GREEN BAY—The NFC North is the only division in the NFL with all four of its teams at .500 or better. In fact, the other seven divisions all have at least half their members below the break-even point.
So, considering the Green Bay Packers play five of their remaining seven games against NFC North opponents, and a sixth game is against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, who sit at 6-3 and in first place in the NFC East, the schedule has formed a double-edged sword.
The Packers’ stretch run will be as challenging as it gets, but the team’s postseason fate is entirely in its own hands. The Packers, who swept their division for the first time last year, can use this schedule to not only get into the postseason but perhaps improve their playoff position along the way.
“You know you have to be at your best, because to do what we want to do, you have to win your division games,” Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers said. “When you have five of seven, we’re going to get a heavy dose of guys that know a lot about us, and we know a lot about them.
“You have to put extra effort into the preparation. There’s always a little more intensity that comes with the division games, and it’ll start right as soon as we get back.”
Here’s a breakdown of the Packers’ remaining opponents:
Detroit Lions, 4-4 (Nov. 18, Dec. 9)
After a 1-3 start, the Lions have won three of four and are starting to look more like the playoff team of a year ago, except with a better defense.
The Lions lead the league in passing yardage, and Calvin Johnson ranks third in receiving yards with 767, but surprisingly “Megatron” has just one TD catch. The offense’s problems have come in the red zone.
The Lions have come away with no points from inside the opponent’s 20-yard line seven times this season, tied for most in the league. Three red-zone turnovers doomed a chance to upset the Bears in Chicago in a 13-7 loss three weeks ago.
If Detroit can solve its red-zone woes, its defense has improved enough to challenge for a playoff spot. The Lions have climbed from 23rd in yards allowed last year to seventh this year. Early special teams problems that cost them potential wins against Tennessee and Minnesota also appear to have been shored up.
New York Giants, 6-3 (Nov. 25)
A rematch of last year’s NFC Divisional playoff, this promises to have a postseason feel to it.
The Giants have played a ton of close games, with six of their nine contests decided by seven or fewer points. Fourth-quarter defensive breakdowns have cost them losses to the Eagles and Steelers, but QB Eli Manning led a late comeback to beat the Redskins and showed enough resolve at crunch time to beat the Cowboys two weeks ago, despite blowing a 23-0 lead.
New York also rolled over 6-2 San Francisco by a score of 26-3, a road win that ranks as one of the most impressive in the NFL this season, alongside the Packers’ blowout of the Texans in Houston.
Defensively, the Giants are almost exactly what they were last year – a unit that gives up a lot of yards (25th in the league) but pressures the QB (25 sacks, tied for third) and takes the ball away (26 turnovers, second). It’s a formula that works, and it often puts the ball in Manning’s hands with the game on the line.
Minnesota Vikings, 5-4 (Dec. 2, 30)
Since a surprising 4-1 start that included an upset of the 49ers, the Vikings have dropped three of four, with their normally stout defense allowing at least 30 points in all three of the losses.
The larger concern, though, is the offense, specifically second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. The Vikings have two dangerous weapons in running back Adrian Peterson, who leads the league in rushing yards (957), and receiver Percy Harvin, tops in receptions (62) and remains an all-around threat as a runner, receiver and returner similar to Randall Cobb for the Packers.
Lately, Ponder hasn’t been the complementary piece to bring it all together. He has thrown eight interceptions in the last five games, after throwing none in the first four weeks, and two of his last three passing yardage totals have been a paltry 58 and 63 yards. The Vikings actually won the first of those games, a seven-point decision over Arizona, mostly thanks to an interception return for a touchdown by rookie safety Harrison Smith.
Ponder hasn’t posted a passer rating better than 90 since Week 3, and last week’s loss to Seattle showed that even when Peterson dominates a game (182 yards rushing), a Vikings’ win is no sure thing.
Chicago Bears, 7-1 (Dec. 16)
Chicago’s defense isn’t getting any younger, but somehow it keeps getting better. Led by longtime veterans Charles Tillman, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers, the Bears have scored almost as many touchdowns on defense as they’ve given up.
Chicago has seven interceptions returned for TDs, including two apiece by Tillman and Briggs, while allowing only nine TDs through eight games. That’s an astounding stat.
The Bears lead the league in takeaways with 28, and they’re always striving for more. Tillman forced four fumbles in one game alone against Tennessee last week, when the Bears also scored on a blocked punt.
The offense hasn’t done anything spectacular, but it hasn’t needed to. The running back tandem of Matt Forte and Michael Bush has combined for 802 yards and six TDs on the ground, and QB Jay Cutler’s numbers (59.8 completion percentage, 12 TDs, 8 INTs, 85.3 rating) are pedestrian.
Seven, or more than half, of Cutler’s TD passes have gone to former Denver teammate Brandon Marshall – the most dynamic Bears pass-catching threat in a long time – but the Packers showed what can happen when Marshall is taken out of the game. He had just two catches for 24 yards in Green Bay in Week 2, Cutler threw four picks and the Bears gained just 168 yards.
The next two weeks will decide whether the Bears have a firm hold on first place in the division, or if they’re in for a long, drawn-out fight. They play the Texans (7-1) and 49ers (6-2) in consecutive games, both in prime time.
Tennessee Titans, 3-6 (Dec. 23)
The Packers’ only remaining opponent currently sub-.500, the Titans beat the Lions in overtime early this season but have been blown out by the Vikings and Bears with Matt Hasselbeck starting at quarterback in place of an injured Jake Locker.
Locker is expected back soon, and his development is the key to Tennessee’s future, but how much he’ll progress by Week 16 is anybody’s guess. Running back Chris Johnson isn’t the 2,000-yard rusher of the past, but he is averaging a healthy 5.0 yards per carry this season.
The Titans’ biggest issues are on defense, where they rank near the league’s bottom against both the run (30th) and pass (27th). Only twice in nine games has an opponent failed to score at least 30 points against Tennessee, and even though the Titans won two of those shootouts, a young QB will likely lose those more often than not.