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Tuesday, November 18, 2008
'A race to the finish'

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
NFC North leaders' remaining schedule
WEEK 12:
Chicago at St. Louis
Minnesota at Jacksonville
Green Bay at New Orleans (Monday night)
WEEK 13:
Carolina at Green Bay
Chicago at Minnesota (Sunday night)
WEEK 14:
Houston at Green Bay
Minnesota at Detroit
Jacksonville at Chicago
WEEK 15:
New Orleans at Chicago (Thursday night)
Green Bay at Jacksonville
Minnesota at Arizona
WEEK 16:
Atlanta at Minnesota
Green Bay at Chicago (Monday night)
WEEK 17:
New York Giants at Minnesota
Detroit at Green Bay
Chicago at Houston

Cue the dramatic music.

Bum-bum-bummmmm.

Three teams.

Six games.

One playoff spot.

(Or so we presume based on the current NFC standings, in which eight teams have a better record than the NFC North co-leaders.)

Bum-bum-bummmmm.

By NFL rule, someone from the log-jammed Black and Blue must win the division and advance to the playoffs. And as Chicago coach Lovie Smith pointed out, after 11 weeks of football, "we're starting over again."

The Bears are tied with Minnesota and Green Bay atop the division. All three teams have a 5-5 record, separated only slightly by their performance in division games. (The Bears and Packers are 3-1 against NFC North opponents, while the Vikings are 2-2 -- a distinction that could play a tiebreaking role at the end of the regular season.)

"It will be a race to the finish," Vikings coach Brad Childress said.

"It's really a six-game season," observed Packers coach Mike McCarthy.

So let's reset ourselves. If this is Week 1, Part II, who is the favorite to win the division title? Other than the Vikings' tiebreaker deficit, the field is wide open. Or is it? Let's examine the possibilities:

CHICAGO BEARS

How they could win it: The Bears have the friendliest remaining schedule. They must face three 5-5 teams (Minnesota, Green Bay and New Orleans), but two of those contests will be at Soldier Field; they have no remaining opponents with a winning record. Quarterback Kyle Orton is back on the field, his sprained ankle presumably improving. Orton now has a full complement of receivers with the return of Brandon Lloyd. Two of the Bears' six remaining games are indoors, where the passing game will be unaffected by weather. If Smith and defensive coordinator Bob Babich make a few schematic adjustments, the Bears could level off their defensive freefall. And you have to figure that Devin Hester will pop one sometime, don't you?

How they could lose it: It's difficult to move past the kind of pent-up frustration many Bears players are expressing. It's pretty clear they are dissatisfied with the defensive scheme and aren't certain they're being put in the best position to succeed. Such feelings usually take weeks, not days, to get over. And as long as some Bears are fixated on those issues, it's hard to imagine a unified run at the playoffs. Opponents have exposed their defensive weaknesses for all to see. In response, coaches have been shuffling defensive personnel all season -- but the result has been a visible lack of continuity that might be hard to re-establish.

The key player: Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. Outside linebacker Lance Briggs has performed at a high level all season, but obviously it hasn't been enough. The Bears' defense centers on the middle linebacker. Urlacher hasn't produced the big plays that made him a perennial Pro Bowler, but his position and status make him the best candidate to energize the defense. That is, if he can. If Urlacher can't raise his game down the stretch, it's hard to imagine the Bears' defense making the necessary improvements.

The key game: Dec. 22 vs. Green Bay. "Monday Night Football." Soldier Field. If the Bears have any pride, they'll be building to that rematch. Ultimately, this Week 16 game could decide the division.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

How they could win it: The Packers' offensive line dominated against the Bears after an uneven performance this season. If it proves to be a turning point, the Packers should be able to capitalize on their array of skill players to keep defenses off balance. Meanwhile, an unintended consequence of linebacker Nick Barnett's season-ending injury could be an improved run defense. At this point, replacement A.J. Hawk might be better suited to stop the run than Barnett. As for the schedule, Green Bay will get its toughest remaining opponent -- the 8-2 Carolina Panthers -- at Lambeau Field.

How they could lose it: One of the Packers' top weapons is pass defense, but you could only consider two of their remaining opponents -- New Orleans and Houston -- to be pass-first teams. That scenario could mitigate a top attribute. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has proved his toughnes
s this season, but if anything were to happen to him, it's hard to imagine a positive outcome with rookie Matt Flynn running the offense.

Key player: Running back Ryan Grant. Last season, Grant rushed for 563 yards and seven touchdowns as the Packers won four of their final six games. Green Bay has four potentially difficult weather games remaining: Three home games and the Dec. 22 matchup at Chicago. But even in perfect conditions, it's obvious how an effective running game enhances this offense.

Key game: Nov. 24 at New Orleans. True, this is not a division game. But conference record plays a role in tiebreakers too. More important, it will be instructive to find out whether the Packers merely caught the Bears at the right time, or if they have made a permanent turn north. A victory over an explosive but flawed Saints team -- and not just a competitive performance -- would provide ample proof that the Packers are up to the challenge of winning this division.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

How they could win it: When Adrian Peterson is in the backfield, anything is possible. We saw how Peterson can will his team to victory Nov. 9 against Green Bay. The emergence of receiver Bernard Berrian ensures the Vikings will have a viable alternative should opponents gang up on Peterson. Gus Frerotte is the most experienced -- but not the most careful -- quarterback in the division and isn't fazed by big-game pressure. Although Minnesota's remaining schedule is difficult, it does not include a bad-weather venue. In fact, the Vikings will play at least four and possibly five games indoors if Arizona closes the roof Dec. 14.

How they could lose it: It's hard to imagine the Vikings winning more than half of their games without defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, and that is a kind assessment. (Let's not even discuss the possibility of a Jared Allen suspension.) Because of their tiebreaker disadvantage, the Vikings might need a 5-1 finish to ensure the division title. That's a difficult task considering they finish against Arizona (7-3), Atlanta (6-4) and the New York Giants (9-1). Finally, do you trust their special teams to go mistake-free for six games?

Key player: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whose decision on the defensive line will make or break the Vikings' season. Simply put, they have a chance with both Williamses and Allen. Without them, it would be nearly hopeless.

Key game: Nov. 30 vs. Chicago, Sunday night football. The Vikings almost certainly need to sweep their remaining division games, starting with this matchup at the Metrodome. A loss would eliminate the Vikings in any head-to-head tiebreaker with the Bears as well as give them a near-crippling 2-3 division record. Even a four-game winning streak to end the season might not be enough.

UPDATE
So how do I see this division finishing up? I was asked that very question Tuesday afternoon in a SportsNation chat. I didn't set out to pick a winner, but I'm thinking the Packers have perhaps the most realistic road to the division title in a flawed division.

Here's how I put it in Tuesday's chat:

BJ (Des Moines): Packers, Bears and Vikings continue to look hot and cold from week to week. How do you see the remaining six games playing out?

SportsNation Kevin Seifert: I played out some scenarios on the blog today. The Vikings have the most difficult schedule and the Bears have the most obstacles in terms of their internal problems. That leaves the Packers as the pseudo-favorites.