By Tom Pollin
CHFF Black & Blue Review Dude (@tjpollin)
The San Francisco 49ers sit atop the NFC North division with a record of 2-0 and a date in Minnesota to play the Vikings Sunday. Wait…it just feels like the 49ers are part of the NFC North since the division teams are the only ones they've played so far.
Just to go along and complete the illusion of one big happy division, the St. Louis Rams will visit the Chicago Bears while the Green Bay Packers head west to Seattle for a Monday Night Football appearance.
While their other three division rivals are slugging it out this weekend with the NFC West, the Lions take their act to the music city to play the struggling Tennessee Titans.
All four “black and blue division” teams have stumbled out of the starting gate into a tie for the division lead (and last place) with 1-1 records. Where will they be in the standings when the weekend is over? Here are five things to look for as they answer that question.
1. The Packers are in for a fight on Monday night.
The Packers embarrassed the Chicago Bears 23-10 last Thursday night to get their season back on the right track but now have to face the Seahawks on Monday night in Seattle, never an easy place for a team to play. The Seahawks demonstrated that by derailing the Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl Express 27-7 last Sunday.
As head coach of the Packers, Mike McCarthy is 5-1 the week after playing a Thursday night game but is also 1-6 in road games on Monday Night Football. One of those records has to give this week, and a tie is not an option.
The Seahawks are 14-5 all-time on Monday night and 1-0 with Pete Carroll as head coach. Carroll is 3-5 on Monday nights all-time as a head coach.
The Packers dominated the offensive Quality Stat rankings in 2011, finishing No. 1 across the board except for the Offensive Hog Index where they ranked No. 11, but they’ve fallen far from that elite level n 2012. Aaron Rodgers is No. 26 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, No. 16 in Real Quarterback Rating and No. 10 in Passer Rating at 95.64, after setting an NFL record with a 122.5 Passer Rating in 2011.
The Seahawks are No. 9 in Defensive Real YPA, No. 8 in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and No. 7 in Defensive Passer Rating at 72.59. They are also No. 3 in Points per Game Allowed after playing the Cowboys and the 2-0 Arizona Cardinals.
The challenge for the Seahawks is how well rookie quarterback Russell Wilson handles the recharged Packers pass rush. One of the keys will be whether Marshawn Lynch can establish a rushing attack against a defense that is No. 30 in Rushing Yards per Attempt allowed. If not, Clay Matthews will spend most of his night in Seattle’s backfield the same way he did against the Bears.
After last Thursday night, the Packers are No. 1 in causing Negative Pass Plays, No. 3 in Defensive Real YPA, No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 4 in Real Quarterback Rating on defense.
How much of that statistical dominance was due to a re-energized defensive effort and how much was due to a pathetic offensive line effort by the Bears will begin to sort itself in this game and in the weeks to come.
2. The 49ers can lock up a playoff spot with a win
Not really but with the odds that three out of every four teams that start 3-0 make the playoffs they will be a definite favorite for one of the conference bye weeks.
With the NFC West shaping up to be a tougher battle for the top spot than it was for the 49ers last season, three conference wins right out of the gate puts a lot of tiebreaker advantages in the 49ers’ pocket that, even this early in the season, will be handy for them to have down the road.
The Vikings are home after coming back from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit against the Colts only to have Andrew Luck drive his offense down and into position for Adam Vinatieri to kick a 53-yard field goal, the longest game-winning field goal of his career, for Luck’s first NFL victory and game winning drive of his career.
The Vikings are going to regret letting that opportunity to be 2-0 slip through their fingers because the 49ers aren’t the team you want to face when trying to get your season back on track. Two games into the schedule the 49ers are No. 6 in the Quality Stat Power Rankings after defeating two 2011 playoff teams, the Packers and the Lions.
Christian Ponder has opened the season strong with two 100+ Offensive Passer Rating performances but as good as he’s been, most of the team statistics on offense land solidly in the middle of the rankings. With both of the Vikings’ first two opponents in the beginning stage of long rebuilding processes the offense will have to continue to produce to convince fans that they’re really on the right track.
In the meantime, Alex Smith played another strong game against the Lions in week two. He’s done a poor job of getting the ball downfield in the passing game, No. 22 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, but he’s No. 2 in Offensive Passer Rating and No. 5 in Real Quarterback Rating (which takes into account rushing yards, touchdowns and turnovers).
Smith needs to improve his ability to get the ball downfield more consistently but the Real Quarterback Rating shows that the 49ers' offense is productive with him under center. Smith does benefit from having Frank Gore at running back who is the major reason the 49ers are No. 1 in Rushing Yards per Attempt.
