NFC North: rapid reaction 13
MINNEAPOLIS -- And down the stretch they come.
With 75 percent of the season in the books, Minnesota has taken control of the NFC North. There have been plenty of ups and downs already in the Black and Blue division, but the Vikings' dominating second-half performance at the Metrodome suggests they are capable of pulling off their first division title since the 2000 season.
Most important, the Vikings are the only team that can win the division without help. They have the toughest remaining schedule, including home games against Atlanta (8-4) and the N.Y. Giants (11-1) to end the season. But after consecutive double-digit victories over Jacksonville and the Bears, you would have to say the Vikings are the only North team playing their best football during the most important part of the season.
The Bears will be left to wonder what might have happened if quarterback Kyle Orton hadn't thrown three second-half interceptions. But no matter what the explanation, the Bears will now need some help -- namely, from the Vikings -- to win a division they have led for most of the season.
It's safe to assume that Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy will face some second-guessing for calling three consecutive running plays in a goal-line situation late in Sunday's loss to Carolina. The game was tied at 28, quarterback Aaron Rodgers had been lights-out in the second half and the Panthers defense seemed confused for most of the second half as the Packers rallied from a 21-10 deficit.
Brandon Jackson gained six yards on the first play, but Jackson and fullback John Kuhn were stopped for no gain at the 1-yard line -- forcing a 19-yard Mason Crosby field goal with 2:19 remaining. The difference between a touchdown and field goal ended up the margin of defeat in an eventual 35-31 Panthers victory.
It's possible that Rodgers was still shaken up after absorbing a late hit from Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers. But given the way the Packers' passing game was producing, you would have liked to have seen at least one throw in that goal-line situation.
Even so, the Packers' special teams deserve just as much blame, if not more, for this loss. Green Bay thoroughly dominated after halftime, but a pair of long kickoff returns from Mark Jones -- for 51 and 45 yards -- set up Carolina on both of their second-half touchdowns.
Stranger things have happened, but it's hard to imagine the Packers' playoff chances surviving this weekend. They will be two games behind whoever wins Sunday night's game between Chicago and Minnesota, and at 5-7. They're on the far fringes of the NFC wild-card race.
At least Jason Hanson worked his way into the history books. Otherwise, Thursday was one of Detroit's most forgettable days in a horrific season.
Hanson tied the NFL record for most career field goals of 50 or more yards, hitting on a 53-yard kick in the first quarter of the Lions' matchup against Tennessee. That kick made it 7-3, after which the Lions were outscored 40-7 the rest of the way in an emotionless blowout at Ford Field.
Unlike their five most recent games, the Lions never held a lead in this game and never once looked like they came to play. They fumbled on the second play of the game, gave up a touchdown on the fourth play and were down 14-3 midway through the first quarter.
The Lions hardly slowed down the Titans' rushing attack, giving up 293 yards on the ground alone. Sadly, it wasn't even an opponent's highest run total this season. That mark belongs to Atlanta, who rushed for 318 yards against the Lions in Week 1.
Unfortunately for the Lions, there are four more weeks to work on it.