INDIANAPOLIS - The balance of power within the NFC North finally shifted when the Minnesota Vikings upset the Green Bay Packers 20-13 in their 2015 regular-season finale at Lambeau Field.
The Vikings’ division title had been a long time coming. It snapped the Packers' streak of five straight divisional championships.
But looking ahead to the 2016 season, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman wasn’t ready to dub the NFC North a two-team race.
“No,” Spielman said Wednesday at the NFL combine, “because I think Detroit has a very good football team. And Chicago, I have the utmost respect for what John Fox has done everywhere he has been. I think it’s going to be a very competitive division next year. And the one thing, even though we had success and built on that this past year and were able to win the division, we still haven’t reached all of our goals.”
The celebration didn’t last long in Minnesota. While the Packers advanced past the wild-card round with a win at Washington, the Vikings lost to the Seattle Seahawks at home. It was a crushing defeat, with kicker Blair Walsh missing a 27-yard field goal in the final minute.
Perhaps Spielman knows how fleeting success in the NFC North can be. While the Packers had won four straight titles, they also played in de facto NFC North championship games in three straight regular-season finales. And those games came against three different teams: the Bears in 2013, the Lions in 2014 and the Vikings last season.
“Every year is a new year,” Spielman said. “You can’t predict injuries. You can’t predict what’s going to happen with players. But we have to take the approach that we are starting over. What we did last year doesn’t matter. It’s what we’re going to do going forward and that’s the approach we have to take.”
Regardless, it isn’t hard to foresee the Vikings once again becoming the Packers' primary obstacle within the division. They’re led by a young and improving quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, and they still have NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson.
Peterson isn’t getting any younger. He’ll turn 31 next month, an age when even great running backs can begin to wane. There were no signs of age last season when Peterson rushed for 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns, but Father Time can catch up quickly.
Spielman admitted he’s thought about life after Peterson.
“Running back, you’re one injury away,” Spielman said. “We’ll eventually get down there. I think Adrian is still a very productive running back in this league. I mean, he won the rushing title again this year, and it’s amazing the stamina and the physical specimen that he still is. But at some point, everybody has to retire, and I don’t know when that point is (for him). Adrian may defy the odds and play until he is 50. I don’t know.”
What is clear is how important Peterson remains to the Vikings’ aspirations within the NFC North. He is their Aaron Rodgers, their heart and soul. Spielman knows he needs the best from his best player to once again overtake the Packers.
“Green Bay is a great team,” Spielman said. “They have a great organization. For our guys to respond, to go up there in that atmosphere in a prime-time game, in the past we haven’t been good in those situations.”