The race in the NFC North got a bit tighter in week five. The division-leading Detroit Lions fell to the Green Bay Packers, who evened their record to 2-2. Both the Lions and Chicago Bears, who lost to the New Orleans Saints, are tied atop the North at 3-2 with Detroit having a slight edge due to their head-to-head win over Chicago in week four. The Minnesota Vikings had a bye and enter this week at 1-3.
With a full slate of games this week that kicks off with the Bears hosting the New York Giants on Thursday night, let’s dive into the matchups and storylines of each.
New York Giants (0-5) at Chicago Bears (3-2)
Before this season started, there were more than a handful of fans and experts who had the Giants pegged to lose five games all season, let alone their first five. The Giants were victimized by the visiting Philadelphia Eagles and remain winless on the year. They now face a short week and a road game to boot.
As with any team that is dealing with a losing streak, there is building tension in New York over the lack of success. That this was a Super Bowl championship team just two seasons ago is more cause for concern. If you need another example of some of the disarray that exists in New York, here’s one. The Giants elected not to re-sign linebacker Chase Blackburn after this season and he signed with the Carolina Panthers. Just last week, Blackburn replaced veteran Jon Beason when Beason’s productivity was suffering due to various injuries. At the same time, the Giants, desperate for help at linebacker, traded a late-round draft pick for Beason. Digest that one. Even if he gets healthy and contributes, the Giants are definitely doing things the hard way this season.
New York has dealt with injuries and have not been as formidable on defense as they once were. They are also averaging just 56 rushing yards/game. This year’s team is not the Giants that anyone is used to seeing.
The Bears dropped their second game in a row, this one at home to the Saints. After an impressive start and winning their first three games, the Bears have come back down to earth a bit. Two of those three wins came against the Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers, who are both struggling early on this year. The opinions on just how good the Bears are remain divided at this point.
This is a game that Chicago should win. With both teams coming off of a short week, the Bears are at home and figure to be the better team. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has benefited from an improved offensive line. Cutler wasn’t sacked at all in week one against the Cincinnati Bengals, who have one of the better defensive lines in football. This past week, the Saints got to Cutler three times. The Giants have registered just five total sacks in five games, a far cry from recent years past.
New York’s best chance in this contest is to turn it into a shootout. The Giants can’t run the ball and the Bears still like to air it out. Both teams are giving up close to 300 passing yards/game. Chicago still has that knack for taking the ball away and should have their chances again this week. If behind early the Giants will be throwing it a ton. New York quarterback Eli Manning has been known to take more risks with his throws when trying to give his team a boost and they are certainly in that situation this week.
Desperate teams do desperate things. I can’t think of a scenario around the NFL where more is on the line than there is in New York and with the Giants. Head coach Tom Coughlin is likely coaching for his job, at this point. New York desperately needs a win and they have to travel on a short week if they want to get it this week. On the other side, the Bears need a win to stop their short losing skid and try to reclaim the division lead.
Detroit Lions (3-2) at Cleveland Browns (3-2)
With the Lions barely ahead of the Bears in the NFC North, they will be looking to get back on track this week after losing to the Packers this past Sunday. It must have been a rougher day for Detroit than previously thought. On Monday, news emerged surrounding comments that Lions center Dominic Raiola made towards members of the University of Wisconsin’s band members during the game. While the Lions may be improving and taking steps towards being more competitive, it appears that some signs of years past remain a part of their culture. They now have a good year to plan for their next embarrassing loss at Lambeau.
What seemed like an easier matchup against the Browns before the season began could turn into quite a road challenge for Detroit. The Browns have won three straight games after entering the season with very low expectations and then trading their best player, running back Trent Richardson, away.
Such is life in the NFL. Confidence goes a long way in football and the Browns have plenty of it. They beat the Bengals last week and took care of business on the road with a win against the Buffalo Bills last Thursday night. If this isn’t proof that any team is capable of winning on any day in the NFL, I don’t know what is. The early line on this game is almost even, despite the Browns losing starting quarterback Brian Hoyer to a torn ACL. Brandon Weeden, who began the season as starter, will assume his starting role.
Weeden played well after Hoyer was injured, but he and the Browns offensive line will face a tough challenge in that of Detroit’s front four. With Cleveland averaging just 79 yards/game on the ground, the Lions can afford to pin their ears back a bit and get after Weeden. Detroit has to hope that they can force a few turnovers in this one after having none against the Packers.
If the Lions get their All-Pro receiver in Calvin Johnson back this week, that will make life very difficult for Cleveland’s secondary. Johnson missed this past game with a knee injury and that allowed the Packers to focus more heavily on running back Reggie Bush. Bush is much more dangerous with Johnson drawing some of the attention away in the passing game. Having dual threats has helped ease the load a bit on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford has been spreading the ball around and taking advantage of the favorable matchups opposite Johnson and Bush and the Lions offense has looked improved over the past few seasons because of it.
Carolina Panthers (1-3) at Minnesota Vikings (1-3)
The Panthers head to Minnesota where they face a Vikings team that has had as disappointing of a start as they have. Carolina comes off a loss to the Arizona Cardinals in which turnovers and mistakes kept them out of the end zone. In the Panthers’ three losses, quarterback Cam Newton has attempted over 35 passes. In their lone victory, he had only 27. Minnesota will surely take note and attempt to thwart Carolina’s attempts to run the ball.
The Vikings return from their bye week and after picking up their first win of the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers in London the week before last. Minnesota needs a strong showing and another win to keep pace in the NFC North. Following this game, the Vikings travel to New York to face the Giants and while the Giants have had their struggles, they eventually have to beat someone, right? If it isn’t the Bears this week, they will surely look to take out some frustration on the Vikings at home. After that, the Vikings will host the Packers on Sunday night, which always promises to be a great matchup.
Minnesota just inked free agent quarterback Josh Freeman, who was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. The signing is very telling in that the Vikings have little confidence in their current quarterback situation, which features Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel. Freeman won’t start this week but has been told that he will have a chance to compete for the starting job. With Ponder in just his third season and only 25 years old, that doesn’t bode well for him. Cassel is 31 and has been moved on from two starting gigs in his past. I would expect to see Freeman sooner than later if either of the incumbents struggle in the slightest.
The Vikings struggled to contain Lions running back Reggie Bush a few weeks back. Carolina could see some success in feeding running back DeAngelo Williams this week. And while he had a tough outing against the Cardinals, Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith is still a top weapon in that offense and can likely get open against an average Vikings secondary.
This one is either going to be a high-scoring shootout or a sloppy plow-fest. It’s two teams with one win and limited hope on the horizon so what else can be expected?
Green Bay Packers (2-2) at Baltimore Ravens (3-2)
The Packers hit the road again after disposing of the Detroit Lions for the 22nd straight year at Lambeau Field. Green Bay has an opportunity to face the defending Super Bowl champions and pick up a tough road win. A lot has changed in Baltimore since they won Super Bowl XLVII. Future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis has retired, veteran safety Ed Reed is now with the Houston Texans and linebacker Paul Kruger has moved over to the division rival Cleveland Browns.
Baltimore has won both of its home games this season but they don’t appear to be the same team that they were the past few seasons. Since receiving his huge contract extension in the offseason, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has looked fairly average. He has just five touchdown passes to eight interceptions and two fumbles. Much of that has to do with some bumps and bruises among Baltimore’s receivers. If Green Bay is able to create pressure on Flacco, they should have a few opportunities to take the ball away.
Speaking of that pass rush, it appears that the Packers will have to create it without the services of their best pass rusher in linebacker Clay Matthews. Matthews fractured his thumb in Sunday’s game against the Lions and is reportedly going to miss four weeks. The silver lining in that news is the production that Green Bay saw from linebackers Nick Perry and Mike Neal against the Lions. Perry had two sacks and Neal added one of his own. Having Matthews on the other side undoubtedly opens things up for those around him, but the Packers will have to find a way to keep pressure on Flacco.
Both teams have been stingy against the run while giving up quite a few passing yards per game. With the lack of familiarity between these two teams, this could turn into a high-scoring affair. It all hinges on what kind of pass rush each team can get. The Packers offensive line once again gets a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in that of Haloti Ngata in the middle and in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil on the outside. The young tackles, Don Barclay and David Bakhtiari, will have their hands full. Hopefully several straight weeks of top-flight competition across from them has them battle-tested and ready to roll. Interior linemen TJ Lang, Josh Sitton and Evan Dietrich-Smith will need to continue their solid play as well to keep their quarterback upright.
It appears that the Packers may get another break this week. After Lions stud receiver Calvin Johnson sat out last week’s game with a knee injury, Ravens running back Ray Rice is dealing with a hip injury. He is expected to play, but he won’t be 100%. Of course, I stated that Johnson was likely to play and he didn’t so. . I expect Rice in the lineup on Sunday! On the offensive side of the ball, Eddie Lacy will get another crack at his first 100-yard day and a chance to wear down Baltimore’s defensive front.
The Packers have had some of their most intense games against AFC opponents in recent years and this one has the makings of another. This seems like one where the turnover battle will decide the outcome. The team that emerges victorious in this contest will have a solid win to build on in moving forward.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: