Friday, December 9, 2011
Final Word: NFC North
By Kevin Seifert
Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 14:
The Packers can clinch a playoff bye this week, which could be important for injured starters like left tackle Chad Clifton.
Seeking rest: Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, the Green Bay Packers will be going for their 19th consecutive victory, which would stand alone as the second-longest streak in NFL history. More important, they would clinch at least the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and thus a first-round bye. (Even if they lose to the Raiders, the Packers could clinch the bye with a loss by the New Orleans Saints.) The value of that week seems clear when you take a look at the Packers' increasingly lengthy injury list. Right guard Josh Sitton (knee) has already been ruled out. Left tackle Chad Clifton hasn't played in more than two months. Linebackers Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk have been sidelined for two weeks of practice by calf injuries. It's also possible that running back James Starks (ankle) will need some time away. The Packers aren't in disproportionate shape relative to the rest of the NFL at this time of year, but their injuries have piled up in recent weeks.
Moving east: The Raiders caught a break a few weeks ago when the NFL moved the kickoff from 1 p.m. ET to 4:15 p.m. ET. West Coast players traveling east historically struggle in early games, which start at 10 a.m. according to their body clocks. The Raiders are 4-2 on the road this season, but haven't won in the Wisconsin in 24 years. You would think the Packers' defense would try to jump on the Raiders' offense early in the game. The Packers have made a relative habit of sending at least one extra pass-rusher this season, doing so 45.4 percent of the time -- the fourth-highest mark in the NFL. And for what it's worth, Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer has a 59.3 passer rating against the blitz this season, the second-lowest mark in the NFL. He has thrown three interceptions, taken eight sacks and completed only 53.6 percent of his passes against five or more rushes this season.
Change of sentiment: My, how times have changed in the NFC North. As recently as last season, we approached the annual Minnesota Vikings-Detroit Lions matchups as presumed victories for the Vikings. Now, the opposite is true. Does anyone see the 2-10 Vikings mustering what would qualify as a massive upset in Detroit? The Lions, who have lost five of their past seven games, are whopping 12-point favorites, according to ESPN's compilation of various lines. On paper, at least, the Lions' passing game should have a field day against a decimated Vikings pass defense that has allowed its past seven opponents to complete 73 percent of their passes for 1,808 yards, 18 touchdowns and no interceptions, according to 1500ESPN.com.
Fighting chance: The Vikings haven't lost five consecutive games in the same season since 1997, and if they're going to avoid that Sunday, they'll need a monster game from defensive end Jared Allen. Truth be told, Allen had his way with Lions left tackle Jeff Backus in the teams' first matchup, beating him for three sacks. Allen, however, has cooled off a bit and has only one sack in his past three games. He'll likely hear his share of boos after again trashing the city of Detroit in a radio interview, but I'm guessing he won't mind.
Career trends: The Chicago Bears haven't had much luck replacing injured quarterback Jay Cutler, and now they'll try to replace tailback Matt Forte as well Sunday against the Denver Broncos. Veteran Marion Barber was once a hard-running feature back for the Dallas Cowboys, but the Bears signed him as a short-yardage specialist and change-of-pace back for Forte this season. The last time Barber averaged 4.0 or more yards per carry in a game that he rushed more than 10 times? Week 17 of the 2009 season.