It’s an interesting offseason in the NFC North Division where the Vikings call home. The great Aaron Rodgers has left the Packers, likely transforming that team into expected also-rans, while the Lions, not the defending division champion Vikings, are the favorite to win the North.
Many sports books have the Lions betting favorites to win their first division title since 1993. Only seven NFL teams have better odds of making the Super Bowl next year, according to BetMGM. The franchise that defined ineptitude is now a top 10 NFL team, per some NFL observers.
Detroit (no playoffs since 2016) has been sending a message for a while that they will be bullied no more. The vision started after Dan Campbell was named head coach in January of 2021. The feisty former NFL player said when his Lions are knocked down, not only will that get up but “we’re going to bite a knee cap off.”
During Campbell’s first two years in Detroit the players have responded with enthusiasm and work ethic. The Vikings got a taste of the grit and toughness of the Lions in a December game last year, a 34-23 Detroit victory.
The Lions went 5-1 in their last six games and that finish is part of the reason for Detroit’s popularity now as 2023 division favorites. That momentum seemingly continues after last month’s NFL Draft where the Lions signaled their commitment to be a tough, physical football team, including a willingness to run the football.
Today’s NFL is basketball on grass for many teams, but it looks like the Lions may eschew that approach in 2023. Their initial pick in the first round was a surprise, drafting Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs at No. 12. He’s an explosive runner and will be complemented by veteran pick up David Montgomery as the Lions anticipate improving on a rushing game that ranked No. 11 in the league last season (average per game 128.2).
Signing former Gophers All-American Mo Ibrahim as a free agent running back is another clue about how Campbell and company intend to compete. Ibrahim’s toughness and power running make him a candidate to earn a roster spot as a short yardage option and goal line specialist. The Lions could take an approach to be different offensively than many of their peers, including the high-powered Viking offense built around quarterback Kirk Cousins and his elusive receivers.
The Vikings were 13-4 last season, but the record was unconvincing to critics. Minnesota set an NFL record by winning 11 one-score games. Opponents outscored them during the regular season, 427-424. Minnesota’s wild card game was a dud, losing 31-24 to the Giants in Minneapolis.
The Lions, 9-8 overall, outscored the opposition 453-427. Detroit also had the best record against division rivals, going 5-1.
The Lions and Vikings need to show they are better defensively in 2023. Last season both gave up 25 points per game, among the worst showings in the NFL. Both defenses flirted with yielding nearly 400 yards per game.
The Lions also sent a message with their second draft pick in the first round, taking tough guy linebacker Jack Campbell from Iowa. The 6-5, 249-pound Campbell was the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and Dick Butkus Award winner as the nation’s best linebacker.
Offensively, both the Vikings and Lions made their fans happy last season. Minnesota averaged 24.9 points per game, seventh best in the NFL. The Lions averaged a fourth best 26.6.
Today your bookie probably will handicap the NFC North like this: Lions, Vikings, Bears and Packers. The Bears are still rebuilding, and the Packers are dealing with the loss of Rodgers at football’s most important position. Of course, reality won’t be known until the end of the year but for now a lot of observers see a new team at the top of a mediocre division.
A recent story by Adam Sparks of USA Today reported the football Gophers spent $1,227,189 on recruiting in 2022. That ranked Minnesota No. 7 in the Big Ten and No. 25 nationally. The Big Ten list didn’t include private school Northwestern. Surprisingly Rutgers ranked No. 2 and Ohio State No. 5, with Michigan No. 1, and Minnesota out spending neighboring rivals Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa who ranked No. 8, 11 and 13 respectively.
Joe Salem, the University of Minnesota head football coach from 1979-1983, turned 85 last Monday and lives in his hometown of Sioux Falls. An imaginative offensive mind, Salem’s assistants at Minnesota included Mike Shanahan who went on to lead the NFL Broncos to consecutive Super Bowl wins. Before taking over the Gophers, Salem was head coach at Northern Arizona where his assistants included Brad Childress, Marty Mornhinweg and Andy Reid, all of whom became NFL head coaches.
The Wild’s Marc Andre-Fleury will be 39 next November but it will be a surprise if he doesn’t return for another season and be part of the goalie rotation with Filip Gustavsson. “He is a leader in the locker room,” a hockey source told Sports Headliners. “He’s a leader of the young players.”
Speculation a few years ago was the St. Paul Saints franchise was worth $25 million as one of the more valuable properties in minor league baseball. The club was sold earlier this year for a price that may have been $17 million.
Condolences to friends and family of Tim Heikkila who passed away late last month in Thomasville, Georgia. Heikkila, a member of the University of Minnesota M Club Hall of Fame, was a 1971 high jump All-American.
The Kentucky Derby showcased the best racehorses Saturday but for some thoroughbreds the big money comes after they retire and are used for breeding. A New York Times article pointed out last week that Flightline, a champion thoroughbred racehorse now retired, made $4.3 million in racing purses over two years, but “with 155 mares in his date book” he will generate $31 million in earnings by the end of July for breeding.