In a world of ubiquitous preseason predictions, Brian Billick managed to pull off an original this summer. Billick, the Super Bowl-winning coach turned NFL Network analyst and occasional Twitter provocateur, projected the Minnesota Vikings to win the NFC North over the heavily-favored Green Bay Packers.
What once seemed an attempt to provoke the masses now has a genuine chance to be the prediction of the year. Both teams have secured playoff berths, but a Vikings victory Sunday night at Lambeau Field would end the Packers' four-year reign as division champions.
That possibility raises the question: Are the Vikings close to passing the Packers on a more permanent basis? Or have they capitalized on a uniquely down season in Green Bay to make it even this close?
I circled back with Billick this week to pick his brain on both this matchup and the longer horizon of the division. His assessment of the rosters gives the Vikings an advantage in most every area, but the continued presence of quarterback Aaron Rodgers in his prime caused Billick -- fairly -- to stop short of removing the Packers' crown.
"However you measure the teams for this game, whether it's the offensive lines, defensive lines, matchups in defensive backs versus receivers, you would pretty much give it to the Vikings across the board," Billick said by phone. "The only caveat is the quarterbacks. You have Teddy Bridgewater and Aaron Rodgers.
"It's hard to see any team quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers capitulating dominance in the division over time. We'll see."
Indeed, the Vikings' 10 victories includes only one against a playoff-bound team, in Week 6 against a Kansas City Chiefs team that was engulfed in a 1-5 start. And the Packers' collapse can be traced mostly to a pair of specific events -- they began this season without their top receiver (Jordy Nelson) and their best offensive playcaller (coach Mike McCarthy) -- that put their signature offense into a tailspin.
But Billick's suggestion that the Vikings have mostly caught up to the Packers from an overall talent perspective is not unique in football circles, from what I've heard -- a stunning appraisal given the credibility of Packers general manager Ted Thompson and his staff.
Tailback Adrian Peterson was the only Vikings player voted to the Pro Bowl this season, but general manager Rick Spielman has stocked their roster with pieces that hand-picked coach Mike Zimmer felt confident he could maximize. The result has been a team that can support Zimmer's core values of a stingy defense -- the Vikings' 19.3 points allowed per game ranks sixth in the NFL -- and power running. Thanks to Peterson's return from a year of off-field controversy, the Vikings rank fifth in rushing yards (2,060) this season.
From my vantage point, however, there are two issues to settle before assessing the long-term fate of this division:
How easily can the Packers' issues be fixed?
Can the Vikings overtake a Rodgers-led team without elite quarterback play of their own?
Nelson is expected to return healthy next season, possibly with further fortifications from the 2016 draft, and McCarthy has already resumed his role as the chief playcaller.
Without Nelson, the Packers have no consistent deep threat nor clutch receiver to target on important plays. As a result, they have the NFL's sixth-worst third-down conversion percentage (35.2). Their 33 explosive pass plays (16 or more yards) rank 24th in the league, behind even a Vikings team (35) that qualifies as plodding in all manners of the definition.
McCarthy's return to play calling hasn't patched every wound, and guard T.J. Lang told reporters that there has "been a lot of frustration for a long time now on offense." But neither that issue, nor the void created by Nelson's injury, seems irreparable.
Meanwhile, the Vikings have guided Bridgewater to a recovery from what seemed to be a sophomore slump. He has compiled the NFL's fourth-best Total Quarterback Rating (84.4) during the past three weeks, but it is still a small sample size.
If titles, division or otherwise, are won by the team with the best quarterback, can Bridgewater be good enough to overcome a team led by Rodgers? It's worth noting, after all, that the Packers have won 10 games this season in what will go down statistically as the worst season of Rodgers' career. (As I noted in this week's Seifert Report video, Rodgers has always dominated the Vikings.)
"The arrow is up for Teddy Bridgewater," Billick said. "You can definitely say that. They're playing a formula there, kind of a pitch count of 25-30 passes a game. Can he be a guy that can win a game throwing 40-45 times? I don't know yet. And I'm not sure they have the cast to support that. The game is clearly not too big for him, and I think he's proven he can be a good, solid-winning quarterback. But can he be a championship quarterback and challenge Rodgers' teams? That's the next hurdle."
To their credit, the Vikings acknowledge the same. In a mostly quiet locker room this week, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd maintained a safe distance from any talk of overtaking the Packers.
"I've been here three years and the Packers have been the toughest games every year," he said. "You have to understand who their quarterback is. I'll never take him lightly. Never."
The upstarts could slip past the wounded champions Sunday night at Lambeau Field, but it's too early to suggest they would stay there. How's that for a diplomatic assessment? You want black and white, but the world is bathed in gray. So there.