NFC North Heats Up

The NFC North might not be the black-and-blue division, whose teams claim men like Bud Grant, Vince Lombardi, George Halas and Bobby Layne as a part of their heritage. But after Chicago’s surprising 30-24 win in Philadelphia last night it’s suddenly looking like the toughest division in the NFC, perhaps the entire NFL. You have the league’s consensus best team in Green Bay, and last night’s result has increased the possibility the North could sweep the wild-card spots with the Bears and Lions. Let’s take a brief look at all four teams, what they’ve got and what’s ahead of them…

Green Bay (8-0): My new rule about the Packers is that I have to find something negative to say about them. I’m not trying to be unreasonable, it’s just I don’t like the idea of turning the whole season into a coronation walk, as much as this one has that feel to it. Without denying that Green Bay is resembling Rachel Alexandra in the 2009 Kentucky Oaks (the filly won the race by 20 lengths), the persistent problems in the secondary and the offensive line have to concern Mike McCarthy. Aaron Rodgers is getting hit way too frequently and even if he doesn’t actually get hurt, it still prevents the deeper pass drops to get the ball further down the field. There’s been injuries on the line, but with Bryan Bulaga back at tackle, that excuse has to end. Chad Clifton is still out, but at 35, it’s questionable how productive he will be when he makes it back. The Pack has to protect #12 with what they have, and the head coach needs to make a more consistent commitment to the running game. The pass defense is also a serious problem, as the loss of Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins for the year has taken its toll.

Detroit (6-2): Detroit’s offense is also a little too one-dimensional to be championship-caliber, and unlike Green Bay it’s not just about concentrating more on running the game. The Lions can’t keep Jahvid Best healthy, and are too dependent on Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson hooking up. What they do have is the best defensive front in football right now, Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosh and Ndamakong Suh. They’re doing a respectable job in pass defense, although the stats are helped by the fact they haven’t played Green Bay yet. Overall though, while the Lions aren’t championship level, being able to put up points through the air and then attack an opposing quarterback with your front four is enough to win a nice chunk of games.

Chicago (5-3): Lovie Smith keeps doing it with smoke and mirrors as this defense gets older, but he’s still got a unit that stops the run and his offense is able to run the ball in turn, with Matt Forte having a fabulous year. The Bears are getting good edge pressure from Julius Peppers and Israel Idonjie and have been able to paper over their weaknesses in the secondary. Jay Cutler continues to paper over the problems in his receivers corps and his pass protection, even amidst the absurd complaints about his lack of toughness.

Minnesota (2-6): Keep an eye on this team to be a spoiler for its division rivals. The Vikings are playing some tough football, and like the Bears they can run the ball and stop the run. Adrian Peterson in the backfield and Jared Allen at defensive end give them superstar talent capable of game-changing plays. Allen in particular, is having a resurgent year with 12.5 sacks. Minnesota is already playing better than its record and I look for them to spring some surprises in the second half. A couple benchmark games to eye up are home dates with Denver (can they beat a mediocre team) and New Orleans (can they nail a good team).

This weekend is going to be NFC North Showdown week. Chicago and Detroit meet in a huge game on Sunday and then the Monday Night Game is Green Bay-Minnesota from Lambeau Field. The holiday games ahead are going to be marked by this division. The Packers-Lions go at it on Thanksgiving in Detroit and then on the New Year’s Day finale back in Lambeau. And Christmas Night won’t be a time for peace on earth and goodwill toward men in Green Bay, as the Packers and Bears hook up.

It’s a good year to be a fan in the NFC North. You’ve got the best team in football, competitive races for playoff spots, a live dog in fourth place and the best games still ahead as the weather gets cold.