NFC North breakdown: Week 13

The Bears and Lions play each other on Thanksgiving, with a big-boy matchup between the Packers and Patriots on Sunday.

Green Bay Packers (8-3)
After weeks of chasing the Detroit Lions for first place in the NFC North, and holding a share of the lead last year, the Packers are now in sole possession of first place in the division. With an 8-3 record and a three-game winning streak – winning seven out of the last eight – Green Bay has become one of the hottest teams in the NFL.

Last week the Packers defeated the division rival Minnesota Vikings, 24-21, after putting up 50-plus points the previous two weeks.

This week entails a matchup that many people see as the possible Super Bowl matchup this year in Arizona. The New England Patriots are going to head to Green Bay to play the Packers at Lambeau Field. The Patriots are currently 9-2, the winners of seven straight games, and hold a 3-0 record against the NFC North this season.

Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are both going to be Hall of Famers once they decide to call it quits. Four weeks into the season these two teams were both 2-2, and then were able to pull off long winning streaks to move into first place in their divisions and on the fast track to the playoffs.

On offense, these teams are very similar. Their overall offenses are ranked No. 7 (New England) and No. 9 (Green Bay), and are both led by stellar quarterbacks and have big, bruising backs. Eddie Lacy is coming off a 125-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Vikings. The Patriots, on the other hand, now have the option of Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount.

Two weeks ago Gray rushed for 201 yards and four touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts, but didn’t play last week against the Detroit Lions as newly acquired Blount took over. Blount was able to rumble his way for 78 yards and two touchdowns against one of the best defenses in the NFL.

Both of these offenses appear to be clicking on all cylinders, and have the ability to hurt their opponents either through the air or on the ground. The same cannot be said about their defenses. The Patriots are ranked 14th in the NFL, allowing an average of 350.3 yards per game. The Packers are not doing any better, allowing an average of 371.1 yards per game and coming in as the 23rd-ranked defense.

Both of these teams appear to be going to the playoffs, but teams always love to play hard against the best in the league to see how they stack up against the competition. That is exactly what will be happening in Green Bay on Sunday, and fans could very easily be seeing a rematch of this game in February.

Detroit Lions (7-4) vs. Chicago Bears (5-6)
The Detroit Lions have now lost two games in a row and have not scored more than 10 points in either of those losses. With every loss in the second half of the season, the more the 2014 season starts to look like the 2013 season, where the Lions lost seven of their last eight games and ultimately missed the playoffs.

As of now, the Lions are still in the playoff hunt but need to start winning games to keep it that way. If the 2014 season is anything like the 2013 season, then it is going to take better than a 10-6 record to make it into the playoffs – the Arizona Cardinals finished the 2013 season with a 10-6 record and missed the playoffs.

The Lions’ record definitely plays out in their favor, as four of their remaining five games are against opponents with losing records. If everything plays out to a dramatic end, then the NFC North division title could come down to the Week 17 matchup between the Lions and the Packers.

Before that happens, though, the Lions need to focus on this week’s game against the Chicago Bears. The Bears have had a roller coaster of a season so far, losing their first game, then winning their next two, losing two, winning one, losing three, and now they are back on a two-game winning streak.

Chicago still has a very slim chance of making it into the playoffs, but they will likely have to win the rest of their games to even have a shot at getting in. That is much easier said than done – they play Detroit twice (including this week), the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints.

One thing that they do have going in their favor is that they get the Saints, Cowboys and one of the Lions games at home.

This game could be a very winnable game for the Bears, especially with the way Detroit’s offense has been performing lately. It’s not just that they have not been scoring many points during the last two games, but their offense has been out of sync. They rushed for under 100 yards as a team against a Patriots defense that is 14th in the league against the run and averaging 108.2 rushing yards allowed per game.

The Lions passing game has also been out of sync, especially quarterback Matthew Stafford and star receiver Calvin Johnson. In years past, Stafford could just throw the ball up high downfield and Johnson would be able to go up and get it. This year is a different story, though. Johnson had to miss a few games with an injury, and just hasn’t had the same production since he has been back. Last week, Stafford targeted him 10 times and they were only able to connect four times for 58 yards and no touchdowns.

If the Lions’ offensive woes continue, it will be very difficult for them to win this game as the Bears have been able to score points – scored 21 points in each of their past two wins – and play solid defense – holding their opponents to 13 points in each of their past two wins.

Minnesota Vikings (4-7)
The Vikings have once again been hurt by their offense’s inability to get off to a fast start. Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has shown again that he has the ability to take his team down the field at the end of the game and score points, but his inaccuracy and mistakes early in ballgames is ultimately what cost them a win as the Green Bay Packers came into TCF Bank Stadium and beat the Vikings 24-21.

With the Vikings’ playoff hopes all but gone at this point in time, they will have to take on the role of spoiler as they have multiple games remaining against teams who still have a chance to clinch a playoff berth. One of those teams is the Carolina Panthers, who have only a 3-7-1 record, but play in the NFC South where the leaders of the division has a 4-7 record.

The Vikings currently have a 2-1 record against the NFC South and are undefeated against them at home – they beat the Atlanta Falcons 41-28 at home – which is where they will be playing against the Panthers. Carolina is currently on a five-game losing streak but are 2-1 against the NFC North.

One key matchup to watch during this game is the play of two young players on the rise. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes for the Vikings against rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the Panthers. Rhodes is a physical cornerback measuring in at 6-foot-1 and Benjamin is a physical receiver measuring in at 6-foot-5. The two were also teammates at Florida State and went up against one another for two years there.

With the playoffs all but out of the picture, it will be interesting to see how the Vikings respond against a struggling Panthers team. One thing Minnesota does have going for it in this game is that they have a 4-2 record against teams with a losing record.

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