NFC North: It’s Decision Time for the Packers, Vikings and Bears
By Tom Pollin (@tjpollin)
CHFF's Black and Blues Brother
The Chicago Bears will be travelling to Detroit to take their final shot at a 2012 playoff spot against the Lions at Ford Field in one of Sunday’s early afternoon games. Even if the Bears can beat the Lions for the ninth time in 10 games they’ll have to wait for the conclusion of the late afternoon Green Bay Packers at the Minnesota Vikings game to find out if they’ve done enough to put themselves in the playoffs.
The Packers play the Vikings in a game that was flexed into a late afternoon time slot because of the outcome’s affect over the rest of the NFC playoff picture.
If the Packers beat the Vikings they wrap up the No. 2 seed in the NFC and push the 49ers into the Wild Card round, no matter what the 49ers do against the Arizona Cardinals at home on Sunday.
If the Vikings can find a way to beat the Packers on Sunday they will not only have the satisfaction of slamming the playoffs door in the face of the Bears, they will most likely knock the Packers into a Wild Card game in the playoff’s’ opening week, unless the Cardinals can pull off one of the biggest upsets of the season on Sunday.
Because the Bears let a two game lead for the No. 2 seed in the NFC slip away until they had fallen completely out of the playoff picture, the team and its fans find themselves in uncharted territory. They have to root for the Packers to win this Sunday (but only if they can take care of business against the Lions).
Sixteen weeks of the NFL season boils down to three must-win scenarios in the NFC North. As those scenarios play out here are five things to look for.
1. Stats and trends are in the Packers’ favor against the Vikings.
In the final Quality Stats Power Rankings before the finish of the regular season the Packers are No. 3 and the Vikings are No. 18. The Packers have won four straight games since being embarrassed by the New York Giants, including a victory over the Vikings at Lambeau Field in Week 13. The Packers have also won six straight December games against the Vikings since the 2000 season.
Aaron Rodgers has been near or at the top of the Offensive Passer Rating rankings for the past two seasons and torched the Vikings with a 98.0 rating in their last game.
On defense, the Packers are No. 4 in both Real Quarterback Rating and Passer Rating. They’re also No. 3 on defense in causing Negative Pass Plays (sacks/interceptions) and Clay Matthews will be playing in this game after missing the Week 13 game.
2. The Packers won’t take the Vikings for granted.
Statistically there isn’t much reason to expect the Vikings to pull an upset on Sunday, but that was the same story last week when they shut down the Houston Texans. The Vikings have won three straight games and have taken over the No. 6 seed in the NFC since the last time they played the Packers.
The last time they played, the Vikings were ahead 14-10 but two third quarter interceptions allowed the Packers to come back and win 23-14.
The key to their success the past three weeks has been to keep the passing simple to prevent Christian Ponder from throwing the ball away, especially with Percy Harvin on IR. The downside to that is the Vikings have fallen to No. 31 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt.
The other key to their success has been to take advantage of their No. 1 rushing attack, led by Adrian Peterson to move the ball down the field.
Adrian Peterson still needs 208 rushing yards to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season record and should have an excellent chance to accomplish that on Sunday. The Packers are No. 23 against the run, allowing an average of 4.41-yards per carry and Peterson gained 210-yards in 21 carries the last time they faced each other.
3. The Bears need to hit the Lions early.
The Lions are 4-11 and in a race for a top five pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Other than getting Calvin Johnson over 2,000 receiving yards for the season they don’t have much left to play for this season. Despite that, the Bears are a division rival and the last thing the Lions want is to be the team that allows the Bears to slip back into the playoffs.
Even with that motivation, if the Bears can strike quick and convert first quarter opportunities into points they can turn the Lions’ attention to getting away so they can put their disastrous 2012 season behind them as soon as possible.
In Week 7 and coming off their bye week the Bears jumped on the Lions early with 10 points in the first quarter then took their foot off the gas and barely held on for a 13-7 victory.
One of the keys to that win was the Bears’ defense forcing three Detroit turnovers from inside their own 3-yard line to keep the Lions off the scoreboard until a Matthew Stafford to Ryan Broyles 12-yard touchdown pass made the score respectable as time was running out.
4. Look to the Bears offense for the source of their late season problems.
The Bears and Lions are virtually even in per game scoring, the Bears average 23.3 PPG against 23.2 PPG by the Lions. Take defense scores out of the equation though and the Bears are scoring an average of 19.1 PPG, an average that would tie them with the Rams for No. 26 in the NFL in scoring.
The Bears were 7-1 in the first half of the season when their defense was on a roll with seven interceptions returned for touchdowns. When the scoring from their defense dried up so did their win streak.
The Bears broke their five losses in six games streak last week against the Cardinals in part because of two touchdowns, a fumble recovery by Zack Bowman in the end zone and a Charles Tillman pick-6, that matched the two TD’s that the Bears’ offense put on the board.
The Bears’ offense has had 16 weeks plus the preseason to figure out what they do best, besides relying on the defense to set the tone. They need the offense to step up and shed the training wheels this week.
5. Seats are heating up for two NFC North head coaches.
Mike McCarthy can sit comfortably and Leslie Frazier’s seat has cooled down considerably with the playoff run they’ve mounted this season, especially when they weren’t expected to compete for the playoffs this season.
Jim Schwartz’s seat is warming up but he’s still cashing equity from the performance of the Lions last year and the playoff appearance that they earned.
The Lions have suffered from undisciplined play that has kept them from winning a number of close games that contributed to their seven game season ending losing streak. That will need to turn around in 2013 for Schwartz to continue to keep his job.
Lovie Smiths seat has heated up to the point where a loss this Sunday to the Lions may finish his run with the Bears. Smith does have a Super Bowl appearance on his resume but it’s a rare head coach that can survive a run of six years since that appearance with only one return to the playoffs.
When Phil Emery was hired as the Bears’ new general manager last April it was with the understanding that Lovie Smith would be the head coach for the 2012 season. If the Bears are watching the playoffs on television again in January there shouldn’t be any restrictions on his ability to make a change.
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