The NFC North continues to be one of the more intriguing divisions in football with the ever-changing landscape from week to week. The Detroit Lions are now alone in first place after completing a sweep of the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday. The Bears and Green Bay Packers now have matching 5-4 records with the Bears holding the tie-breaker with a head-to-head win.
The Packers fell to the Philadelphia Eagles and had more quarterback issues as they lost their second straight game. The Minnesota Vikings won their Thursday night matchup against the Washington Redskins and improved to 2-7 on the season.
Each of the four North teams have already had their bye so each will face a busy back half of the schedule. The Packers and Giants matchup was flexed out of the Sunday night primetime slot a few weeks back and that will now be an afternoon contest that starts at 4pm EDT.
The Lions visit the Pittsburgh Steelers while the Bears host the Baltimore Ravens. The Vikings head to the great Northwest to take on the Seattle Seahawks and the 12th man.
Let’s take a look at each matchup and the implications it could have on the rest of the season.
Minnesota Vikings (2-7) at Seattle Seahawks (9-1)
Both teams are coming off of victories this past week but that’s about where the similarities between these two teams end. The Seahawks have found countless ways to win games this year. Low scoring, high scoring, and defensive battles, they have seen it all and done most of it. With the San Francisco 49ers struggling with some consistency, the NFC West is all but Seattle’s for the taking.
This week’s matchup has them hosting the Vikings, who have struggled through mediocre quarterback play and dealt the injuries on defense that have all but derailed their season. Minnesota is 0-4 on the road and couldn’t be coming to a more unfriendly road environment this week. Seattle’s CenturyLink Field boasts one of the loudest crowds in the NFL.
And as if the Seahawks needed any help, they may be getting one of their biggest offseason acquisitions back this week. Former Vikings receiver Percy Harvin was traded to the Seahawks for three draft picks, one of which was this year’s first round selection. Harvin suffered a hip injury during the preseason and the Seahawks placed him on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Harvin was able to avoid surgery and opted to rehab the injury instead. His status for Sunday has not yet been announced but he expects to play.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is a perfect 12-0 at home over the past two seasons and is firmly entrenched as the team’s starter after taking the job from Matt Flynn prior to last season. Meanwhile in Minnesota, the question of who will start at quarterback seems to be squashed at the moment as the Vikings have announced that Christian Ponder will start this week’s game.
This game will feature to of the NFL’s most entertaining running backs in that of Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch. Lynch ranks second in the NFL with 871 rushing yards while Peterson is fourth with 786. With Seattle’s secondary being one of the league’s best, the Vikings will likely lean on Peterson to establish something resembling an offense this week. That’s what should happen, but the Vikings had a curious stretch where they gave Peterson less than 20 carries per game earlier this year. Yes, they were forced to throw more when playing from behind, but if there is perhaps one exception to that rule, Peterson just may be it.
The Seahawks were nearly upset by the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week so anything is possible, but I still don’t like Minnesota’s odds at Seattle. Not even if Greg Jennings has a career day and long chat with Wilson post-game.
Detroit Lions (6-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3-6)
The Lions are coming off of two straight wins and will hit the road again to face the Steelers. With a one-game lead in the NFC North, the Lions remaining schedule is suddenly very manageable en route to a possible division title. After facing the Steelers, the Lions host the winless Buccaneers followed by the Packers on Thanksgiving. Aaron Rodgers will most likely not play in that game and it remains to be seen what the Packers look like come two weeks from now. Following the Turkey Classic, the Lions head to Philadelphia to face the Eagles followed by a home showdown with the Ravens. Detroit ends with games against the Giants and at Minnesota.
The Steelers started out this season 0-4 and have won three of their last five, including last week against the Buffalo Bills. Pittsburgh is three games behind the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals and face an uphill climb if they want to make a push for the playoffs. Still, this is a home game and the Lions have yet to establish an ability to win consistently on the road. Still, I have to favor Detroit in this matchup with the confidence that they and especially quarterback Matthew Stafford are displaying.
The Lions bring in the league’s third-best passing offense and the best receiver in the game in that of Calvin Johnson. Johnson had a touchdown catch against the Bears in true CJ form, a jump pass at the goal line. Between Johnson and the dual-threat of tight ends Joseph Fauria and Brandon Pettigrew, the Steelers secondary will have its work cut out for them this week.
One of the biggest stories out of Pittsburgh are the supposed rumors that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may be traded during this upcoming offseason. Obviously the trade deadline has passed and any such talk between teams would be considered tampering at this point so those rumors will remain just that for the next few months.
The Steelers rank 15th in total offense and 11th in total defense. They should seemingly be in better shape in the standings, but a few key injuries have set them back a bit. Most notably of those injuries was to center Maurkice Pouncey, who was lost for the season with an ACL tear in September. The Steelers have had to shuffle their offensive line and rank 27th in total rushing. That stat is very un-Steeler like and could be a big reason why the team struggled early on this year.
If Detroit has success moving the ball through the air early on, it will be very difficult for the Steelers to keep up. Pittsburgh will need to counter with a short passing game and try to sway the time of possession.
Baltimore Ravens (4-5) at Chicago Bears (5-4)
The Bears took a bit of a step backwards and followed up a big divisional win at Green Bay with a loss at home to the Lions on Sunday. Chicago also lost starting quarterback Jay Cutler to an ankle injury, less that one game back after missing three weeks with a groin injury. Cutler has been ruled out for this game against the Ravens and backup Josh McCown will get the start. The Bears are now one game behind the Lions in the North.
