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NFC North Review, Week 15: The dragon has returned

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As Aaron Rodgers saved the Packers, the Lions took a huge hit, and set a potential division title game in motion.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

**NFC North**

  1. Detroit Lions: 9-5
  2. Green Bay Packers: 8-6
  3. Minnesota Vikings: 7-7
  4. Chicago Bears: 3-11

Counting combined victories, the NFC North has the fourth lowest in the NFL in 2016. Only the AFC North, AFC South, and NFC West have a lower total of wins so far. With that in mind, the NFC North is an inherently middling, but competitive division.

However, most preseason prognostications had the Packers on top, and rightfully so.

Prior to the Vikings’ 2015 supremacy, Green Bay had won four straight division titles largely on the strength of Aaron Rodgers. In that four-year stretch, Rodgers had his lowest passer rating at a blistering 104.9 in 2013 - a season where he missed seven games due to a broken collar bone. This is a game defined by quarterback play and Rodgers has mostly been the standard of late.

Minnesota’s crown last season happened while Rodgers enjoyed a “mediocre” 92.7 passer rating, at least for him. It was a bad omen that Minnesota’s success came on the heels of consistent struggles by Rodgers. Yet, it’s impossible to completely differentiate how a team would play with higher performance from one individual, crucial player.

But if Rodgers had played up to his usual standards, the Vikings probably don’t win the North and a Wisconsin divisional dynasty continues.

Sure there were team factors that played into the recent folding Rodgers in the past year and a half, but the fact of the matter is, Green Bay wasn’t getting the same quarterback that widened the gap between them and their divisional rivals. And that extended stretch of futility even had this prevailing sentiment arising.

“What’s wrong with Rodgers?” “Is Rodgers declining?” “Man, Rodgers is having a down year.”

As it turns out, all of this was pointless conjecture. Even a generational player can occasionally be human, while longer than expected.

With heartbreaking throws such as this, it’s safe to again say, “beware”.

After early poor play, Rodgers has experienced a true market correction, and has thrown for 22 touchdowns and just three interceptions in his last nine games. The Packers - not by coincidence - have won four straight. And there are terrifying statistics overall.

The North’s fire-breathing dragon in the castle is back, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Detroit Lions - who are seeking their first divisional title since 1993.

More often than not, the team with the best quarterback, is the team that will capture a divisional title. While football is contested by overall team quality, the teams with lesser quarterback play better be more talented than the squad with the best passer.

Obviously, the Lions still have a shot, but with current schedules (Detroit faces Dallas and Green Bay faces Minnesota in Week 16), it’s looking like we’re setting up for a divisional title game on the final night of the regular season between these two. Not many will favor Detroit.

Green Bay and the league’s best quarterback are “hot”. The outlook looks bleak for the Lions.

Detroit Lions (9-5): Loss vs. New York Giants, 17-6

It appears the Motown mojo is dwindling.

The Giants are built on a defense ranked 3rd in DVOA, and are primed for January football and another potential Super Bowl run. They flexed their muscles against the Lions in locking down Matthew Stafford and company. New York is a team with a ferocious pass rush, a talented secondary, and “Sterling” (my apologies) options at receiver.

Eli Manning may be the most fortunate quarterback of all time.

While the Lions, well, they don’t have many elite game breakers such as Odell Beckham Jr. on this (called back) punt return.

Who can do that for Detroit? Golden Tate, maybe?

And Matthew Stafford - whose been the primary reason for Detroit’s resurgence - can’t do it all on his own. Eight fourth quarter comeback wins are nice, as it speaks of a team that can finish, but what happens when you play a more complete and cohesive unit like the Giants?

You receive Sunday’s results.

While the Pro Bowl is inherently a flawed barometer of player quality that can be a popularity contest, typically a team with a high amount of wins will draw more praise.

So it speaks volumes that the Lions - currently the NFC’s third seed - had zero players named to the roster. The biggest snub in Stafford was mostly outperformed statistically by the three NFC quarterbacks ahead of him in Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Dak Prescott.

Also, of note.

The five teams not named the Lions there have a combined 16 wins. And these are some of the lesser talented rosters in the league (save for New Orleans’ offense).

One Tate, Darius Slay, a hobbled Ezekiel Ansah, and a stable of other steady but not special players in Theo Riddick, Anquan Boldin, and an aging Haloti Ngata isn’t going to get it done in terms of being dynamic. The Lions have outperformed their expectations and it’s a testament to their play they’ve come this far.

But with Green Bay inching ever closer as mentioned, the clock may soon strike midnight on Cinderella.

Week 16: At Dallas Cowboys, (12-2)

Green Bay Packers (8-6): Win vs. Chicago Bears, 30-27

I don’t think the Packers are a Super Bowl contender yet, but they should be the divisional favorite.

We’ve already discussed what the return of superstar-level Rodgers does, but if they can maintain a ground game as they did against Chicago, then they’ll really become a factor.

Sure, the Bears possess the league’s 23rd ranked rushing defense, but it’s progress for Green Bay to maintain consistency here. If they can have Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael rolling with 200-plus yards (surely reasonable) as they did at Soldier Field, that’s dangerous.

Because now, not only do you have the threat of the league’s most talented passer in Rodgers, you also necessitate worry more about what happens should he hand off to his stable of backs.

The Bears missed 16 tackles on Sunday, but a converted wide receiver turned tail-back doesn’t carry the ball like this.

Successful Super Bowl runs are built on quality quarterback play, timely defense (four turnovers forced against the Bears), and a solid running game. The Packers are checking everything off on their Christmas wish list. NFC naughty list watch out.

Week 16: Vs. Minnesota Vikings, (7-7)

Minnesota Vikings (7-7): Loss Vs. Indianapolis Colts, 34-6

Who could’ve guessed that a 31-year-old, over-the-hill running back in Adrian Peterson wouldn’t inspire a St. Paul team in free fall?

Oh, reasonably everyone.

I’m not sure how a non-factor six carries for 22 yards qualifies as anything special against a middling Indianapolis team, but the Vikings misguidedly believed beforehand.

This isn’t the superhuman 2012 season, 2,000 yards of old Peterson, and these aren’t last year’s Vikings either. There’s no galvanizing story here. There’s no rising team. Something went wrong with Minnesota in 2016, and who knows as to the rhyme or reason why.

Did head coach Mike Zimmer’s eye surgery demoralize this team? That’s an easy excuse, but not easily proven.

Is there a locker room schism between a top-10 DVOA defense and a mediocre offense with no identity?

Perhaps. But no one’s inside that locker room. One fact of the matter is, the 5-0 Vikings to start the season were a mirage. A lot of offseason evaluations loom even if they should luck their way into the postseason.

What really happened here is that the Vikings went out and traded a bounty for just an okay quarterback, completely overestimating their porous status as contenders. They weren’t ready to win a championship. Sometimes general managers become overconfident. It happens.

Given the immense draft haul they gave up, they potentially set themselves back another year or so, as well. Minnesota needs and needed several starters on the offensive line, a running back, and another receiver or two.

Now, while they have a win against the Packers in their back pocket that could factor into a rally this Sunday, does anyone realistically expect Minnesota come out of Lambeau Field with a win?

The 2016 Vikings: a cautionary tale of roster building hubris.

Week 16: At Green Bay Packers, (8-6)

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.