By Tom Pollin
Cold, Hard NFC North Beat Writer (@tjpollin)
It’s the North against the South this week, NFC North against the AFC South, that is. While the Vikings sat at home last Monday night enjoying their season opening 3-1 record and first place position, the Bears joined them at the top after embarrassing the Dallas Cowboys 34-18 on Monday night in the “Home that Jerry Built.”
In two early games this weekend the Packers travel to Indianapolis to take on a Colts team with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in charge after they were shocked by the news that head coach Chuck Pagano had been diagnosed with leukemia. The Vikings host the Tennessee Titans, who took the Lions to overtime to win 44-41 in week three.
The Bears follow up their dominating Monday night performance in Dallas with a trip to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars in a late afternoon game.
As the 1-3 Detroit Lions use their bye week to try and figure out exactly what hit them so far this season, here are five other things to look for in week five.
1. Which Colts team will the Packers see this Sunday?
By all Quality Stats measures, the Packers have a big advantage going into their game against the Colts on Sunday. They’re ranked No. 10 in the overall Power Rankings and their defense is slowly returning to the form they showed when they went to the Super Bowl two seasons ago.
The Packers are No. 2 in forcing Negative Pass Plays and facing a rookie quarterback who is talented but still learning on the job. Andrew Luck is ranked No. 19 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, No. 23 in Real Quarterback rating and No. 24 in Offensive Passer Rating.
Where the Colts have to improve before they begin seeing positive results on the field is in Passer Rating Differential where they currently rank No. 30. Luck has a 75.4 Offensive Passer Rating but the Colts’ defense has surrendered a 102.5 Passer Rating to opposing quarterbacks in three games this season.
Aaron Rodgers returned to championship form last week against the Saints with a 119.9 Offensive Passer Rating. The Packers have also benefited from the signing of running back Cedric Benson. The team moved up seven spots in the Offensive Hog Index after last week with Benson rushing 18 times for 84-yards.
On the emotional level, it’s impossible to predict how the Colts’ players will react on the field with their head coach hospitalized for leukemia treatment. Do they step their game up in an effort to “win one for the coach”? Do they play into mistakes because they’re too high on the emotional aspect of the game or do the emotions focus their effort?
No matter what, the Colts are still a young team with a lot of growing ahead of them and facing a veteran Packers team that shouldn’t be surprised by anything the Colts bring to the field on Sunday.
2. The Bears warm up for their week six bye against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
I know, it’s the NFL, you can’t take any team lightly and a team can win on any given Sunday and on the Cold, Hard Football Facts site we restrict our analysis to the, well…cold, hard football facts but c’mon, it’s the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bears just finished steamrolling the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night so why should they take the Jaguars seriously?
One reason is that from 2003, which marks the first season after the departure of head coach Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars are 13-5 against the NFC at home. When taking a look at the Quality Stats picture though, that’s the only advantage Jacksonville can hang their hat on.
The Bears shot up six spots to No. 5 in the Quality Stats Power Rankings after Monday night. Jay Cutler had time and room in the pocket to throw and responded with a 140.1 Offensive Passer Rating, the third best of his career.
On defense they crushed Dallas’ offensive line and pressured Romo into five interceptions and a 60.1 Offensive Passer Rating. This week they face an offense that is last in the NFL, scoring an average of 15.5 points per game.
After feasting on Romo, the Bears’ defense will be sizing up Blaine Gabbert for dessert. They’re No. 1 in Defensive Real Quarterback Ranking, No. 2 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 6 in Defensive Passing Yards per Attempt.
Blaine Gabbert is following up his No. 32 Real Passing Yards per Attempt ranking from 2011 by sinking down to that same position in Jacksonville’s first four games of 2012. So far Justin Blackmon, the Jaguars’ 2012 first round draft pick, has shown no impact in their passing attack (but has provided additional verification for the CHFF’s Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law).
Gabbert also has to deal with a Bears’ front four that has been ferocious in their pursuit of quarterbacks this season. Without the necessity of relying on the blitz to generate pressure the Bears’ front is No. 1 in the NFL in the percentage of Negative Pass Plays they force.
In the one area where the Jaguars are strong, at running back with Maurice Jones-Drew rushing for 4.9-yards per attempt average, but the Bears are also strong against the run, No. 9 on defense in Rushing Yards per Attempt.
If the Bears go into the game with their bye week plans on their minds it’ll be possible for the Jaguars to upset them. Otherwise the Bears will be 4-1 after this game.
3. The Vikings will still be in first place after Sunday.
That prediction doesn’t require going out on a limb to make.
For a team that came within a game of making the playoffs last season the Titans have performed worse than the replacement officials in 2012.
They are currently No. 30 in the Quality Stats Power Rankings and also in the Relativity Index, which takes into account the performance of their opponents in their games played this season. In other words, the Titans have put together a bad record while facing equally poor opposition.
The Vikings are improving on an accelerated pace so far in 2012. As noted in previous weeks, Christian Ponder hasn’t taken many shots to stretch the field on offense, No. 22 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, but he’s No. 12 in Real Quarterback Rating and No. 8 in Offensive Passer Rating.
On defense the Vikings will have the opportunity to tee off against Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback now that Jake Locker has been declared out for this game. This will be Hasselbeck’s first start of 2012.
The Vikings are home, where they upset the 49ers two weeks ago and as an improved team they shouldn’t have a problem against the Titans, who have backslid dramatically in quality this season.
Detroit’s bye week dilemma; bye-bye playoffs?
The Lions didn’t have their bye until week 9 last season. Their record at that point was 6-2 and they were well on their way to their wild card playoff berth. This season they are a Matthew Stafford game winning drive in week one against the Rams from being 0-4.
The obvious problem the Lions have had this season is on special teams. They’ve given up a kickoff return and punt return touchdown in two straight games which is why their Bendability number is only better than the Chiefs right now. The question is, are special teams the only problem or are there more issues that aren’t as obvious.
The table shows Detroit’s Quality Stats rankings through week four last season compared to 2012.
|2011 Rank||2011 Score||2012 Rank||2012 Score|
|Defensive Real YPA||6||5.50||19||6.45|
|Real Quarterback Rating||4||96.72||14||85.07|
|Offensive Passer Rating||7||100.98||16||87.97|
|Defensive Passer Rating||5||74.48||26||101.31|
|Passer Rating Differential||4||26.50||26||-13.34|
|Offensive Hog Index||20||19.67||18||17.33|
|Defensive Hog Index||10||12.67||18||17.00|
The Lions have gained a bit in the Offensive Hog Index, mostly due to Mikel LeShoure’s ability to add a semblance of a running attack to the Lions’ offense. Based on the overall comparison though, that’s like Wile E. Coyote holding a tiny umbrella over his head just before the humongous boulder drives him into the ground. The Lions are currently in collapse mode in all phases of the game in 2012.
Some of the defensive numbers can be explained by the injury problems the Lions have had with their secondary but it’s the offensive performance that stands out drastically.
The Lions were at the top in Scoreability through four weeks last season. They only needed 11.13-yards gained for each point scored, or 77.91 for seven points. This year they’ve needed 16.49-yards gained for each point or 115.43 per touchdown plus extra point, a difference of 38-yards from 2011.
Looking at Real Passing Yards per Attempt, Matthew Stafford hasn’t been able to stretch the field as effectively as he did last season and his Offensive Passer Rating numbers show an overall drop in accuracy.
Since the 2002 division realignment only 14.7 percent of teams that start their season 1-3 make the playoffs. If the Lions can’t get their statistical rankings moving the other direction their emergence as a playoff contender will only have a one year life.
5. Current NFC North Power Rankings.
Chicago Bears -- Fresh off of making the Dallas Cowboys look like playoff pretenders the Bears play one of the doormats of the NFL before heading into a bye week that they'll need to help with some of the nagging injuries that are piling up. Their season still depends on if they're offense can match their championship caliber defense.
Minnesota Vikings -- For a team that was rebuilding under a new general manager, the Vikings have shown that they plan to be part of the playoff chase in years to come. Can they sustain their current level of play into October and November? They're likely not ready yet but they've managed to fool everyone so far.
Green Bay Packers -- This is a tough one considering how well the Vikings are playing and that there are only two places separating these two teams in the Quality Stats Power Rankings but the Vikings can't be moved all the way to third after being No. 1 last week. Aaron Rodgers showed for one week that he had the offense back on track with an excellent game last weekend against the Saints to keep the team's 2012 playoff hopes viable.
Detroit Lions -- Number four with a boulder on this weeks power ranking list. The quality of their play has dropped across the board in the first four weeks of play and other than a game against the 49ers, haven't reached the challenging part of their schedule yet. They have one week to get back on track.
Follow me on Twitter @tjpollin, also “Like” my Facebook page, Football From Adderly to Zimmerman (A to Z) to comment on articles, discuss football and read more about the NFL.