We’re down to the last two weeks of the 2014 NFL regular season and the NFC race is in a dead heat. The Green Bay Packers stumbled against the Buffalo Bills and now will try to make up ground and hope for some help along the way. The Detroit Lions pulled even with the Packers with a win over the Minnesota Vikings, setting up a potentially huge showdown in week 17 for the NFC North division title. And in other news, yet no so newsworthy anymore, the Chicago Bears lost another game. This time, at home against the New Orleans Saints.
Chicago will remain at home and host the visiting Lions. We can all hope for a miracle but I’d give better odds to Derrick Rose playing more than half of this season for the Bulls than I’d give to the Bears to pull off the upset against the Lions. In that case, the Packers need to keep winning and it starts with a trip to Tampa Bay to take on the Lovie Smith-led, 2-10 Buccaneers. As for the Vikings, they face the Miami Dolphins in what has become a game for pride’s sake. It’s in Miami so at least the Vikings get out of the cold for a day.
Let’s look at these three games a bit closer and the implications of each
Minnesota Vikings (6-8) at Miami Dolphins (7-7)
For a short while this season, both of these teams left us with some hope that they might surprise and sneak into a playoff race. The Dolphins were sitting at 7-5 until this most recent two-game losing streak and now there are rumblings about whether or not head coach Joe Philbin’s job is safe.
As for the Vikings, they had an outside chance and a late lead over the Lions that they squandered and weren’t able to mount a comeback. Head coach Mike Zimmer is trying to keep his team in focus and end on a positive note. Given what he was handed earlier this season with the loss of his best player in Adrian Peterson, Zimmer hasn’t turned in a terrible job this year. I certainly expect him back in 2015.
The Vikings aren’t making the playoffs and the Dolphins would need a lot of help to get in. Miami is at home and still have a great defense, led by a superior pass rush. Cameron Wake is a force by himself and Minnesota’s offensive line is anything but a force so expect to see Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on the move and throwing many short passes. The Vikings’ defense hasn’t been bad either and can generate a pass rush of their own with Brian Robison and Everson Griffen on the outside of the defensive line.
This one could turn into a low-scoring affair with several turnovers. The quarterbacks are both young and average, at this point. These are games they can use to gain some experience and confidence in the coming years ahead.
Detroit Lions (10-4) at Chicago Bears (5-9)
The Lions “escaped” the Vikings on Sunday although it seemed apparent on the last Vikings drive that they would struggle to get into reasonable field goal range. Apparently, I need to re-calibrate what the Vikings consider to be “reasonable”. Faced with time for one more snap and nearly 70 yards to go, the Lions trotted out their Hail Mary prevent team in anticipation of a long Teddy Bridgewater heave towards the end zone. A tough throw for most quarterbacks, the Vikings instead opted to have kicker Blair Walsh try a 68-yard field goal. It would have broken the current NFL record of 64 yards, ironically held by the guy who was across the sideline from him in Detroit’s Matt Prater. Walsh missed and the Lions won their 10th game. With the Packers loss to the Bills, it tied the Lions with Green Bay and gave Detroit their slight edge back for the division lead with a head-to-head win over the Pack earlier this season.
The Bears are headed in the complete opposite direction as they lost their ninth game of the season amid much controversy the week prior when offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer admittedly expressed that some in the Bears organization were remorseful about the seven-year $126 million contract extension he signed last offseason. According to Spotrac, Cutler’s base salary in 2015 is $15.5 million and represents nearly $19.5 million in dead money if Cutler were to be released. Beyond that, the Bears are playing about as uninspiring a brand of football as a team possibly can. They were hapless against the Saints and it looked more like a half-speed training camp scrimmage than an actual game. What made it even more surreal was that this was at Soldier Field in mid-December. Those NFL fans who have been watching for over 20 years know that is not what we’re accustomed to seeing in Chicago. Empty seats and a chorus of boo’s echoing down on the home team.
While Packers fans want to hold out hope that the Bears can somehow pull off the upset of the Lions and help them out, I would urge you to repeat the following phrase to yourself “The Bears still suck”. Plain and simple, it’s not happening. Chicago has all but given up on the season and this coaching staff. There’s nothing for them to gain and as much as they’re supposed to hate the Packers, they may just lie down to make Green Bay’s road that much tougher to the NFC north division title. A little jab after last year’s stunner in week 17 that left the Bears and their fans punching holes in the Aaron Rodgers pictures taped to their walls. I’m joking, of course. . sort of.
