Around the NFC North: Week 14
Last week brought about two divisional games, one of which went into overtime and nearly ended in yet another tie.
The Green Bay Packers faced the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day and in the end, the only thing Packers fans were thankful for was that the game was over. The Lions thumped the Packers to the tune of a 40-10 beat down that epitomized just how low the Packers have sunk since losing quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The Minnesota Vikings came back and scored an overtime win against the Chicago Bears, who had what seemed like a solid lead heading into the fourth quarter. Minnesota tied the game on a Blair Walsh field goal to force overtime. In the overtime, the Bears drove down and set up their usually-reliable place kicker, Robbie Gould, for a 47-yard attempt for the win. Gould’s kick sailed right and on the ensuing possession, the Vikings rode Adrian Peterson down field and set up the eventual game winner by Walsh.
The Lions now have sole possession of first place in the North with a record of 7-5 and a one-game lead over the Bears. The Packers fell to 5-6-1 and are two games back. With the Carolina Panthers (9-3) and San Francisco 49ers (8-4) rolling, the only way a NFC North team is getting into the playoffs is likely by winning the division.
This week’s slate features four separate games. The Packers will host the Atlanta Falcons in a game that was originally slated for Sunday night. It was flexed out a few weeks back due to the decline in both teams’ level of play. The Panthers and New Orleans Saints will now play in the Sunday night slot.
The Detroit Lions will head to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles, who have suddenly remembered how to win at home. The Minnesota Vikings will take to the road to face the Baltimore Ravens and the week culminates with the Bears hosting the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football.
With that, let’s take a quick look at each matchup and the implications for this week.
Minnesota Vikings (3-8-1) at Baltimore Ravens (6-6)
The Vikings eeked out a win at home and the Ravens are on a two-game winning streak, thanks to a Thanksgiving night win over their division rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Baltimore is in a race for both the AFC North and the second wild card playoff spot in the AFC. Under their head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens have only lost once to a NFC opponent in Baltimore (the Packers earlier this season) and should be heavy favorites in this game.
The Vikings continue to roll with Christian Ponder at quarterback and hope that Peterson can carry them enough to make the quarterback situation moot. The Ravens are giving up 100 yards per game on the ground. With Ponder more mobile, Baltimore’s defense will have their hands full. Still, their biggest challenge is going to be limiting Peterson. Many a time has #28 bounced off of a would-be tackler only to pick up more valuable yardage.
Minnesota has been reduced to playing the role of spoiler this season but it’s a daunting task against the Ravens, who still have something to play for. The Vikings’ defense has been banged up in the secondary and that will likely become an issue against the Ravens, who like to take a few shots downfield. Baltimore hasn’t had the same success that they did last season with the deep ball and most likely due to the loss of a legitimate second wide out in that of Anquan Boldin. But they still like to take that chance and Torrey Smith is still as good as any at getting past deep coverage.
The only real chance Minnesota would have in this one is if Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco comes out extremely flat and throws multiple interceptions or if Peterson can get over 200 yards and a few scores. Neither are very likely. Minnesota was able to keep the Bears scoreless in the fourth quarter this past week and hoist themselves to a win, but. . . that was against the Bears.
Atlanta Falcons (3-9) at Green Bay Packers (5-6-1)
The Falcons earned just their third victory this season with an overtime win over the Buffalo Bills. Atlanta’s puzzling demise in 2013 continues to surprise many. The loss of wide receiver Julio Jones earlier in the season was a sure blow, but still, no one expected a team that was within a few minutes of a Super Bowl appearance last year to fall so far.
Speaking of free falls, the Packers continued theirs with a horrendous second half against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day. The Packers started off strong and even earned a defensive touchdown after a fumble recovery in the end zone by safety Morgan Burnett. Those second-quarter points ended up being Green Bay’s last of the day.
I dub this game the “Horrible Bowl”. Whichever team suffers a loss emerges more horrible than the other. The biggest question heading into this contest is the status of Aaron Rodgers. Many rumors have swirled as to whether he will play this week, or at all. Reports started to fly, this past Sunday, that the Packers could shut Rodgers down and not allow him to return to the field this season if he is unable to play against Atlanta and if the Packers playoff chances seem bleak.
As badly as the Packers have played over the past month, they are still mathematically able to win the NFC North. That means there is a chance at the playoffs and so there is still some optimism that Rodgers can return. It just may not be this week. Rodgers was coy in speaking with Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee last week when he said “I don’t plan on playing ’till I’m 30″. Rodgers turned 30 on Monday of this week.
These are two bad teams right now and who are facing off at the end of what seems to be a lost season. Atlanta has already been mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. For the Packers to lose a home game to this Falcons team would further stain an already disappointing season.
