Around the NFC North: Week 16
Week 15 brought about some major fireworks around the NFC North, culminating with the Monday night game between the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens. The Lions scored a late touchdown to take the lead but allowed the Ravens to drive and give kicker Justin Tucker a shot at a game winning 61-yard field goal. He made it and suddenly, the Lions find themselves in third place behind the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.
On Sunday, the Bears were able to hang on and pick up a valuable road win against the Cleveland Browns. It was Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s first game back in over a month and while he was admittedly a bit rusty, he was able to create enough to get Chicago the win. The Bears are now alone in first place in the North.
The Minnesota Vikings spanked the visiting Philadelphia Eagles and brought the birds back down to earth a bit, ending Phily’s five-game winning streak. What is more impressive is that Minnesota did so without the services of their best player in that of running back Adrian Peterson. They were also without running back Toby Gerhart but they did manage to get three rushing touchdowns from. . Matt Asiata? While the Vikings are playing for pride, at this point, they certainly showed plenty on Sunday.
Benefiting from the Eagles’ loss, albeit ever so slightly, was the Dallas Cowboys. In Sunday’s late game and America’s “Game of the Week”, the Cowboys hosted the Packers. Green Bay had not won in nine previous trips (including playoffs) to Dallas and had lost 11 of their last 12 there, spanning over a 24-year period. That record, however, was at the old Texas Stadium in Irving. This game would be played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, where the Packers won their most recent Super Bowl in February of 2011.
After heading in the halftime locker room down 26-3, the Packers seemed all but done for the day. Many suggested that they just board the bus and head home. I know because I was among them. After watching this team flail through the past five games, it seemed highly unlikely that they could overcome such a deficit. They did just that, however, capitalizing on two huge interceptions late in the fourth quarter to seal the comeback victory over the Cowboys, 37-36. No team or fan base was more elated by the Lions loss to the Ravens than the Packers, as they remain in contention for a division title and can secure it on their own and without help.
The battle for the NFC North looks like it could go down to the last game of the season so let’s look at this week’s slate of games and break down the implications of each.
Minnesota Vikings (4-9-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-5)
As I mentioned earlier, the Vikings are playing for pride, at this point. The next two games both seemingly have playoff implications for their opponents so that pride factor could play a role in this upcoming postseason. The Vikings travel to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals and finish out at home against the Lions. That will be the Vikings’ last home game at Mall of America Field, as they will move to TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis while they await construction on their new home to open in 2016.
The Vikings scored a season-high 48 points in their win over the Eagles and are in position to end out the 2013 season on a high note, should they be able to win one or both of these last two games. Many questions are swirling about Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier’s job status so these next two games will be very telling.
The Bengals suffered a slight setback in their quest to win the AFC North as they were thumped by the Steelers on Sunday night football. The loss dropped Cincy to 9-5 and with just a one-game lead over the Ravens. The Bengals are undefeated at home this season (6-0) and while nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, this is one that Cincinnati should win. Their last two games will be at home.
Even without stud defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in early November, the Bengals defense continues to mount pressure on opposing passers. The Vikings have allowed 37 sacks on the year and their offensive line will be challenged to keep quarterback Matt Cassel upright.
Peterson’s health status will also play a big role in Minnesota’s chances of pulling off a big upset win on the road. More will be known on Peterson as the week moves along. The Vikings are winless on the road this season at 0-6-1.
Chicago Bears (8-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (8-6)
The Bears earned a road win over Cleveland on Sunday and continue to find offensive consistency. They also have an emerging star in that of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who is peaking at the perfect time for Chicago. Jeffery has recently made some highlight-reel catches. Too many to count and this is just his second year. Add in Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett, and the Bears can put up some points. On the other side of the ball, Chicago expects to get veteran linebacker Lance Briggs back from injury this week and just in time for the late-season push.
The Eagles ran into a proverbial brick wall in Minnesota as they gave up 48 points in a loss to the Vikings. Philadelphia missed out on an opportunity to separate themselves from the Cowboys and all but lock up the NFC East, with Dallas having lost to Green Bay. Philadelphia has actually struggled at home a bit this season so they will need to bounce back strong to hang with the Bears.
