Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate. And Happy Wednesday to those who don’t.
We are down to just one game left in the 2013 season and the NFL gets its way again. In the NFC North, the matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears will determine the division winner on Sunday.
Both the Packers and Bears lost their games to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively. Chicago could have clinched the division with a win. Instead, they will host the Packers for another late-season game with major playoff implications.
In the other divisional matchup, the Detroit Lions will face the Minnesota Vikings for the last time at Mall of America Field. The Lions, who just one week ago were in the driver’s seat for the division title, lost to the New York Giants late and were eliminated from postseason contention. The Vikings dropped their meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals and have likely begun making offseason tee times already.
Let’s look into each matchup a bit closer in this final edition of Around the NFC North.
Detroit Lions (7-8) at Minnesota Vikings (4-10-1)
One thing that can be said about this matchup is that I’m sure both the Bears and Packers are glad they don’t need to rely on the Vikings anymore this season.
Minnesota did come up with a big win over the Eagles in week 15 but returned to form in getting blown out by the Bengals last week. After reaching the postseason last year, they will end this season with no more than five wins and double-digit losses. Rumors are already swirling that Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier is likely to be let go as soon as the season ends.
The Lions saw their season’s hopes fade to black in a matter of six days, with their loss to the Giants being the exclamation point on a season that turned disappointing in a hurry. Despite being the third-ranked offense in the league, the Lions weren’t able to muster enough when it mattered. Much like Frazier, there is a chance that Lions head coach Jim Schwartz could be shown the door soon after the regular season is over.
The biggest significance in this game is that it is the last game that will be played at Mall of America Field (MoA), also known as the Huber H. Humphrey Metrodome. The Vikings will rent TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for two seasons while their new stadium, Vikings Stadium, is constructed near the site of their current home.
Detroit won the first matchup between these two teams in week one after being swept by the Vikings last season. A win would prevent a losing season for the Lions and improve them to 8-8. The Vikings are in the hunt for a top draft pick and will most likely pick in the top 10.
Throw the stats away on this one, as this game is for pride. The Lions can avoid the losing season and end with an emphatic win over a division opponent. The Vikings can further complicate their starting quarterback situation with a win, although many mock drafts already have the Vikings taking a quarterback in round one. Still, it’s December and too early to seriously talk draft.
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has over 1,200 yards on the season and will look to finish strong in his last game at MoA. Defensive end Jared Allen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams are pending free agents and could be playing in their last game with the Vikings.
For Detroit, the biggest name on the pending free agent list is running back Joique Bell. Bell formed a nice tandem with Reggie Bush to complement quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson. The biggest thing I am looking for from Detroit is the demeanor they carry themselves with in this game. Having forged a reputation for being physical, even beyond the whistle, how do they react in a meaningless game after having just been eliminated from playoff contention? That could say a lot about the status of Schwartz and what they carry forward into 2014.
Green Bay Packers (7-7-1) at Chicago Bears (8-7)
While their loss to the Steelers didn’t kill the Packers’ postseason chances, it certainly didn’t provide any more momentum heading into their most important game of the season. The Bears had the same problem, getting thumped in Philadelphia after entering that game with a chance to clinch the division.
This will go up before the official status of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is announced this week. With the holiday, the Packers may still announce on Friday, as they have been, or they may wait. They have up until 90 minutes prior to game time to announce their starter, although they have never gone that late before. On Monday, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said they prefer to make a decision sooner than later on who their quarterback will be this week.
Many are still hopeful that Rodgers can be medically cleared to play and return just in time to thrust the Packers to another division title. Still, that decision rests with the team doctors and front office. The concern for Rodgers’ long-term future has been evident and there is good reason to believe that he may not make it back this week.
If not, Matt Flynn would get another start. Flynn has done an admirable job in relief of Rodgers and since taking over for Scott Tolzien. Flynn is 2-2-1 and has kept the Packers in every game he has started, save for the Thanksgiving debacle against the Lions. In week 17 of the 2011 season, Flynn started for Rodgers after the Packers had already secured home-field advantage and led Green Bay to a shootout win over Detroit at Lambeau Field. This time, it will be on the road and against the Bears.
Chicago returned Jay Cutler at quarterback last week after he missed several weeks with an ankle injury. Cutler is 1-8 all time against the Packers with seven of those losses coming as Bears quarterback. This will be Cutler’s first start against Green Bay this season, as he missed the first matchup with a groin injury.
The Packers have had success against Cutler in the past, but this year’s secondary is a different bunch. The safety play in Green Bay has been below marginal this season and that position group still has yet to record an interception this season. An improved Bears offense and the emergence of Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery will provide a stiff test for the Packers secondary.
Green Bay will likely be without linebacker Clay Matthews, who suffered what is being called a repeat injury to the same thumb he injured earlier this season. Chicago’s offensive line has improved overall, although they had their issues against the Eagles pass rush last week. The Packers will need to find a way to hurry up Cutler or it’s going to be a long day for the guys in green and gold.
Defensively, the Bears have struggled. They did return their veteran leader in linebacker Lance Briggs, although that did little to stop the Eagles and their high-flying offense. Chicago ranks last in run defense and are giving up an astonishing 161 yards per game on the ground.
That could be very good news for a Packers team whose best offensive threat is running back Eddie Lacy. Lacy has 1,112 rushing yards on the season and broke the Packers single-season rookie rushing record, previously held by John Brockington since 1977. Lacy has been a work horse and a major driving force for a Packers offense that has needed to find a spark elsewhere with Rodgers out.
Lacy is dealing with a very sore ankle and did miss time against the Steelers. He won’t practice until at least Thursday and the team will determine his status over those few days before the game.
If the Packers are without both Rodgers and Lacy, they’ll face a huge challenge in moving the ball in the cold. Temperatures are expected to be in the mid to upper 20′s. Precipitation is unknown. The Packers played most of last week’s game in snow and on frozen turf and that setting would be nothing new to them.
This has the makings of a close game that could come down to the wire. A turnover or big special teams play tends to be a factor in this matchup often. While not the homerun threat he has been in the past, Bears returner Devin Hester will be looking to take advantage of a Packers special teams unit that has been anything but. Pittsburgh racked up 161 return yards on seven returns last week and Chicago is fully aware. Hopefully Packers kicker Mason Crosby brings his A-leg to Soldier Field on Sunday and can sail it out of the back of the end zone.
The longest-standing rivalry in pro football doesn’t need any added motivation but we find these two teams battling it out again for the north division. Expect an entertaining contest with a home playoff game on the line.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: