By Tom Pollin
The NFC North's Black and Blue Previewer (@tjpollin)
The NFL playoff race orbits the NFC North Division this weekend with all four teams a part of the early afternoon slate of games on Sunday.
In Chicago, the No. 3 seed Bears host the No. 6 seed Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks played the Bears in Week 15 of 2011 and drove the final nail into the coffin that held the last shreds of the Bears’ playoff hopes with a 38-14 victory.
To add injury to the insult, that was the game where wide receiver Johnny Knox was hit while in an awkward position on the turf by defensive end Anthony Hargrove and suffered a cracked facet joint in his back. Knox is still sidelined with that injury. He’s been on the Bears’ PUP list all season.
At the same time the Minnesota Vikings take their 6-5 record, tied with the Seahawks for the final playoff spot, and invade Lambeau Field for their first 2012 match-up with the No. 5 seed Green Bay Packers.
To finish the division’s Week 13 lineup, the AFC’s No. 5 seed Indianapolis Colts travel to Ford Field to play the Detroit Lions. The Lions gave the AFC’s No. 1 seed Houston Texans all they could handle before losing in overtime 34-31 on Thanksgiving Day.
As the NFL heads into the home stretch of what promises to be a wildly unpredictable playoff race, here are five things to look for in Week 13 for the NFC North.
1. The Seahawks are as bad on the road as they are good at home.
As far as the Bears are concerned, if they have to play the Seahawks this season, hosting them is the way to do it. The Seahawks have been a tale of two different teams in 2012. On the season they’ve scored 219 points and allowed 185, a point differential of 34 through 11 games.
Split those point totals up and the two personalities of the Seahawks are exposed. At home they have scored 123 points and allowed 69, a 54 points differential in five games. Those totals break down to 24.6 Points per Game scored against 13.8 Points per Game allowed, a 10.8 Points per Game difference.
On the road they’ve scored 96 points while allowing 116, a -20 points differential in six games. Those numbers break down to 16.0 PPG scored and 19.3 PPG allowed for a -3.3 PPG difference.
Russell Wilson has also found life on the road to be a challenge this season. At home, Wilson’s passer rating is 122.0 compared to a 75.5 Passer Rating on the road. He’s also thrown 11 TD’s and 0 INT’s at home against 6 TD’s and 8 INT’s on the road.
2. The Bears were a step away from trying out fans as offensive linemen last week.
Existing problems on the offensive line got worse in the game against the Vikings. Before the game the Bears had demoted guard Chilo Rachal. When he left the team for a day in reaction he was put on the reserve/left squad list. Rachal’s currently so deep in head coach Lovie Smith’s doghouse that he may have to finish digging through to China to see daylight again.
In another move, second year right tackle Gabe Carimi was benched in favor of six year veteran Jonathan Scott.
In the game, the Bears lost guard Lance Louis with a knee injury after taking an illegal hit from Jared Allen. Chris Spencer, benched in favor of Rachal earlier in the season was pressed into service then sustained a knee injury that will keep him out another week.
Gabe Carimi was put into the game at one of the guard spots and did a passable job at the position while Edwin Williams filled the other guard position. Both are expected to start there again against the Seahawks.
This past week the Bears signed 10 year veteran and 5-time Pro Bowler Andre Gurode as an experienced reserve if needed.
The Bears are currently ranked No. 25 in the Offensive Hog Index with their No. 32 Negative Pass Play performance weighting that number down. Any moves the Bears make with their offensive line certainly can’t make their 2012 play any worse.
3. The Bears and Seahawks game will be decided on defense.
Just like it usually is for both of these teams. The Bears are still No. 1 in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and Defensive Passer Rating and will be facing a quarterback that already struggles on the road.
The Seahawks are No. 3 in Defensive Quarterback Rating and Defensive Passer Rating against the Bears No. 25 ranked Passer Rating offense.
The Bears and Jay Cutler are No. 30 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, mostly because of the offensive line. Being chased through the backfield by a half ton of defensive linemen doesn’t make it easy for Cutler to stretch the field, especially when one or two of his receiver options are always kept back to help with blocking.