They key in this game will be how well Chicago’s defense, who are giving up over 150 rushing yards per game, can contain Eagles running back LeSean McCoy. McCoy was held to just 38 yards on eight carries against the Vikings, as Minnesota held an early lead and forced Philadelphia into pass mode. The Eagles lead the league in rushing offense, with just over 150 yards per game so something will have to give in this contest.
After not committing a turnover through the first thirteen weeks of the season, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles now has an interception in two straight games. Chicago’s pass defense is ranked 11th in the league and are tied for sixth with 17 interceptions on the season. Takeaways have long been the trademark of the Bears defense and they will look to be just as disruptive this week.
The Bears will need to take a page out of Minnesota’s book this week and build an early lead, especially on the road. Forcing the Eagles to get away from putting the ball in the hands of their top playmaker obviously proved very successful for the Vikings. Minnesota was able to jump out to an early lead via a 57-yard touchdown pass. Philadelphia’s pass coverage is a weak spot in their defense and one that the Bears can certainly exploit.
Chicago’s offensive arsenal has been impressive of late. The earlier-mentioned Jeffery has elevated his play and is leading the Bears in receiving yardage with 1,265. Jeffery has seven touchdowns on the season and he has become masterful at the jump ball. With two big and physical receivers in Jeffery and Marshall, the Bears will present a tough matchup for the Eagles’ very average secondary.
Forte has over 1,200 rushing yards and over 500 receiving yards in one of the best seasons in his career. Forte can split out wide and is a valuable option out of the backfield. Chicago finally has the offensive firepower to keep up with most anyone on offense alone.
The big question is whether that Bears offense can prevent the big turnover. Cutler had an interception in the end zone during the first quarter in Cleveland and against playoff teams, those types of plays are momentum killers. Cutler has to find that delicate balance between giving his receivers a chance to make a play and throwing one into dangerous coverage.
Lastly, the Eagles currently own a tie breaker over the Bears with a better conference record. Should the two teams end up with the same record and atop their divisions, that conference mark will determine the higher seed. A head-to-head win by Chicago, however, would reverse that fortune and automatically give the Bears the higher seed in that scenario.
New York Giants (5-9) at Detroit Lions (7-7)
The Giants regressed to their early-season form and were an easy foe for the NFL-leading Seattle Seahawks. While it was the Seahawks, Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw five interceptions, which won’t beat anyone, let alone the league’s best. The Giants are already eliminated from playoff contention but they have an opportunity to help out the Packers and Bears if they can muster a win against the Lions.
Detroit has all of a week to lick their wounds and return from the devastating loss to the Ravens on Monday night. The Lions have fought all year long and worked to shed the “doormat” label that has lingered in Detroit for the better part of two decades. Minus the 2011 season, the Lions have found countless ways not to win. Will the same be true in 2013?
Well, in order for that not to be the case, the Lions will now need some help. Where they could have locked up the division on their own and by winning the Lions will now need some form of help in order to claim the North division title. The scenarios are many and with the Packers and Bears set to face off in week 17, many things can result.
This game is either going to be Detroit getting really healthy and taking out their frustrations on a terribly inconsistent Giants team or New York kicking the Lions while they are down. The key is the quarterback play on both sides. Both Manning and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford have a tendency to throw a few bad balls every game. For Manning, it’s forcing it into coverage. For Stafford, it’s not being in sync with his receiver, throwing too hard or too high.
The defense that can force more mistakes in this one will come away with a victory. With the disappointing loss to the Ravens and a tougher road to the playoffs, jobs could now be on the line in Detroit. Lions head coach Jim Schwartz and his staff will surely pull out all the stops to get a win and stop the bleeding.
For New York and their head coach Tom Coughlin, his fate may already be sealed, but he is a prideful individual and will expect his team to come out and put up a good fight. After all of the blows the Giants have dealt to the Packers over the last six year, it would only be fitting that they are in position to either help or further hinder Green Bay’s standings, once again.
