Around the NFC North in Week 17
In week 17, The NFL is getting what it always hopes for when they create the schedule each spring. Each of this week’s NFC North matchups have playoff implications and there is another NFL record in jeopardy.
After the Detroit Lions’ Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving yardage record last week, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has the single-season rushing record in his sights. Peterson needs just 208 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s record of 2,105 yards.
Peterson’s Vikings host the Green Bay Packers and that game has been flexed by the NFL to the 3pm CDT time slot. It is setting up to be one of the better matchups around the league. Green Bay can secure the second seed with a victory or both a San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks loss. For the Vikings, it’s simple: win and they’re in.
The Chicago Bears are still alive in the wild card race after beating the Arizona Cardinals. Chicago travels to Detroit and must win to keep any hopes alive of securing the last wild card spot. The Bears also are in the precarious position of having to cheer for their arch enemy Packers. Should Bears win and the Packers beat the Vikings, the Bears would claim the sixth and final seed in the NFC.
Let’s look at the matchups and playoff scenarios a bit more closely.
Chicago Bears (9-6) at Detroit Lions (4-11)
The Lions got pounded by the Atlanta Falcons this past Saturday to make official what we already knew: Detroit is horrible. The only bright spot in the game, and really their entire season, was Johnson surpassing Rice’s previous total. Rice established the record of 1,848 yards with the San Francisco 49ers in 1995.
Johnson and the Lions can deliver a huge jab to the gut of Chicago by pulling off the upset this week. A Chicago loss would eliminate the Bears from playoff contention. While it’s not likely given the recently level of play by both teams, crazy things have happened this season and Detroit has at least an outside shot of pulling off the win.
The Bears had a different type of Sunday than did their neighbors in Detroit. Chicago handled the Arizona Cardinals to improve to 9-6 on the year and remain alive in the wild card playoff chase. On paper, the toughest part about this upcoming game for the Bears is that it’s a road game. The Lions have proven that they can’t win when they need to and certainly not when they don’t need to so this seems to be a very favorable scenario for the Bears.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was anything but sharp this past week, completing less than 50% of his attempts and having just one touchdown pass. It was still good enough to get the win but let’s not forget, it was against the Cardinals. With the Lions this week, Chicago ends with two of the easier games on their schedule.
In recent years, the teams who have been more “battle tested” when entering the postseason have fared best. There would be quite a disparity from these last two games to a potential playoff game for the Bears and they will need to be as focused as ever.
Chicago also needs to remain healthy. Running back Matt Forte left Sunday’s game after aggravating an ankle injury. He was seen in a walking boot after the game but has declared the he will play in this week’s “win or go home” contest against Detroit. Chicago could be without future hall of fame linebacker Brian Urlacher and defensive tackle Henry Melton for the season finale. Bears head coach Lovie Smith described Urlacher and Melton as “getting closer” to returning but no timetable was set. The Bears did get cornerback Tim Jennings back for last week’s game. Jennings has been an integral part of the Bears success this year and leads the team in interceptions with eight.
The Bears defensive prowess returned this past week as they were able to score two defensive touchdowns. The first was on a fumble recovery and one yard return in the first half and the second was a Charles Tillman interception return for a score later in the game. The Bears have been making a living at converting turnovers into points this year. Often times, the turnover battle is the biggest determining factor in playoff games.
I fully expect the Bears to get the win and then be reduced to bowing down to and cheering for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to beat the Vikings. If Chicago is lucky, Rodgers will do to Minnesota what he has done to the Bears time and time again in his career.
Green Bay Packers (11-4) at Minnesota Vikings (9-6)
The Packers thumped the Tennessee Titans for their regular season finale at Lambeau Field but they will be back there for at least one playoff game in January. Green Bay is also hoping to get a few more pieces healthy and ready for the postseason push.
The Vikings upset the Houston Texans this past Sunday and remain in control of their own playoff destiny. If they can defeat the Packers in week 17, the Vikings clinch the sixth seed. A big reason for Minnesota’s win at Houston was Peterson, who had just 89 yards, but was instrumental in helping Minnesota control the clock and keep the Texans defense off balance.
Peterson is chasing Dickerson’s rushing record that has stood since 1984. Over 200 yards is a tall order for any running back on any given Sunday. But not only has Peterson done so on multiple occasions this season, he has already done so against the Packers. In the first matchup in early December, Peterson had 210 yards on 21 carries.
AP will certainly be a focal point of Green Bay’s defensive attack, but the Packers really need to accomplish two things: win and avoid any further injuries. It seems that the Green Bay roster has been a revolving door this season. Just as they seem to get once key piece back from injury, another one occurs and they’re right back where they started. Fortunately, the Packers have proven to be a very deep team and one that is getting a lot of production from its young players.
The Vikings will have to rely on Peterson to have a big day in order to keep them competitive. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was more efficient against the Texans, who are a good defensive team. This could be a boost of confidence for Ponder who has struggled in his first three starts against the Packers. He won’t seemingly have an easy road, however.
Green Bay’s defensive play has elevated the past two games since the return of linebacker Clay Matthews. In those two games, Green Bay has 11 sacks and has allowed just 162 yards rushing.
Another solid contributor who continues to emerge each week is defensive lineman Mike Neal. Neal was much maligned coming into the season after many injury issues and a four game suspension for a positive PED test. Since getting healthy and with a steady rotation of linemen to keep him fresh, Neal has become the Packers biggest pass rushing threat on the line.
The Packers have also benefitted from the return of speedy cornerback Sam Shields. Shields has been brilliant since returning and now that the officials aren’t throwing ridiculous pass interference flags on every play he makes, he is once again a big contributor in the defensive backfield. Shields had an interception and a sack in Sunday’s win over Tennessee.
Much like Green Bay, the Vikings have continued to improve defensively, especially in their pass rush and in the defensive backfield. Rodgers will need to avoid the costly turnover and try to keep plays alive with his feet. Rodgers was sacked just once in Sunday’s win and if Green Bay can manage the same against Minnesota, it could prove to be a long day for the Vikings.
In the end, Green Bay is a more complete team and the biggest difference is obviously the quarterback position. While a victory is far from guaranteed, I do expect the Packers to come out very focused and aware of what is at stake. Winning or losing this game would very likely be the difference between some extra rest or having to turn around and play a postseason game just one week later. Green Bay should have plenty of chances to put this one away and secure the win and a first round playoff bye.
That bye would greatly benefit the team as they are still working to get a few key pieces healthy and ready for the postseason. Jordy Nelson, Charles Woodson, James Starks and now Randall Cobb will all test in practice this week to see if they can go at Minnesota and help the Packers finish on a high note. Even if Mason Crosby has to put one in off the uprights again this week, I like Green Bay’s chances in this game.
Enjoy the last week of the regular season!——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on "AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason at: Jason Perone
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