Friday, December 28, 2012
Final Word: NFC North
By Kevin Seifert
Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 17:
To beat Green Bay, Minnesota will have to slow down Aaron Rodgers, who has been dominant in domes.
Tough task: Excitement has been at a season high in the upper Midwest, where a Minnesota Vikings victory against the rival Green Bay Packers would clinch a playoff berth. (The Vikings can also clinch with losses by the Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.) The Packers have less to play for -- they can clinch a first-round playoff bye with a victory or with losses by the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks -- but the Vikings will have to earn a victory Sunday. The Packers have won these types of games routinely in their recent history. They have defeated the Vikings five consecutive times, and in 10 of the teams' past 13 games, and overall they have won their past 12 NFC North games. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers historically has been better in domes; in his past nine indoor games, Rodgers has completed 71 percent of his passes, thrown 27 touchdowns and two interceptions while averaging 317 yards per game, according to figures compiled by the Packers. In his career, Rodgers is 6-3 against the Vikings, and in his past two games at the Metrodome, he has a passer rating of 141.6. Eight of ESPN's 14 experts have picked the Packers to win, and the Vikings are three-point underdogs at home. I'll just say this: If the Vikings win Sunday, they'll deserve to be a playoff team.
Balanced offense: You wonder if Rodgers' history against the Vikings and at the Metrodome could tempt coach Mike McCarthy to veer from what has become the Packers' most balanced offensive attack in five years. Starting with the teams' first matchup in Week 13, the Packers have rushed for at least 100 yards as a team in five consecutive games. That's their longest streak since 2007, and they haven't had a longer one since 2003, according to the Packers. The Vikings are one week removed from stifling the Houston Texans' power running game (34 yards on 16 carries). The most effective way to limit Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson is to keep him off the field, a task best accomplished by grinding out rushing yards. But the Packers' top method of scoring on Sunday might be through the air.
Rudolph factor: Peterson's 210-yard performance against the Packers this month has been a hot topic. He'll have a harder time churning out yardage this Sunday, in part because of an abdominal injury that slowed him against the Texans, as well as the presence of Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. So it's worth noting that Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph had one of his best games of the season against the Packers, catching a touchdown among his six receptions in Week 13. Rudolph has caught 60 percent of the Vikings' passing touchdowns this season (nine of 15), by far the highest percentage in the NFL, and the fourth-highest over the past 20 years in the league. The Packers would be well-advised to track Rudolph on every passing play, but most importantly in the red zone.
At stake: The Chicago Bears want to avoid becoming the second team in 23 seasons to miss the playoffs after a 7-1 start. In order to do that, they'll need to defeat the Detroit Lions on Sunday and have the Vikings lose to the Packers. That puts them in the unusual situation of rooting for the Packers, their longtime rival, but the Bears need their help. It's fair to wonder about the long-reaching implications of this game. If the Bears lose and/or don't make the playoffs, they will have missed the postseason in five of the past six years. Coach Lovie Smith has one year remaining on his contract. Would general manager Phil Emery bring him back based on that extended history? If so, would he give Smith a contract extension to avoid lame duck status in 2013? It is not too dramatic to suggest the Bears face a franchise crossroads over the coming days and weeks. It's worth reiterating that Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is 6-1, with 11 touchdown passes and one interception, against the Lions in his career.
Forcing mistakes: The first thing that comes to mind with the Lions is receiver Calvin Johnson. But the team's seven-game losing streak amid his run to NFL history illustrates that opponents have found plenty of ways win even when Johnson gets his catches and yards. How so? Mostly through turnovers -- the Lions have committed 29 -- and touchdown returns. Opponents have 10 touchdown returns against the Lions, and it's worth noting that the Bears have nine defensive touchdowns this season and lead the NFL with 40 takeaways. The Bears did a nice job against Johnson in the teams' first meeting this season, but regardless of whether he gets his yards, the Bears' clearest path to victory is to extend the Lions' mistake-prone ways.
(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)