By Tom Pollin (@tjpollin)
The Black and Blue Division’s Bad Santa
Week 15 could be decision time in the NFC North. As part of the early slate of games on Sunday the Green Bay Packers visit Soldier Field in Chicago to face the Bears. The Packers clinch the division title for the second consecutive season with a win.
The Bears can put themselves back in position to contend for the division title if they can break their five game losing streak to the Packers but more importantly, they solidify their playoff positioning heading into the final two weeks of the season.
While the Packers and Bears play in Chicago the Minnesota Vikings will be in St. Louis to face the Rams. The Vikings need to win not only to keep the pressure on the Cowboys and Redskins for a chance to grab the final Wild Card spot; it will keep the Rams behind them in the Wild Card race.
In one of the late afternoon games the Detroit Lions travel to the southwest to play the Arizona Cardinals. Both teams have taken different routes to the same 4-9 record. Both of these teams are also jockeying for position, in the 2013 NFL Draft.
With so much riding on the results of these and other conference games this week, here are five things to look for.
1. The Packers and Bears are two teams going in different directions.
The Packers have won seven of eight games since their second half collapse and loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5. That streak has launched them into being the No. 3 seed in the NFC, one game ahead of the New York Giants and .5 game behind the San Francisco 49ers for the No. 2 spot.
The Bears have lost four out of five since their pounding of the Tennessee Titans in Week 9. At that point they were the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Since then they’ve slipped all the way down to No. 6, one game ahead of the Redskins, Cowboys and Vikings.
Head-to-head against the Bears, the Packers have won the last five games; one of those was the 2010 NFC Championship Game. The point differentials for those games don’t show them to be very close. The Packers have won them by an average of 10 points, 23-13.
They’re also going in opposite directions when it comes to the injury list. The Packers expect to get Clay Matthews back for the game against the Bears. He was credited with 3.5 of the seven sacks of Jay Cutler in Week Two.
For the Bears, Brian Urlacher is still out with a hamstring injury and will be for the rest of the regular season. Rookie defensive end Shea McClellin has a knee injury. Cornerback Tim Jennings, who leads the NFL with eight interceptions, is still recovering from a separated shoulder.
The latest injury is placekicker Robbie Gould, who has been placed on Injured Reserve with a calf injury he suffered during warm-ups last weekend. The Bears signed free agent Olindo Mare to replace him.
2. The game in Chicago may not be as big a mismatch it seems.
In the latest Quality Stats Power Rankings the Packers are No. 6 but the Bears are only three spots behind at No. 9. While Aaron Rodgers is still No. 1 in Offensive Passer Rating and No. 5 in Real Quarterback Rating the Bears are still No. 1 on the defensive side of both those statistics.
Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been as dominant this season in Real Passing Yards per Attempt with a No. 16 ranking, about where he’s been the entire season but the Bears have been very good preventing long pass plays, ranking No. 4 in Defensive RPYA.
Both teams have struggled in protecting their quarterbacks this season, the Packers are No. 26 and the Bears are No. 31 in allowing Negative Pass Plays. The Bears’ Defensive Hogs have been consistently more productive this season, currently ranking No. 7 against the Packers No. 18 ranking.
Looking at this game based on recent history and the direction their season's have taken it looks like this is the Packers' game for the taking. Considering how each team has come through the season statistically though, the Bears can interfere with those plans.
3. The Vikings’ playoff hopes live or die this weekend.
The Vikings win this game, they stay in the Wild Card hunt, they lose and they fall behind the Rams in the Wild Card race with games against the Texans and Packers still to play.
The Rams are on a three game win streak and is the only NFC West team to go undefeated against the San Francisco 49ers this season.
The Rams are 4-3 at home this season after only winning two games all of 2011. While the Vikings have also made a big improvement over their 2011 performance that success has been achieved mostly at home. They’re only 1-5 on the road this season.
Neither team has distinguished themselves in the Quality Stats rankings this season except in a couple of areas. The surprise of no one who has been watching the league each week, the Vikings is No. 1 in Rushing Yards per Attempt due to the work of “Bionic Back” Adrian Peterson.
Here’s how dominant Peterson has been. He’s averaging 123.1 Rushing Yards per Game. The closest running back to him is Marshawn Lynch who is averaging 97.4 Rushing Yards per Game. Peterson has rushed for a total of 331-yards more than Lynch this season.
The Rams are No. 9 on defense in Rushing Yards per Attempt which will make it tougher for the Vikings’ one dimensional offense to score points on Sunday. The Vikings’ passing game has been non-existent since Percy Harvin has gone on IR.
Two teams with good defenses and offenses that struggle. Bet the under on this one, even if that number gets pushed down to 19.5.
4. The Lions play the Cardinals in the 2013 NFL Draft Bowl.
The way things currently line up the top three draft picks are going to the AFC next spring, the real competition starts with the No. 4 spot. The Titans, Panthers and Eagles are also currently in the running for that pick.
Most of the Cardinals’ troubles stem from an offense that’s one of the most anemic in the NFL. Taking last week’s collapse against the Seahawks out of the equation, the Cardinals can still play defense as well as any team in the league.
The Cardinals are No. 2 in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and Defensive Passer Rating. They’re also ranked No. 4 in the Defensive Hog Index and will be facing the Lions’ No. 4 ranked Offensive Hog Index.
The game will come down to whether Calvin Johnson can continue his current streak of six games of over 100-yards receiving against the Cardinals’ ability to pressure Matthew Stafford into mistakes. Whoever wins that battle takes a step towards losing next spring.
5. Games for NFC North division teams to keep an eye on.
The 8-5 Giants travel to Atlanta to play the 11-2 Falcons in one of the early afternoon match-ups. A win by the Giants and a Packers’ loss would slide Green Bay into the No. 4 seed.
The 49ers travel east to face the red hot New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football. If the Packers beat the Bears and the Patriots win their eighth straight game against San Francisco the Packers will slip into the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
The Bears will be keeping a close watch on the Seahawks as they travel east to face the Buffalo Bills. As hot as the Seahawks are, they’re 0-5 on the road against the AFC with Pete Carroll as head coach. A loss by the Seahawks gives the Bears a shot at moving up into the No. 5 seed.
For the Vikings’, not only do they have to beat the Rams but they’ll be keeping a close eye on two games, the Redskins travelling to Cleveland to play the Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers playing the Cowboys in Dallas
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