The defining moment in the NFC North this season may not be a late comeback win or an out-of-nowhere winning streak.
No. If the division ends up swaying the way of the Chicago Bears or Detroit Lions, a third-down play during the first quarter of a 0-0 game might end up being the moment that changed everything for the two clubs currently tied with the Green Bay Packers at 5-3 atop the NFC North.
That play came Monday night, during the 187th meeting between Chicago and Green Bay and under the lights at Lambeau Field. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the MVP of Super Bowl XLV and the league's MVP in 2011, rolled to his right in hopes of capping off an inspiring opening drive against the Bears with six points.
Instead, Rodgers was chased down from behind by Bears defensive end Shea McClellin, who lassoed the Packers quarterback to the turf. It was a sack and a red-zone stand for Chicago, and Green Bay would be sending on Mason Crosby to attempt a short field goal.
But the bigger win for the Bears—and for the Lions, too—was the painful walk back to the sidelines Rodgers took. And later, the jog back to the locker room, from where Rodgers wouldn't emerge until late in the third quarter.
The Packers eventually ruled out Rodgers for the rest of the contest, giving backup Seneca Wallace Green Bay's final 11 offensive drives. His offense scored 17 points after Rodgers left, but the Bears took full advantage of the situation and won their first game in Green Bay since 2007.
With three teams now tied at 5-3 in the NFC North, the division is completely wide open to begin the second half of the season. And it is Rodgers' injury—a fractured collarbone that won't require surgery—that gives both Chicago and Detroit a real chance to take back the division from the Packers, who have won the crown in each of the last two seasons.
* Current leader via conference tiebreaker
“Rodgers is a great player and I wish him a speedy recovery,” McClellin said, via Adam Hoge of CBS Chicago. “He’s great for the game of football.”
But the Bears don't want too speedy of a recovery. The door is open with the best quarterback in the division currently unavailable.
Finding a timeline for Rodgers' recovery isn't easy. The Packers have remained silent on their internal expectations, citing a current lack of information. Ian Rapoport of NFL.com spoke to sources who believed Rodgers' injury would take four to six weeks to heal, but with the hope that the Packers quarterback could be back in four, on the shorter end of the timeline.
A few things are clear: Rodgers won't be playing Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, and he's unlikely to see the field in upcoming games against the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings. In a best-case scenario, Rodgers could be back for the Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions, but even that contest is only 3.5 weeks removed from his injury, so there are no certainties.
In the meantime, the Packers will instill their trust in Wallace, a 33-year-old journeyman who will make his first NFL start since 2011 Sunday against Philadelphia. Over his last eight starts—six coming with Cleveland and two with Seattle—Wallace has just one win, and his career record is only 6-15.
While not dreadful against the Bears, Wallace did produce just 113 passing yards over 11 drives, and Green Bay finished 1-for-9 on third down. He took four sacks and threw an interception. It was a performance you'd expect for a backup trying to run a game plan designed for one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks.
“This is something that’s been built over time with Aaron as the centerpiece,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said Monday, via the Packers official site. "It's not realistic to put anybody in there and think they are going to pick it up and run it like he's run it."
On Sunday, Wallace will captain an offense tailored around his strengths. The Packers remain confident that their veteran quarterback will be a much more efficient and productive player, given a full week of reps with the first-team offense.
"Seneca needs to perform better, and he'll do that with a full week of practice," McCarthy said.
Still, there's an overriding feeling now that the winner of Sunday's Bears-Lions contest in Chicago will suddenly become the front-runner to win the NFC North.
The Bears are riding high after beating the Packers for the first time since 2010, especially with Jay Cutler now expected to make his return after suffering a groin injury in Week 8. According to the Bears official Twitter account, head coach Marc Trestman is planning to start Cutler Sunday against the Lions.
LM: #Bears coach Marc Trestman says Jay Cutler has been cleared to play Sunday vs. Lions and is expected to start.— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) November 7, 2013
Chicago started the season 3-0 but promptly proceeded to lose three of the next four games, including a trip to Detroit in October. Monday night's win over Green Bay could be the confidence-boosting result needed to jump-start a second-half run.
A defense dealing with injury (Lance Briggs, Henry Melton) and ineffectiveness (26th in points, 29th in yards) finally found a pass rush against the Packers, sacking Rodgers once and Wallace four times. Continuing that success hunting quarterbacks will likely be the deciding factor for the Bears, who have played well on offense regardless of who was taking snaps at quarterback.
If the defense becomes only incrementally better, the Bears will be a tough out over the final eight games.
The Lions have reason to be just as confident as Chicago.
Detroit entered its bye in Week 10 on a wave of momentum after mounting a season-defining comeback against the Dallas Cowboys. It was the kind of win you'd normally expect the Lions of old to lose, but Detroit rallied behind Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson and stole a win from the jaws of defeat.
Every week in the NFL is a grind, but the Lions can now look through their final eight games and see a very clear path to at least 10 wins. In fact, this is a schedule that has "road to the playoffs" written all over it.
Of the final eight games, only two are against teams with winning records, and both are in the NFC North (Packers, Bears). The other six teams on the schedule have combined for just 13 wins. Even a conservative prediction—given the continued health at several key positions—would give Detroit nine or 10 wins by the time 2013 is over.
The two games on the Lions' schedule that look most daunting—Sunday's trip to Chicago and the Thanksgiving Day game against Green Bay—will likely have a big say in who is representing the NFC North as division champion in the NFC playoffs.
Who is the current front-runner to win the NFC North?
If Detroit can win both—no easy task if Cutler and Rodgers are back and playing—the Lions will have a chance to win their first ever NFC North title and their first division crown since 1993. It's been a long time coming for Detroit, but 2013 provides as good a chance as any for both streaks to be snapped.
At least one member of the Lions wants Rodgers and Cutler healthy for the two matchups.
“I like going against Aaron Rodgers,” Ndamukong Suh said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “I like going against Cutler and I wish them the best speedy recoveries so I can come back and go against them and take them down.”
Suh shouldn't be so sure. The only time the Lions have beaten the Packers during the Jim Schwartz era came when Rodgers was knocked out of a 2010 contest early. Detroit went on to smother Matt Flynn in a pitchers' duel, 7-3.
The journey toward finally dethroning a Rodgers-less Packers team begins Sunday for both clubs.
The Bears likely need a win more so than the Lions, who already beat Chicago earlier in the season and have an easier final schedule. A win for Detroit would give the Lions a one-game lead over the Bears, plus the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Either way, Sunday's winner will have a golden opportunity to take the division by the horns with Rodgers on the sidelines.