The Ravens won an overtime thriller against the Bengals after giving up a highlight-reel Hail Mary touchdown reception to Bengals receiver A.J. Green to tie the game late in regulation. The Ravens are just 1-4 on the road this season.
Baltimore’s passing offense has taken steps backwards from their Super Bowl-winning effort last season. The Ravens rank 17th in passing offense. The Bears, on Monday, put cornerback Charles Tillman on injured reserve-designated to return. He will miss at least the next six weeks. This could be a break for the Ravens, who have struggled with consistency in the passing game.
Baltimore ranks a surprising 30th in rushing offense and according to head coach John Harbaugh, the health of Ray Rice has been a big factor. The team may begin using much more of Bernard Pierce in the upcoming weeks and especially this week. The Bears have given up over 150 rushing yards in each of the last two games.
The Bears need a win here to keep pace in the North and with the Lions. Chicago also holds a modest tie-breaker lead over the Packers and will want to gain some separation from the neighbors to the north with Cutler out for a while. A loss would set Chicago back to .500 after they had started out 3-0. The Bears have dealt with their share of injury and changes this season, and are still without veteran linebacker Lance Briggs as he recovers from a shoulder injury.
I lean slightly towards the Bears in this one as the home team and with an adequate backup who probably won’t be asked to do anything extravagant against the 2013 version of the defending champion Ravens.
Green Bay Packers (5-4) at New York Giants (3-6)
This was originally slated as NBC’s Sunday Night football matchup but was flexed out when the Giants started the season 0-6. Some of the luster of the matchup had waned and that was just fine with the Packers. Green Bay has lost two in a row to the Giants if you include the divisional playoff game in 2012 and neither contest was very close.
At the outset of the season, this looked to be one of the Packers’ toughest matchups. After New York’s dismal start, this became a very manageable road game. Now with Rodgers out and the Packers defense having played poorly two weeks in a row, it’s back to the difficult matchup we all thought it would be.
The Giants have won three straight and are not lacking in confidence. Newly-acquired linebacker Jon Beason has sparked some life to the Giants defense and they sense another opportunity to get this season back to good against the reeling Packers.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw nine interceptions through the first six games but has only two in the last three games. Manning has only two multiple-touchdown games this season but he has not had to be spectacular over the past three games. The Packers need to make sure Manning earns every pass and yard this week.
The Packers have already announced that Scott Tolzien will get the start at quarterback. Backup Seneca Wallace started the game against the Eagles but left with a groin injury early in the first quarter. While Tolzien did improve as the day progressed, he did make a few questionable throws that led to Eagles interceptions. The Giants will be looking for just such an opportunity this week. It would be just the type of spark a struggling team needs to build momentum.
The Packers are an even 2-2 on the road and last faced the Giants in New York about a year ago. It was one of the more lopsided loses the Packers have suffered in recent memory, as they fell 38-10.
Both of these teams are in big need of a win. The Giants are trying to save their season and make something of the worst start in franchise history. The Packers are trying to stay afloat and keep pace in the NFC North in hopes that Rodgers will return soon and restore more hope for a postseason run.
The Giants boast the league’s 10th-best defense and are giving up just over 100 rushing yards per game. The Packers have averaged well over 100 over the past five weeks and this should be a big test for both sides. Questions remain as to the health of some of Green Bay’s starting linemen, as center Evan Dietrich-Smith and tackle Don Barclay both left Sunday’s game with knee injuries. As of earlier this week, it was still unknown if either would be healthy enough to play this week. If not, the Packers would likely use a similar lineup that they did against the Eagles where guard T.J. Lang moves to center, either Barclay or Lane Taylor fill in at right guard and either Marshall Newhouse or Derek Sherrod fill in at right tackle. This will be one of the more newsworthy stories out of Green Bay this week.
The bigger question is quarterback play. Which Eli Manning will come out to play against the Packers? He has had his share of success over the past few games but always has that tendency to throw one or two up for grabs. The Packers have fallen way behind previous years’ pace in takeaways and interceptions. They have just three this season.
On the Green Bay side, it’s a matter of how much improvement they can get out of Tolzien. Tolzien was adequate against the Eagles and did make a few nifty throws, including a nice sidearm toss under a defender’s outstretched arm to the check down. Tolzien also appeared to move through his progressions well, something most young quarterbacks struggle with early in their careers. On a stage like this one and against an opportunistic Giants secondary, the Packers need to protect the ball.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said this week that he would be addressing a recurring issue his team was having. Exactly what that issue is is still not certain but many point to the team’s fourth quarter performance over the last two weeks. The Packers have managed just three points during the final period in the last two games. In both games, Green Bay entered the quarter behind on the scoreboard.
This fourth-quarter issue also carries over to the defense, who have dropped to the middle of the pack in the NFL after being one of the league-leading units through the first seven weeks. Specifically in pass defense, the Packers are struggling mightily. Safeties are often out of position and there seems to be much disarray on many snaps. Safety M.D. Jennings was benched against the Eagles for his poor play and Morgan Burnett, who was recently given a contract extension, has been subpar, to say the least.
With two very good receivers in that of Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, the Packers won’t be able to afford any lapses in coverage this week. The Giants have struggled to run the ball and if they continue in this direction, expect to see a more aggressive Packers pass rush. This will be linebacker Clay Matthews’ second game back after a broken thumb and he should be more accustomed to playing with the club cast on his hand.
In the end and until the Packers actually beat the Giants, I have to lean towards New York in this one, being the home team and with some momentum. Be sure to check back later this week for our ALLGBP.com staff predictions post!
Enjoy the games!
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: