27

December

Around the NFC North in Week 17

Around the NFC North

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.

21

December

Packers Drive Rewind: Defense Takes a Stand

Sam Shields

Last week’s Packers Drive Rewind highlighted how a seven-play drive that featured all running plays buried the Lions. Watching it made you want to pound your chest and yell. Loudly.

This week, we’re going to stay with the tough-guy theme and highlight how the Packers defense stood tall with a goal-line stand after Ryan Grant fumbled.

The Situation
Third quarter. Packers 21, Bears 7. Grant just fumbled away a chance to blow the game open. The Bears are on the Packers’ 5-yard line after a 53-yard pass interference penalty against Morgan Burnett.

The Result
Matt Forte can’t get in the end zone on three straight runs and a touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery on fourth down is nullified by offensive pass interference. The Bears settle for a field goal.

Play 1: Forte up the middle for 4 yards


Ryan Pickett gtets stood up by Chris Spencer, but doesn’t get erased from the play. Forte ends up basically running back toward Pickett and getting swallowed up by the big guy. Forte had James Brown pulling to the outside. Morgan Burnett and Sam Shields do a nice job of setting the edge. However, I wonder if Forte would have had better luck following Brown to the outside and taking on Shields near the goal line instead of running back into the teeth of the Packers’ defense?

Play 2: Forte up the middle for no gain

Great stick by Brad Jones. He flows to the other side of the line and meets Forte head on after Dezman Moses occupies two blockers. Pickett torpedoes his gap and B.J. Raji blows up Edwin Williams, taking away any hope for a cutback. Once again, it looked like Forte might have had better luck trying to keep going around the end and taking on Jarrett Bush instead of plowing into the pile.

Play 3: Forte up the middle for no gain

A.J. Hawk fills the gap and Jones comes free to stand up Forte before he can get into the end zone. Everybody up front for the Packers does a nice job of fighting their way to a stalemate, allowing Jones to come in untouched and prevent the touchdown. Another nice play from Jones here. Who knew he would look so smooth flowing to the ball inside?

Play 4: Alshon Jeffery catches a 1-yard touchdown, nullified by offensive pass interference

7

December

Around the NFC North in Week 14

Around the NFC North

Around the NFC North in week 14

For the first time this season, there are two divisional matchups in the NFC North.  The Chicago Bears travel to Minnesota to round out their season series against the Vikings.  Both of those teams are coming off of tough losses last week and cannot afford another in this game.

The Detroit Lions come to Lambeau Field where they haven’t logged a victory in over 20 years to take on the Green Bay Packers in the Sunday night football matchup.  Detroit suffered a gut-wrenching and last-second defeat at the hands of Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.  The Packers were the only victorious team in the North this past week.  The win helped them reclaim sole possession of first place in the divsion.

Here’s a sneak peak at each matchup and some storylines heading into the games.

Chicago Bears (8-4) at Minnesota Vikings (6-6)

The Bears are starting to feel the effects of their hard-fought season.  They learned that they will be without long-time veteran linebacker Brian Urlacher for at least the next three weeks due to a hamstring injury.  While Urlacher has been hampered by some bumps and bruises this season, there is no question the Bears defense is better with him on the field.

Chicago’s starting cornerback Tim Jennings was also injured in last week’s game vs. the Seattle Seahawks when he collided with another player and hurt his shoulder.  As of Tuesday, it was still not known how serious the injury was and more tests were expected later in the week to determine if there is any structural damage.  Any such news would mean Jennings will miss some time which would be a huge blow to the Bears’ secondary.  Jennings has been the team’s top defender this season and leads the team with eight interceptions.

The Vikings are also awaiting some news on the health of one of their star players, wide receiver Percy Harvin.  Harvin has missed the team’s last four games with an ankle injury and has battled health issues since coming into the league as a rookie in 2009.

Minnesota and Chicago are both in need of a win to make a strong run at the postseason.  The Bears and Packers have the same record at 8-4 but Green Bay holds the tie-breaker, having beaten Chicago head-to-head earlier this season.  The Vikings dropped to .500 and are trying to stay alive in the Wild Card race with an outside chance at a division win.

28

November

Around the NFC North in Week 13

Around the NFC North

Around the NFC North in week 13

With just five weeks remaining in the 2012 NFL season, we take a look around the NFC North at the matchups and storylines.

In week 13, a bit of Luck visits the Detroit Lions in the form of the Indianapolis Colts while the Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears tangle for the third time in as many straight seasons.  The Green Bay Packers come home to host their neighbors to the west, the Minnesota Vikings for the first time in 2012.

This divisional race is starting to take shape with the Bears in first place and the Packers breathing down their necks, a close second.  The Vikings are still alive, to the surprise of many, while the Detroit Lions have made their road to a repeat playoff appearance very difficult.

Here’s the breakdown:

Indianapolis Colts (7-4) at Detroit Lions (4-7)

The surprising Indianapolis Colts come into Detroit to face the struggling Lions.  The Colts find themselves in the thick of the AFC Wild Card race.  While many knew Andrew Luck would eventually turn into a solid NFL quarterback, few would have foreseen the success that this team has had so far in 2012.

With that said, let’s also consider that only one of Indianapolis’ wins have come against a team that would currently be in this year’s playoffs (Packers in week 5).  But they are taking steps in the right direction after having won only two games last season.  At least they’re beating the teams that are struggling (Detroit falls into this category) or just plain bad.

While the Lions took the Houston Texans to overtime last week, they were unable to get the elusive Thanksgiving Day win and fell to 4-7.

