NFC North: rapid reaction 15
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Minnesota's magic number is one.
That's the upshot of Sunday's impressive victory over the NFC West champion. The Vikings jumped out on Arizona with a 21-first point quarter and protected the lead for the remainder of the afternoon. Now, they can clinch their first-ever NFC North title with one more victory -- or one more loss by the Chicago Bears -- over the season's final two weeks.
The division could be decided, in fact, before Chicago steps back on the field. The Vikings will host Atlanta next Sunday at the Metrodome, but Chicago won't take the field until Monday night against Green Bay. (The Packers officially were eliminated from postseason contention on Sunday.)
Even after winning their fourth consecutive game, the Vikings have a few questions left to answer. Namely: Will they stay with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who has helped them to a pair of December victories? Or will they reinstall Gus Frerotte as their starter when he recovers from a fracture in his lower back?
Those are questions for later this week. For now, the Vikings can take comfort that they're one favorable result away from a division title.
Sorry, Detroit fans: The Lions' record is officially broken.
Once again, your team hung with a strong opponent for most of its game Sunday, turning what many figured would be a blowout into an interesting and competitive game. Quarterback Dan Orlovsky upheld the team's faith in him, and although they never led in this game, the Lions actually were tied with Indianapolis midway through the fourth quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium.
And in case you're wondering, no one has started 0-15. To avoid that bit of infamy, the Lions will have to defeat New Orleans at a presumably blacked-out Ford Field next Sunday.
Green Bay guaranteed itself the worst season in coach Mike McCarthy's three-year tenure Sunday with a loss at Jacksonville.
McCarthy finished 8-8 in 2006 and 13-3 last season, but the Packers are now in total free fall: They've lost nine of 12 games since a 2-0 start in 2008.
Here's all I needed to see Sunday: The image of Jacksonville tailback Maurice Jones-Drew dragging Packers linebacker Brandon Chillar 2 yards for the game-winning score. The Packers have been trying to hold on for dear life during the surprising duration of this downturn. This year, for reasons that will be debated for a long time, they just aren't strong enough.
Based on the current NFC standings and tiebreakers, the Bears essentially need to win their final four games to ensure a legitimate opportunity for a postseason berth. They've won the first two games in that stretch and have now shifted the onus to Minnesota, which has a tough matchup Sunday at Arizona.
A Bears loss Thursday night -- one that seemed likely as quarterback Kyle Orton started falling to the turf on a sack with four seconds remaining in regulation -- would have given the Vikings a chance to clinch the division as early as Sunday. At worse, the Vikings would have maintained a one-game lead in the division with two weeks left in the season. Now, the Bears would be tied for the NFC North lead if the Vikings lose to the Cardinals.
I'm sure I was not the only one who considered that scenario an impossibility during the final minute of regulation Thursday night, when the Bears displayed no interest in playing for a win until it made no sense. The Saints had run off 17 consecutive points to take a 24-21 lead, and the last thing the Bears should have been hoping for was overtime.
But Chicago took only one shot into the end zone on the 13-play drive that ended regulation. Yet the Bears inexplicably tried to squeeze in one more play with seven seconds remaining, running the risk of a pre-snap penalty that would have ended the game after a 10-second runoff. UPDATE: I stand corrected. There would have been no runoff. But the Bears had still run the risk of the clock running out on a prolonged play. Indeed, Chicago fans watched in horror as Orton was sacked, but he was able to call a timeout with two seconds left to allow kicker Robbie Gould to send it into overtime.
I realize that sequence didn't impact the outcome of the game, but I needed to get it off my chest. Ultimately, the difference came down to the overtime coin toss and a 38-yard pass-interference call drawn by receiver Devin Hester.
In the end, we're on track for extended drama in the NFC North title chase. The Bears still need help from Minnesota to win the division championship, but they did what they had to Thursday to keep the pressure on.