There isn't a division in football that will be as entertaining over the final three weeks of the season as the turbulent and often volatile NFC North.
Just a half-game separates the three unpredictable and occasionally disappointing teams that currently sit atop the division. The 7-6 Detroit Lions currently hold a tiebreaker lead over the 7-6 Chicago Bears, while the 6-6-1 Green Bay Packers might have Aaron Rodgers back for the final three games after skidding to a 1-4-1 record without him.
The final three games will now decide which of the three is representing the NFC North as division champion in January. A home playoff game against one of the impressive Wild Card teams (Carolina, San Francisco, Arizona, possibly even Seattle) awaits the eventual winner.
Yet through 13 games, very little about the NFC North has been sorted out.
Here's what little we do know:
The Lions Still Hold the Cards
Sure, the Lions were once 6-3 and staring down at both the Packers and Bears, who were missing their starting quarterbacks. But the optimism of that time has since dried up, thanks in large part to three blown fourth-quarter leads and a mess of turnovers and inconsistency over the last month.
The good news for the Lions is that the division race is still theirs to lose.
Winning the next three games guarantees Detroit the NFC North title. No ifs, ands or buts. The remaining schedule features home games against the Baltimore Ravens (7-6) and New York Giants (5-8) before finishing in Minnesota against the Vikings (3-9-1). It's a manageable stretch of games for a team as talented as the Lions.
|Week 15||Baltimore Ravens*||7-6|
|Week 16||New York Giants||5-8|
|Week 17||at Minnesota Vikings||3-9-1|
*On Monday Night Football
The Lions can even lose one of those games and still go to the postseason, just as long as both the Packers and Bears lose at least one of their remaining three games. Any combination of Lions wins and Packers or Bears losses (added separately, of course) will get Detroit into the dance. For example, if the Lions finish 1-2 (one win), but the Packers and Bears both go 1-2 (two losses), Detroit is in.
But considering this is a team that has unexpected defeats to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles over just the last month, nothing is guaranteed.
“I think we like when our backs are against the wall,” Lions cornerback Chris Houston said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “We just have to go out and fight.”
Fight the Lions will. The odds remain in their favor.
The Bears are Coming On
The Bears have sure felt like the forgotten team in this whole race. The Lions are the front-runners, and the Packers are the sleeping giant. What does that make Chicago then?
Well, this is a team with as many wins and losses as Detroit. At 7-6, the Bears find themselves tied atop the division, but not really. A head-to-head tiebreaker favors the Lions, meaning Chicago needs help to take the NFC North crown.
The Bears' final stretch of games includes back-to-back road games against the Cleveland Browns (4-9) and Eagles (8-5) before welcoming the Packers to Chicago in Week 17. It's not a murder's row of teams, but it's far from a cakewalk.
|Week 15||at Cleveland Browns||4-9|
|Week 16||at Philadelphia Eagles*||8-5|
|Week 17||Green Bay Packers||6-6-1|
*On Sunday Night Football
Chicago is just 2-4 on the road this season, and the Bears haven't swept the Packers over a two-game season series since 2007. Overall, Green Bay is 6-1 against Chicago since the start of 2011.
The Bears can even win all three of those games and still miss the playoffs at 10-6, but only if the Lions also win out. In all scenarios, Chicago needs to finish with one more win than Detroit over the final three to have a chance.
At the very least, the Bears gave themselves that opportunity by knocking around the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night. Back-to-back road losses to teams in last place had put that in doubt.
"We needed this, especially the way our division was looking," tackle Jermon Bushrod said, via Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune. "We needed to win, and we've just got to carry it over."
Rodgers on the Brink of Return
When Aaron Rodgers fractured his left collarbone on Nov. 4, the Packers were 5-2 and riding a four-game winning streak. In all likelihood, a Green Bay team with Rodgers would have beaten the Bears on that Monday night, and it's certainly possible that the Packers would be 11-2 or 10-3 at this juncture had Rodgers' left shoulder not been driven into the Lambeau Field turf more than a month ago.
But here Green Bay now sits, at 6-6-1, with just one win, four losses and one tie to its record since Rodgers left. And there's still no guaranteeing Rodgers will be back by Sunday, when the Packers travel to Dallas to take on the 7-6 Cowboys.
However, every week of healing brings Rodgers one step closer to being medically cleared to play, and there's no weapon in the division that tilts the scales one team's way quite like the Packers' former MVP quarterback.
Green Bay finishes the season at Dallas, home against Pittsburgh and on the road in Chicago. It's arguably the toughest stretch of the three teams, and like Chicago, the Packers can't guarantee a playoff berth by winning out. Green Bay needs help from both the Lions and Bears.
|Week 15||at Dallas Cowboys||7-6|
|Week 16||Pittsburgh Steelers||5-8|
|Week 17||at Chicago Bears||7-6|
*Best record of remaining three teams
If the Packers win out, Detroit and Chicago each need to lose at least one game. Much like the Bears, Green Bay is in by finishing the final three games with just one more win than both the other two teams.
Getting Rodgers back Sunday would provide the Packers a boost for controlling their side of the equation. Until he is medically cleared, however, the team is planning to play with Matt Flynn.
"As we plan tonight and tomorrow, we're planning to play the game with Matt," coach Mike McCarthy said via Rob Demovsky of ESPN. "That's the way you have to go about it."
No Team Can Clinch This Week
December is the time of year when clinching scenarios start coming into play every week. At least for one weekend, the NFC North can forget about any ways to clinch the division.
Who will win the NFC North?
There is no possible clinching scenarios for any of the three teams in Week 15.
The earliest a team could possibly clinch the division would be Week 16, and that would require a combination of somewhat unlikely things to happen in the next two weeks.
For the time being, the three teams of the NFC North can sit back and worry about winning the singular game sitting in front of them, which has been a chore of late for the Lions, Packers and Bears. Overall, the three teams are just 3-5-1 in their last three games combined.
Sooner or later, the NFC North will finally provide its moment of clarity.
But for a division that has gone back and forth as violently as this one has through the first 14 weeks, don't expect that lucidity to come until 17 weeks on the NFL calendar have come and gone. This wild ride is begging for a photo finish.