Detroit’s biggest advantage in this game is that it’s at home.  While much has been made of Detroit’s offensive output this season, Indianapolis isn’t far behind.  The Lions rank 2nd in total yards while the Colts are 5th.  I expect this game to be a shootout.  An indoor game featuring two top offenses and two good quarterbacks.

Each team has had their issues on defense that have prevented them from winning some of their close games.  Both teams also have negative give/take ratios heading into this one. Detroit is at (-7) while Indianapolis is at (-14).

31

October

Around the NFC North in Week 9

Around the NFC North

Around the NFC North in week 9

Week 9 brings us to the start of the 2012 season’s second half.  Quick trivia:  Which is the NFL’s only division with three teams over .500?  You’re correct if you guessed the NFC North.  Let’s dive into the matchups around the division this week.

Chicago Bears (6-1) at Tennessee Titans (3-5)

The Bears are rolling, the Titans are not.  About the only thing in Tennessee’s favor this week is that it’s a home game.

The Bears narrowly escaped with a home win over Carolina while Tennessee came up just short against the Indianapolis Colts in overtime.  As the saying goes, good teams find a way to win and Chicago keeps doing it week after week.  They find themselves alone in 1st place atop the NFC North.

Tennessee has had solid play from backup QB Matt Hasselbeck in place of injured Jake Locker.  Hasselbeck will start Sunday against the Bears.  Unfortunately, Hasselbeck is the only Titans player who has played well consistently and the team has not been able to string consecutive wins together.

Titans RB Chris Johnson has flashed some of his vintage self lately, but not enough to put the team on his back.  The Bears are giving up a stingy 77 yards/game rushing and Johnson will be the focal point of their defensive game plan.

The big focus for the Titans and Hasselbeck is taking care of the football.  Chicago has mustered 16 interceptions in 7 games this season and they lead the league in takeaways.  They are also a top-scoring defense so they are making those turnovers count.  Hasselbeck has thrown four interceptions compared to six touchdown passes.  His task will not be an easy one this Sunday.

For the Bears, the game plan is simple:  run to daylight.  Tennessee is surrendering 140 yards/game on the ground and the Bears happen to have a guy named Forte on their side.  I’m no fantasy football expert but I say: start Forte!  If Chicago builds a solid lead, you’ll see a good dose of Michael Bush as well.

While the rest of the North needs the Bears to slow down a tick, it likely doesn’t happen this week.

16

August

Packers Defensive Line: A Healthy Ryan Pickett Commands Respect

Ryan Pickett

Packers D-lineman Ryan Pickett

Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett reminds me of two actors in two memorable movies: Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino and Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas.

In Gran Turino, Eastwood plays a retired Detroit auto worker who is trying to cope with his neighborhood changing (i.e. getting younger and more diverse). He also yells at people to get off his lawn and behaves like that crumudgingly (and racist) old white guy many of us probably know in real life.

Sorvino plays a mob boss in Goodfellas who quietly lurks in the shadows and oversees a large-scale crime ring. Sorvino doesn’t have a leading role in the film, but when he’s on screen, there’s little doubt that his character is in charge and that the other characters respect him.

Now don’t take those comparisons too literally. I don’t know Pickett personally and I’m not saying  he’s a racist or a Mafia Don. But when I watch Eastwood’s and Sorvino’s characters, I can’t help but imagine that Pickett has certain traits of both.

Pickett is the elder statesman on the Packers defensive front. Like Eastwood getting annoyed about having to adapt to younger people who might be a little different than him, I can see the older Pickett getting annoyed by Clay Matthews and his long hair or B.J. Raji and his dancing.

I also see a lot of Sorvino in Pickett’s deliberate (some might call it slow) movements and overall presence. Like Sorvino, Pickett might not appear to be very impressive, but everyone looks up to him. He commands respect. Running backs and quarterbacks know that Pickett is too slow to catch them, but they’re scared of him anyway.

On the Field
Analogies are fun, but let’s get to the bottom line: Ryan Pickett is a hellvua football player and very important to the Packers defense.

According to Pro Football Focus, Pickett led all Packers defensive linemen last season with 20 stops, which measures the total number of solo tackles made that lead to an offensive failure. He also finished with a run defense rating of 8.4, second on the team behind Desmond Bishop (10.7) and way ahead of C.J. Wilson, who was the next best d-lineman (3.2).

Pickett finished fourth on the defense with an overall defensive rating of 2.6 and was one of only three defensive starters to finish with a positive overall rating.

16

July

Forte Gets New Deal, Makes Bears Major Threat in NFC North

Image courtesy of The Chicago Sun-Times

With the franchise-tag deadline in the NFL only hours away, the Chicago Bears have agreed to a long-term contract with running back Matt Forte according to Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.  While there is no doubt that Forte deserved the increase in his pay, this isn’t the best of news for the Green Bay Packers.

The Bears were already looking like a major threat in the NFC North thanks to a solid offseason that brought in Brandon Marshall and Michael Bush.  However, with Forte as a potential holdout candidate due to his displeasure about not getting a new deal, the Bears’ offense didn’t seem as potent without a weapon like Forte who can make plays in a number of ways on the field.

Now that hope of the Bears being less dynamic on offense is shattered with the signing of Forte.  With Jay Cutler, Forte, Bush and Marshall, along with a number of other potentially dynamic players on offense, the Bears have to be considered one of the premier offensive teams in the league.

Of course, they won’t be nearly as dangerous as the Packers on offense, but they could certainly leap over the Detroit Lions as the second best offensive unit in the NFC North.  With the defense still filled with game-changing players, the Bears have now become as balanced and talented as any team in the NFL.

While Green Bay is still the favorite to win the division, the gap between Chicago and the Packers just got quite a bit closer thanks to this new deal.