The Green Bay Packers capped off a Sunday afternoon of late-season football with a thrilling 26-21 victory over the visiting New England Patriots. The win not only kept the Packers on top of the NFC North and with a real possibility to secure home-field throughout the postseason, it answered many questions about just who the 2014 Packers are. The Packers are rewarded with an extra day off this week and they will be at home, once again, to host the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football.
The Minnesota Vikings took out their frustrations from a home loss to the Packers last week on the visiting Carolina Panthers with a convincing 31-13 win. It was Minnesota’s fifth win on the season. The Vikings host the New York Jets this week.
The Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears did battle on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit with the Lions pulling away in the second half and scoring a 34-17 win. The Lions remain a game behind the Packers and currently set as one of the two wild card teams in the NFC. The Bears fell to 5-7 and are tied with the Vikings for last place in the division. Detroit hosts the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week while the Bears host the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night football.
Here’s a deeper look into each of these four games.
Dallas Cowboys (8-4) at Chicago Bears (5-7)
This is the Thursday night game this week and the second Thursday game for both teams. Both will be trying to bounce back from losses. The Bears fell to Detroit while the Cowboys were overtaken by the Philadelphia Eagles. The loss cost Dallas the division lead in the NFC East and they’ll now have to play catch up with three of their last four games on the road and a home game against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Bears have struggled against teams with a winning record this season, for the most part. Despite early struggles at home, the Bears have won their last two at Soldier Field and may be catching the Cowboys at an ideal time to get a quality win under their belt. Year to year, things change a lot in the NFL, but last year, the Cowboys struggled mightily in a prime time game at Chicago.
The quarterbacks in this game both need a solid performance both for themselves and for their teams. Dallas’s Tony Romo continues to heal from a fracture along his spine but is playing through it. He may find the sledding a bit easier this week than he has recently. The Bears have had defensive issues all season long and lost veteran linebacker Lance Briggs to injury for the rest of this season and, perhaps, to free agency after this year. Chicago’s Jay Cutler hasn’t found anything resembling a rhythm all season long and will need to turn in one of his better performances in order to beat the Cowboys.
Bears head coach Marc Trestman still seems to be on the hot seat but a win over the Cowboys along with the array of injuries on defense may be enough to excuse him and give him new life in Chicago. As for Dallas’s Jason Garrett, we all know who his boss is and how he takes to his team falling apart late in the season.
New York Jets (2-10) at Minnesota Vikings (5-7)
The Vikings put on a special teams clinic on Sunday, blocking two punts and returning both for touchdowns enroute to their blowout win over the Panthers. Minnesota hasn’t had a lot of overall success, but they have managed some solid performances and these types of wins can resonate. Minnesota is more likely looking ahead to next year, but success like this shows this team that they can win, they just need to be consistent and continue to add talent.
Minnesota’s chance to stack success comes this week as the Jets come to town. While the Vikings technically still have an outside chance to win out and somehow eek their way into the playoffs, the Jets’ 2014 season is lost. It’s all about the future for New York and there are many questions about what that future looks like, and who’s in it. Head coach Rex Ryan is said to be on borrowed time after the steep slide the Jets are on after having prominent success earlier in his tenure.
New York is 0-5 on the road and fell at home on Monday night to the Miami Dolphins despite racking up 200 rushing yards in the first half. New York just lacks the overall talent on the offensive side of the ball to overcome their current woes so to say change is needed, as I did above, is an understatement. They did trade for receiver Percy Harvin, who makes his first return to Minnesota since being dealt to the Seattle Seahawks prior to the 2013 draft. Harvin had one catch against Minnesota last year when the Vikings faced the Seahawks in Seattle. Harvin has been solid for the Jets, but with the rest of the team not pulling their weight, Harvin’s accomplishments have gotten buried.
Much like last week, it’s hard to find a better story line to this latest Vikings match up. The biggest priority for them, besides getting another win, is to get quarterback Teddy Bridgewater more experience and confidence within the offense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-9) at Detroit Lions (8-4)
The Bucs weren’t able to hold off the visiting Cincinnati Bengals and fell to 2-9. Lovie Smith’s first season as head coach hasn’t been a memorable one, especially for Bucs fans. Much like the Jets, the Bucs are playing for 2015 and beyond. This weekend’s game won’t offer much of an opportunity to get a third win as Tampa heads to Detroit to take on one of the league’s better defenses.
The Lions scored the divisional win against the Bears on Thanksgiving and suddenly find the tables turned as they now have to keep pace with the Packers after having been in the driver’s seat for most of this season. A home game against the Bucs seems like a pretty safe bet, but is there really any such thing in today’s NFL? To say the Lions have been getting it done with defense is putting it lightly. Detroit has scored 231 points this season. Only six teams have scored fewer. It’s interesting to note, however, that the San Francisco 49ers have also scored 231 and sit at 7-5. The Lions have scored no more than 35 points in any single game this year. It’s not ideal, but it is possible that Detroit can get by holding their opponents under that total the rest of the way. Despite suffering losses to the Arizona Cardinals and Patriots recently, the Lions still have a solid defense and stand a good chance of reaching the postseason, one way or another.
While they might get to January football, it’s not likely that the Lions survive long if they can’t produce with the ball in hand. They have four weeks left to find a rhythm and build some momentum, especially if they’re going to be playing on the road. Having all of their pieces healthy would be a good start, specifically running back Reggie Bush and receiver Calvin Johnson. Rookie tight end Eric Ebron continues to improve and work his way into more of the offense and Golden Tate has proven to be a very valuable addition to the passing game.
I would normally say Detroit takes this one by a healthy margin but this is the same Lions team who struggled to finish off the New Orleans Saints and Dolphins at home and probably shouldn’t have beaten the Atlanta Falcons in London. It may be closer than some expect.
Atlanta Falcons (5-7) at Green Bay Packers (9-3)
On the surface, this is a Monday Night Football game between two division leaders. That’s what the NFL hopes for when they put their schedule together in the spring and with it being a Monday nighter, that scenario is most ideal in early December. What the league didn’t anticipate was the major decline we would see in the NFC south this season. The division-leading Falcons share a 5-7 record with the Saints but hold a tie-breaker by virtue of a head to head win in week one. If Atlanta wants to hang on and win the division, with any record, they face a tough last month. After traveling to Green Bay, they face the Pittsburgh Steelers, Saints in New Orleans and Panthers to end the season.
The Packers are coming off of a hard-fought win at home against the Patriots, who had previously won seven straight and lost just two games all season. Gone are the arguments that the Packers can’t win big games and beat elite quarterbacks. What’s also gone is any doubt that Green Bay is among the elite teams in the NFL right now. But as we know, week to week is the mantra in the NFL.
The Packers get an extra day off and every day counts this time of year. Cornerback Sam Shields was lost late in the first half to concussion-like symptoms and may miss a week or two as he recovers. If not severe, Shields may actually benefit from the added day off and be available for this game. The Packers have dealt with some injuries this season, but they have certainly not seen the likes of the triage unit that was the past few seasons and they’re reaping the benefits with a league-best 9-3 record.
Two weeks ago, I called the game against the Vikings a trap game. That doesn’t apply in this case. At least, it better not. With just four games left, every single one of them is vital to the Pack’s division standing and potential playoff seeding. They can’t afford to overlook any one of the remaining contests and it starts with the visiting Falcons. Atlanta is a much different team on the road and are just 2-4 away from the Georgia Dome this year. They’re also coming off of a victory against the Arizona Cardinals and while Arizona is depleted and faltering, they were a two-loss team and it kept Atlanta in control of the division. Confidence goes a long way in this league.
Enter a Packers team that is 6-0 at home and playing out of their minds at Lambeau Field. Enter quarterback Aaron Rodgers who has everything but wings at home and hasn’t committed a turnover in over two calendar years. He’ll face the league’s worst pass defense in this game. Atlanta can feel free to play the safer cover-2 shell that is advised of any defense who faces Rodgers. I still wish them all the luck in the world. If not a perfect precision pass to beat even the tightest of coverage, the Packers can lean on running back Eddie Lacy, who nearly had 100 yards against the Patriots and seems to find another gear in December. Atlanta’s run defense ranks 21st. They also have just 14 sacks on the season. No pressure on Rodgers might as well be a seven-on-seven drill.
Yes, the Falcons have Steven Jackson, the type of larger back the Packers struggle to tackle and contain. The problem is, the Packers are outscoring opponents by a google in the first half and Atlanta may not have the luxury of running all night. In the passing game, Julio Jones and Roddy White can’t be ignored but even without Shields, the Packers were able to get an ample performance from Davon House against New England. With no Tony Gonzalez at tight end to take the edge off, I’m sure House would be up to the challenge a second week in a row. That’s assuming Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has time to find those wide outs. With a solid secondary taking care of the passing threats, what ever will Clay Matthews do with himself?
The one area Atlanta holds the edge in is special teams. We all finally got our wish of moving Devin Hester out of the division and of course, he landed in Atlanta and Atlanta landed on the schedule. Hester has one return for a score this season and while the Packers continue to struggle with kick coverage, I don’t foresee any electricity from him. Even if he does break one, it likely only makes the score look closer than it actually is.
It may sound like I’m predicting an easy Packers win and if that’s the case, you’d be right. This team is now dialed in and focused from the coaching staff down to the 53rd man on the roster. There won’t be any falling into a trap or a let down at Lambeau.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: