NFC North: 2012 Week 15 coverage
December, 16, 2012
A few thoughts on Sunday's events in Arizona:
What it means: The Detroit Lions have lost six consecutive games, and Sunday's embarrassing performance to the Arizona Cardinals -- losers of nine consecutive games, including a 58-0 defeat last week -- is the kind of game that gets people fired. On the plus side, the Lions did break their tie with the Cardinals in 2013 draft positioning.
AccountabilityWatch: This game has to be considered the low point of coach Jim Schwartz's tenure. There were some bad losses in 2009 and even the early parts of 2010, but getting blown out by a team that hadn't won in more than two months is a result that makes you question the direction of the program. Surely, the Lions were playing without a number of good players -- from defensive tackle Nick Fairley to tight end Brandon Pettigrew to three key wide receivers -- but that doesn't excuse the kind of sloppy play we'll detail in a moment. Have the Lions already checked out on the 2012 season? It would be hard to argue against it at the moment. I don't think it will cost Schwartz a job, but it should rank as the most worrisome loss on his head-coaching resume.
StaffordWatch: Based on passer rating, at least, quarterback Matthew Stafford had his worst game since his rookie season. Three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, left him with a 37.4 rating. His only games with lower ratings were his first-ever game in 2009 and the Thanksgiving Day game last year, which he played four days after severely injuring his left shoulder. There is no doubt Stafford didn't have most of his top receivers, but elite quarterbacks are expected to rise above such obstacles.
Mistakes galore: In addition to the two interception returns, the Lions also set up the Cardinals at their five-yard line by muffing a punt in the second quarter. That's 21 points the Lions handed to a Cardinals team whose own offense has been dreadful this season. The Cardinals' offense managed only 191 total yards and converted only two first downs and still won in a runaway.
What's next: A national television audience will get to render its own judgment against the Lions in a Saturday night game against the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field.
December, 16, 2012
A few thoughts on Sunday's events in St. Louis:
What it means: The Minnesota Vikings remain in the NFC playoff race with a takedown of the St. Louis Rams, just their second road victory in seven attempts this season. Almost as important: Tailback Adrian Peterson is now 188 yards away from a 2,000-yard season and 294 yards from breaking the NFL record for most rushing yards in a season.
Playoff implications: At the moment, the Vikings have the seventh seed in the NFC's six-team playoff format. That could change later Sunday if the Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. If that happens, the Vikings would move up to the No. 6 seed. But for the moment they lose the tiebreaker with the 8-6 New York Giants, based on each team's conference record, but hold the edge over the 8-6 Chicago Bears because of their superior division record. The Vikings would also lose the tiebreaker to the Seattle Seahawks, currently 8-5, if it comes to that, and the 8-6 Washington Redskins. So Vikings fans should root for the Redskins to win the NFC East and for the Giants to keep losing. The Giants finish the season at the Baltimore Ravens and at home against the Philadelphia Eagles.
PetersonWatch: Peterson started this game slowly, averaging a yard per carry in his first nine attempts before capitalizing on a Rams blitz for an 82-yard touchdown run that opened the floodgates in the second quarter. It was Peterson's second 82-yard run of the season, and he also added a 52-yard scamper to push his total to 212 yards on 24 attempts. Peterson's season total of 1,812 yards is already a career high and it puts every imaginable goal within reach. To break Eric Dickerson's record of 2,105 yards in a season, he'll need to average 147 yards over his last two games. He has six games this season of at least 150 yards.
PonderWatch: Peterson will get most of the attention, but quarterback Christian Ponder did his part in building the early lead. He converted a fourth-and-1 on the Vikings' opening possession with a 3-yard run, and later he capped the drive with a 5-yard touchdown scramble. You saw Ponder at his mobile best on that play, pulling away from a free rusher -- Rams defensive lineman Robert Quinn -- and weaving his way into the end zone. Ponder finished with 131 passing yards, but this was not a negative game by any means -- a step forward from his recent outings.
Roster-wide contributions: Vikings place-kicker Blair Walsh drilled five field goals, including three of at least 50 yards. He has now converted 29 of 32 attempts this season. Defensive end Everson Griffen, in coverage on a zone blitz, intercepted a Sam Bradford pass down the seam and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown. And the Vikings played an exceptionally clean game as a team, committing no turnovers and only three accepted penalties. That's the way this team has to win on the road.
What's next: The Vikings will need to find a way to win at the 12-2 Houston Texans in order to keep their playoff hopes alive.
December, 16, 2012
CHICAGO -- A few thoughts on Sunday's events at Soldier Field:
What it means: The Green Bay Packers made it hard on themselves, but they clinched their second consecutive NFC North title -- quite an accomplishment after starting the season 2-3. They have won eight of their past nine games since that point and on Sunday extended their NFL-leading divisional winning streak to 12 games. The Bears, meanwhile, lost for the fifth time in six games since starting 7-1 and now will need help to get into the playoffs.
LovieWatch: Did Bears coach Lovie Smith coach his final game at Soldier Field? Time will tell. His team has collapsed in December for the second time in as many years, and it must win its final two games -- both on the road -- to have a realistic chance at a wild-card spot. This game could have huge ramifications from a franchise perspective.
Say what? Leading 21-10 midway through the fourth quarter, the Packers took a completely unnecessary and ultimately harmful risk on special teams. They had punt returner Randall Cobb throw a backward pass to first-year player Jeremy Ross, presumably in an attempt to put the game away with a big return. Cobb once played quarterback, but his throw was low and Ross could not catch it. Bears safety Anthony Walters recovered the live ball at the Packers' 16-yard line, and Olindo Mare's 34-yard field goal made it a one-score game. I look forward to hearing the Packers' explanation for the trick play.
Momentum change: The Packers turned a 7-7 game late in the second quarter into a 21-7 lead midway through the third quarter in part because of a constant problem for the Bears this season: finding someone other than Brandon Marshall to reliably catch the ball. Quarterback Jay Cutler's interception to cornerback Casey Hayward appeared to be a miscommunication with receiver Devin Hester, at least based on Cutler's immediate reaction on the field and later on the sideline. The Packers soon made it 14-7 at halftime and took the opening drive of the third quarter in for another touchdown. All three of their scores were throws to receiver James Jones.
CrosbyWatch: The Packers made it through another shaky performance by place-kicker Mason Crosby, who shanked a 43-yard attempt in the second quarter and hit the right upright from 42 yards in the fourth quarter. The Packers also passed on a 45-yard attempt in the second quarter to go for it on fourth-and-6. The last thing the Packers wanted to do was consider a change at place-kicker this late in the season, but their decision is getting more difficult to deny by the moment.
MatthewsWatch: Playing for the first time in more than a month, linebacker Clay Matthews had a big impact with two sacks while also knocking down a pass. Overall, the Packers held the injury-plagued Bears offense to 190 yards. The Bears also lost a touchdown and a long completion late in the fourth quarter because of offensive pass interference calls against rookie Alshon Jeffery, who will learn in his career to be more subtle with his push-offs.
What's next: The Packers will host the Tennessee Titans next Sunday, while the Bears will travel to play at the Arizona Cardinals.