By Tom Pollin
The NFC North's Black & Blue Previewer (@tjpollin)
All four teams of the NFC North host games this weekend. The 1-5 Carolina Panthers travel to Soldier Field in Chicago to face the division leading 5-1 Bears. The way the Bears are currently playing a trip to Chicago is not likely to be the cure to what ails Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera, a former linebacker and defensive coordinator for the Bears.
The Packers host Jacksonville at Lambeau Field. There hasn’t been a worse team in the NFL than the Jaguars since…well, the 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Minnesota Vikings draw the division’s prime time assignment Thursday night against the better than their record Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Detroit Lions face the 4-3 Seattle Seahawks.
Here are five things for NFC North fans to know as the division prepares for a full weekend of football.
1. The Vikings need a prime time performance.
Neither team has spent a lot of time under the prime time lights in recent years but they kick off the NFL’s Week Eight action. The Vikings are 5-2, a half-game behind the Bears while the Buccaneers are 2-4 but those four losses are by a total of 22 points (or 5.5 points per game).
The main question the Vikings need an answer to is, can Christian Ponder’s passing numbers bounce back to September levels or is it possible he hasn’t hit rock bottom yet?
Ponder started the season looking like he was ready to be the answer for the Vikings at quarterback but last week his game had regressed to the point where only a 153-yards rushing performance by “Bionic Back” Adrian Peterson and a pick-6 by safety Harrison Smith gave the Vikings a win against the offensively challenged Arizona Cardinals last week.
Speaking of Adrian Peterson, he’s going against the No. 1 defense in Rushing Yards per Attempt so the Vikings will be even more dependent on Ponder to make plays this week.
The Buccaneers have jumped out to leads in five or their six games this season and only have a 2-4 record to show for it. The one advantage they hold on offense in this game is Josh Freeman, who ranks No. 2 in Real Yards per Passing Attempt but the Vikings are No. 6 on the defensive side of this stat.
The Buccaneers have won their last five games against the Vikings but starting in 2011 to the present they're 1-9 on the road, 4-6 ATS.
If Ponder plays to the level he showed earlier in the season the Vikings win this game. They won’t win against the Buccaneers if Ponder puts up another 35.5 Offensive Passer Rating.
2. The Bears will be keeping Carolina in their slump for at least one more week.
The Carolina Panthers head to Chicago for a rematch of their 2011 Week Four meeting when both teams were looking for their second victory of the season. The Bears traded scores all afternoon with the Panthers before winning 34-29.
The Panthers are again coming into the game looking for their second victory of the season while the Bears are looking for their sixth win to keep themselves ahead of the tough Vikings and hard-charging Packers in the division.
The Panthers’ Quality Stats rankings go a long way towards describing why they’re 1-5 this year and why. Cam Newton is struggling to find even a small part of the magic that made him Rookie of the Year in 2011. Newton is No. 7 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt but only No. 18 in Real Quarterback Rating and No. 22 in Offensive Passer Rating.
Like other quarterbacks before him this season he’ll be facing the No. 1 team in Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt, Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and Defensive Passer Rating.
Even where the Bears are weak in the Quality Stats the Panthers aren’t in a position to do much about it. Jay Cutler is No. 25 across the board in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, Real Quarterback Rating and Offensive Passer Rating but the Panthers are no better than No. 20 on the defensive side of these stats.
In scoring, the Bears rank No. 8 in the league with a 27.0 points per game average against the No. 20 Panthers defense, who are No. 20 in points per game surrendered.. The Bears are No. 1 on defense in points per game scored against the No. 28 Panthers’ offense.
In addition to the statistical breakdown, here are a few numbers taken from the Spreadapedia database, available to Cold, Hard Football Facts Insiders, concerning this game.
Lovie Smith has an 8-2 record in games following a game on Monday Night, 7-3 record ATS. He’s also12-7 (.632) against teams from the NFC South but only 9-8-2 ATS.
Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera has an 0-4 record against the teams in the NFC North but is 2-2 ATS. One of those against the spread victories was against the Bears though.
The Bears are still playing at a Super Bowl level on defense and have enough on offense to beat a team that can’t seem to get their season straightened out. Considering the point spread analysis though, you might want to keep your cash in your pocket on this one.
3. A loss this weekend could doom the Lions’ playoff hopes.
That’s ridiculous, you say. A loss would make the Lions 2-5 in a conference with a bunch of 4-3 and 3-3 records. Where a loss does hurt them though is within the NFC North Division.
