NFC North: Lions, Vikings Shoot For 2-0
By Tom Pollin
CHFF's Beat Man for the Black & Blue (@tjpollin)
Week two of the NFL season begins with a renewal of THE rivalry of professional football when the Chicago Bears travel 200 miles due north along the Lake Michigan shore to face the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
Sorry Cowboys/Redskins, Chiefs/Raiders and, well not the Colts anymore but whoever else wants to claim a rivalry against the Patriots; when you’ve been cracking helmets…I mean, hitting each other within the bounds of sportsmanship like the Bears and Packers have for 90 years (they didn’t play in 1922), then you can talk about claiming the title of top rivalry in the NFL.
To add additional drama, as if the game needed more, the Packers will be attempting to avoid going 0-2 for the first time since 2006. They will also be looking to end a streak where they’ve been dominated on their home field in consecutive games, 37-20 by the Giants in the playoffs last season and by the 49ers last Sunday 30-22.
Also this weekend, the Lions make their third prime time appearance in two seasons when they travel to San Francisco to play the 49ers. While the 49ers where dominating the Packers on their home field last weekend, the Lions were busy making life difficult for themselves before defeating the St. Louis Rams 27-23 last Sunday at Ford Field.
On Sunday afternoon, the Minnesota Vikings travel to Indianapolis to give Andrew Luck and the Colts their second consecutive week of NFC North competition after shocking the Jaguars by tying the game before winning 26-23 in overtime.
Now that the plot points for the upcoming games are established it’s time to set the scenes for the “black and blue” in week 2. Here are five things to keep an eye on.
1. In the Green Bay vs. Chicago rivalry, the Packers own the numbers in recent years.
In 2004, during Lovie Smith’s first press conference after being named head coach of the Bears he said that the team’s top goal was to beat the Packers. In his first five seasons the Bears did a great job of accomplishing that goal with a 7-3 record while never losing both games in a season. That string of success ended in 2009.
Since that season, Lovie Smith’s record against the Packers is 1-6 and the Bears have been swept in the season series twice. They are 1-7 in this time frame if you count the loss in the 2010 NFC Championship Game.
Mike McCarthy is 8-5 against the Bears as head coach of the Packers and Aaron Rodgers is 6-2 against them in his career as a starter. He is also on a three game regular season win streak against the Bears.
If those numbers aren't enough to make Bears’ fans mad enough to shred cheese, here are two more statistics to throw into the mix. Lovie Smith’s record as head coach on Thursday nights is 2-3 while Mike McCarthy’s is 5-1.
2. How do the Bears and Packers stack up against each other when the game begins?
The Bears can improve their chances to beat the Packers on Thursday night with one critical decision. If they win the coin toss, do not defer, elect to receive. Lovie Smith loves to defer when given the chance to have his defense on the field to begin the game. In past seasons, when the defense was by far the most dominant unit of the team, Smith could be excused for making this decision.
This season, even though Smith is a coach from the defensive side of the ball and may want to argue otherwise, he needs to recognize that his offense is the strength of this team. He needs to put the ball in their hands immediately. It is also to the Bears advantage to take every opportunity that presents itself to jump out to a lead against the Packers.
One of the statistics highlighted by Scott “Captain Comeback” Kacsmar in his review of week one action (click here for the entire statistical buffet) concerned Aaron Rodgers’ ability to rally the Packers from behind. What Kacsmar found is that “Rodgers is 8-19 (.296) as a starter when the Packers trail by at least seven points at any point in the game. That includes a now 0-9 record at home.”
Last season, in week three at Soldier Field the Bears won the toss and Smith deferred. Rodgers carved up the Bears’ defense in 10 plays for a touchdown to give the Packers a 7-0 lead in a game they ended up winning 27-17.
The Bears can’t afford to give the Packers that kind of advantage, especially after Brian Urlacher was pushed all over the middle of the field on run and pass plays, against the Colts. Fortunately for Urlacher, the new and improved 2012 Bears’ offense has power air now included as standard equipment. They provided a lead that allowed him to spend most of the second half on the sideline.
The Bears were successful in preventing third down success against the Colts but if Urlacher is still limited in what he can do at middle linebacker, Rodgers has the experience, the receivers and will take advantage of the situation.
If Urlacher has to be replaced by Nick Roach at some point in the game the Bears may not be able to score enough to keep up. Roach filled in capably last week against Luck but it’s the equivalent of making the jump from penny-ante to table stakes poker to try and do the same against Rodgers.
The Bears are capable of putting up points this season but can they put up enough if the game develops into a "whoever has the ball last wins" situation? Jay Cutler does have advantages he only dreamed of last season with Brandon Marshall and second round draft pick Alshon Jeffery as targets. Both caught touchdown passes last week. Both are also three inches taller than any defensive back the Packers have on their roster.
As for the running game, Matt Forte rushed 16-times for 80-yards to show that there are no ill effects from his knee injury last season. He also added 3 catches for 40-yards to that total. Michael Bush rushed for 42-yards and two touchdowns of his own last week.
The Bears backs get to run against a Packers’ defense was No. 26 in yards per carry in 2011 and allowed 5.81-yards per carry against the 49ers last week.
