Friday, December 14, 2012
Final Word: NFC North
By Kevin Seifert
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:
The stakes: The run-up to Sunday's game at Soldier Field took an unexpected, smack-talking turn. Little if any of it will have an impact on whether the Green Bay Packers or Chicago Bears win, so let's return our focus to football and run through the stakes of this game. The Packers can clinch their second-consecutive NFC North title with a victory, leaving the Bears needing help to reach the playoffs even if they win their final two games. The Packers are a three-point favorite on the road mostly because of their recent dominance over the Bears and the opposite directions the teams have moved over the past few months. The Packers have won seven of their past eight games. The Bears have lost four of their past five and are weakened by a recent spate of injuries. The Packers have won four consecutive games against the Bears and seven of their past eight in this series dating back to 2009. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is 21-6 against NFC North opponents all time, and the Packers are undefeated in their past 11 divisional games. Finally, here's a handy one-stop link for all of our Packers-Bears II coverage this week.
Brandon Marshall is unlikely to get his wish for single coverage from the Packers secondary.
Marshall factor: Receiver Brandon Marshall made some sharp statements this week and also challenged the Packers to match up with him in single coverage. There is almost no chance the Packers will comply, mostly because the Bears have targeted Marshall by the most disproportionate percentage in the NFL this season. The Bears have targeted Marshall 153 times this season, second-most in the NFL. Their second-most targeted player in the passing game is running back Matt Forte (48). The differential of 105 targets between the two is almost twice the total of the second-highest differential in the NFL. The Bears' offense has been Cutler to Marshall of late. It might make sense to refocus around Forte and the running game Sunday, but that would reverse recent trends.
Packers' line: Out of nowhere, the Packers have built a productive running game in recent weeks and figure to split carries Sunday between Alex Green, DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant. Some of that success can be attributed to Don Barclay's turn at right tackle; the Packers have averaged 6.4 yards per carry while running right in their past two games. But the Packers have had trouble protecting Rodgers ever since original starter Bryan Bulaga was lost for the season because of a hip injury. In his past four games, Rodgers has been sacked or put under duress on 34.3 percent of his drop backs. That's up from 20.1 percent over the Packers' first nine games. The Bears' sack totals have dropped in recent weeks as well, but they have an opportunity to make the game difficult for Rodgers if they can find some momentum in the pass rush.
Still pushing: The Minnesota Vikings have accomplished their immediate goal of playing meaningful games in December. Will it lead to the playoffs? That's a more difficult challenge. They currently have the No. 9 seed in the six-team NFC playoff picture and have the NFL's most difficult remaining games based on strength of schedule (.679). Sunday's game will come against a St. Louis Rams team that has won three consecutive games and hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Week 8. The Vikings are 1-5 on the road this season. This is a winnable game for the Vikings, but recent history suggests the odds are against them making a final playoff push.
Streaks collide: Bummed about the Detroit Lions' five-game losing streak? Imagine yourself a fan of the Arizona Cardinals, who haven't won since starting the season 4-0. The Cardinals have lost nine consecutive games, most recently a 58-0 embarrassment to the Seattle Seahawks, and don't have an NFL-caliber quarterback on their active roster. Ryan Lindley will start this game mostly because he is a rookie and could conceivably improve over time. To this point, he has been awful, completing less than 50 percent of his 120 attempts with five interceptions and no touchdowns. Moreover, he has managed to complete only six passes to All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Meanwhile, the biggest drama remaining in the Lions' season is whether Calvin Johnson can break Jerry Rice's record of 1,848 receiving yards in a season. He is 303 yards away from passing Rice and has three games to do it. All 14 ESPN experts have picked the Lions to win, which would impact the second-biggest Lions drama -- where they will pick in the 2013 draft.
(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)