This one is tough to call, given how unpredictable the NFL is but I would be surprised if the Lions came out flat and got beat by this Giants team in Detroit’s last regular season home game.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8) at Green Bay Packers (7-6-1)
A lot has changed in the three years since these teams met in Super Bowl XLV but Packers fans are hopeful that their team will have the same quarterback under center who helped them win that championship back in 2011. As has been the case for a few weeks running, we will be eagerly awaiting an update on the status of Aaron Rodgers for this week’s game.
Rodgers has missed the Packers’ last six games with a broken collarbone, seven if you include the majority of the game in which he was injured. With just two games left, the Packers have managed to keep themselves in contention for the NFC North division title and the news that their starting signal caller is finally ready to play would be very welcome.
Green Bay is coming off of a huge road win against the Dallas Cowboys in a game that saw backup quarterback Matt Flynn bring the Packers back from a 26-3 halftime deficit to overtake Dallas. It’s the kind of win that can propel a team to do some remarkable things and that is exactly what the Packers need at this point.
With no chance at a wild card spot, the Packers only avenue to the postseason this year is by winning the North. In order to do that, Green Bay is going to have to essentially have to win their last two games. There is likely a scenario where they could lose this game, beat the Bears and still win the division, but that’s doing things the hard way. If the Packers want this division title, they need to win out and finish strong heading into a postseason opportunity.
The Steelers also scored a big win, taking down the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday night football. While it is highly unlikely that the Steelers can overcome the bad start to this season in which they lost six of their first eight games, this is a team and organization with a lot of pride. Their head coach Mike Tomlin is a staunch players coach and can rally this team around any cause.
Leftover from that 2010 Steelers Super Bowl team are long-time veterans in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller, safety Troy Polamalu and safety Ryan Clark. While their record doesn’t show it, this is a savvy bunch who are capable of playing with anyone on any given day. They’re aware of what is at stake for the Packers and will be looking to spoil the party at Lambeau Field come Sunday. It would be one small step towards atoning for that championship loss, although that is forever ingrained in the history books.
Flynn will start if Rodgers is unable and judging by the second half of this past game, that may not be such a bad thing for the Packers. Flynn completely turned it around and got in sync with his receivers enroute to a huge comeback win. Also aiding in the effort was running back Eddie Lacy, who had 141 yards on 21 carries and the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
As I have said many times, these NFC/AFC matchups can provide some of the most entertaining games due to the lack of familiarity between teams. The last regular season meeting between the Steelers and Packers was no exception. After a back-and-forth battle that saw three lead changes and with Green Bay leading, Roethlisberger found Mike Wallace in the end zone for a game-winning score with time expiring. It was one of those games that is hard to forget.
Although the Steelers have struggled this season, they cannot be taken lightly. The Packers have struggled to get a consistent pass rush and against the bigger and somewhat mobile Roethlisberger, that will cause problems for the Green Bay defense. Clay Matthews wasn’t able to get to Tony Romo in this last game and the Packers desperately need #52 to come on strong in these last two games.
This game will feature two of the first running backs taken in this year’s draft. Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark in Sunday’s win and is a strong candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year consideration. Bell’s season didn’t start until late September due to injury, but he has a respectable 646 yards and six touchdowns on the year. The Steelers will always be the Steelers and try to establish the run and Sunday will be no different. The Packers will do the same with the seemingly indestructible Lacy, who played through an ankle sprain in last week’s game and who has suffered a concussion and an asthma attack in game action this season.
At home and if Rodgers is able to play, the Packers have a considerable edge with so much left to play for. Still, with Flynn, the Packers now know they can score and win. Lambeau Field in December/January has not been kind to too many opponents in recent history, one of which was the 2011 Lions who were beaten by Flynn and the best day of his career. With Flynn, it can be done.
The last time the Steelers were at Lambeau in December was December 24, 1995. The Steelers had already locked up the top seed in the AFC and the Packers needed to win to get into the playoffs and win what was then the NFC Central. A last-second pass in the end zone to a wide open Yancy Thigpen was dropped and the Packers were division winners. From there, they went all the way to the NFC Championship game before losing to the Cowboys.
We shall see if there is any history that repeats itself this week.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on "AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason at: Jason Perone
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