The three-time defending division champion Green Bay Packers found a groove the past two weeks with victories over the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings by a combined 80-27 margin, but the Detroit Lions are still tied with them for first place.
The Packers have plenty of challenging opponents left on the schedule, and they’ve shown some vulnerability.
So for all the flaws of the Lions, Bears and Vikings, there are many reasons to believe this will remain a multiple-team race throughout the fall and into the winter.
In 2012 and 2013, the Packers finished with just one more win than the third-place club, so why not again? Entering the sixth week of the 2014 season, 22 of the 32 teams in the league had either two or three victories, including the entire NFC North.
This Lions-Vikings game Sunday, then, will serve as a well-timed litmus test of half of the competition.
“It’s a perfect place for us right now. We’re one game back,” Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said.
He also noted: “Could be worse. Could be 0-5. But we’re 2-3. We’re not where we want to be yet. Still got a lot of football left. Got 11 more games, man, to go out here and make an impact and get ready to make this fun.” The Vikings were blown out 42-10 last week at Green Bay. The Lions were beaten 17-14 at home by Buffalo. Two vastly different games. Two losses that count the same.
“I think everybody’s division is still pretty wide open, but yeah, ours is definitely bunched up there and every one of these count,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “A division game counts as two. You get a win, and you force your division foe into a loss.”
Here are some key things to know about the game:
Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater sprained his left ankle in the fourth quarter of his first NFL start, a 41-28 victory by the Vikings over Atlanta spoiled only by the injury to the rookie. His absence was felt against the Packers, but he has returned to practice this week and declared himself 100 percent healthy.
The Lions have a strong pass rush, the backbone of a defense ranked first in the league in yards allowed and second in points, so Bridgewater and the rest of the Vikings will likely face more resistance than the last time they took their home field and totaled 558 yards, the fourth-most in franchise history.
“When you have a quarterback as mobile as Bridgewater is, he’s going to create some problems for you,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said.
“Our guys have done a real fine job of collapsing the pocket, but when you have a guy who can escape and make plays outside of the pocket, not only moving outside of the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield and making big throws but also a guy who can get out there on the perimeter, if he’s given the space you know he can really run with it.”
Matt Prater will be the third kicker this season for the Lions, who signed the veteran who was cut by Denver after alcohol trouble that prompted a four-game suspension by the NFL and steered him toward a 12-step recovery program. Rookie Nate Freese lasted three weeks and Alex Henery was around for two games, and they combined to miss eight of 12 field-goal attempts. Henery was wide on all three of his tries last week.
Blair Walsh is 10 for 12 this season for the Vikings on field goals, making both of his attempts from 50-plus yards.
Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson has been banged up again this season, and a sprained right ankle that forced him out of the previous game could prompt Caldwell to hold him out Sunday so he can get healthy. Running back Reggie Bush is iffy, too, with an ankle injury. Johnson was listed as doubtful on the injury report and Bush questionable.
Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil, likely to be lined up against Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah, has struggled through the start of this season and allowed a lot more pass pressure than he or the Vikings would prefer. But Kalil was upbeat this week in discussing his performance. He acknowledged getting down on himself at times, affecting his focus, but said he has rebuilt his confidence.
“Definitely a tough job we have. But you know that’s why I play left tackle. … I like going out there and competing. I wouldn’t let one bad game ruin my whole season,” he said. “It’s just stuff I’ve got to improve on.”
LOSING IN THE LAND OF LAKES
This will be the first time the Lions play at TCF Bank Stadium, home for the Vikings until their new stadium opens in 2016. The Lions have lost 15 of their past 16 games at Minnesota and finished 7-23 at the Metrodome.