The Packers are still a team that laid 15 wins on the NFL in 2011 but if their game last week against the 49ers is any indication, the holes that were in their defense are still there and may be harder for their offense to overcome in 2012.
Even though the Packers are at home, it's hard to see the margin of victory in this game being more than three points either way.
3. The Lions have unfinished business against the 49ers from last season.
In week six of 2011, the Lions were off to their best start since their 1956 championship year when they faced the 49ers at home. In a tight, hard fought game, Alex Smith engineered a fourth quarter comeback for a 25-19 win that was the Lions first loss of the season. Since everyone has already over-discussed last year’s post game antics, we’ll consider those happenings unimportant and move forward on analyzing the upcoming game.
The Lions were 0-5 against quality opponents last season and they also have an 11-game losing streak in San Francisco going against them. Their last victory at Candlestick Park was in 1975 when Lions quarterback Joe Reed out-dueled a combined effort from Steve Spurrier and Norm Snead for a 28-17 victory.
In the running game, the Lions’ Kevin Smith rushed for 62-yards in 13 attempts but was facing a Rams’ defense that finished No. 30 in rushing yards per attempt on in 2011.
The 49ers defense held the Packers to 45-yards rushing last week. One reason for that is that they led the NFL against the run in 2011, allowing only 3.42-rushing yards per attempt. The other reason is that the Packers abandoned the running game early and in the end, were only able to manage 3.2-yards per attempt on 14 carries.
For the Lions’ on defense, the 49ers’ running game was the difference in their match-up last year when they rolled up 203-yards in 29-attempts. That same running game tore through the Packers last weekend for 186-yards in 32 carries.
Have the Lions improved in defending the run this season? They were able to hold Steven Jackson to 53-yards on 21 carries last week but the real test is if they can continue that improvement and keep Frank Gore under control, a task the Packers failed at last week. The downside to that success would be in forcing Alex Smith to try and beat them.
Based on his performance last week though, Smith looks as determined this season to prove that last year was no fluke as he was last year to prove he belonged in the NFL. Smith finished week one ranked No. 8 in Real Quarterback Rating and No. 6 in Offensive Passer Rating.
After facing Sam Bradford last week the Lions came out ranked No. 21 in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and No. 23 in Defensive Passer Rating. They might be better off taking their chances with Frank Gore.
Matthew Stafford completed 7 passes for 113-yards to Calvin Johnson last season but it wasn’t quite enough in the end. Between Kevin Smith and his other receivers Stafford will have to find enough offense to overcome a hostile road crowd and a national television audience that will be waiting for them to fail or, even worse, reach a level of frustration where they lose their poise. Where the Lions are by the end of the game will give a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the season.
4. Can the Vikings do what they have never done in franchise history; beat the Colts on the road.
The Vikings never beat the Colts in eight tries while they were in Baltimore and are 0-2 against the Colts in Indianapolis. This Sunday may be their best opportunity in a long while to break that streak against Andrew Luck, who received a rude welcome to the NFL last week at Soldier Field.
Ponder played the best game of his career last week, setting career highs with a 83.6 Real Quarterback Rating, 105.5 Offensive Passer Rating and a 9.17-Real Passing Yards per Attempt average against the Jaguars. The one negative to that performance, it was against a team that existed in the same neighborhood of bad that the Vikings inhabited last season.
What can’t be ignored, no matter who the Vikings were playing, is that while the Metrodome was busy emptying of fans after the Jaguars took a 23-20 lead, Christian Ponder moved the offense from the Minnesota 31-yard line to field goal range in less than 14-seconds to set up the game tying field goal.
Then, as an encore for the fans that stayed in their seats until the end, he led the Vikings on an eight play drive for the winning field in overtime.
The finish to the game was only one dramatic comeback that took place in Minnesota last week. Adrian Peterson gained 84-yards, scored two touchdowns and gave no indication that he was returning from torn ligaments in his left knee that required surgery last December.
With no report of swelling or other discomfort in his knee after playing last week it’s now safe to say that he is not from this planet. Anyway, he’s a problem the Colts have to contend with after their defense surrendered 120 all-purpose yards to Matt Forte last Sunday.
While Luck is still finding his way as an NFL quarterback, he will be facing another defensive line that can make Sunday afternoon another long one. The key for the Vikings is for that line to show up better than they did in week one.
The two sacks the Vikings recorded against Blaine Gabbert were by linebacker Erin Henderson and cornerback Chris Cook. An appearance by the Vikings’ defensive front after coming out of last week with a No. 26 Defensive Hog Index ranking would go a long way towards sending the Vikings home to Minnesota with a 2-0 record.
5. Everybody has been searching for this season's "worst to first" team.
Hang with me for a second here. It's very possible based on competition that the Bears and Lions will lose their games this weekend. That would even up the Packers, Bears and Lions at 1-1 after action is complete for week two.
The Vikings aren't playing the Peyton Manning Colts, they're playing the Andrew Luck Colts. They are also playing a defense that will not have defensive end Dwight Freeney. If the Vikings win the could conceivably be a perfect 2-0 and a game up on the entire division at the end of Sunday evening. How's that for a team that finished 3-13 last season?
And if that takes place, won't that make for an interesting NFC North review article next week?
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