I feel like I’m rambling now but what numbers can I throw out there that don’t indicate that Detroit wins this one easily and going away and heading into their week 17 game at Lambeau Field with 11 wins? Detroit will gash Chicago’s offensive line. They don’t care. Cutler looks like he doesn’t care. He’s throwing balls up for grabs and Detroit’s secondary is absolutely going to feast on every bad toss. Detroit can probably look at this game as a glorified practice session to get ready for their game with the Packers.
Lastly, for those of you on Twitter, remember my hashtag for the remainder of the season: #nohelp
Green Bay Packers (10-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-12)
Now for the real reason you all clicked on this piece in the first place! I’ll start off by saying that if you’re looking for a rah-rah vibe and the many reasons why Rodgers and the Packers will bounce back in a big way against a two-win Tampa team, read no further. You won’t find it here. The blowouts are done with. They were fun to watch, especially against the Bears twice and Vikings, but those days are gone. There’s many reasons why this Packers team should easily put up a small mint on the scoreboard against the Bucs this Sunday, but this is December football and we’re not talking about the Bears, unfortunately.
Tampa has found many ways to lose games this season and to some very bad teams. They reside in the NFC South with four teams, none of which seem to have an interest in winning the division. But still, and much like the Bills, there’s this mystique about Tampa that the Packers can’t seem to get past as a franchise. I don’t care to look back through the entire history of Packers road games in Tampa but I can recall only two times Green Bay has left with a win. 1996 and 2003. There may be others but the point is, they struggle to win there. Mike McCarthy has never led his team to a win there and Rodgers is also 0-2 in Tampa. Different Packers teams, different Bucs teams, I know. But was it really that long ago when the 2009 Packers went in to face a 0-7 Bucs team and walked away with a loss? Let’s also not forget that as bad as the Bucs have been this season, head coach Lovie Smith is rather familiar with Rodgers. He may not have the talent around him to do what he wants, but this is not a game to be taken for granted.
Green Bay’s defense showed up in Buffalo. They gave up no touchdowns and held the Buffalo offense to 12 points. That was an offense whose biggest weapon is a rookie receiver in Sammy Watkins. Tampa features Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans and this dual threat is the type that will pose a tougher challenge for the Packers’ secondary. Josh McCown is about on par with Buffalo’s Kyle Orton so it’s all about creating pressure and reducing time to throw. I won’t be surprised to see Tampa get yards through the air and rack up quite a few passing yards. On the ground is Doug Martin, who’s a shifty back that can make would-be tacklers miss if they’re not fundamental. That certainly describes the Packers as of late. At this point, the emphasis should be every hat flowing to the ball and gang tackling the ball carrier with an “I got it” mentality. Three on one usually favors the three.
What will likely save the Packers is that their offense isn’t likely to let them down nearly as badly as they did in Buffalo. Rodgers and his receivers had a very rare off day together last week and while they may not light it up this week either, they should be able to keep pace and have a chance to win. It may sound like I’m not totally confident that the Packers will win this game. I do think they will, but anything is on the table as far as how. The Bucs defense is near the bottom of the league in most categories so there’s little reason why the Packers can’t either come out fast or quickly adjust and consistently drive the ball. If it has to be a shootout, so be it. Let’s not forget the guys on the other side get paid, too. One big injury for Tampa to note is defensive lineman Gerald McCoy, who was placed in injured reserve this past week. He’s a big loss to that Tampa pass rush. That could also open up big things for Packers running back Eddie Lacy, who had himself a nice day against the Bills until the Packers decided to shelf what was working and chuck it every snap.
Lastly and if there is one area that will now have me fretting week in and week out, it’s special teams. The coverage unit has been awful this season and showing no signs of improvement. Crosby should be trying to bury every kickoff into the end zone and Masthay should just directional punt out of bounds. They can’t, for field position purposes, but every time this team kicks I stand there watching as if I’m watching a horror film and the killer is about to stab someone from behind.
Even if special teams are awful and the Pack doesn’t play a perfect game, they should win this one and set up the following game for the division title against the Lions. It’s not totally impossible that the Packers still make the playoffs if the unthinkable happens in Tampa, but hopefully the Pack play like it is.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: