With just two games left in the 2012 regular season, there is a full slate in the NFC North this week. Each game carries its own significance as far as the playoff race is concerned as at least one team in each matchup is fighting for better playoff seeding and some are fighting to just get in, period.
Let’s take a look at the implications in each matchup.
Atlanta Falcons (12-2) at Detroit Lions (4-10)
The only reason this game is listed first is because it is the lone Saturday game and takes place before all others. Beyond that, it all comes down to a very complete Falcons team coming into Detroit to face arguably the most disappointing team in the NFL this season.
Last weekend, Detroit was manhandled by the Arizona Cardinals 38-10. Arizona had previously lost their last nine straight games. The Lions have succeeded in one thing this season: finding many ways to lose a game. While they won’t be appearing in the postseason this year, they will have plenty of time during the offseason to figure out why.
The biggest question in Detroit right now is who will still be with the team in 2013? Head coach Jim Schwartz will surely be the topic of those conversations during the winter.
While Atlanta has wrapped up the NFC South and currently has the best record in the NFC, they have yet to secure the first or second seed in the postseason. They have their eyes set on being the top seed and therefore also securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Falcons can do so by winning their last two games, regardless of what any of the other contenders do.
However, a loss by Atlanta would begin to open a door for both the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers, who currently hold the second and third seeds, respectively.
While the Lions have pride to play for and certainly fit the bill of a team that could be pesky during these last two weeks, I don’t expect that pride to get them anywhere near Atlanta’s level this week. Detroit’s best chance of success this week will probably be the 50% odds they have in winning the opening coin toss.
The Falcons haven’t won a playoff game under head coach Mike Smith despite some very successful regular seasons. However, they are a focused group and understand what is ahead of them. They know that the questions about how good the team really is hinge on their finally having success in the postseason.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is trying to go out a winner and he will certainly do his part to help get this team mentally sharp and ready for the task at hand. His determination was evident in last week’s 34-0 blanking of the New York Giants as he went up and grabbed a jump ball for a touchdown much like the Gonzalez of old.
Playing on Saturday will actually get Atlanta an extra day to rest before their last game of the season when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Being that the Falcons will be hosting at least one playoff game, they should benefit from this extra rest heading into the “second season”.
Minnesota Vikings (8-6) at Houston Texans (12-2)
If the season ended today, the Vikings would be the sixth seed and in the postseason. Raise your hand if, back in September, you knew that would be the case in mid-December. Any of you with your hands up are fibbing!
How many figured the Texans would be a top seed in the AFC at this point? If you aren’t raising your hand, you probably didn’t follow any football during the offseason.
The Vikings have accomplished what they have while creating a storyline that may never repeat itself. Here is a team which has a mediocre (at best) quarterback and an All-Pro running back who is on pace to break the single-season rushing record. Oh yeah, and he is doing this less than a year removed from major ACL surgery. Most other teams in this scenario (the Philadelphia Eagles and Tennessee Titans come to mind), haven’t been able to stay competitive.
Any lacking at the quarterback position will usually keep a team from winning and playing consistently. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder certainly is lacking. The reason Minnesota can is because of Adrian Peterson. He’s playing out of his mind and I can see myself still talking about his performance this season as I sit around the card table at my future retirement home (thanks, kids!)
Peterson needs 294 more yards to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season record of 2,105. At the rate that he is racking up yards lately, he may get it done this week alone. Obviously that’s beyond wishful thinking. It would be nice as that would reduce his motivation in week 17 when the Packers happen to be in Minnesota for the season’s last game and what would be his last opportunity to set the mark.
The Vikings won just their second road game last week at St. Louis thanks to, you guessed it, Adrian Peterson and his 212 rushing yards and a score. They should come in pumped up to stay in the playoff race and they will need every bit of mojo they can find.
The Texans are fighting to hang onto the top seed in the AFC. If they win their last two games, they will do just that. With the New England Patriots falling to the San Francisco 49ers, Houston gained a bit of breathing room after the Pats had beaten them just one week ago. New England would have held a tie breaker over Houston for having won that head-to-head matchup. Now the biggest threat to the Texans’ top spot seems to be the Denver Broncos.
While it’s not impossible that Minnesota can win this game, I just don’t see it happening. The last wild card spot in the NFC is likely to come down to the very last second of the season. A loss doesn’t necessarily eliminate the Vikings, but they are in a tough position to maintain and keep that last seed.
Tennessee Titans (5-9) at Green Bay Packers (10-4)
I know many of you will say you hate the term “trap game” but that’s exactly what this is. Enter a Packers team that hasn’t really put away any opponent, save Houston, this season and there’s legitimate reason to be more interested in this matchup than is probably necessary.
It’s a home game for the Packers, their last of the regular season. This one had me concerned when the schedule first came out and that was before I knew anything about how this team would play this season. It just seems to be the case with McCarthy-led Packers teams that no “easy” game is easy. It’s sandwiched in between four divisional matchups and it can be easy to momentarily lose focus.
Tennessee just destroyed the New York Jets and have to be at least a bit more confident. They aren’t in contention for a playoff spot so they have nothing to lose. Those types of teams are most dangerous. The Titans are also an unfamiliar opponent so they may have the ability to add some new wrinkles and throw Green Bay off.
Of course, the Packers can do the same (but please, no more laterals on punt return, OK?). Green Bay’s biggest edge is obviously at quarterback and as long as Aaron Rodgers can take care of the football, the Packers should win even an ugly one. In games like this, it’s turnovers that lead to upsets and the Titans will surely be looking to spoil the fun at Lambeau.
It’s possible that the Packers could see the return of safety Charles Woodson in this game, depending on how the week of practice goes. More will be known Wednesday. With Clay Matthews returning and making an immediate impact last week, the Packers can continue to get better defensively with the savvy Woodson out on the field.
Tennessee lost their top wide receiver in rookie Kendall Wright to cracked ribs in Monday Night’s game. This will hamper the Titans’ offense as he was the team’s leading receiver. It will also likely mean an increased work load for running back Chris Johnson. Johnson has over 1,000 yards in every season he has played since his rookie year of 2008. He had a 94 yard run for a score in Monday night’s game.
Good backs have given Green Bay their share of fits. The Packers have to hope they have the kind of success they had against Arian Foster in Houston versus that which they had against Peterson just weeks ago.
I don’t foresee the Packers dropping this game but anything can happen and don’t be surprised if we’re sweating it out until the clock reads 0:00. Let’s just hope this doesn’t come down to a last-second field goal try by the Pack.
Chicago Bears (8-6) at Arizona Cardinals (5-9)
This game seemed to be a good matchup earlier this season when both teams started out strong and seemed like they would be competing late in the season. Then the Cardinals lost nine straight and have major quarterback issues. As in, they really don’t have one. The Bears have lost five of their last six and are now on the outside looking into the playoff race.
While it’s six years later, who could forget the last time these teams met at University of Phoenix Stadium on a Monday night in 2006? The Bears were undefeated and the Dennis Green-led Cardinals were playing them extremely tough. The Bears eeked out the win to stay unbeaten and Green had the famous postgame rant that “They were who we thought they were, and we let them off the hook!” Other than taking a trip down memory lane and for a good laugh, there was really no other purpose to that anecdote. I needed something to fill the space as I didn’t really want ot spend more time talking about either team than was necessary . . . but I digress.
The Bears need to win this game to stay alive in the playoff race. The talking heads are starting to get riled up in Chicago and it could get ugly if the Bears miss the postseason. Head coach Lovie Smith’s future with the team could be a hot topic should that be the case. Injuries have hit the team hard and at the worst possible time and they don’t seemingly have the depth to overcome it.
The Cardinals have no other worry than hoping that receiver Larry Fitzgerald doesn’t get hurt. Other than that, they have little else to gain. The Cardinals’ nosedive this season is likely and most easily explained by an injury to the quarterback who was playing well followed by very poor play at quarterback by those that followed. Much like Smith in Chicago, Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt may find himself under the microscope after this epic collapse.
While it seems that the Bears should win this one despite being without some key starters, the Cardinals have proven to be a tough out at home. Just when they seem to be dead to the world, Arizona shows up and plays the game of their season. Fortunately for the Bears, the Cardinals “game of the season card” seems to already have been played when they somehow beat the Patriots in New England in the year. Not to mention, Arizona has next to nothing at quarterback.
By virtue of the disparity in these teams’ quarterback position (and lately, we’re not talking about a ton) and overall talent, I have to think the Bears win this one and keep the playoff race interesting in the NFC.
Enjoy the games!——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: