NFC North: 2011 Week 15 coverage

Wrap-up: Lions 28, Raiders 27

December, 18, 2011

Welcome, Detroit Lions, to the land of the winning.

And, for that matter, welcome to the postseason.

In a fashion we've come to expect from their 2011 team, the Lions secured their first winning season since 2000 and are in excellent shape for their first playoff appearance since 2000. Sunday's thrilling victory over the Oakland Raiders, the Lions' fourth comeback from deficits of 13 or more points this season, raised their record to 9-5. Losses Sunday by the Chicago Bears and New York Giants give the Lions a healthy two-game lead for the NFC's final wild-card position with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

At this moment, I don't think the Lions have clinched a playoff spot, nor does it appear the Bears have been eliminated. NFL officials, as well as our friends at ESPN Stats & Information, are still running the numbers. But suffice it to say, the Lions are in pretty good shape.

I've already told you what this victory means. Now let's move on to some things I liked from what I saw of this game in the Arrowhead Stadium press box:

Final-drive theatrics: In relative terms, the 98-yard drive that ended with Calvin Johnson's game-winning 6-yard touchdown catch is every bit as meaningful as The Drive that got the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl in January 1987. It might have been the difference between a 2011 playoff spot and another offseason of disappointment for this franchise. Quarterback Matthew Stafford completed four passes to Johnson on the drive and a fifth resulted in a 17-yard pass interference to put the Lions in a goal-to-go situation. It was great to see Stafford zero in on the Lions' best chance to score in what initially appeared to be a remote situation. Remember, the Lions took over at their 2-yard line with 2:14 remaining. Johnson finished with a career-high 214 receiving yards and now has a career-high 14 touchdown receptions this season.

StaffordWatch: After his fumble gave the Raiders a 27-14 lead with 7:47 remaining, Stafford threw for a total of 156 yards and two touchdowns. I would say that's how you want a franchise quarterback to respond under playoff pressure.

Suh-spotting: Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had one tackle in his return from a two-game suspension, but his block of Sebastian Janikowski's 65-yard field goal attempt sealed the victory on the final play. A 65-yard attempt is a low-percentage kick, even with Janikowski's strong leg, but credit Suh for ensuring that the ball never got a chance to approach the uprights.

AvrilWatch: I thought defensive end Cliff Avril made the defensive play of the game, continuing his pursuit of Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer and eventually sacking him with 13 seconds left to play. The sack cost the Raiders 3 yards and forced them to use their final timeout, severely limiting their options for the next two plays.

What's next: The Lions will host the San Diego Chargers on Saturday at Ford Field.

Wrap-up: Saints 42, Vikings 20

December, 18, 2011
A few thoughts on an entirely predictable outcome at the Metrodome:

What it means: The Minnesota Vikings dropped to 2-12 on the season and are now one loss away from tying the franchise record for most defeats in a season. (They were 3-13 in 1984.) And for what it's worth, they're not eliminated from contention for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. The Indianapolis Colts (1-13) and the St. Louis Rams (2-12) might have something to say with that, but one can dream.

Porous pass defense: As we discussed earlier in the week, it's impossible to win the in NFL if you can't defend the pass. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is one of the league's best, but the Vikings never came close to challenging him. They set a new NFL record for going a ninth consecutive game without an interception, all while allowing Brees to complete a stunning 32 of 40 passes for 412 yards and five touchdowns. That's varsity vs. JV stuff. Coach Leslie Frazier, a former NFL defensive back who has coached the secondary for much of his career, said: "I don't think I did a good job getting my guys prepared."

PonderWatch: Another underwhelming performance from quarterback Christian Ponder drew questions about whether Frazier still unequivocally supports him as the team's quarterback of the future. After Ponder completed 14 of 31 passes and threw another interception, Frazier said: "He struggled today. … We have two games left so I want to continue to watch him play and understand that we still have to get some pieces around him. He has done some good things along the way. He struggled the last few ball games. .... But we have two more games so there is more time for him to continue to improve and to get some work." That was something less than unequivocal, wasn't it?

What's next: The Vikings will play Saturday at the Washington Redskins.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Mounting injuries and the firestorm of Sam Hurd’s arrest on federal drug charges earlier in the week proved too much for the Bears to overcome Sunday in an embarrassing 38-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

The Bears remain in contention for a postseason berth, but the team's pulse is fading fast.

Let’s take a look at this team’s ineptitude in depth:

What it means: The loss doesn’t mathematically eliminate the Bears from postseason contention, but it sure put the team right on the verge of disappearing from the hunt. The Bears entered Sunday one game behind the Detroit Lions (8-5) for a wild-card spot. So even if Chicago would have defeated the Seahawks and Detroit lost, the Bears would have still been behind the Lions because of the teams’ division records.

So Chicago’s remaining outings against NFC North foes Green Bay and Minnesota and Detroit’s last game with the Packers are still important. But the Seahawks have moved past the Bears in the NFC standings. Although they have the same record (7-7), the Seahawks hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Bears used to win when D scores: The Bears racked up a 3-0 record through the first 13 games when they scored a defensive touchdown. But the trend came to an end Sunday in the loss to the Seahawks.

Chicago put a defensive touchdown on the board with 2:23 left in the first quarter when Julius Peppers sacked and stripped Seahawks quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and Israel Idonije pounced on the ball for a TD. The score initially seemed like an omen the Bears would pull this one out.

After all, the Bears won a Week 10 game against the Lions when Charles Tillman and Major Wright scored on interception returns of 44 and 24 yards, respectively. The club also captured victories over the Carolina Panthers in Week 4, and the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1 thanks to defensive TDs by D.J. Moore and Brian Urlacher.

It all came to an end against the Seahawks.

The Bears are now 14-2 since 2005 when they score a defensive touchdown and 17-5 in such situations since 2004.

Injury bug biting: Injuries continue to decimate Chicago’s roster. The Bears lost starters Johnny Knox (lower back) and safety Chris Conte (foot/ankle) to injuries against the Seahawks.

It’s unclear whether Knox and Conte will miss extended time with their injuries, but the club’s numbers continue to dwindle.

The Bears entered the game without quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte, defensive tackle Henry Melton and safety Major Wright.

Importance of scoring first: The Bears typically win when they strike first. Over the past eight years, the Bears had compiled a record of 41-24 when they put points on the board first. Over that same span, the Bears were 29-31 when opponents scored first, including 2-3 in 2011.

Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run with 8:41 left in the first quarter for the first points of the game. Apparently, that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.

The Bears are now 29-32 when the opponent scores first and 2-4 in 2011.

More fun with numbers: The Bears are now 12-29 since 2004 when they finish with a negative turnover margin.

The Bears were minus-five in turnover margin thanks to a Knox fumble, a trio of Caleb Hanie interceptions -- two returned for touchdowns -- and a fourth-quarter Josh McCown INT.

Set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season, Hanie has likely sealed his fate in Chicago with his poor play over four starts.

What’s next: The Bears face the Green Bay Packers on the road Sunday night.

Rapid Reaction: Chiefs 19, Packers 14

December, 18, 2011

KANSAS CITY -- Some thoughts on a historic day at Arrowhead Stadium:

What it means: The Packers lost for the first time in 364 days, snapping a streak of 19 consecutive victories that ended two short of tying the NFL record. They missed a chance to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but at 13-1, they could secure it as early as Monday night if the San Francisco 49ers lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Still, injury concerns on the offensive line figure to be a big part of the football discussion in Green Bay this week.

Controlled: The result was no fluke. The Packers briefly led 7-6 in the third quarter but the Chiefs controlled this game for most of the afternoon. The Chiefs' offense controlled the ball for more than 37 minutes, punted only twice and got a 299-yard performance from quarterback Kyle Orton in his first start. They ground up yardage against the Packers' defense all afternoon and finished with 442 total yards.

RodgersWatch: Sunday was the worst game of the season for the Packers' passing game. I counted at least half a dozen drops, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers & Co. clearly had a hard time adjusting to life without receiver Greg Jennings. It was the first time all season Rodgers has completed fewer than half of his passes.

Missed challenge: Should Packers coach Mike McCarthy have challenged a key play midway through the fourth quarter, one that ultimately led to a Chiefs field goal? On the play, Chiefs tight end Leonard Pope appeared to fumble into the end zone at the end of a 33-yard reception. McCarthy decided against a challenge, but former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said via Twitter that the call would have been overturned on review and the ball awarded to the Packers. It might not have made an impact on the outcome, but you never know.

Injury report: The Packers finished the game with right guard T.J. Lang playing right tackle after injuries to starter Bryan Bulaga (knee) and backup Derek Sherrod (leg). Evan Dietrich-Smith replaced Lang at left guard, meaning the Packers had only two players -- center Scott Wells and right guard Josh Sitton -- in the positions they opened the season at.

What's next: Merry Christmas. The Packers will host the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field next Sunday night.