There is one weakness in the 49ers’ offense that the Vikings are usually equipped to take advantage of. While the 49ers’ offensive line is one of the best in the league in run blocking, they are No. 26 in both allowing Negative Pass Plays and Third Down Conversion Percentage.
In the Vikings’ first two games, only one of their four sacks has come from a defensive lineman, Everson Griffen. Jared Allen has been very quiet on the stat sheet, no sacks and only credited with three tackles so far in 2012. Allen started slow the first two games of 2011 but had 1.5 sacks before dominating in week three.
The Vikings need that same 2011 week three performance out of Allen to generate pass rush pressure on Smith. The Vikings are No. 24 in Defensive Passer Rating. Without a pass rush, Smith will pick them apart.
Two other numbers to look at, neither favorable to the Vikings, the 49ers are 7-2 on the road with Jim Harbaugh as coach and Leslie Frazier is 1-11 against winning teams as Vikings head coach.
3. The Bears have got things backwards.
All offseason the talk was about how much better the Bears’ offense would be in 2012 now that Jay Cutler had wide receivers to throw the ball to, a proven short-yardage back and an offensive coordinator who would play to his strengths. The defense was the worry with Brian Urlacher getting older and suffering from knee problems and Peppers, Briggs and Tillman all long-time veterans who may begin to show their age at any time.
Instead, the defense is off to one of its best starts in years while the offense sputtered out of the gate and immediately plummeted to the bottom of the statistical rankings.
Jay Cutler is No. 29 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, and dead last in Real Quarterback Rating and Passer Rating. With the running game ranking No. 20 while averaging 3.71 Rushing Yards per Attempt, even considering a successful opening weekend against the Colts this offense is going nowhere.
This is another indication that even though the offensive line play has created as much odor as a rural pig farm, the entire offense is on the verge of a dramatic failure if things don’t turn around quickly.
The defense is No. 1 in the Defensive Hog Index, No. 3 in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and No. 7 in Defensive Passer Rating at 72.33. The Bears’ defense will need to maintain those standards on Sunday because quarterback Sam Bradford is leading his rejuvenated offense into Soldier Field.
Bradford has started the season No. 4 in Real Quarterback Rating and No. 3 in Passer Rating at 112.36. The Rams are No. 6 in the Offensive Hog Index so they’ll be lining up strength against strength.
The Rams came close to beating the Lions on the opening week of the season before squeezing out a win at home against the Redskins last Sunday. One advantage the Bears have with Lovie Smith as head coach is they are 3-1 when playing at home after a Thursday game. If they haven’t used these past 10 days in between games to figure out how to get the offensive engine back on track St. Louis is capable season of escaping with a victory.
4. Detroit heads south to find a cure.
The Lions struggled to beat the Rams in their opener and lost a hard-hitting game last Sunday night. They’re stumbling a bit right now but on the horizon is a trip to music city and a game against the Tennessee Titans to get their season set right again.
While the Lions currently rank No. 25 in the Quality Stats Power Rankings the Titans are dead last. Other than their rankings in forcing and allowing Negative Pass Plays (No. 15 on defense and No. 6 on offense), the Titans look more like the 2011 Indianapolis Colts than the team that finished 9-7 and very close to a playoff spot at the end of the season.
One obvious issue the Titans are dealing with is running back Chris Johnson. After ending his training camp holdout last year Johnson struggled the entire season to get close to his previous production. This year he’s almost disappeared from sight. In two games Johnson has gained 21-yards in 19 attempts.
The Lions didn’t advance into the red zone last week against the 49ers until just under two minutes left in the game. Matthew Stafford is No. 12 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, No. 24 in Real Quarterback Rating and No. 27 in Passer Rating, far off his 2011 pace when he was statistically among the elite in the NFL.
Last season, the Lions beat up on the leagues less fortunate for a 10-1 record on their way to a wild card playoff berth. They’ll need to start matching that formula Sunday if they intend to make a return visit to the playoffs this season.
5. Right now, Christian Ponder is the best quarterback in the NFC North.
At this point in the season, no matter how ridiculous that sentence looks, it’s the truth. As it was pointed out earlier, Aaron Rodgers has slipped from record setter in Passer Rating to on par with Joe Flacco statistics. Rodgers is working with the same coaching staff and most of the same players on offense but sometimes seems to look a touched confused on the field. If not confused at least not as confident as he usually is.
As for Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, if they don’t get their games moving in the right direction their numbers could get trapped in Tannehill-land with very few escape routes available. They’ve only played two games but it’s also only a 16-game season. These quarterbacks have to start somewhere before the season passes them by.
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