The Bears, Packers and to a lesser extent, the Vikings all play winnable games this weekend. Worst case scenario, the Lions will be three games behind their division rivals, and considering the very real possibility that the two wild card teams come out of the division, that’s a lot of ground to make up with nine games remaining.
What’s the case for the Lions get their season turned in the right direction, tough but doable against a Seahawks team that is very good on defense.
The Seahawks are No. 2 in Bendability forcing opponents to gain 19.63 yards for every point scored (or 137.41 yards to score seven points). In Scoreability the Lions are No. 26, needing to drive 18.33-yards per point scored (or 128.31 per seven points). The Lions will be working very hard for their points on Sunday.
The Seahawks are also No. 5 in Defensive Real Yards per Passing Attempt, No. 4 in Defensive Quarterback Rating and No. 5 in Defensive Passer Rating. They also rank No. 5 in Defensive Rush Yards per Attempt which shouldn’t affect the game much since the Lions don’t usually believe in running the football.
As head coach of the Seahawks, Pete Carroll has a 6-15 road record, 8-12-1 ATS. Playing a team with an up-and-down rookie quarterback at home should definitely the cure for what has ailed the Lions so far. If it isn’t, they may not find that cure this season.
4. The Packers enter their “unofficial” bye week.
The Jacksonville Jaguars aren’t just a train wreck, they’re a train wreck off a bridge into a 1,000 foot gorge and buried by a satellite that falls out of space to a direct hit on top of them.
You know that Mike McCarthy is going to have his team ready to play but you also know that they’ll be looking across the field on Sunday wondering how the Jaguars managed to find their way from Florida to northern Wisconsin.
Yes, on every given Sunday, don’t take anyone lightly, cliché, cliché, The Jaguars hold an advantage over the Packers in Rushing Yards per Attempt, which sounds good until the news comes out that Maurice Jones-Drew will be out for the immediate future with a foot injury.
In the meantime Blaine Gabbert has gone from being the worst quarterback in the NFL in 2011 to attempting a repeat performance in 2012.
The question on the Packers side of the ball is when will McCarthy pull his starters. Will they play a series after halftime or will they be slowly leaving the game throughout the second quarter.
I feel for the fans in Jacksonville. They’ve had quality football teams there before and know what good football looks like. It’s unfortunate for them that they have to look at what is presented to them each Sunday.
This is the same team that the Bears ran up 38 second half points against in Week Five. Prediction, the Packers name their score this weekend.
5. Charles “Peanut” Tillman needs a more menacing nickname.
Charles Tillman has been the Bears best cornerback almost from the time he came into the league in 2003 but it’s been only the last couple of years that he’s started to gain national attention for his talents.
Tillman always covers the opposition’s best wide receiver. He has the pass catching skills of a wide receiver. He’s not a player that’s among the league leaders in interceptions each season but he’s perfected a ball-punch that leaves ball carriers with empty arms when they least expect it.
It’s obvious that the nickname “Peanut” has kept Tillman from claiming a larger share of the spotlight alongside the rest of the league’s shutdown corners. Receivers covered by Darrelle Revis are heading to “Revis Island”, and he doesn’t have appreciably better numbers than Tillman over his career but does have much more notoriety.
Why couldn’t receivers covered by Tillman be said to be travelling to “Tillman Town”? Tillman can add a little touch of flair to this nickname by sending a deflated football to the following week’s opponent with a short message saying, “You’re now entering Tillman Town.” An added touch, the deflated football could be sent in a coffin shaped box (just ballparking a few things here).
Charles “The Terminator” Tillman could be a possibility. He’s like the Terminator from the movie (not the first movie, the cool one from the second movie). Did you see that hand shoot up from nowhere to knock a touchdown pass away from Calvin “Megatron” Johnson Monday night? He formed the weapon just for that purpose.
Here’s a nickname pulled from early professional baseball history, real early, the late 1800’s early. Bob Ferguson was an infielder who was very skilled at catching a baseball with his bare hands in an era when gloves were not used by many players. That talent earned him the nickname “Death to Flying Things”. If there is a better nickname to bestow on a cornerback I haven’t heard it yet.
These are just a few possibilities. Any of these, or others that haven’t been mentioned yet would provide a Deion “Prime Time” Sanders style spotlight on what Tillman does regularly on the football field. One quick, non-football move of installing a new nickname and he’ll be a headliner every weekend.
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