Friday, December 11, 2009
Final Word: NFC North
By Kevin Seifert ESPN.com
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:
Jay Cutler, the NFL's INT leader, will face the No. 2 defense in takeaways.
First things first. Somebody is going to be pretty happy Sunday at about 4:30 p.m. ET. Minnesota’s matchup with Cincinnati carries significant playoff implications for both teams. The Vikings can clinch a playoff berth with a victory (or a tie, if the New York Giants lose to Philadelphia). They can clinch the NFC North with a victory and a Green Bay loss at Chicago. The Bengals face a similar opportunity. They will clinch the AFC North with a victory (or a tie, if Baltimore loses or ties Detroit). The Bengals can also win the division even with a loss if the Ravens are upset by Detroit. We’ll keep you updated.
There are plenty of subplots to the Vikings-Bengals game, not the least of which is the expected brawl between Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco and Minnesota mascot Ragnar. But as Steve Wyche of the NFL Network pointed out earlier this week, this game will feature defensive coordinators whose names could be in circulation for head-coaching jobs this offseason. Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier has interviewed for five jobs in the past two years and has the NFL’s eighth-ranked defense. Cincinnati’s Mike Zimmer has molded the Bengals into a hard-hitting group that ranks No. 4 overall, all while grieving the death of his wife.
One of the NFL’s leading interception throwers will take the field Sunday against the league’s second-best takeaway defense. Somethin’s got to give. Or something like that. No quarterback has thrown more interceptions than Chicago’s Jay Cutler (20). And the only team that has intercepted more passes than Green Bay (21) is New Orleans (23). If their game plan is anything like what they used last week against St. Louis, the Bears won’t give Cutler enough passing opportunities to throw a full complement of interceptions. The Packers have been stout against the run, but injuries to their top four defensive linemen might convince the Bears to pound the ball on the ground.
Chicago was the first team to expose Green Bay’s pass protection problems, coming in the teams’ first meeting Sept. 13. Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye mauled right tackle Allen Barbre for much of the night, and the Bears sacked quarterback Aaron Rodgers four times. But the Packers have made several recent adjustments to mitigate those problems, emphasizing shorter drops and replacing Barbre with Mark Tauscher. Rodgers was sacked 37 times in the Packers' first eight games but only eight times over the past four. The Bears will do their best to make life difficult for Rodgers, but the Packers should be better equipped this time around.
It’s not the ideal setting, but Detroit quarterback Daunte Culpepper will get a chance to put a full December game on film for scouts and personnel executives who will be looking at veteran quarterbacks this offseason. We’re assuming Culpepper won’t be back in Detroit next season, and it’s possible that starter Matthew Stafford (shoulder) will return to the starting lineup as early as next week. A strong game on the road, against a Baltimore team battling for a playoff spot, could put Culpepper back on the free-agent radar. Given the state of quarterbacking in the NFL, it’s reasonable to think Culpepper could spark some interest from teams looking for depth.