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NFC North Review, Week 16: Familiar ground

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The Lions and Packers meet Sunday night for the NFC North, while the Vikings lick their wounds among strife, from a trying season.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

**NFC North**

  1. Green Bay Packers: 9-6
  2. Detroit Lions: 9-6
  3. Minnesota Vikings: 7-8
  4. Chicago Bears: 3-12

For the fourth straight season, the NFC North comes down to the final week. Perhaps by no coincidence, the Green Bay Packers have been involved in each such climactic game. That’s what happens when you have the division’s one constant in Aaron Rodgers. He puts you in position for this success.

Previous iterations include:

  • The scapegoated “Chris Conte” game in 2013 in a rivalry classic between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay at Soldier Field. It was here where receiver Randall Cobb scored a touchdown on fourth down with 48 seconds to go in the game to give the Packers the decisive 33-28 victory. The Bears haven’t come close to the playoffs since.

My apologies in advance, for simple memory.

  • A relative letdown of a game quality-wise at Lambeau Field in 2014, where the Packers cruised to a 30-20 victory over the Lions. The result was the difference between traveling to Dallas in the Wild Card round or receiving a first round bye. Green Bay would feel the hurt from this win though, as Rodgers would suffer a calf injury (below) that limited him through the postseason. The Lions would fall to the Cowboys the following week while the Packers would suffer one of the biggest blown leads in franchise history to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.
  • Finally, last year, where the former struggles of Rodgers and company came to roost with the Vikings harassing the Green Bay offense to the tune of five sacks, and two turnovers en route to a 20-13 victory in Lambeau. Minnesota would lose the next week in the Wild Card round on an infamous chip shot miss by kicker Blair Walsh, while the Packers would advance to the divisional round to fall short to the Arizona Cardinals. Brighter days for the St. Paul faithful and Walsh pre-kick as he struggled this year following his monumental miss (12 for 16 on field goals and 15 for 19 on extra points) leading to a release.

This year’s division comes down to a matchup in Ford Field where many are already writing off the Lions given how hot the streaking Green Bay has looked of late. Detroit is coming off of a shellacking in Dallas on Monday night. They could be one of the few teams in NFL history to lose three straight to close a season and sneak into the playoff field. But if they win, as previously mentioned plenty of times in this space, it’ll be their first division title since 1993. I’d say it’s simple to see how this game means more to the Lions.

What could envelop from this primetime game are “simple” too. Week 17 has plenty to sort out among both playoff fields in seeding and otherwise as always.

Of course, don’t forget the Vikings lamenting what could’ve been and watching from afar in the corner.

Here’s how it shakes out.

Green Bay Packers (9-6): Win vs. Minnesota Vikings, 38-25

The man that did this is back at the top of his game.

Rodgers has vaulted himself into the MVP conversation with his recent play and the Packers look like a team that could make a deep run in the NFC because of it. His sharpness has coincided with the consistency of his number one receiver in Jordy Nelson. Nelson - after having just 27 receptions for 321 yards and five touchdowns in the first six games of the season - now has 64 receptions for 840 yards and nine touchdowns in his last nine.

A quarterback is nothing without his top weapons and it seems that Nelson has finally recovered well from ACL surgery in that light. Rodgers to Nelson is one of the league’s deadliest combinations and with the Seattle Seahawks missing All-Pro safety Earl Thomas, I’m not sure there’s an NFC defense equipped to slow them down.

*Division and playoff berth scenarios

  • Clinches division title with win or tie.
  • Clinches playoff berth with a Washington Redskins loss or a Redskins tie and Tampa Bay Buccaneers win.
  • A strength of schedule tiebreaker over Tampa Bay if at least one of Seattle, Houston, Jacksonville, or Philadelphia wins.

Week 17: At Detroit Lions, (9-6) ‘Sunday Night Football’

Detroit Lions (9-6): Loss at Dallas Cowboys, 42-21

The Lions are 27th overall in Football Outsider’s DVOA efficiency. Their defense is 32nd overall. This is a team that should’ve been in a rebuilding spin in 2016. Yet here they sit on the precipice of history due to clutch play, fortune, whatever. It’s not a step back if they fall to the Packers on Sunday night, but it would be a letdown considering every circumstance they’ve overcome.

Head coach Jim Caldwell was supposed to be a lame duck, but somehow the Lions are at the brink of breaking divisional futility.

Matthew Stafford was supposed to take a step back without Calvin Johnson, but offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s pace and space offense with continuity have led to the best and most efficient season of the 28-year-old’s career. He didn’t make the Pro Bowl as a snub, but he’ll certainly receive some Most Valuable Player votes if the Lions sneak into the playoffs.

As a whole, the fact that this was a year led primarily Stafford in contrast to the organization’s two previous postseason berths galvanized by a terrific defense in 2014 and 2011, is a noted progressive step in itself. Stafford has lit up the box score in his career - he threw for 41 touchdowns in 2011 - but it’s never considered to have been all by his hand.

Eight game winning drives, limited turnovers with single digit interceptions at nine and an efficient 93.1 quarterback rating to carry a less than complete squad speaks for itself.

However this season ends for Detroit, the fact that their franchise man has finally stepped into the forefront the way he has, bodes well for their future. Don’t write them off just yet, though.

*Division and playoff berth scenarios

  • Clinches division title with win. (Green Bay has tiebreaker from head-to-head win)
  • Clinches a first round bye with win, a Seahawks loss or tie, and Atlanta Falcons loss.
  • Clinches playoff berth with a tie or Redskins loss or tie.

Week 17: Vs. Green Bay Packers (9-6) ‘Sunday Night Football’

Minnesota Vikings (7-8): Loss at Green Bay Packers, 38-25

This wasn’t how head coach Mike Zimmer envisioned the season going. When Teddy Bridgewater went down, they expected Sam Bradford to make them competitive and keep them afloat as a playoff contender. Bradford has been fine with 17 touchdowns and four interceptions, but he hasn’t been anything special.

One would be hard pressed to argue the Vikings made out well in the Bradford trade with the Eagles after giving up a first and fourth round pick and now missing the playoffs. And they’ll have a lot to sort out in the future with the veteran quarterback if Bridgewater can come back healthy.

What was really shocking is the report of some kind of mutiny by Minnesota’s defensive backs against Zimmer and his coaching staff this week. These are the lame scandals and excuses some create for mediocrity.

Initial reports had said several Vikings secondary members were insubordinate in coverage plans of Nelson in Sunday’s game against the Packers. Nelson had nine receptions for 152 yards and two touchdowns.

As it turns out, it was just an ineffective Terence Newman refusing to follow direction to allow shutdown cornerback Xavier Rhodes to shadow Nelson on one series. As reported by NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, Rhodes when describing said decision as a team mutiny was only covering for his veteran teammate.

So what was proposed as widespread chaos, was actually one overconfident veteran disrespecting those in charge. I wouldn’t expect the 38-year-old Newman to last with the Vikings.

However, it does bring up the idea as to why Rhodes would feel the need to allow the media to blow a story out of proportion and cast his coach in a negative light.

How much control does Zimmer have of his locker room after a disappointing season? He’s not on the hot seat - for now - but after losing eight of 10 games, these are the questions concerning his future.

Zimmer would be well served to sort out any mess quickly and have his team rebound in 2017 - or else.

Week 17: Vs. Chicago Bears, (3-12)

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.