolis, but the Lions throttled the Vikings in the Motor City.
These games were also littered with viral moments. Cousins and Mike Zimmer nearly had a street fight on the sideline. Campbell was in tears at a postgame press conference. Jared Goff’s girlfriend was euphoric after he led a game-winning drive. Jameson Williams caught a touchdown on his first career reception against the team that traded out of the chance to draft him. Who wouldn’t want this kind of stuff on national television?
But just as much as it could be must-see TV, it could also be a forgettable encounter. Neither the Lions or Vikings are sure things to compete in the division. If either team takes a step back, it could open the door for the Bears or Packers – especially if Love or Fields takes a step forward.
Put everything together and you might have the most entertaining division in football.