I may be hard-pressed to come up with anything beyond “Show Up!” for my “Keys” post later this week. Green Bay has sunk to some of the lowest levels previously seen in all phases of their game since Rodgers was injured. While the Packers offense statistically still ranks in the top 10, they have been rendered inept over the past five weeks and cannot find the end zone. It likely won’t take an offensive juggernaut to outscore the Falcons, who will be playing outdoors and much less desirable conditions than in the Georgia Dome.
Still, I’ll stop short of predicting a Packers win. That has yet to be determined and a lot of that will ride on the reports out of this week’s practices, both performance and health-wise. The last time the Falcons and Matt Ryan came to Lambeau Field was in 2008 (ironically, the last disappointing season) and scored the win over a Packers team that would end that season at 6-10. That Falcons team, however, went 11-5.
Stay tuned here at ALLGBP.com for more updates on the quarterback situation as the week progresses.
Detroit Lions (7-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (7-5)
Each team comes in with a matching 7-5 record and an impressive win at home. The Lions demolished the Packers and the Eagles held on late for a win over the Arizona Cardinals.
Both quarterbacks have been playing well. Matthew Stafford is the only quarterback in the NFC North to have started every game for his team this season. Nick Foles assumed the starting job in Philadelphia when Michael Vick suffered a hamstring injury earlier this year.
Foles has played lights-out this season, posting an astonishing 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions in just nine games. He did have a record game in Oakland in which he threw seven touchdown passes against the Raiders. Foles has yet to commit a single turnover this season. It’s no wonder that when Vick was finally activated this past week, he suited up as Foles’ backup. And that’s where Vick will likely remain as long as Foles is healthy.
Stafford earned his first career win over the Packers after losing his first seven tries. Stafford appears in sync with his top receiving target in Calvin Johnson and has found more success throwing to his tight ends in Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria. Added to the offensive mix for the Lions is the two-headed attack of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell at running back.
Each team needs this crucial win to keep pace in their divisional races and both will have an eye on the Bears matchup with the Cowboys. The Lions can maintain their one-game lead or separate themselves another game from the Bears with a Chicago loss. The Eagles are currently tied with Dallas and would benefit from a win and a Cowboys loss. The NFC East has been up for grabs most of the season and the Eagles are fortunate to have survived their shaky 3-5 start.
The Lions held the Packers to just 24 rushing yards on Thanksgiving Day and will find shutting down Eagles running back LeSean McCoy to be a much more daunting task. After all, they won’t have the pleasure of facing Green Bay’s offensive line again. McCoy is averaging 90.7 yards per game rushing and has five touchdowns on the season.
Philadelphia’s biggest defensive weakness is in their secondary and so look for Stafford to regularly seek out his “bigs” to keep the chains moving. The Lions have won three games on the road so far this season.
Dallas Cowboys (7-5) at Chicago Bears (6-6)
The Cowboys have won two straight coming off of their bye week and face a Bears team that will need to regroup fast after blowing a fourth-quarter lead against the hapless Vikings. The loss dropped Chicago back to second place in the North behind the Lions. With the Lions having swept the Bears already, Detroit would win the division if both teams were to end the season with the same record.
The Cowboys were winners on Thanksgiving Day over the Raiders. The win kept Dallas even with the Eagles in what has become a tight race for the NFC East. The Dallas combo of quarterback Tony Romo and receiver Dez Bryant has continued to gel and also helped open things up for Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who is in his 12th NFL season. Bryant, however, has just one touchdown catch since October 27th and of his nine touchdown catches this season, only two have come in Cowboys wins.
As of Monday, the Bears still had not announced whether quarterback Jay Cutler would be available to play in this game. If Cutler is ruled out, Josh McCown will make another start for the Bears. McCown is 2-2 as a starter and the Bears are 2-4 in games in which McCown has appeared. This past week’s overtime loss falls more on the defense, however and McCown has done a decent job in relief of Cutler. Still, the Bears have to hope that Cutler can return for this stretch run and help them keep up with the Lions.
Dallas is just 2-4 on the road this season. The Bears are 4-2 at home. If Chicago’s pass defense can hold up at all, the Bears have a good chance to get back on a winning track. The safety play in Chicago has been a sore spot lately and without cornerback Charles Tillman, the Bears aren’t forcing turnovers like they have in recent years.
The Cowboys could also be without a top defensive player in that of linebacker Sean Lee as he deals with a hamstring injury. Lee said earlier this week that he has a chance to play against Chicago.
This seems to be one of those games where the turnover battle tells the story. It could also be the pivotal game in each team’s season that either springs them towards a playoff run or sends them reeling towards the offseason.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on "AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason at: Jason Perone
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