By Tom Pollin
NFC North Black and Blue Reviewer (@tjpollin)
The Packers clinched first place in the NFC North and guaranteed themselves at least one playoff game at Lambeau Field by closing the first and opening the second half with touchdowns to open an insurmountable 21-7 lead on their way to a 21-13 victory.
The loss to the Packers completed the Bears' slide out of a playoff spot. They're currenly tied with the Cowboys and Giants for the No. 7 seed in the conference.
The Vikings are the team that took advantage of the Bears' loss, moving into the No. 6 seed after beating the Rams in St. Louis 36-22. The win also left the Rams' playoff hopes for this season on life support with the plug ready to be pulled.
In Arizona, all the Lions accomplished was to strengthen their position in the 2013 NFL Draft after losing to the Cardinals 38-10.
As the Packers celebrate their second consecutive NFC North Division title, here are five things we learned from Week 15's games.
1. The Packers know how to finish, the Bears don’t.
Finishing doesn’t just mean winning the game. It means jumping out to an early lead to put your opponent on their heels, taking full advantage of opportunities no matter when in the game they arise, finishing a majority of drives with touchdowns, not field goals. The Packers spent the game doing all of this when the game was on the line.
After the Bears took a 7-0 lead on a Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall 15-yard touchdown pass, Aaron Rodgers led the Packers on a 7 play, 89-yard to tie the game.
With 1:36 left in the first half the Bears took possession at their own 37 after a bad Tim Masthay punt. Cutler gave the ball right back, throwing an interception for the sixth consecutive game against the Packers (including the 2010 NFC Championship Game).
The Packers not only converted that into a touchdown to finish the half with a 14-7 lead, Rodgers led them on a 13 play, 79-yard drive to put the Packers in front 21-7. Within eight minutes of game time the Packers put the game out of reach of the increasingly anemic Bears’ offense.
2. The Bears couldn’t sustain their strong start.
The Bears took the opening kickoff and drove 49-yards to the Packers’ 31-yard line on seven runs and one nine-yard completion to Marshall. A false start penalty on center Roberto Garza turned third and one into third and six, which they failed to convert.
That first drive accounted for half of the Bears’ rushing yards and almost a quarter of their total yards total for the game.
Along with that drive and the failure with the interception at the end of the first half, the Bears failed to punch the ball into the end zone on second and third downs at the Packers’ 1-yard line. They settled for a field goal after the first of three offensive pass interference penalties by rookie wide receiver Alshon Jeffery nullified a touchdown.
The Bears settled for one more field goal after stalling at the Packers’ 16-yard line in the fourth quarter, their last real opportunity of the game.
For all their opportunities the Bears could only manage 13 points, a total that has won .084 percent of NFL games this season. Nowhere near the offense needed to overcome the 24.6 PPG that the Packers have averaged this season.
3. The Vikings’ Bionic Back strikes again.
The Vikings have had one key to victory the last two weeks, keep things simple for Christian Ponder when he does drop back to pass and for all else, give the ball to Adrian Peterson.
Ponder finished with an 83.9 Passer Rating on 17 completions in 24 attempts, 131-yards, 0 TD’s or INT’s and a 4.19 Real Passing Yards per Attempt average that would make Cardinals’ quarterback Ryan Lindley jealous.
Peterson rushed for 212-yards and an 8.8 YPC average against the No. 4 Defensive Hog unit in the NFL. Peterson only needs 293-yards in his final two games against the Texans and Packers to pass Eric Dickerson for the single-season rushing record.
Also distinguishing himself on offense for the Vikings was Blair Walsh, who contributed 5-field goals, three from 50-yards and beyond, to the effort. His three field goals in the second quarter helped push the game out of reach by halftime.
The Vikings were also opportunistic on defense in their 23-point second quarter when Everson Griffen returned a Sam Bradford interception 29-yards for a touchdown.
The Vikings’ No. 23 Defensive Hog unit delivered a strong game with four sacks for 32-yards and eight quarterback hits against Same Bradford. Even though Bradford threw for three touchdowns he only managed a 5.8 Real Passing Yards per Attempt average for the game.
4. The Lions are in a dogfight for the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The Lions gave up 38-points to a Cardinals team that was No. 32 in the NFL with a 14.3 PPG average. The Cardinals were also one of, if not the worst team in the NFL in nearly every Quality Stats offensive category.
The Lions’ 2012 season has crashed so completely there will barely be any salvageable pieces that will be recoverable this offseason.
No matter how bad the Lions strive to be the Chiefs and Jaguars are not catchable for the No. 1 and 2 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft. The best they can finish is No. 3 if they can manage to play worse than the Eagles, Raiders and Titans down the stretch.
The big question coming up for the Lions is, after they play their final two games against the Falcons and Bears, who becomes responsible for the complete collapse of a 2011 Wild Card playoff team? The upcoming choices made for the Lions this offseason have officially become more interesting than their remaining two games.
5. The Playoff Scenarios for the NFC North after Week 15.
The Packers finish the week at with no worse than the No. 3 seed in the NFC, depending on the finish of the Sunday Night Football game between the 49ers and Patriots. They finish the season against the Tennessee Titans who are 4-9 and the Vikings, who may be clawing for a playoff spot of their own in Week 17. They can not fall farther than No. 3 no matter what they do in their remaining two games.
The Vikings share 8-6 records with the Bears, Cowboys and Giants but hold the No. 6 seed and would be the final Wild Card team if the season ended today. They still have the toughest road to a playoff spot with games against the 12-2 Texans in Houston and the Green Bay Packers at home.
If the Vikings falter, the Bears can wrap up the No. 6 seed if they can defeat two of the worst teams in the NFC, the Cardinals and Lions on the road in their final two games. The question is if they haven't disintegrated too far as a team to accomplish what should be an easy task.
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