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Friday, December 31, 2010
Final Word: NFC North

By Kevin Seifert

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Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

The stakes at Lambeau Field: Let's run through the possibilities one more time. It's possible that the Chicago Bears could take the field with a chance to grab the NFC's top playoff seed with a victory. In order for that to happen, the Bears would need losses from the Atlanta Falcons (to the Carolina Panthers) and the New Orleans Saints (to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). It's a long shot, but it's still worth monitoring. The difference between playing the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field, as compared to the Georgia Dome, is immense. As for the Green Bay Packers, a victory will ensure the NFC's No. 6 seed and a wild-card game at the Philadelphia Eagles next weekend. If they lose, the Packers will need losses by the Bucs and New York Giants (to the Washington Redskins) in order to qualify.

Johnny Knox
Bears receiver Johnny Knox has thrived on routes outside the numbers in recent weeks.
Cutler vs. Capers: As he predicted (and against our better judgment), the Bears have grown more proficient with the deep pass in recent weeks. Quarterback Jay Cutler has hit receiver Johnny Knox for three touchdowns over the past two weeks on routes that took him outside of the numbers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But among many other things, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has schemed to prevent opponents from hitting big sideline passes this season. The Packers, in fact, have limited quarterbacks to a 55.9 passer rating on passes outside of the numbers, the best in the league.

Traditional Black and Blue: Cutler and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers have been getting the ball downfield efficiently as of late, but both defenses seem equipped to limit big gainers. We just discussed the Packers' sideline defense. On Thursday, we noted that Rodgers historically has been much more successful in the short-range game against the Bears. What does it all mean? Potentially, we could be in store for an old-fashioned Black and Blue game, one decided by defense and the ability to grind out a few key first downs on offense. How novel!

The stakes II: The winner of Sunday's game at Ford Field will be the division's third-place team. The loser will finish last. It's a symbolic and semantic issue, but I wouldn't rule it out as totally insignificant. The Minnesota Vikings spent upwards of $150 million on player payroll this season. Finishing in the division cellar would be a capper to a disastrous season. The Lions, meanwhile, have finished fourth in each of the past two seasons. They've already more than doubled their win total for 2008 and 2009 combined, but I like the fact that they aren't going to pop any champagne corks if they leapfrog the Vikings this season. "I don't think it means that much," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "The only thing that would really mean something is obviously winning the division and being able to move on to the playoffs. Winning and being third in the division, it seems you're the second loser in the whole thing. That's the way I pretty much see it right now." Translated: these Lions expect to finish higher than third in the near future.

So long, farewell: Sunday will apparently be the final game in uniform for Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, who seems unlikely to play because of a concussion. Favre's pending departure is but the tip of the Vikings' offseason iceberg. They have an aging roster with nearly two dozen pending free agents, including these prominent names: Nose tackle Pat Williams, receiver Sidney Rice, linebackers Chad Greenway and Ben Leber, defensive end Ray Edwards and kicker Ryan Longwell. Whenever the 2011 season begins, chances are the Vikings will look much different than the team that takes the field Sunday.