With three weeks left in the 2014 regular season, the picture in the NFC North continues to develop. The Green Bay Packers closed out the week with an unexpected thrilling victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football. It improved the Packers to 7-0 at home this year with two road games upcoming. This week, Green Bay will travel to Buffalo to face the Bills and close out the AFC portion of their schedule this season.
The Chicago Bears kicked off the week with their second-straight Thursday night game, hosting the Dallas Cowboys. The Bears, however, were a bit too gracious, giving up 48 points in a losing effort. The loss dropped the Bears to 5-8 on the season and they have been eliminated from post season contention. Chicago will now play the role of spoiler and with a game against the Detroit Lions coming up, they’ll gain a slew of adopted Packers fans hoping they can help Green Bay secure another division title with a win over the Lions. The Bears host the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football. Back in the spring when the schedule was made, this matchup certainly looked more appetizing.
The Minnesota Vikings took care of the New York Jets and former Vikings receiver Percy Harvin and improved to 6-7. Despite their struggles at times this season, the Vikings still mathematically have a shot at a playoff spot. It’s a long shot, but a shot nonetheless. The Vikings head to Detroit to face the Lions this week. It’s safe to say that many Packers fans will be adamantly (and reluctantly) cheering on the Vikes, as any Detroit loss and continued winning by Green Bay would mean an easier road to a division title or a playoff spot.
Let’s dig deeper into these three games and the implications of each.
New Orleans Saints (5-8) at Chicago Bears (5-8)
Both of these teams suffered bad home losses last week. Both of these teams have badly underachieved this season, based on preseason expectations. With these latest losses, neither team will finish with a winning record and the Bears are playing for nothing more than pride at this point. The Saints, on the other hand, reside in the intriguing NFC South where three of the four teams still have a chance to win the division. New Orleans is tied with Atlanta at 5-8 with the Falcons currently holding a head-to-head win advantage. The two teams face off again in week 16.
After going on the road and beating a good Pittsburgh Steelers team, the Saints appeared poised to make a run at the South title. They had a home game against the Carolina Panthers, who have been struggling all season long. The Saints had lost three straight at home, but the Superdome is still a tough place to play so it seemed ripe that they would reel off a convincing win and get back into the playoff conversation. What actually happened was a 41-10 drubbing of the Saints by the Panthers. Just another example of the week-to-week nature of today’s NFL. Since their win over the Packers, the Saints are 2-4 but have faced some good opposition along the way. They may be catching the Bears at an ideal time to get a win and prepare to overtake the Falcons with a win next week.
The Bears have been reduced to a team that desperately needs the offseason to start. Star wide receiver Brandon Marshall suffered fractured ribs against the Cowboys and will be placed on season-ending injured reserve. Long-time Bears linebacker Lance Briggs saw his season end just a few weeks ago as well. The Bears are now looking to next year and beyond and with many questions to be answered. Will head coach Marc Trestman survive this brutal season? Do the Bears roll with Jay Cutler at quarterback or possibly look to make a big move with a strong class of passers in this next draft? If the McCaskey’s are truly traditionally-minded, they may value seeing who puts forth some effort over these next three weeks and who’s already making vacation plans and tee times in January. As far as Chicago’s uber-critical fan base, they still want to see the Bears show up. The Bears really have nothing to lose and could actually find success by trying out new schemes and showing a few unscouted looks. Eh, who am I fooling?
These are two of the league’s worst defenses, in terms of yards allowed so this one could easily turn into a shootout. Defensive backs may want to take some extra reps at catching the football this week.
Minnesota Vikings (6-7) at Detroit Lions (9-4)
These teams come in with fairly solid defensive units, especially the Lions. Detroit is giving up just under 63 yards per game on the ground. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has shown some improvement, but he’ll be facing a more elite front that will be in his face all day. Bridgewater has thrown some up for grabs and will need to avoid the turnover this week if he is going to keep the Vikings in this game.
The Lions have a healthy stable of running backs with Reggie Bush back and complementing Joique Bell. They’ll look to establish an early lead and pound their way to a low-scoring game of “milk the clock”. Detroit’s offense, despite several playmakers, hasn’t been able to unload and score a lot of points. They’ve been winning with defense and an early lead or a manageable deficit that they have been able to overcome. Whereas in the past, Detroit has tripped over themselves by now, they don’t appear to be slipping and have a very manageable remaining schedule. All three remaining games are within the division with the week 17 game at Lambeau Field against the Packers.
