With Three Weeks Left, a Look at the NFC North Title Race

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With Three Weeks Left, a Look at the NFC North Title Race

Chicago Bears

PlayoffsMeme

The Bears were dominant on Monday Night Football, beating the Cowboys to move to 7-6. (4-0 in primetime!) The Lions lost a wild snow game in Philadelphia, falling to 7-6. The Packers squeaked out a home win against the Falcons, and they now sit at 6-6-1, making playoff scenarios difficult to project. So how likely are the Bears to win the division?

Well, more likely than they were before the weekend; heading into Week 14, the Football Outsiders Playoff Odds had the Bears winning the North just 16.9% of the time in their simulations. The new report, expected out today, will likely rate their chances much higher. As has been well-documented, the Lions hold the tiebreaker over the Bears by virtue of sweeping the season series. The Packers, thanks to their Week 12 tie with the Vikings, are basically assured of not tying anyone, rendering their tiebreaker scenarios moot. Further, considering that the Packers cannot reach ten wins, if they lose any of their remaining three games their chance at the division seems very slim; it would require both the Bears and Lions to go 1-2 down the stretch.

Here’s a look at each team’s remaining schedule:

Bears

  • Week 15 at Cleveland: A team in full rebuild-mode, starting ex-Bear backup Jason Campbell at quarterback. But with a sneaky good defense (7th in the league in yards allowed per game) they can’t be taken lightly.
  • Week 16 Philadelphia: On paper the toughest test remaining for the Bears; the Eagles feature a formidable offense, with the league’s best rushing attack; they average 158.5 yards per game rushing, which is somehow even more than the Bears last-ranked rushing defense allows per game. The classic matchup of an unstoppable force vs. an easily movable, feather-type object. But, take heart: Philadelphia’s defense is not necessarily better than Chicago’s; the Eagles rank 30th in yards allowed per game, while the Bears check in at 29th. And as we saw on Monday night, the Bears are more than capable of winning a shootout.)
  • Week 17 Green Bay: This game, to me, hinges on what Green Bay does with Aaron Rodgers. If he isn’t cleared to return, or if the Packers lose between now and then and decide to shut him down for the year, the tenor of the contest shifts dramatically. Because as a Bears fan, the the idea of facing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in a de facto play-in game is a scary one. That would be one heck of an atmosphere at Soldier Field, though.

Lions

  • Week 15 Baltimore: The 7-6 Ravens are clinging to an AFC wild card slot, and they’re mathematically alive in the race for the AFC North. Meaning they very much have something to play for. I’d also favor John Harbaugh in this coaching matchup. The Ravens have won four out of their last five, with the Bears handing them their only defeat during that stretch. The Lions are seemingly on the verge of collapse, but they’re still a very talented football team featuring one of the best players on the planet in Calvin Johnson. The Ravens defense has been anything but stout, but they’re a fairly veteran team that, unlike the Lions, probably won’t beat themselves. As a Bears fan, I’m glad they’re coming to Detroit.
  • Week 16 New York Giants: The Giants are an enigma. Much like the Ravens, it’s been a year full of uncharacteristic mistakes, starting with Eli Manning’s odd regression. (16 TDs/20 INTs, just a 58% completion rate) That said, there’s talent all over the roster, and they’re a team capable of putting things together any given week and winning on the road. (Which I realize you can say about most NFL teams, but the 2013 Giants exemplify that ideal.)
  • Week 17 @Minnesota: This game may have become a lot more winnable, as Adrian Peterson left Sunday’s Vikings game with what appeared to be a very nasty foot injury. An MRI apparently revealed only a sprain and Peterson is hoping to play as soon as this Sunday. With Peterson, one of the other best players on the planet, the Vikings are not fun to play at the Metrodome, as the Bears sadly discovered. Without him, (as with the Aaron Rodgers injury) they’re an entirely different team.

Packers

  • Week 15 Dallas: The Packers travel to face a reeling Dallas team, but the Cowboys are not a pushover, especially at Jerryworld. If Rodgers is cleared (sensing a theme yet?) they might be favored, but Dallas is in must-win mode now, and I actually like the Cowboys in this game (again, assuming Green Bay is sans Rodgers.) If Rodgers doesn’t return and the Cowboys win, the Packers might just shut down their franchise quarterback; considering the potential implications for the Bears, that’s an ideal scenario in my mind.
  • Week 16 Pittsbugh: The Steelers are in the same boat as the Giants and Ravens; seemingly at the tail end of a dynasty, they’re trying to figure out the best way to move forward. This has led to some fits and starts, and they had won three in a row before losing their final two games. Again, with a healthy Rodgers I’d lean toward Green Bay at home; but if he’s not back by Week 16, he might not be coming back at all.
  • Week 17 at Chicago: See above.

Obviously, if the Lions finish undefeated, they make the playoffs. If I were forced to make a prediction, I don’t think they’ll sweep their final three games. I think Baltimore presents problems for them, especially considering their lack of discipline. And if they lose to Baltimore next week, the looming narrative might drag them down; they’re not a team that tunes out distractions. So, let’s say the Lions lose a game; can the Bears win out? Oddly, I actually think the Browns game is a much more important contest than the trip to Philadelphia, and here’s why: if we think the Ravens have the best chance to knock off Detroit, and the Bears beat the Browns, that would give the Bears a one-game lead with two games remaining. It would put all the pressure in the world on the Lions in Week 16, and they’re not exactly adept at dealing with that sort of pressure. If they were to lose to Giants, the Bears result at Philadelphia becomes somewhat less important; a win clinches the division (barring Green Bay winning their next two games, which, again, seems quite unlikely unless Rodgers returns) but a loss would still leave them with a one game lead. They would control their own destiny, at home, against the Packers. Take care of business against Cleveland, and the path to the playoffs becomes more forgiving. But a loss next Sunday, coupled with a Lions win against Baltimore, and things get very, very difficult.

I’m leaving out an important scenario: what if Rodgers returns, and leads Green Bay to two straight victories? That would set up an incredible finish, and it’s possible that all three teams could be alive heading into Week 17. While that would make for some wild storylines, the bottom line is this: if the Bears win their final three games, they have an excellent shot of winning the division. And since they can only do that one game at a time, I’m very much looking forward to their trip to Cleveland.

 



Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.