NFC North: Black & Blue Division Throwdown Weekend
By Tom Pollin
CHFF Black and Blue Trash Talker (@tjpollin)
It’s Black and Blue division throwdown time in the NFC North this weekend. On the undercard, the Chicago Bears head north to play the Minnesota Vikings, the second time in two weeks they will face each other.
The Bears are on a six game winning streak against the Vikings after putting them away early in their last game with a 25-3 lead at the half on their way to a 28-10 win. It’s the Bears only win in the last four games.
The main event bout takes place on Sunday Night Football when the Green Bay Packers host the Detroit Lions, the second time in three weeks they have challenged each other.
The last time they played the Lions held a 20-14 lead in the fourth quarter but couldn’t hold on. A 22-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb with two minutes left in the game put the Packers ahead 21-20 in a game they won 24-20.
The scene is set, the trash talking, what little there has been of it is finished here are five things to look for in an all NFC North Week 14.
1. The Lions haven’t won in Wisconsin in over 20 years.
In Week 16 of 1991 Erik Kramer threw two touchdown passes, Barry Sanders rushed 27 times for 85-yards and Mel Gray ran back a punt 78-yards for a touchdown to give the Lions a 21-17 victory and improving their record to 11-4 for the season.
Last season a Week 17 win by the Lions would have allowed them to avoid a Wild Card Round match-up against the Saints in New Orleans. The Lions played Matt Flynn into $10 million of guaranteed money from the Seattle Seahawks in a 45-41 loss. As an aside, Flynn has yet to play a down this season after Russell Wilson seized the starting quarterback job in training camp for the Seahawks.
The Packers have won six of their last seven games and are back in first place in the NFC North along with holding down the No. 3 seed in the NFC after beating the Vikings last week.
Aaron Rodgers continues to throw the ball at a high level, exceeding a 100 Passer Rating five of the past six weeks. He’s accomplished that despite continuing to be the most sacked quarterback in the NFL.
The Packers are also doing an excellent job at shutting down opposing quarterbacks. They’re No. 9 on defense in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, No. 8 in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and No. 6 in Defensive Passer Rating and facing Matthew Stafford, who has been very inconsistent with his accuracy this season.
2. The Lions would be playing spoiler in a big way if they can win.
After clawing their way back into playoff contention with a 4-4 record the Lions have been de-clawed, losing four games in a row, the last three by a combined total of nine points. If the Lions can win it would drop the Packers’ record to 8-5 and push them into a potential tie with the Giants for the No. 3 NFC seed.
The puzzling part of this Lions’ losing streak is that Calvin Johnson has been playing his best football of the season the past five weeks. Johnson’s lowest yardage total during this stretch was 129 against the Jaguars. He’s caught 4 TD’s in four weeks after scoring one in the first eight weeks of the season.
The weakest link in the Packers’ offense is their offensive line play. They are ranked No. 21 in the Offensive Hog Index mainly due to being No. 26 in Negative Pass Plays allowed and No. 22 in Rushing yards per Attempt.
The Lions climbed nine spots in the Defensive Hog Rankings to No. 16 after the constant pressure they put on Andrew Luck last week. Defensive Tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh are becoming a force in the middle of the Lions' defensive line and are capable of exploiting the Packers' offensive line weakness.
The Lions are also improving with their run game over the past two weeks. Without the return of Jahvid Best it seemed like the Lions’ offense the entire season would hinge on the arm of Matthew Stafford.
While Mikel Leshoure has run strong this season, Joique Bell has taken advantage of his playing time, gaining 10.7-yards per carry in his last two games. The Packers are No. 24 on defense in Rushing Yards per Attempt which gives the Lions a vulnerable area they can exploit.
3. The Packers will be calling fans out of the stands for tryouts.
Not really, it only seems like they’re getting to that point. Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson are still out on defense. Greg Jennings is finally able to return just in time for Jorday Nelson to tweak his hamstring again and Donald Driver to injure his thumb.
The Packers bring in Cedric Benson, begin to show signs of a running game then lose him to a foot injury. James Starks begins to get in gear and run with a purpose and he’s now on IR with a knee injury after last week’s game against the Vikings. The Packers are at a point where they’ve reached back into their past to sign Ryan Grant. Who’s next, Samkon Gado and John Brockington?
Speaking of injuries, the Lions have been taken a beating in their secondary going back to last season now. Maybe Lem Barney can be persuaded to grab his No. 20 jersey, lace up the cleats and help out the defensive backfield.
4. They’re all must games in December but the one in Minnesota is “muster” than most.
The Bears are suddenly sliding. They played the Texans tough before losing and got pummeled by the 49ers but the home game against the Seahawks was banked in the win column before the preseason started. The worst part of last week’s loss is that the Seahawks have closed to within the “blind spot” of the Bears’ rear-view mirror.
In the meantime, the playoff run by the Vikings this season is has slid from surprising to improbable and is closing in on impossible after each frustrating week. They’re now grouped with the Redskins, Cowboys and Buccaneers with a 6-6 record.
One problem for the Bears is, after 12 games they’re still playing offense like the training wheels are still tightly attached. The good news for the Bears is they still play defense like Kurt Busch trading paint with Ryan Newman on a NASCAR track.
Despite their inability to shut Russell Wilson down in the fourth quarter and overtime last week they’re still No. 4 in Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt, No. 1 in Defensive Quarterback Rating and No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating.
5. This game comes down to the Bears’ one dimension against the Vikings’ one dimension.
Adrian Peterson runs the football like few in NFL history have ever run it. True this is an obvious statement like the Sun rises in the east, water is wet and beer is nutritious. The ridiculous thing to consider is he keeps getting stronger at it as the year goes on.
Peterson rushed for 210-yards against the Packers last weekend and gets to work against the No. 22 defense in Rushing Yards per Attempt this week, a defense that will be without Brian Urlacher at the middle linebacker position for the rest of the regular season.
If the Vikings didn’t have Peterson they would have to forfeit on offense the rest of the season. With Percy Harvin just placed on injured reserve this week Christian Ponder has Kyle Rudolph and a group of position fillers to throw to. With one of the biggest free agent busts of 2012 on the field to throw to, that would be Jerome Simpson, is it any wonder that Christian Ponders’ Passer Rating is dropping to Sanchez levels.
As for the Bears, Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall are tighter BFF’s than they ever were in Denver. Brandon Marshall is No. 3 in the NFL in Targets with 138, which is almost 40 percent of Cutler’s attempts.
The Vikings are ranked No. 31 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt and No. 25 in Defensive Passer Rating which should play right into the Bears’ strength. If it does then the Bears' one dimension will win.
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