The Lions have lost two games at home this week but the Vikings have only won twice on the road. Besides avoiding the turnover, the Vikings will need to start fast and try to dictate the pace of this game. Perhaps special teams can come into play, as the Vikings have made some big plays in recent weeks. Perhaps, even better, bad Jeremy Ross will come out to play and put the ball on the ground. Probably not. He only seemed to do that in Green Bay.
Minnesota corner Xavier Rhodes has improved throughout this season and along with Captain Munnerlyn, will be vital in helping to contain Lions receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Then there’s Lions tight end Joseph Fauria. All I want for Christmas is to not have to see him acting like a tool bag in the end zone. I’m sure the Vikings can manage the end zone portion of the wish. The tool bag part? Probably too far gone. Still, the Lions should come out on top in this one.
Green Bay Packers (10-3) at Buffalo Bills (7-6)
This is a game I circled on the schedule when it first came out. It didn’t matter what each team was supposed to be this season, it was getting circled. These AFC games always seem to be an adventure with the Packers. They barely beat the Jets in Green Bay were it not for a voice calling for timeout from the sidelines. They needed nearly every last second in Miami to take care of the Dolphins. They drained themselves so badly to beat the New England Patriots that they gave up what seemed like 1,000 yards to Julio Jones and the Falcons the following week.
Enter the Bills, who no matter how good or bad they are, always seem to cream the Packers in Buffalo. It only happens once every eight years and this is one where I see it on the schedule and whine “has it been eight years already?!”. Buffalo is a modest 7-6 this season but it’s more of the matchup they present that is worrisome. Buffalo has one of the league’s better defenses. They’re the less successful version of the Lions: a stout defense with an offense that sometimes scores enough to win. How stout is their defense? The Bills have 48 sacks this season and lead the next-closest team by four. Green Bay, by comparison, has 29. As with any opponent who can pressure Aaron Rodgers with four rushers, it tends to be a long day for the Packers.
Kyle Orton is at quarterback for the Bills. So what, right? While history means nothing now, Orton was at the wheel when the 2011 Kansas City Chiefs derailed the Packers’ perfect season. He’s not a great quarterback, by any means, but can the Packers create enough pressure to make him look as average as he is? Atlanta’s Matt Ryan enjoyed a worry-free night, for the most part, in the pocket. Ryan is in a higher tier than is Orton, but give any NFL quarterback enough time and they’ll make the defense pay.
Where does that pressure come from? Hopefully Julius Peppers emerges from his two-game slumber. He told reporters that defenses don’t always play their best game every week. It was his own way of telling us all to relax. I don’t know about you but, somehow, he doesn’t have the same effect on me as #12 did after the loss to the Lions earlier this season. Sam Barrington at inside linebacker has to continue to improve if the Packers are going to accomplish what they want to this season. If he’s ineffective, it’s more A.J. Hawk in the middle or Clay Matthews is stuck there and Green Bay can’t use his versatility.
Fortunately, the Bills’ have only one real threat in the passing game. Receiver Sammy Watkins has big-play ability, but isn’t Julio Jones. Watkins had been relatively quiet until this past week’s game against the Denver Broncos, a 24-17 Buffalo loss. Watkins had seven catches for over 100 yards and averaged 18 yards per catch. Still, Watkins hasn’t found the end zone since late October. You know that that means, right? 10 catches, 150 yards and two scores against the Packers. Blame me, I’m OK with it.
All joking aside, I don’t like this match up for the Packers. This has the makings of one of those days where the defense isn’t great and the offense can’t get anything going. Kind of like that day in Kansas City in 2011. I have no reason to doubt Rodgers & Co. after another solid showing against the Falcons. And after all, every football field is 100 yards long by 53.33 yards wide. Some just happen to be in an unfamiliar city with fans who don’t particularly care for the green & gold. No big deal, right? I have no stats to throw at you here, this is strictly a gut feeling. If the Pack gets out to an early lead, can the defense hold? Can the Packers get out to that early lead and find success against the formidable Bills pass rush? The Bills play the run well. Can Green Bay survive if the run game falters and Rodgers has to throw it 40+ times? These are all tough questions to answer. The Bills actually have four more takeaways than the Packers this season, but have given the ball up 11 more times. Turnovers are likely key in this game and Green Bay has to force at least two.
While a loss certainly wouldn’t end the Packers’ hopes for a division title or a playoff appearance, it would cost them in terms of the current seedings and in the race for home-field advantage. Breathing down their necks, however, are Seattle, Arizona, Dallas and Detroit. If Green Bay can win out and Arizona loses at least once (and they will), the Packers secure the top spot. A loss would create a tight race and the Packers would lose some control over their destiny. After this scare against the Falcons, hopefully Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has this team fired up and ready to go against a good defense in a tough road environment.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: