After a couple of Week 14 division slugfests the NFC North playoff picture is beginning to gain a bit of clarity. Despite its mere 17 weeks, the NFL season is all about momentum. Just ask the New York Giants; getting hot at the right time is all that matters in this league.
Take a look at the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Green Bay began its season 2-3, taking a backseat to Chicago’s red-hot 4-1 (and at one point 7-1) start to the year. At the midway point of the season the Packers were digging themselves out of a hole and the Bears were counting the days until playoff time. A little bit of time can drastically change the outlook of a season for any team. Fast forward 5 weeks since the Bears were sitting at 7-1 and a lot has changed. Chicago has dropped 4 of its last 5 while Green Bay has won 6 of their last 7 to sit at 9-4 entering week 15.
So what happened to these two teams and the division as a hole? Every NFC North team has an Achilles Heel that has severely hampered them throughout the season. This past weekend showcased these weaknesses, with two teams winning in spite of them and the other two falling as a result.
Chicago Bears- Somewhere around the middle of the season the NFL began to catch on to the Bears offense. As the year has worn on, Chicago’s offensive line has proven unable to protect Cutler from a steady onslaught of abuse. That’s a huge problem but it is not their Achilles Heel. The Heel is officially awarded to the Overreliance on Brandon Marshall. The Bears offense starts and stops with Marshall, who recorded 10 catches for 160 yards in proving himself to be Chicago’s only reliable offensive weapon. Matt Forte has big play ability but can’t seem to get much going, as evidenced by only two hundred yard performances on the year. Outside of plays to Marshall the Bears have trouble moving the ball consistently.
Minnesota Vikings- Minnesota is dealing with a comparable and significantly worse problem but they were able to overcome it en route to the 21-14 victory over Chicago. While the Bears are dealing with an overreliance on Brandon Marshall, Minnesota relies on a total and complete dependence on the shoulders of one Adrian Peterson, who ran for 154 yards and two scores. After watching the tape of Sunday’s game I officially have no hope in Christian Ponder and the Vikings passing game. When watching Minnesota games, one gets a feeling similar to watching high school football. You know those high school teams that throw a few times a game just for the sake of not running every single play? Welcome to the 2012 Vikings. The Christian Ponder Victory Stat line of 11/17 for 91 yards and one interception says it all. For Minnesota to win, Christian Ponder turns the ball over and doesn’t cross the century mark. Not a sign of good things to come.
Detroit Lions- Detroit’s problems are too numerous to count, but one that stands out transcends numbers, statistics, and strategy. The Lions can’t put together a full game, and this Achilles Heel was on full display for the entire country Sunday Night. Detroit got out to an early 14-0 lead and responded to their early game success by getting outscored 27-3. Head-scratching play calling and a beautifully disastrous Matt Stafford fumble lead to the turnaround, but the Lions are beyond reasons when it comes to blowing games. Going back to last year, the Lions have beat 1 team with a winning record (Seattle this year). The Lions can’t get it together in big games despite demonstrating the talent and ability to play with anyone. Sigh.
Green Bay Packers- Green Bay’s defensive injuries have been a major NFL storyline this year but I wouldn’t label that as their Achilles Heel. The Packers have had laughable results when attempting to run the football this year but the Lions were determined to reverse the trend. Green Bay’s 140 rushing yards isn’t a jaw dropping figure but that number doesn’t tell the whole story. In the 4th quarter when the Lions needed a stop more than anything the Packers ran it right down their throat. A 14-yard DuJuan Harris TD run capped a drive where the Lions put to any notion of a solid run defense to rest. A strong run game could be the spark that the struggling Green Bay offense needs, and while a good showing against the Lions doesn’t mean the world at least they’re heading in the right direction.