At the halfway point in the NFL schedule, the divisional races are starting to legitimize themselves. The Green Bay Packers earned a road victory over the division rival Minnesota Vikings last week and maintained their lead in the NFC North. The Detroit Lions eeked out a last-second win at home over the Dallas Cowboys after some heroics by quarterback Matthew Stafford.
The Chicago Bears had a bye last week and now look forward to preparing for a Monday night showdown against the Packers at Lambeau Field. The Vikings will head to Dallas to take on the Cowboys and the Lions have their bye this week. That leaves just two games within the Black n’ Blue division to review.
Minnesota Vikings (1-6) at Dallas Cowboys (4-4)
The Cowboys have to be reeling after suffering a heart-breaking loss on the game’s final play in Detroit. Dallas now holds a very modest one-game lead in the NFC East and with just two games separating them and last place (New York Giants). On paper, this looks like a good opportunity for the Cowboys to get back on track.
The Vikings continue to struggle in nearly every phase of the game, save for special teams. With lingering quarterback issues, Minnesota’s season is quickly going down the drain and there were serious trade rumors floating around about top defensive end Jared Allen prior to the deadline this week. Christian Ponder was re-inserted as the starter last week against the Packers and was just 14 of 21 in passing with no touchdowns. On several of his throws, NBC analyst Chris Collinsworth was pointing out obvious reads that Ponder flat-out missed. When Josh Freeman is cleared to play again, I would assume he will take over the starting duties.
In Dallas, they have some problems of their own. Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was very animated towards his coaches and teammates during Sunday’s game. While most have come forward and said that it was a healthy display of passion and desire to win by Bryant, the facial expressions and body language suggested sheer frustration.
A loss to Minnesota would be a huge setback to the Cowboys quest to win the East. The following week, Dallas plays at New Orleans on Monday night. After that, the Cowboys have their bye and then games at the Giants and home against the Raiders. Dallas should win three of their next four, but “should” and “will” are not always friends.
The Vikings just appear to be playing out the season. Changes are expected and coming in Minnesota, likely very soon. This certainly wasn’t the vision that the team’s front office nor coaching staff and players had when the season started. I was at the game last Sunday and the body language on the Vikings’ sideline was very somber and in the case of a certain Vikings receiver who wears #15, dejected. With major deficiencies on both offense and defense, it’s hard to see the Vikings being more than moderately competitive the rest of the way in 2013.
Chicago Bears (4-3) at Green Bay Packers (5-2)
The Bears are coming off of their bye week very well rested. Come next week’s game day, the Bears will have played just two games over the past 29 days. With mounting health issues, Chicago’s season is hanging in the balance and they are counting on backup journeyman quarterback Josh McCown to keep the ship righted while the team awaits the return of Jay Cutler.
McCown will start in this game and comes up against an improved Packers defense. The Packers haven’t been taking the ball away as frequently as they have been known to do in past seasons, but they are a more efficient group. One of the biggest changes this season in Green Bay’s ability to get off the field on third down. This season, the Packers are allowing just over 35% conversion of opponents’ third down opportunities, which is 10th best in the NFL. By contrast. Chicago is ranked 28th at a 44.3%.
Offensively, the Packers continue to roll despite being without several key playmakers. While it was against a struggling Vikings defense, Green Bay and quarterback Aaron Rodgers converted 13 of 18 third down attempts. The Packers didn’t punt once, the first time they have accomplished that feat in a regular season game since 1989. This was all achieved with the likes of Jarrett Boykin and Myles White at receiver and Andrew Quarless at tight end.
Green Bay’s resurged running game helped the Packers hold onto the ball for nearly 41 minutes against the Vikings. With that type of production on the ground and pressure minimized on Rodgers, opposing defenses chances of success dwindle considerably. Running back Eddie Lacy nearly eclipsed the 100-yard mark and the Packers have had a back within five yards of doing so in six of their seven games this season.
The winner of this game gains a major leg up in the NFC North race with another divisional win. The Packers would establish a firmer lead over Detroit and distance themselves further from the Monsters of the Midway. The Packers have won six straight matchups against the Bears if you include their win in the NFC Conference Championship in 2011. Green Bay has won 16 of their last 19 divisional matchups overall. Chicago would jump into first place with a win, by virtue of a head-to-head win.
The game has to be played, but the reality is that Green Bay just doesn’t tend to lose very often at home and especially on Monday Night Football. The Packers may get a few more players back healthy in that of linebacker Brad Jones and receiver James Jones. With Chicago’s own health issues, they face quite an uphill battle to take down their division rivals to the north. The Bears will be without Cutler and linebacker Lance Briggs. It’s the first time Bears head coach Marc Trestman will face the Packers in that role. His predecessor, Lovie Smith, came in with a goal of “beating the Packers” and finished with a losing record in his nine seasons at the helm.
Detroit Lions are on a bye
Enjoy the games!
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: