In just three short weeks, the NFC North has been turned completely upside down.
Rewind back to Week 7. The Green Bay Packers had just beaten the Minnesota Vikings to improve to 5-2, the Chicago Bears dropped their third game in four tries and lost Jay Cutler to injury and the Detroit Lions let a winnable game against the Cincinnati Bengals get away as time expired.
At 5-2, and with a manageable schedule ahead, the Packers had the look of a 12- or 13-win team with a stranglehold on the division race. The 4-3 Bears appeared on the brink of collapse and were facing a Monday night trip to Lambeau Field. The Lions, also sitting at 4-3, would welcome a Cowboys team to Detroit that had won two straight.
Who is the current front runner to win the NFC North?
Less than a month later, everything has changed.
The Packers lost quarterback Aaron Rodgers—the best player in the division—just one series into an upset loss to Chicago. Green Bay is now 5-4 and looking at starting its third different quarterback in as many weeks. Without Rodgers, the Packers suddenly look like nothing more than an eight- or nine-win team.
The Bears revived their season by beating the Packers in Green Bay for the first time since 2007, and the first time overall since 2010. While the Packers lost their starting quarterback in Week 9, the Bears welcomed theirs back six days later.
And what about the Lions? Winners of two straight, including Sunday's 21-19 win over the Bears in Chicago and a miracle win over Dallas, Detroit can now claim the title of division front-runner. This is unfamiliar territory for the Lions, who have never led the NFC North heading into Week 11 since the division realignment in 2002. You'd have to go back to 1999 and the days of the NFC Central to find the last time the Lions were leading the division this late in the season.
Still, seven games remain in a season that has been anything but predictable. A look at the final stretch for each team can help provide a guide for which club will be representing the NFC North as division champion in the postseason.
Detroit Lions (6-3)
|Week 11||at Pittsburgh Steelers||3-6|
|Week 12||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||0-8|
|Week 13||Green Bay Packers*||5-4|
|Week 14||at Philadelphia Eagles||5-5|
|Week 15||Baltimore Ravens||4-5|
|Week 16||New York Giants||3-6|
|Week 17||at Minnesota Vikings||2-7|
*On Thanksgiving Day
Two weeks ago, we discussed the Lions' second-half schedule and how it set up so well for Detroit to make a serious run. That theory still applies, especially after the Lions went into Chicago and beat a Bears team that unexpectedly started Jay Cutler.
Scan the final seven games, and it's not difficult to find at least four wins. Even a 6-1 finish isn't completely out of this world.
Games against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings feature an opposing win-loss record of just 8-27. The Lions should be favored in all four.
Only the Packers, who might be without Rodgers on Thanksgiving Day, currently have a winning record among the other three teams. The Philadelphia Eagles (5-5) and Baltimore Ravens (4-5) are a combined 9-10.
If the Lions can take care of business against four of the NFL's bottom-dwelling teams and steal a game or two against Green Bay, Philadelphia or Baltimore, Detroit will be a near-lock for the NFC playoffs and the heavy favorite to win the division.
The Lions are the healthiest of the three teams and feature a soft schedule. This is Detroit's division to lose.
Chicago Bears (5-4)
|Week 11||Baltimore Ravens||4-5|
|Week 12||at St. Louis Rams||4-6|
|Week 13||at Minnesota Vikings||2-7|
|Week 14||Dallas Cowboys*||5-5|
|Week 15||at Cleveland Browns||4-5|
|Week 16||at Philadelphia Eagles||5-5|
|Week 17||Green Bay Packers||5-4|
*On Monday Night Football
Like Detroit, Chicago faces a manageable seven-game stretch to close out 2013. In fact, the Bears could look at any one game on the remaining schedule and believe it will be very winnable.
However, two losses to Detroit have put the Bears in a sticky situation. A one-game lead in the division is really a two-game margin, and the Lions look like at least a 10-game winner. The Packers could still push for 10 or 11 wins if Rodgers returns on the early side of his timeline. These realities mean the Bears might have to win 11 games to really have a chance at capturing the division.
Going 6-1 over the final seven games will be a stretch.
The Bears have four road games remaining, and the three home games—against Baltimore, Dallas and Green Bay—bring tested quarterbacks to Chicago to face an inconsistent defense. A Week 17 matchup with the Packers, who should have Aaron Rodgers back from injury, could eventually decide whether Chicago is a playoff team or not.
To have a chance, the Bears will likely need to win all four road games—against teams with a combined win-loss record of 15-23—and take two of three at home. That's a tall order for a club that is poor in several defensive statistics.
Nine or 10 wins is still within the realm of possibility for this Bears team. That might be enough to sneak in as a final wild card, but likely not enough to outpace the Lions or Packers to the finish line.
Green Bay Packers (5-4)
|Week 11||at New York Giants||3-6|
|Week 12||Minnesota Vikings||2-7|
|Week 13||at Detroit Lions*||6-3|
|Week 14||Atlanta Falcons||2-7|
|Week 15||at Dallas Cowboys||5-5|
|Week 16||Pittsburgh Steelers||3-6|
|Week 17||at Chicago Bears||5-4|
*On Thanksgiving Day
The Packers remain the great wild card in this race. Green Bay has lost two straight games without Rodgers available (save for one series against the Bears), and it's unlikely he plays until the Packers visit Detroit on Thanksgiving. Even that timeline for return is on the optimistic side for a fractured collarbone.
With Rodgers healthy, the Packers could very easily be 7-2 and rolling toward a third straight division crown. Now, Green Bay is struggling to keep its head above water.
Games against the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings in back-to-back contests feature two teams with a combined record of just 5-13, but no game is a gimmie without Rodgers. In fact, both are mostly tossups at this point.
The Packers probably need to win at least one game over the next two weeks, and then have Rodgers return against the Lions on Nov. 28, to make another run. A 6-5 mark, when added to the opportunity to beat the Lions for a second time in 2013, gives Rodgers a platform for reviving a Packers team that has spun its tires without him the last two weeks.
Given the relative softness of the team's final stretch, Green Bay can realistically win out once Rodgers returns. The Packers season might then come down to two simple factors: how Scott Tolzien and the defense responds over the next two weeks, and if Rodgers can be back in time to play Detroit.
If the Packers can't scrap out a win before Thanksgiving, or Rodgers is out longer than the more optimistic timelines, Green Bay could very easily fall out of the division race. Anything between eight and 11 wins is still feasible for this Packers team.