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Friday, November 26, 2010
Final Word: NFC North

By Kevin Seifert

NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 12:

Clay Matthews
If Clay Matthews and the Packers' pass rush can disrupt Matt Ryan, Green Bay will have a better chance to win.
Atlanta's barrier: It's well-known that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is 18-1 at home in his career. But no matter where he plays, the Falcons always protect him. They've allowed 15 sacks this season, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL. They gave up the eighth-fewest sacks in the league last season and the fifth-fewest in 2008. That provides the crux for arguably the most critical matchup Sunday at the Georgia Dome. The Green Bay Packers have 29 sacks this season, tied for fourth-most in the NFL, and are doing so despite sending four or fewer rushers on 68.9 percent of passing plays this season. Linebacker Clay Matthews has seven sacks when the Packers send fewer than five pass-rushers. If they can disrupt Ryan the way they have other quarterbacks this season, the Packers have an excellent chance to win.

Never too early: The Falcons are the only two-loss team in the NFC and would be an awfully difficult playoff foe if they get home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Packers first need to worry about the Chicago Bears in their race for the NFC North title, but there's no denying this game could play a huge role in determining playoff seeding. The Packers have won six of their past nine road games and typically have played well away from Lambeau Field under coach Mike McCarthy, but home playoff games are always the preference. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said: "I've played in this league long enough to realize you don't really need to start talking about the postseason until December football. But if you take a step back and realize we've got six games left, these guys are a game ahead of us, and the other teams that are chasing them. You don't really want to fall two games plus a tiebreaker behind the Falcons if you start thinking about home-field advantage in the playoffs, should we be fortunate enough to get there."

Vick dilemma: The Chicago Bears have had an excellent four-man pass rush this season, but they haven't faced a quarterback like the Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Vick. The general consensus always has been to do whatever it takes to keep Vick in the pocket. This year, he leads the NFL with 218 rushing yards on 22 scrambles. But he also has been the league's best passer inside the pocket, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has a 114.3 passer rating on passes thrown after standard dropbacks, but that figure drops to 83.5 -- pulled down by a 51.6 percent completion percentage -- when Vick throws on the run. So if you're the Bears, do you try to flush Vick from the pocket or hope you can disrupt him before he throws from inside it?

Keeping up: The Eagles are scoring 28.4 points per game, second-best in the NFL this season. The Bears are giving up 14.6 points per game, tied with the Packers for best in the league. You would like to say that defense trumps offense, but the Bears' offense better make sure it capitalizes on its opportunities just in case. Quarterback Jay Cutler ranks No. 31 in the NFL in red zone passing (83.8 passer rating), and has largely limited himself to two targets in those situations: Tight end Greg Olsen and receiver Earl Bennett. Olsen and Bennett have been targeted on 21 of Cutler's 38 red zone attempts. Olsen has three scores and Bennett has one. That relative inefficiency hasn't mattered against some of the inferior teams on the Bears' early schedule, but they will have to be much more efficient, and possibly pull in a few more red zone options, against the Eagles.

Frazier factor: Interim Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has a tough job: Reversing a steep attitude decline within his team's locker room. The Vikings have more than enough talent to defeat the Washington Redskins, especially a team that won't have running back Ryan Torain or safety LaRon Landry because of injuries. Frazier is well-liked and respected by Vikings players, but it will be up to them -- not him -- if they decide to rally behind him. An interim coach can't effect much in the way of schematic changes, and Frazier has said he is not considering any personnel disruptions. Sunday will mark the beginning of a referendum on the character of the players on this roster as much as it is on Frazier's coaching acumen.