Week 4: Around the NFC North
It’s hard to believe we’re already talking about week 4 and the NFL season will be a quarter done after this coming Monday Night game. It’s a busy week in the NFC North with some very good matchups to look forward to.
For the Green Bay Packers, week 4 is a very welcome sight. Need I even explain the who, what, when, where and why? They are eager to get that putrid taste out of their mouths after a very controversial loss on the final play in Monday Night’s game against the Seattle Seahawks. They return home and host the 0-3 New Orleans Saints led by QB Drew Brees.
The Minnesota Vikings ride high into Detroit to face the Lions after having knocked off the previously undefeated and heavily favored San Francisco 49ers in Minnesota this past weekend. It is the first divisional game for both the Vikes and Lions this season. The Lions come into this game licking the wounds of a brutal overtime loss at Tennessee after scoring twice in the final :18 seconds to force the OT.
The Bears cap off the week with a Monday Night matchup in Dallas against the Cowboys. Both teams are coming off wins and strong performances in week 3. The winner of this one makes a strong statement as to their standing as a contender in the NFC.
And lastly, it must be mentioned that everyone is relieved (well at least everyone not in Seattle) and very happy to welcome back the union referees who agreed, this week, to a new CBA with the league. They officiated the Thursday night matchup between the Ravens and Browns and will be on hand for the full slate of NFL games this weekend.
Minnesota Vikings (2-1) at Detroit Lions (1-2)
The Vikings have thrown a few surprises at us all so far in this young season. Adrian Peterson did in fact return in time for the season opener and he is already having a productive season. He has 230 yards on 58 carries and 2 TD’s. Riding that production, the Vikes find themselves in first place in the NFC North for the first time since the end of the 2009 season. They stunned the San Francisco 49ers this past weekend and handed them their first loss of the year. The Vikes will be a team to watch having found some early success after entering the season as heavy favorites to finish last in the division.
QB Christian Ponder is playing well so far and protecting the ball. He has 4 TD passes and 0 interceptions. If your QB isn’t turning the ball over, your team obviously has a remarkably better chance to win. Ponder sustained a neck injury in last week’s game but is listed as probable for this week. The Vikings defense has been respectable too, yielding just 304 yards per game (ranked 8th overall). They will be without standout LB E.J. Henderson who has been ruled out with a concussion.
The Lions are 2nd in total offense (436 yards/game) and 1st in passing offense (334 yards/game). QB Matthew Stafford hasn’t fared quite as well as Ponder, having thrown 3 TD passes and 4 INT’S so far in 3 games. Stafford left last Sunday’s game late in the 4th quarter with a hip injury. Backup QB Shaun Hill stepped in for the injured Stafford and drove the Lions down for a touchdown with :18 left in regulation. That’s when things got very interesting.
The Lions recovered the ensuing onside kick and were able to convert on a Hail Mary pass as time ran out and converted the PAT to tie the game and force overtime. The Titans took the ball first and converted a FG. Under the new OT rules, if the first team with the ball converts on a FG, the other team then gets a possession and chance to tie. The Lions drove down to the Titans’ 7 yard line and Head Coach Jim Schwartz elected to go for it on 4th and 1. It proved a costly decision as there was miscommunication between the sideline and the players on the field.
Schwartz wanted to try and draw the Titans’ defense offside to convert the 1st down. Had it not worked, he would have taken time out and attempted a tying FG. However C Dominic Raiola snapped the ball and Hill wasn’t able to convert, thus ending the game with the Titans getting the win. The Lions will have to find a way to move past the disappointing loss and received good news this week as Stafford is being listed as probable for Sunday’s game. They will, however likely be without S Louis Delmas who is doubtful with a knee injury and DT Corey Williams is listed as out also with a knee.
Stafford’s top target, WR Calvin Johnson finally caught his first TD pass of the season this past week. He had 16 all of last season and the connection between Johnson and Stafford is one of the biggest keys to Detroit’s success on offense. Another key piece on offense, Lions RB Mikel Leshoure, made his NFL debut and rushed for 100 yards on 26 carries and had a TD against Tennessee. He missed all of last season after suffering an Achilles injury in training camp. Leshoure also missed the first 2 games of this season as he was serving a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Leshoure is listed as questionable with a groin injury which means he has a 50% chance of playing.
This one has the potential to be a high-scoring affair if Stafford is healthy. The winner will emerge ahead in the standings. It’s too close to call so this one is a pick ‘em.
Chicago Bears (2-1) at Dallas Cowboys (2-1)
The Chicago Bears head into Dallas to face the NFL’s top ranked defense (250 yards/game) in week 3’s Monday Night matchup. The Cowboys opened the 2012 NFL season with an impressive win in the opener at New York against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. They dropped their week 2 game in Seattle against the Seahawks and were able to regroup and win their home debut in week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bears won their season and home opener against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts before falling in week 2 to their division rival Green Bay Packers. They bounced back and won this past weekend at home against the St. Louis Rams. They face a stiff road test in the Cowboys and a win would go a long way in establishing the Bears as serious contenders for the North and the NFC.
Both QB’s in this game are still facing questions by media and fans alike several years after becoming NFL starters. Tony Romo has quietly been a very efficient QB for the Cowboys over the past 7 seasons. He has a career QB rating of 96.6 and has thrown over 150 TD passes to just over 80 career INT’s. The Cowboys’ lack of ability to win in the postseason has been a roadblock for Romo in entering the conversation of elite QB’s in the NFL. If Dallas plays as well as they should, they likely win this game. They hold the edge on the defensive side of the ball and are at home.
