Fan Interference: NFC North teams at crossroads

C3K sports blogger looks ahead to remainder of NFL season
Fan Interference: NFC North teams at crossroads

In the new book “Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles’ Solo Careers,” author Andrew Grant Jackson argues that both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have experienced major artistic resurgences in the last twenty years.

He writes this because A) It’s true (admittedly there was nowhere for Ringo to go but up after disappearing in the 1980s); and B) He needed to fill out his book with something after the deaths of John Lennon and George Harrison significantly reduced their musical output.

While the Fab Four were arguably the best band of all time, the four-team NFC North is now arguably the best division in football, with the highest average winning percentage (.622) among all eight NFL divisions.

Now, going into week 11, all four NFC North teams are at an important crossroads: The Packers have won four in a row but keep getting bad injury news; the Bears, coming off their ugliest offensive game of the season, are now without their starting quarterback Monday night; the Vikings know they need to come out of their bye week getting better quarterback play from Christian Ponder; and the Lions know they simply need to start winning games to make it back to the postseason.

To make the division storylines more compelling, each team is going to rise or fall based on head-to-head matchups: There are still a remarkable eight out of twelve NFC North division games remaining over the last seven weeks of the schedule.

So which NFC North team or teams are most likely to pull a McCartney or Starr-like late-season resurgence (or simply keep a good thing going)? Let’s take a look:

1. Chicago Bears (currently 7-2): No team in the division, and perhaps the entire league, has been more impressive than the Chicago Bears. They have the largest overall margin of victory in football, a good running game, and the scariest defense in the league.

Yet, we’ve seen this before and it didn’t end well: Just last year, the Bears were 7-3. But then QB Jay Cutler got hurt, the Bears went on a horrific five-game losing streak, and they ended the season 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

Now last year’s broken thumb that Cutler suffered in week 11 and this year’s concussion he suffered in week 10 can’t be fairly compared. But durability will always be a concern for Cutler – which the Bears acknowledged by signing veteran QB Jason Campbell as his backup last off-season. And as good as the defense has played, they simply can’t be expected to keep up their torrid scoring and turnover pace.

But if the Bears can stay healthy, their upcoming schedule is relatively easy, with only Monday night’s game against San Francisco and the Packers rematch looking tough. At this point, even if Cutler were to miss significant time, it’d be a shocker if the Bears didn’t get into the playoffs: Final record prediction: 11-5.

2. Green Bay Packers (currently 6-3): Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Packers are winning games (four in a row) without being able to sustain a running game on offense or being able to stop the pass on defense. Oh, and they’ve been totally decimated by injuries.

And stop me if you’ve heard this one: Nothing really matters as long as Aaron Rodgers keeps playing at a historic level.

The problem with that last statement is that Rodgers, while still the best in the business, isn’t quite playing at last year’s level, and that the team’s injuries, particularly the recent news that defensive leader Clay Matthews is likely out for at least two weeks, seem even more decimating than in years past.

But there are reasons to be encouraged: The Packers, led by James Starks and Alex Green, had their best rushing day in three years in their last win before the bye. Charles Woodson is close to returning. Randall Cobb and James Jones have been more than adequate filling in for the injured Greg Jennings.

Oh, and did I mention Aaron Rodgers and the fact the Packers have just won four games in a row?

Though they’re not blowing teams out (except for that tremendously impressive win over Houston a month ago), the Packers look likely to continue to be able to grind out victories.

Like last season, the collective injuries and questionable pass defense may take their toll – but not until the playoffs. Final record prediction: 12-4.   

3. Minnesota Vikings (currently 6-4): Until beating Detroit last week, the Vikings seemed to be in a freefall after their surprising 4-1 start. While the 34-24 victory kept them out of the NFC North cellar, it didn’t stop speculation that the team’s hot start was thanks more to being able to sneak up on beatable teams during a favorable early schedule than to actual talent.

The biggest reason for the Vikings’ troubles of late is that QB Christian Ponder has – excepting the latest victory over Detroit – played so poorly that fans of the purple have begun to pine for the return of Tavaris Jackson. And to make matters worse, the Vikes’ schedule is murderous down the stretch, with two games each against the Bears and Packers as well as a trip to Houston.

The good news for the Vikings is that their secondary has improved somewhat and that RB Adrian Peterson is the freakiest medical miracle since “The Bionic Woman.” He’s the league MVP at this point, but his play won’t be enough to stop the Vikings’ slide. Final record prediction: 7-9.

4. Detroit Lions (currently 4-5): NFL pundits everywhere seem perplexed by the Detroit Lions’ struggles this season, with most of them apparently assuming that they were a lock for a second-straight playoff appearance. Did they forget that this team is hardly accustomed to dealing with success, having made the playoffs last year for the first time since 1999?

Look, the Lions have talent. But they’re sloppy. They start slow on offense and their defense wears down late due to being overworked early in games. They can’t run the ball, and if you can provide a logical explanation as to how, in the league’s statistically best passing offense, QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson hadn’t connected for a touchdown pass until last week, then you are wiser than I.

The Lions could finish relatively strong, with five of their last seven games at home, although it doesn’t help that they have to play Green Bay twice, Houston, and Atlanta down the stretch. Final record prediction: 7-9.

So far this season, the NFC North has been full of surprises, from the Vikings’ fast start to the Packers’ slow start to Adrian Peterson’s explosive return from major knee surgery to simply the overall strength of the division.

But as the season heads to the final quarter, familiarity will likely reign supreme: The Packers will win the NFC North while the Bears will finish a close second. And another meeting between the two – which would be the second in three seasons – in the NFC Championship game doesn’t seem like a long shot at this point.

In the big picture, after a couple of disastrous seasons, the arrow could be pointing up for the Vikings (especially if Ponder improves), while Detroit seems unable to build on last year’s success.

In other words, the Lions will probably continue to be the Ringo of the fabulous NFC North.