The outcome of the game is going to be decided by how well the Bears’ makeshift offensive line manages to give Jay Cutler time to make plays that, as he demonstrated last week, only he can make. If not, whatever Russell Wilson can give to the Seahawks on offense will be enough to solidify their hold on the final wild card spot.
4. Who climbs off the mat first at Lambeau Field?
Rocky and Apollo are down, both bleeding from the horrendous beatings they’ve taken and crawling for the ropes, Rocky’s only chance to win is if he can drag himself up first. The referee counts…4, 5, 6 and... sorry, back to football.
The Vikings and Packers may have felt in similar shape though after they got home from their games last weekend. Both took beatings in games that were all but over by halftime. Between these two teams though the Packers are best positioned to get back on the right track in Week 13.
The Packers have won the last four games against the Vikings and overall, under head coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers are 5-1 against the Vikings at Lambeau Field (plus 4-2 ATS and 4-2 on the Over).
The Packers also own advantages in many of the Quality Stats rankings against the Vikings, by a large margin in a few categories.
One matchup working in the Vikings favor is in Real Yards per Pass Attempt. Aaron Rodgers is the top ranked quarterback in the league in Offensive Passer Rating, as he was in 2011, but has dropped to No. 17 with a 6.34-RPYA this season. The Vikings are No. 7 in Defensive RPYA.
The Vikings may have trouble making use of that advantage though. The Giants brought pass rush pressure against Rodgers’ the entire game Sunday night, sacking him five times. The Vikings are No. 22 in causing Negative Pass Plays (part of the Defensive Hog Index) after finishing 2011 No. 8.
The one nearly unbeatable matchup the Vikings have in any game is running back Adrian Peterson. His efforts have the Vikings ranked No. 2 in Rushing Yards per Attempt against a Packers’ defense that ranks No. 16 against the run.
Peterson was the Vikings’ main weapon last week against the Bears, gaining 108-yards in 18 carries along with 30-yards on six catches. The Vikings had no other help for Christian Ponder with Percy Harvin out with an ankle injury. The Bears kept Peterson out of the end zone and didn’t let anyone else on the Vikings’ offense beat them.
Without other playmakers available on offense besides Peterson the Vikings are going to struggle to take control of any game for the rest of the season. Wide Receiver Jerome Simpson was signed as a free agent to be another option to stretch the field for the Vikings on offense but has turned into one of the biggest busts of last year’s free agent pool.
The Vikings have a Quality Victory over the 49ers at home this season but unless someone besides Peterson steps up to give Ponder more options to make plays on offense that might be the only quality victory they record in 2012.
5. It’s time for the Lions to embrace a new role, as a spoiler.
As pointed out in Monday’s review of NFC North Week 12 action, the Lions are in a position where it would take such an incredible number of coincidences for the Lions to make the playoffs (up to and including the Mayan Calendar being correct about the end of the world on December 21) that the dreams of their second straight playoff appearance are essentially over.
This week the Lions will attempt to drop the Indianapolis Colts to a position in reach of the Cincinnati Bengals, currently one game behind the Colts at 6-5.
While Andrew Luck has been the catalyst for the Colts’ recovery from a 2-14 season in 2011, he still has plenty of room for improvement as a quarterback. He’s ranked No. 15 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, No. 24 in Real Quarterback Rating and No. 26 with a 76.7 Offensive Passer Rating.
Luck is No. 22 with 13 touchdown passes, tied with Jay Cutler, Alex Smith and Christian Ponder and is No. 3 in number of interceptions with 13, two behind Tony Romo and tied with Brandon Weeden and Matt Ryan.
The Lions hold an advantage in nearly every Quality Stat category going into the game but there is one trend that works against the Lions going into the game. Since the year 2000 the Lions are 1-13 the week after playing on Thursday (7-7 ATS). The only win in that stretch was 2004.
The Lions have lost three straight games since they had climbed back into the playoff race while the Colts have won five out of their last six. Taking the statistical match ups at face value and being at home, the Lions should win the game but the Colts are riding a five-out-of-six game streak and still play with head coach Chuck Pagano on their minds every game.
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