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.
Fortunately, both teams will be with their starting quarterbacks and that is better news for the Bears. They are a completely different team with Jay Cutler behind center and he gives Chicago the edge in this game, despite being on the road.
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has been slightly better at home than he has on the road but he has had his struggles lately. He had two costly interceptions last week against the Packers that helped Green Bay seal the win. One of them was in the end zone on an attempted touchdown pass that had no chance to reach the receiver. That Ponder wasn’t under a lot of pressure (he didn’t take a sack vs. the Packers) is further evidence that his decision-making ability remains in question at times.
A battle to keep an eye on will be between a pair of Pro Bowl running backs in that of Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Chicago’s Matt Forte. Peterson had a monster game versus the Packers and went over 200 yards with a touchdown. Forte, when healthy, has been the usual steady rock the Bears offense needs and he remains just as much a threat in the passing game as he is in the ground game.
Minnesota’s pass rush will have to get to Cutler if the Vikings want any chance of winning this one. With any time to throw, Cutler will surely find a way to get the ball into receiver Brandon Marshall’s hands and let Marshall do the rest. Chicago’s offensive line has been inconsistent at times so this will be an area to watch.
Minnesota will also rely heavily on defensive backs Antoine Winfield and Harrison Smith to try and force a turnover. They need to avoid letting Chicago get an early lead and pile on from there.
I’d be surprised to see Minnesota pull out a win but we have to remember that crazy things have been happening all season in the NFL and the Vikings did beat a previously undefeated San Francisco 49ers team earlier this season.
Detroit Lions (4-8) at Green Bay Packers (8-4)
This is the Sunday night game and Green Bay’s last primetime game of the 2012 season (until the playoffs). The Packers rebounded from a tough loss in week 12 with a win over the Vikings this past week.
The Lions seemingly had their game against the Colts won when Colts quarterback Andrew Luck pulled a rabbit out of his hat and led Indianapolis on a last second touchdown drive to steal the victory. Detroit has had a disappointing season after making the playoffs a year ago and coming into 2012 with high expectations.
The Lions are 0-4 versus divisional opponents this year and are heading to a venue that has been more unkind to them than any other in recent history. The Lions have not beaten the Packers in Green Bay since 1991. For those who may not recall that far back and to put it in perspective, that was the year Brett Favre was drafted and almost a year before he would become a Green Bay Packer.
The Packers, by contrast, have now won 11 straight versus their NFC North foes if you include their playoff victory over the Bears in 2011. While that is certainly something to provide a boost of confidence to the Pack, they must remain grounded and remember that any divisional matchup is a grind. Nothing is a given, especially his season in which many upsets have occurred. At some point, the Lions are going to get a win in Green Bay and it would be very untimely should it come this weekend.
With a win, Green Bay would remain ahead of Chicago, regardless of the outcome of their matchup with the Vikings. The Packers head to Chicago the following week in a showdown that is setting up to determine which of those two teams will win the North division this season.
The Lions are wounded and have to be extremely frustrated. I expect a very chippy and physical game at Lambeau Field this Sunday.
This isn’t the best news for a Packers team that continues to deal with more injuries. Wide receiver Jordy Nelson was forced out of this past Sunday’s game when his hamstring injury flared up again. Green Bay also lost right tackle T.J. Lang to an ankle injury early in the same game and he was replaced by rookie Don Barclay.
Nelson has already been ruled out for Sunday’s game. Lang’s status is unknown. If he is able to play, there is some speculation that Lang could return to his natural position at left guard with Barclay remaining at right tackle.
The Lions also lost a key offensive piece this week as they placed receiver Titus Young on injured reserve. Young had assumed the #2 receiver slot next to Calvin Johnson, who has come on and returned to form over the past month. The Lions have also been without veteran receiver Nate Burleson who suffered a leg injury earlier this season. The Lions’ passing game has been their staple and the loss of Young will allow the Packers secondary to focus on Johnson.
Johnson had over 150 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting between the Lions and Packers. He has had his share of great showings at Lambeau Field over the past few seasons and the Packers will need to do a better job of limiting his opportunities than they have been.
Without running back James Starks, the Packers may struggle to establish and maintain their running attack. They had minimal success in Detroit two weeks ago and the Lions defensive front will surely be up to the task of repeating that performance.
Another big key will be Green Bay’s offensive line protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has been under pressure all season and has had his struggles because of that at times. Rodgers will be the key to the Packers success on Sunday night. If he can avoid the sack and take care of the football, the Packers have a great shot of continuing their winning ways against the Lions.
The Packers defense will need their play makers to step up like they did this past week. Any lack of a pass rush on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is a recipe for disaster in the passing game. Green Bay has to find a way to force quick throws and hope that a green jersey can emerge with the ball.
If a close game, the Lions have the edge with kicker Jason Hanson. Hanson had a miss in the first game and any struggles at Lambeau Field would be a welcome site on the Packers sideline. Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby did hit on three of four attempts last week in what the team and fans are hoping is the turning point in his season.
With the Packers being at home and having the edge at the all-important quarterback position, I have to lean towards Green Bay improving to 9-4 and keeping the pressure on the Bears for the divisional crown.
Enjoy the games!——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: