Week 17 is here and the NFC North race is white hot. The NFL nailed the schedule again with the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions facing off at Lambeau Field in what will be for the division title and likely a first-round bye. Both the Packers and Lions were winners on the road as the Packers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Lions edged the Chicago Bears. Green Bay and Detroit are both 11-4 with the Lions holding the first head-to-head win back in week three. This week’s game was flexed from the noon time slot to a 3:25pm CDT kickoff.
The Bears, behind the spark of quarterback Jimmy Clausen, will travel to Minnesota and take on the Vikings. Minnesota lost a close one to the Miami Dolphins. After driving for a late score to tie the game, the Vikings had a punt blocked out of the back of their own end zone for a safety. The play was a microcosm of the Vikings’ season of “not quite good enough”. This game is for nothing more than pride and something to build on for next season.
Let’s look at these two games in this season’s last installment of “Around the NFC North”.
Chicago Bears (5-10) at Minnesota Vikings (6-9)
Not much to be said for this game. Bears head coach Marc Trestman is likely out the door come “Black Monday” and the Bears will have many decisions to make. Do they keep GM Phil Emery? And what about that guy who throws the football? Should be an interesting off season at Halas Hall. As for the Vikings, head coach Mike Zimmer has certainly earned his spot and will look to continue building this team around a young nucleus that includes quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater made some nice throws in a comeback effort on Sunday against the Dolphins and the Vikings will likely ride with him for the foreseeable future.
The Bears started out playing well on the road but lately, haven’t been playing well anywhere. They all but quit on Trestman months ago and it would be a shock if there isn’t an empty box sitting on his desk early next week. The Bears benched quarterback Jay Cutler in favor of Jimmy Clausen, who almost, repeat almost, beat the Lions. Apparently the football Gods really want Cutler at quarterback for the Bears as Clausen has been ruled out this week with a concussion. Vikings defensive backs are probably and secretly rejoicing.
I expect a Vikings team that is fired up and highly motivated by Zimmer. He’s a no-nonsense type of guy who takes a lot of pride in his work and the product that shows up on the field on Sunday’s. It’s the Vikings’ last home game and they want to keep their fans engaged and encouraged about the future. Minnesota at least has the stability of their infrastructure heading into 2015 and I foresee an emphatic win to close out their season. For the Bears, more questions than answers.
Detroit Lions (11-4) at Green Bay Packers (11-4)
Somehow, many knew the NFC north would come down to this game. The NFL has given the Packers a relevant match up in week 17 for the last three seasons, albeit some by way of pure luck. In 2012, the Packers and Vikings met with playoffs and seeding on the line. Last season, the Packers faced the Bears in not only what was for the division, but it was the triumphant return of Rodgers from his collarbone injury. Had it not been for a typical Lions collapse under hapless leader Jim Schwartz, that game could have meant nothing. This year, however, has the potential to be an epic contest.
The storylines are aplenty: The Lions haven’t won a road game in Wisconsin since Bush, Sr. was President (23 years ago, to the layman), Lions center Dominic Raiola’s one-game suspension (upheld by the NFL) for stomping a Bears defender last week, and Rodgers’ strained calf and what it could mean for him on Sunday. I never discount history completely but I also don’t lend it full credence either. “The streak” is not something Packers head coach Mike McCarthy talks about with his players. It’s more of a media story than anything.
What does matter to McCarthy and the Packers is that they play as many more games at home as they can. In order for that to happen, they have to win on Sunday. If, or should I say when, they do, they will secure at least the second seed and could become the first seed if the St. Louis Rams can somehow beat the Seattle Seahawks.
In the past, the Lions on the road was quite different from the Lions at home. Not so much this season. While Detroit has lost three of their four games away from Ford Field this season, they have remained consistent and a very tough out. These aren’t your typical Lions that fall apart in December and finding creative ways to lose games. They’re winning close games and doing so late. The Lions have come back from fourth quarter deficits to win five times this season, with three of those coming in a row earlier this season. They have won their last two in the same fashion. Will the third time be the charm at Lambeau Field?
The Lions rank second in total defense by yards surrendered and give up a league-lowest 64 yards a game on the ground. The Packers have the better overall offense, based on the same metric. But yards aren’t always the best measure of productivity. Green Bay now leads the NFL with a +15 takeway differential. Much of that is due to Rodgers and his diligent handling of the rock. He has just five interceptions on the season. The Lions have given the ball up 19 times this season and quarterback Matthew Stafford still tends to sling it and let his receivers try to make a play a few times a game. In fact, he threw two red zone interceptions against the Bears. We have to hope Stafford is “peaking” at just the right time. Watching that type of recklessness has to make one appreciate that when Rodgers gives his receivers a chance to make a play on the ball, it’s usually his guy or no one who comes down with it.
The Packers have attempted no fewer than 36 passes per game over the last four weeks. Expect Sunday to be no different. Rodgers has a lot of autonomy at the line of scrimmage to make checks and audible into a better match up. If Green Bay can’t get Eddie Lacy going, they’ll have to rely on Rodgers and a lot of short and quick passes to mimic a run game and attempt to neutralize the Lions defensive front. As always, the Packers can’t give up on the run too soon in this game. The Packers have to take the frustrations of a one or two-yard loss on occasion in order to maintain play action. Lacy was able to gash the Buffalo Bills for big chunks early on in that game and with the Packers offensive line playing well right now, Lacy will get some more looks against Detroit. May not be many, but Lacy has to see the lane and burst. Rodgers has also had some big-play opportunities in every game this season, even in the losses and when he wasn’t at his best. There have been some missed chances but as long as he doesn’t miss on Sunday, the Packers have a chance to roll.
In this last game, the Lions got very physical with the Bears as was evidenced by Raiola’s suspension and Ziggy Ansah’s blow to the head of Clausen that caused a concussion. Whether it’s legal or not, the Lions will bring it on Sunday. Cooler heads have to prevail and the Packers have the right kind of leadership to avoid hurting themselves with dumb mistakes. Raiola is a 14-year veteran and has not only missed very few games, he has played most of the team’s snaps during that time. He’s their starting center and needless to say, an integral part of the Lions offensive line. What, I ask you, would implore someone in his position to jeopardize theirs and their team’s chances of being part of a special game in the team’s season and possibly their history? Given his history, the reason is: because. . . Dominic Raiola. It was just a year ago that he was shouting obscene slurs about band members and their family members before a game in Green Bay. Ansah will find himself in the locker room watching from afar if he tries to pull the same cheap shot he did in Chicago. At Lambeau Field? On Aaron Rodgers? Good luck, buddy. Don’t read your Twitter timeline.
All I can say is that I hope the “Lions gon’ Lion” come Sunday. While it would be the most opportune time for the Lions to get an elusive win at Lambeau, we have to hope it can wait.
On behalf of the team of writers at ALLGBP.com, we want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and happy holiday season!
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: