By Tom Pollin
On CHHF's Black & Blue Division Beat (@tjpollin)
Other than the Green Bay Packers’ success against the Chicago Bears last Thursday night (which you can read here), this isn’t going to be a weekend that players on the teams in the NFC North will be bragging about when they're retired and bouncing grandchildren off their reconstructed knees.
The Vikings and Lions both missed ending long road losing streaks on Sunday. The Vikings lost to the Colts eight times when they were in Baltimore and now are 0-3 against them in Indianapolis after losing 23-20. The Lions’ losing streak in San Francisco has now reached 12-games after their 27-19 loss on Sunday night.
All four teams are now tied for the division lead with 1-1 records. All four teams also have flaws to be addressed as the season progresses. Whoever is successful in that effort will be rewarded by being allowed to play extra football in January.
Here are the five things we learned about the division as week two wraps up:
1. The Lions Still Lack a Signature Victory
The Lions were 0-5 against quality opponents last season and they never seemed to seriously threaten the 49ers at any point on Sunday night. It took quarterback Alex Smith four plays on the 49ers’ first possession to drive his offense 67-yards and take a 7-0 lead.
Matthew Stafford didn’t take a red zone snap until after the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. At that point the Lions were already behind 27-12.
The Lions went into the game shorthanded on defense with safety Louis Delmas and cornerbacks Chris Houston and Bill Bentley inactive for the game. Smith took advantage of the patchwork secondary the Lions had to field, finishing with a 107.7 Offensive Passer Rating.
The Lions got off to a strong start in week one against the run, only surrendering 2.89-yards per carry against Steven Jackson and the Rams but they couldn't shut down Frank Gore and the 49ers. The 49ers averaged 5.5-yards per carry Sunday night after trampling the Lions’ defense in 2011 for 7.0-yards per carry on their way to a 25-19 win at Ford Field.
Unless something unexpected happens in the next couple of weeks, the Lions won’t be getting another chance for a quality win until after their bye week when they travel to Philadelphia to face the Eagles.
2. Christian Ponder Led Another Fourth Quarter Comeback Effort
Ponder brought the Vikings back from 14-points behind in the fourth quarter against the Colts but left 31-seconds on the clock for Andrew Luck to work with. Luck completed a pair of 20-yard passes to move the ball into position for Adam Vinatieri’s 53-yard game winning field goal.
Behind 20-6 with 10-minutes left in the fourth quarter, Ponder put together two drives of 53 and 54-yards to move the Vikings into position for a second straight overtime game but their defense, which had kept the Colts’ offense under control most of the second half, couldn’t close out in the end.
Ponder is the first Vikings quarterback to record 100+ Offensive Passer Ratings in the opening two weeks of a season. He only threw for 5.9-Real Passing YPA on Sunday but didn’t throw an interception for the second consecutive week, which he never accomplished in 2011.
3. The Vikings’ Defensive Line Failed for the Second Straight Week
The Bears’ defense, led by a dominating rush by their front four, sacked Luck 3-times and forced 5-turnovers in week one. The Vikings finally picked up their first sack of the season by a defensive lineman. But the Vikes couldn’t generate enough pressure to force Luck into an interception.
Defensive end Jared Allen also made an impact on the game, but not in the way he and Vikings fans expected.
On the Colts first drive of the third quarter, on third and 16 at the Minnesota 46-yard line, Luck was running out of bounds after not being able to find a receiver. As he crossed the sideline Allen wrapped his legs up and brought him down. The 15-yard personal foul gave the Colts new life on the Minnesota 30.
The Colts ultimately finished the drive with a field goal, picking up a three point gift from the mistake.
4. Jay Cutler Had a Horrendous Game on Thursday
If there’s a sentence that shouldn’t need to be typed, that last one is it. That the issue is raised at all stems from discussion that has emerged from the wreckage of the Bears’ meltdown in Green Bay.
While most everyone, except for members of the “J’Webb Nation” (yes, there actually is one), believe left tackle J’Marcus Webb, along with the rest of the Bears' offensive line left an aroma of fully fertilized turf behind them in Lambeau Field, there are quite a few who believe that the line’s play excuses most of what was a pitiful quarterbacking performance by Cutler in the game.
Cutler was sacked seven times by the Packers and finished the game with a 28.2 Offensive Passer Rating. At Pro-Football Reference.Com, the quarterback Single Game Sacked Leaders list goes back four years to 2008. There are 17 quarterbacks in that time frame that make up a total of 22 times a quarterback has been sacked more than seven times in a game. Those quarterbacks are:
Only one quarterback going back the past four seasons finished a game with a worse passer rating, Bears 2011 back-up quarterback Caleb Hanie, whose incompetence at the position dropped the Bears out of a sure playoff spot in 2011 (Tyler Palko’s only NFL victory as a starting quarterback).
Cutler is the only quarterback in this group to throw four interceptions to go along with his No. 21 ranked passer rating.
There's one of two conclusions to draw from this table. Either the Bears have greatly mis-judged the talent of Jay Cutler since stellar quarterbacks John Beck, J.T. O'Sullivan and even Josh McCown managed to put up better numbers under similar conditions than he did or, Cutler dramatically underperformed along with the rest of his offensive unit and coordinator Mike Tice last Thursday night.
5. It Just Seems Like the 49ers Are In the NFC North
Next weekend the San Francisco 49ers play their third NFC North division team in three weeks when they travel to Minnesota to face the Vikings. While the Vikings are a young team that has made definite improvements since 2011, the 49ers just finished convincing wins over the Packers and Lions.
In the other games next weekend, the Bears and Lions will try to get back in the win column with the Rams in Chicago and the Titans in Tennessee.
The Packers take their turn in the prime time spotlight on Monday Night Football in Seattle against a Seahawks team that brought the Cowboys crashing back to Earth on Sunday.
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