Bears QB Jay Cutler led his team to victory in week 3 over the Rams after a rough outing in week 2 vs. the Packers, however Cutler’s numbers weren’t anything stellar. He posted 0 TD passes to 1 INT. His QB rating so far this year is a measly 58.8 and he will need to improve to give the Bears any kind of chance to compete.
With an aging defensive line and linebacker corps, the Bears once prolific defense is heavily reliant on its young secondary to carry the unit. They have and will give up some points this year and will depend on the arm of Cutler to respond on the offensive side of the ball.
One area of concern for the Bears’ offense is the offensive line. Cutler has been sacked 11 times this season and that pressure has led to many of his errant throws. With RB Matt Forte likely to be limited after returning from a week 2 ankle injury, the Bears running attack will feature more brawn in that of RB Michael Bush.
Forte has been effective as a pass catcher out of the backfield and has helped free up the Bear WR’s and keep pressure off Cutler. His absence could cause problems for that somewhat porous offensive line as they face one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. The Cowboys are led on defense by DE Marcus Spears and LB DeMarcus Ware.
This one will come down to execution as both teams are capable of playing very sharply as they each did in week 1 or extremely sloppy as has already been evidenced with each team’s week 2 performance. I give Dallas the edge being at home and slightly healthier.
New Orleans Saints (0-3) at Green Bay Packers (1-2)
Let’s dive right into the intrigue of this matchup. The Packers are coming back home and ready to get after the first thing not in a green & gold jersey. After a stunning and shocking loss at Seattle on Monday Night, they are looking to right the ship and begin their quest to erase memory of the “Fail Mary” game.
The aftermath of that game seemingly brought about the agreement between union referees and the NFL after a 2 month long lockout and negotiation. When the NFL season began with replacement officials, it was long speculated that it might take a gross error in a game to prompt an agreement. Unfortunately for the Pack, they were on the bad side of just such an occurrence.
After the Saints lost their 3rd straight game and 2nd at home to start this year’s season 0-3, my first thought was that the Pack would have their hands full with a very frustrated Saints team. They surely would be coming into Lambeau Field looking to start the turnaround and atone for last year’s loss to the Pack in the season opener, also at Green Bay. A wounded animal is sometimes the most dangerous.
Enter Monday night’s game and outcome. The Packers should be 2-1 and need to get back in the “W” column to start to erase what just went down in Seattle. As amped up as the Saints will be, the Packers will and should be more jacked. If nothing else, the Pack have the edge in coaching and Head Coach Mike McCarthy has forged a solid culture in his 6+ seasons in Green Bay. The Saints have yet to get Interim Head Coach Aaron Kromer his first win. Many wondered how the Saints would come out after a rocky offseason marred by “Bounty Gate”. So far they are 0-3 and without regular Head Coach Sean Payton.
Both teams have Pro Bowl-caliber QB’s in that of the Packers Aaron Rodgers and the Saints Drew Brees. Brees has thrown 7 TD passes to 5 INT’s this year while Rodgers has 3 TD passes to 2 INT’s. Rodgers’ passing stats are a far cry from what they were after 3 games in 2011 when he had 8 TD’s to just 1 INT. Also notable in those numbers is that Rodgers was sacked just 5 times in September last season. This past Monday night, he was sacked 8 times in the first half alone.
Rodgers is no stranger to pressure or the gridiron turf. In 2009, he was sacked 50 times during the regular season. The Packers’ O line was a virtual musical chairs as they tried to figure out the best rotation. The sack total was more explicable, though still not acceptable. In 2010 and 2011, the O line performed better, surrendering just 31 and 36 sacks, respectively.
If the Packers are going to have success on Sunday, they will need to protect Rodgers ten-fold what they did in week 3 at Seattle. The Saints feature pass rushing DE Will Smith and that is the key to New Orleans stifling the Packer offense. The Saints enter Sunday’s game ranked last in total defense. They’re giving up 34 points per game which should be encouraging to a Packer offense that is starving for a breakout game and the big play.
If the Pack can establish any sort of run and keep the Saints’ defense off-balance, they will surely have some good opportunities to get the ball downfield in a hurry. Likewise, the Saints are averaging just over 92 yards/game on the ground and will look to control the clock and limit Green Bay’s possessions. With the Packers’ defense having improved dramatically from last season, Brees will have to be patient in looking for his chance at the big play.
Saints RB Darren Sproles gave the Packers fits in last year’s opener and is of the same mold as Leon Washington of the Seahawks who the Pack just saw a few days ago. Green Bay will have to be sure in tackling the elusive Sproles as well as the speedy Saints receivers to avoid large chunks of yardage after the catch. WR Lance Moore and TE Jimmy Graham lead the team in receptions and Packer DB’s will need to be aware of where those two are on the field at all times. The Pack did a good job of taking top Bears WR Brandon Marshall out of the week 2 game and need an equally solid plan for the Saints.
Getting defensive pressure on the QB’s will be key for each team’s defense to force some throws and try to create turnovers. Like many games that feature good QB battles, turnovers likely decides this one. Side note, the Saints are -2 in turnover ratio while the Packers are +1. I have to give the edge to the home team in this one. The Packers have a 12th man too and they will be more than ready come game time!
Enjoy the games!——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on "AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason at: Jason Perone
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