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O'HARA: How Lions match up with division rivals

The Detroit Lions’ elusive quest to win the NFC North hasn’t changed, but there’s a new champ at the top.

The Chicago Bears, led by their defense, are the new North champions in what has been a five-year shuffle at the top. There has not been a repeat winner since the Green Bay Packers made it four straight division titles from 2011-14.

The Bears won the division handily with a 12-4 won-loss record. The Vikings were second at 8-7-1 followed by the Packers (6-9-1) and Lions (6-10).

Since the Packers’ four-peat in 2014, the North title has gone to the Vikings (2015), Packers (2016), Vikings (2017) and now the Bears.

Only the Lions have missed out on the automatic playoff berth and first-round home game that are the prize for winning the division.

The Lions have come close twice in the last five years, losing final-game showdowns to the Packers in 2014 at Lambeau Field and at Ford Field in 2016. In both years they got the consolation prize of making the playoffs as a wild card and lost on the road in the first round.

While the team that wins the division represents a measuring stick for the Lions, it’s not the only one that general manager Bob Quinn said he focuses on when asked about competing within the division at his annual postseason press conference.

“It’s part of it,” Quinn said. “It’s not the whole thing. I think when you’re evaluating your own team, you’ve got to see what your deficiencies are in terms of personnel and try to improve those to improve the team collectively.”

Quinn referred to the makeup of the schedule each year, with six games against division teams.

“Those six games are critically important,” Quinn said. “We’ll take a look at their players, what they’re going to have come back next season, and how our players match up.

“That’s part of it, but I’d say it’s not the whole thing.”

With the offseason beginning – unfortunately earlier than the Bears had hoped because of their heartbreaking 16-15 loss to the Eagles – here are the takeaways on how the Lions match up with their divisions rivals.

Overall: For the second straight season there is a change in head coaches in the division.

The Lions (Matt Patricia) and Bears (Matt Nagy) hired new head coaches in 2018. This year it was the Packers’ turn, and they hired Matt LaFleur, most recently offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans.

The Packers’ hiring might be the most interesting of the three because of the scrutiny of LaFleur’s relationship with future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The division race has been wide open since 2014, when the Packers won for the fourth straight season.

The fact that the Vikings went from third to first in 2015 and 2017, and the Bears finished last four straight years – with a best record of 6-10 in 2015 – before winning the North shows that fortunes can change fast.

Three takeaways, Lions-Bears:

Defense, step up: The Bears went from a good defense that was ranked 10th in 2017 to a great defense that was No. 3 overall in 2018 and first in the league with 27 interceptions and 36 takeaways.

The Lions went from a bad defense that was 27th overall in 2017 to a good one that was 10th overall in 2018. However, the Lions declined from 32 takeaways in 2017 to 14 in 2018.

The Lions are moving in the right direction, but have more steps to take.

Quarterback/offense: Mitchell Trubisky’s play stepped up over his rookie season – from seven TD passes vs. seven interceptions to a 24-12 ratio. He added a solid performance in the playoff loss. Matthew Stafford had one of his worst seasons, with 21 TD passes and 11 interceptions in an offense that regressed everywhere except in the run game, which improved substantially.

Look ahead: The Bears paid heavily to get linebacker Khalil Mack in a trade with the Raiders, but winning the North was worth it. In addition to a hefty contract extension, it cost them their first-round draft pick this year and next.

Either in the draft or free agency, the Lions need to add a playmaker on offense and a pass rusher on defense to close the gap on the Bears. And they were swept by the Bears in 2018, ending their seven-game winning streak. That’s a sign of how the power has changed in the North.

Three takeaways, Lions-Vikings:

End zone, dead zone: The Lions must find a way to score against a defense that has dominated them in a three-game winning streak. They held the Lions without a touchdown in their 2018 sweep. Matt Prater scored all the Lions’ points, with three field goals in each of the two games.

Sack attack: The Vikings geared up their pass rush from 37 sacks in 2017 to 50 in 2018, tied for third most in the league. They’ve always been tough on Stafford, sacking him 21 times in the last four games. That’s more than Andrew Luck (18) and Drew Brees (17) had in 2018 and as many as Tom Brady.

Look ahead: The Vikings spent big to sign free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins with the expectation he would take them to the next step after they lost in the NFC Championship last year. He didn’t. He had big stats but not big-game performances.

The Vikings have not had back-to-back playoff appearances since 2008-09. They look like they’ve had their run, as short as it may have been.

Three takeaways, Lions-Packers

Coach change: A franchise that was as predictable as Wisconsin winter is being made over, both in the change of head coaches and with serious personnel issues to resolve. The Packers looked old on defense, and they lacked playmakers on offense.

LaFleur succeeds Mike McCarthy, who was hired in 2006 and fired midway through the 2018 season with the Packers headed for a second straight losing season amid reports of a clash with Rodgers.

Lambeau/Rodgers jinx: Both have been broken by the Lions. After going 23 seasons without a road win over the Packers they’re 3-1 in the last four games at Lambeau. They’ve also swept the series the last two years, with Rodgers the starter in two of the games.

Look ahead: A new head coach means a new staff, with new schemes to learn. Rodgers can adjust to anything, but there’s bound to be a learning curve overall. It hasn’t been often when the Lions have gone into a season with an advantage on the Packers. That should be the case in 2019.

Change at the top is new to this era of Packers. Since McCarthy’s arrival, the Lions and Bears have had four head coaches. The Vikings have had three. It’s a new ballgame for the Packers. They’re playing catchup.

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