1. Detroit Lions: 5-4
2. Minnesota Vikings: 5-4
3. Green Bay Packers: 4-5
4. Chicago Bears: 2-7
Let’s take stock of some unusual happenings.
After 10 weeks, who could have predicted that the Lions would be in position for their first division title since 1993? And that Matthew Stafford would be playing like the North’s best quarterback, not Aaron Rodgers?
Given the circumstances of tense situations in both Minnesota and Green Bay, the Lions have taken advantage - and for now - are the “King in the North.” Let’s remember that someone has to be.
Even with the Vikings and Packers both falling apart, your Chicago Bears are more than likely safe in the cellar. The Bears have one matchup with each of their division rivals to close the season, but it’s hard to see Chicago mustering up any more consistent cohesion to finish higher than last place in the standings.
A listless performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coming off of the bye week along with a nine game sample size, should be all the evidence you need to come to a similar conclusion.
With that in mind, let’s see how the Lions came to this favorable point, and diagnose the Bears’ other counterparts swirling around the drain.
Detroit Lions (5-4): Bye week
If at first glance, you wanted to say the Lions have surged to first place through smoke and mirrors, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.
Detroit possesses the league’s 26th and 20th ranked offense and defense in yardage, respectively.
They’re only 17th in scoring and have allowed the 20th most points in the league. On defense, they allow opponents to convert third downs 50 percent of the time, good for 31st in the NFL. And when you look at advanced efficiency numbers such as Football Outsiders’ DVOA, they’re just 26th overall.
So almost nothing should point to them being in any kind of driver’s seat.
But I think I’ve found the answer.
While their defense is putrid on third down, they’re successfully efficient on offense, converting a quality 43.8 percent of the time - seventh in the NFL. When they get in the red zone, they score a touchdown 64 percent of the time - ninth in the league. And while they’re just 31st in take-aways on defense, they don’t give away the ball either, as they sit with just six turnovers on the season - tied for 28th least in the NFL.
So, when you sum it all up, the Lions maintain drives and don’t make mistakes in clutch situations on offense or in general. Simple enough. Now it’s much easier to see how they’ve come back to win in the fourth quarter or overtime in each of their five victories.
That’s all on the back of an MVP candidate in Stafford. Stafford has the NFL’s fifth best passer rating overall at 101.6 and seventh highest in the fourth quarter at 101.9. He’s also thrown just five interceptions to 18 touchdowns. As cliche as it sounds, with the NFC North in turmoil, that’s all they need from their leader and best player. Come through in the clutch and don’t put your lackluster defense in a precarious position.
The Lions’ fate is still very much up in the air down the stretch, but provided they continue to come through when it matters most, they’ll be just fine.
Week 11: Vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, (2-7)
Minnesota Vikings (5-4): Loss at Washington Redskins, 26-20
Remember when the Vikings were
Super Bowl contenders? Yeah, neither do I.
In retrospect, maybe it should’ve been easier to see holes in Minnesota’s armor during their 5-0 start. Their defense, which had at several points fluctuated throughout the top five in the NFL, was dominant. Quarterback Sam Bradford was playing within the confines of the offense and more.
But cream was always rises to the top - or in this case - the skeletons come out of the Vikings’ closet.
Their four-game losing streak has seen their offense completely sink, Bradford be beat up behind a sieve of an offensive line. And to boot, the defense wear down with extra pressure while compensating for the offense. Quality front seven’s like in Philadelphia or Chicago just ran rambunctious on the Minnesota offense.
Don’t get me wrong.
Minnesota has one of the most talented defense’s in the league. They have depth and front-end talent at every level of their unit. But even the best defense can’t hold up when asked to do all the lifting. Yes, last year’s Denver Broncos won on the strength of a historic defense while dragging around the remains of Peyton Manning, but the thing is, at least Manning could still manage the game in the postseason.
He rarely turned the ball over during their playoff run and consistently kept the defense out of danger long enough to let star linebacker Von Miller and company tee off on opposing quarterbacks to win the Super Bowl. Even while the offense posed no threat, it played complimentary football to the strength of the team.
Essentially, the Vikings aren’t doing that right now. Minnesota has the league’s 32nd ranked offense in yardage. Bradford has been sacked 24 times which is tied for seventh most in the league. He’s been hit plenty more too.
This is where comes in where it’s okay to ask why the Vikings didn’t trade for offensive line help after mortgaging part of their future for Bradford. How can Bradford be effective if he’s never upright? He can’t be.
To take pressure off of him or lack thereof, the Vikings have used the NFL’s last ranked rushing attack between Adrian Peterson’s replacements in Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata.
Somehow, Minnesota’s defense is still in the top 10 in both DVOA and yardage, but I’m not sure how much longer that can last if they’re going to be asked to win games by themselves. You’ve already seen how that’s worked out.
Week 11: Vs. Arizona Cardinals, (4-4-1)
Green Bay Packers (4-5): Loss at Tennessee Titans, 47-25
Given all expectations going in the season, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has the hottest seat in the NFL.
Green Bay has a variety of issues on both sides of the ball, most notably Rodgers’ step back as an elite quarterback in the past two seasons for whatever variety of factors on offense. It seems like the Packers have had him stuck in the mud ever since October 2015 and they haven’t been able to fix what’s ailed him since.
Three straight losses, capped by two embarrassing defeats to the Titans and Indianapolis Colts, has the Packers scrambling for any sign of life. In the past, these games would have been automatic scheduled victories for the Wisconsin faithful. Now, there’s no coherence anywhere.
Whether it’s warranted or not, when a team enters this kind of spiral, it’s on the coach to pull them out. The blame falls on him.
For two regular seasons now, McCarthy hasn’t been able to pull the Packers back into sanity. All of this while wasting away the prime of a generational player like Rodgers. If the Packers don’t turn this around quickly, you can be sure that McCarthy is not long for Green Bay.
Week 11: At Washington Redskins, (5-4), ‘Sunday Night Football’
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.