The muddled and log-jammed NFC North got no clearer on Sunday, when no team in the division emerged with a win despite the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings facing off head-to-head.
The slumping Packers rallied behind Matt Flynn's gutsy performance to force overtime against the 2-8 Vikings, but the two teams traded field goals in the extra period and eventually settled for a 26-26 tie.
Combine the tie with unexpected losses from the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, and essentially nothing about the division title race has changed. In fact, it's worth wondering if any team wants to win the competitive but inconsistent North. Green Bay hasn't won in almost a month, and both the Lions and Bears have tripped themselves up with Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines.
Here's a look at the current NFC North standings:
|Green Bay Packers||5-5-1||2-1-1||3-4-1|
*Hold head-to-head tiebreaker
The Lions remain division leaders thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bears. The Packers are now tied in the loss column with both clubs but still remain a game back in wins.
“I guess we move up half a game, so that’s a positive," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com. "But if you really want to get down to it, we didn’t do enough, and that’s kind of been a theme these past couple weeks.”
Sunday's results clearly favor Green Bay.
Few expected the Bears to fall in St. Louis, and fewer had the 2-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers beating the Lions on the road. The Packers failed to gain ground on either team, but also didn't lose any, either.
Who will win the NFC North?
If Rodgers returns in time to face the Lions this coming Thursday, the Packers will have an opportunity to run the table over the final five games and guarantee a division championship. Green Bay would finish 10-5-1 in that scenario, while the best either the Lions or Bears could end up would be 10-6.
The Lions can take the division by winning out, too.
Considering how the three teams have played in recent weeks, it seems unlikely that any would get through the next five games without a loss.
Previously 6-3, the Lions had a golden opportunity to gain serious separation in the division standings once Rodgers went down with a fractured collarbone on Nov. 4. With upcoming games against the 3-6 Pittsburgh Steelers and 2-8 Buccaneers, Detroit was looking at the potential of being 8-3 before its Thanksgiving matchup with the Packers.
Instead, the Lions kept a sinking Green Bay club in the hunt by dropping two games they were fully expected to win.
Detroit failed to score in the second half in Pittsburgh and fell by 10 points. On Sunday, the Bucs extended their winning streak to three games by forcing four Matthew Stafford interceptions. Just like that, a team that was once considered a strong favorite to pull away in a Rodgers-less division remained just one win up on the Packers with five games to play.
“We’ve made the margin for us a lot shorter with the end of the season coming close with five games,” Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh said, via Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com. “We’ve just got to make the most out of these next five weeks."
By Thursday, the Lions could be looking up at both the Packers and Bears.
Chicago hasn't done much more with its opportunity.
After beating the Packers at Lambeau Field when Rodgers played only one series, the Bears have alternated wins and losses. A defeat at home to the Lions ensured Detroit would have the valuable head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bears, and Sunday's loss came to a Rams team sporting a 4-6 record coming into the game. Chicago fell by three touchdowns, and St. Louis controlled play throughout.
The Packers fell behind by 16 points to the woeful Vikings in Green Bay, but Flynn's performance off the bench staved off a fourth straight loss. A 5-6 record turned into the more preferable 5-5-1 mark now tied to a team that still doesn't know when Rodgers will be back in the lineup. He could return as early as Thursday, or as late as December. That factor will likely determine whether the Packers remain a contender.
One way or another, the final month of the season will determine who wins a tight division race.
Thursday's matchup between the Lions and Packers might help decide who is the early favorite, especially if Rodgers returns. After leaving Detroit, Green Bay will face three teams with a combined record of 12-20 before ending the season in Chicago.
The Lions could open up a two-game gap in the win column by beating the Packers, but a stretch of games against Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York isn't as soft at it originally seemed a few weeks back.
Chicago will play three road games in the next four weeks, including next Sunday's visit to Minnesota. The Bears end with a trip from the Packers in a game that is almost certain to have division-deciding consequences.
|Lions (6-5)||vs. Packers (5-5-1)*|
|Bears (6-5)||at Vikings (2-8-1)|
|Packers (5-5-1)||at Lions (6-5)|
|Vikings (2-8-1)||vs. Bears (6-5)|
*Played on Thursday
What happens from here on out is anyone's guess. The NFC North has been as difficult a division to predict as there is in football.
One thing is for certain: Sunday's results did little to clarify the current division standings, as all three at the top failed to gain ground.
Yet the easiest path for each of the three teams is to win their final five games. The Packers, Lions and Bears can all guarantee their spot at the playoff table by finishing 5-0.
The final push for that spot officially begins Thursday morning in Detroit.