By Tom Pollin
Pre-concussed NFC North Beat Writer
Both games involving the NFC North in Week 11 will have influence on the playoff picture as the NFL season spins into the final turn before entering the season’s homestretch in December.
The Bears get another crack at tackling one of the NFL’s elite teams, this time on the road in San Francisco against the 49ers. The Bears struggled against the Houston Texans for four quarters in the slop of the Soldier Field cow pasture before losing 13-6 last Sunday night.
In the other NFC North game this week, the Packers travel to Detroit after their bye week last Sunday. Under Mike McCarthy as head coach the Packers have won five of their last six games in Detroit. Last year on Thanksgiving Day they beat the Lions in the Ndamukong Suh “meltdown” game 27-15.
With the Bears and 49ers battling each other this weekend a win by the Packers puts them right back in the middle of the race for a playoff bye.
As the Minnesota Vikings relax this weekend and enjoy their first winning record heading into the bye week since 2009, and Adrian Peterson continues to strengthen his injured knee, here are five things to know going into Week 11 in the NFC North.
1. The Bears and 49ers play for the inside track to the NFC No. 2 seed.
This is the time of year when every team works to stockpile tiebreaker advantages and this is a big one for both teams. The 49ers came back in the fourth quarter last week to tie their game against the St. Louis Rams but couldn’t finish the deal. The 24-24 tie kept them one-half game behind the Bears in the race for the second seed in the NFC Conference playoffs.
The Bears are the last team in the NFC North that the 49ers will face in 2012. In the first three weeks of the season they dominated the Packers and Lions before the Minnesota Vikings ambushed them Week Three in Minnesota.
Fans in Chicago were hoping to get an idea of how genuine this season’s Super Bowl dreams were when torrential rain on Sunday afternoon turned the Soldier Field turf into a quagmire that resembled the English moors more than it did a football field. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see Arian Foster or Matt Forte disappear suddenly into a hidden pool of quicksand, never to be seen again.
In the Quality Stats Power Rankings both teams have been riding high all season. The 49ers are currently No. 3 and the Bears No. 6 going into Week 11 so the Bears get a second opportunity to show what they can do against an elite opponent.
2. No need for a read on the Bears’ defense.
The Bears’ defense is Super Bowl caliber and has played at that level all season. They’re No. 2 in the NFL, allowing 14.8 Points per Game. They’re also No. 1 in interceptions with 19 (with seven returned for touchdowns) and No. 6 with 26 sacks. Interceptions and sacks are a big reason why the Bears rank No. 3 in the Quality Stats’ Defensive Hog Index.
Looking at the Quality Stats line for the Bears on defense they’re No. 3 in Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt and No. 1 in both Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and Defensive Passer Rating.
The problem for the Bears on Monday night, the 49ers can play defense too, nearly as well as the Bears do. They’re No. 1 in the NFL, surrendering 14.1 Points per Game.
In the Quality Stats rankings the 49ers are No. 5 in Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt, No. 9 in Defensive Quarterback Rating and No. 4 in Defensive Passer Rating.
3. Team scoring the first touchdown wins.
The challenge is scoring that first touchdown. In the Quality Stats Bendability ranking the Bears are No. 1 and the 49ers are No. 2. Bears opponents have averaged 20.8-yards of offense per point scored this season. That translates out to opponents needing to drive 145.6-yards for every 7 points scored. The 49ers opponents average 20.7-yards of offense per point scored, or 144.9-yards per every 7 points. Scoring will be at a premium Monday night.
Just as big of an impact on the potential offensive firepower on display Monday night will be whether Alex Smith and Jay Cutler will be cleared to play after the concussions they suffered last Sunday.
The 49ers have had an advantage on offense with Smith at quarterback all season and as of this writing it sounds like he may be ready to play on Monday night.. They are No. 6 in Real Quarterback Rating and No. 4 in Offensive Passer Rating with Smith as the starter.
The one area where the 49ers are weak in the passing game is Real Passing Yards per Attempt where they rank No. 16. Alex Smith hasn’t had many options to use to stretch the field. Randy Moss leads his receivers with a 16.9 Yards per Reception average but only has 15 catches this year. Michael Crabtree leads the 49ers in receptions with 44 but is middle of the pack in the NFL in Yards per Catch.
For the Bears, their new, high power, point-a-minute offense has struggled in dry-dock most of the season. With Cutler they’re No. 27 in both Real Passing Yards per Attempt and Real Quarterback rating while being No. 23 in Offensive Passer Rating.
The Bears’ offensive line has also been abysmal, again, this season. If Jason Campbell starts Monday night, which looks increasingly likely, he might be better off if the lineman stand on the sidelines and the 49ers’ pass rushers required to count 1…1,000, 2…1,000, 3…1,000 before crossing the line of scrimmage.
The Bears’ line is currently, and has been for a while, No. 32 in Negative Pass Plays allowed. Jay Cutler has been sacked 28 times this season, No. 2 in the league, and is No. 1 with 200-yards lost.
If the Bears are forced to play Jason Campbell at quarterback Monday night it still leaves them in a much better position than they were with Caleb Hanie last season. This is Campbell’s seventh season in the NFL. His lifetime record as a starting quarterback is 31-39 but had the Oakland Raiders playing well in 2011 before injuring his shoulder.
This will be the first week with the Bears where he’s taken practice reps as the starter so he’ll be better prepared than he was last Sunday night when he was pressed into action. Whether he can use that practice to move the Bears’ offense better than Cutler is the key to the Bears chances on Monday night.
4. The Packers are rested and ready for the Lions.
The Lions’ slim playoff hopes are on the line this week after their beating by the Vikings last Sunday. A loss to the Packers would give them an 0-4 division record and leave them firmly entrenched in last place in the NFC North with six games left on the schedule. As dire a position that the Lions are in though, they may have picked the wrong week to deliver in a must-win game.
Green Bay is No. 5 in the Quality Stats Power Rankings and they’re coming off their bye week and sitting on a four game winning streak. Under Mike McCarthy the Packers are 6-0 the week after a bye and 11-1 against the Lions.
Although Matthew Stafford hasn’t played at the elite level that he did in 2011, he’s still managed to lead the Lions to 3 Fourth Quarter Comeback victories this season. As he’s shown throughout his career, he’s capable of leading his team when they need him.
In the meantime, Aaron Rodgers continues to play quarterback at an elite level. In statistical categories that correlate to winning games the Packers have a big advantage. He’s No. 4 in Real Quarterback Rating and No. 1 in Offensive Passer Rating by enough that the Packers are also No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential.
The way that the Lions have played this season it’s difficult to see an avenue to victory for them on Sunday, especially with the Packers ranked among the top 10 in passing game defensive rankings. The “what went wrong” evaluations begin for the Lions on Monday morning.
5. The Packers needed the bye week like few teams need the bye week.
The Packers were beginning to run into a situation where the talent on the sidelines was overshadowing the talent on the field.
With Greg Jennings out with no timetable to return, Donald Driver with a thumb injury and Jordy Nelson with an ankle injury and out the previous couple of games, Aaron Rodgers was nearing the point where picking people out of the stands to play was becoming a viable option.
The injury prior to the bye that still has an impact on their hopes for a deep playoff run is the hamstring injury to Clay Matthews. The Packers' defense had coalesced around the return to prominence of Matthews this season.
Matthews is currently No. 4 in the NFL with nine sacks and his presence on defense allows his teammates to make plays that they weren't able to make last season. A key question on Sunday is how the Packers' defense reacts without Matthews on the field.
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