Few weeks in recent memory have featured the combination of fascination and playoff ramifications like the one ahead in the always turbulent NFC North.
None of the four teams will play each other, and there's only one clinching scenario for the three teams fighting to be the division champion. But these realities do not prevent Week 16 from being as important and compelling as any before it.
The slumping Detroit Lions (7-7) know they need to win two straight games, starting with Sunday's early-afternoon tilt with the disastrous New York Giants, plus get help. That help needs to come in the form of either the Pittsburgh Steelers, who play the Packers (7-6-1) in Green Bay, or the Philadelphia Eagles, who host the division-leading Chicago Bears (8-6).
The Lions can be officially eliminated from the postseason chase if both the Packers and the Bears deliver wins. The Bears can also win the NFC North outright if both Green Bay and Detroit lose.
And if both the Packers and Bears win Sunday, the grand finale in Chicago between the two clubs will be needed to decide a division champion.
Also, if the Lions win and Packers and Bears both lose in Week 16, Detroit will regain control of its playoff destiny in Week 17. A win in Minnesota would then put the Lions in the playoffs, regardless of the what happens in Chicago.
Finally, if the Giants win in Detroit Sunday, the Lions will be eliminated, regardless of what the Packers or Bears do.
Got that all?
|W-L||Week 16 Opp.||Week 17 Opp.|
|Chicago Bears*||8-6||at PHI||vs. GB|
|Green Bay Packers||7-6-1||vs. PIT||at CHI|
|Detroit Lions||7-7||vs. NYG||at MIN|
|Minnesota Vikings||4-9-1||at CIN||vs. DET|
*Only team that can clinch in Week 16
Maybe the most enlightening aspect of Week 16 is that no scenario involving the three teams would be much of a surprise considering how tumultuous the 2013 season has been in the division.
The Bears and Packers both have difficult individual matchups. Envisioning one or both losing isn't difficult. And just one week after giving up control in dramatic, heartbreaking fashion, the Lions can very easily thrust themselves right back into the driver's seat by beating the fading Giants. Of course, Detroit falling on its face against a bad team is just as predictable.
That's the beauty of the NFC North in 2013. Anything and everything is possible. And even if the records don't project greatness, the entertainment value of the division has more than made up for it.
Here's a look at the three games that have importance in the division this Sunday:
New York Giants (5-9) at Detroit Lions (7-7)
Fox, 3:05 p.m. CT
This appears to be a game that a team pushed up against the playoff wall should win with relative ease, especially at home.
The five-win Giants have been a train wreck for most of 2013, and a recent 1-3 stretch has knocked them out of postseason contention. The Seattle Seahawks served up a 23-0 knockout punch of New York in Week 15.
The Giants offense is a disaster, with Eli Manning up to 25 interceptions (leads NFL) and down to a career-worst passer rating of 69.1. He's been sacked on 6.9 percent of his dropbacks, also a new career high.
New York doesn't have a 500-yard rusher and will be without Victor Cruz, who leads the team in receiving yards. The offense's 39 turnovers rank dead last in the NFL.
At home, and on the fast track of Ford Field, Detroit should dominate the Giants up front and force Manning into the same mistakes he's made all season. The desperate Lions should win by a comfortable margin.
Of course, the Lions also should have beat the two-win Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 12. The Lions should have played better late in games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles. And the Lions should have held off the Baltimore Ravens after not allowing a touchdown.
This season has been all about what the Lions should have done but haven't. There are no guarantees for a team so inconsistent and mistake-prone.
The question now is, will the Lions galvanize for the final two games while giving themselves a chance to make the postseason and save the job of their head coach? Even if this team doesn't make the postseason, the next two games will tell a lot about the character of this club and the future of its coach.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8) at Green Bay Packers (7-6-1)
CBS, 3:25 p.m. CT
Life without Aaron Rodgers will extend at least another week for the Packers, who ruled out their starting quarterback on Friday afternoon. Matt Flynn will make his fourth straight start against the surging Steelers.
While Flynn has kept the Packers alive with back-to-back comeback wins, facing Pittsburgh in potentially sloppy conditions will serve up a different type of challenge for the backup quarterback.
In his last two games—against the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys—Flynn completed 70.4 percent of his passes for 557 yards and five touchdowns. He won both games, and his passer rating was an impressive 105.2. But remember, the Atlanta defense is ranked 29th in yards (386.3) and 27th in points (27.7), and Dallas is even worse—32nd in yards (427.3) and 26th in points (28.1).
The Steelers, on the other hand, are ranked 11th in yards (338.0) and 15th in points (23.7). While not reminiscent of Dick LeBeau's great defenses of the past, Pittsburgh has continued to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks this season. Through 14 games, the Steelers have allowed the eighth-fewest passing yards (222.4 per game) and seventh-fewest passing touchdowns (19 total).
Throw in the potential for snow Sunday in Green Bay, and Flynn will have his hands full filling in for Rodgers.
The Packers will also have to deal with a Super Bowl-winning quarterback who is getting hot late in the season.
Since Week 11, Ben Roethlisberger has 12 touchdowns against just one interception, and his passer rating of 106.4 is sixth-best in the NFL over that span. He's been consistent too: Over the last five games, Roethlisberger finished with a passer rating over 94.0 in all five.
Predictably, strong quarterback play in Pittsburgh has resulted in a rash of offensive scoring. Since Week 11, the Steelers are averaging 28.4 points a game.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense will present a stern test for a Packers defense that has played better in the second half of the last two games but still ranks 26th in yards (376.3) and 21st in points (25.9).
Can Flynn produce against a defense that isn't a pushover? And will the Packers defense finally put 60 minutes together against a productive offense with a veteran quarterback? These answers will help determine what Week 17 will eventually mean to Green Bay.
Philadelphia Eagles (8-6) at Chicago Bears (8-6)
NBC, 7:30 p.m. CT
By the time the Bears and Eagles kick off Sunday night, everything about what the ensuing game means will be known.
For the Eagles, the possibility exists that the Cowboys will have already beat the Washington Redskins. In that scenario, Week 16 becomes meaningless for Philadelphia in terms of playoff positioning. Week 17 against the Cowboys would become the winner-take-all contest, regardless of whether or not the Eagles beat the Bears Sunday night.
Chip Kelly might not treat the game any differently, but at least some of the motivation and urgency would be sucked out of the contest with a Cowboys win.
The Bears, on the other hand, will know if a win over the Eagles would clinch the NFC North title.
Losses from the Lions and Packers in the early games will set up the possibility for Chicago to claim the division championship by beating Philadelphia. But even if Detroit and Green Bay both win, the Bears can't afford to drop a game and allow the Lions back into the race.
Yet if Detroit loses and Green Bay and Dallas both win, Sunday's game could become nothing more than a Week 17 primer for the two clubs.
Playoff scenarios aside, this matchup appears to be a case where each offense is proficient in attacking the opposing defense's primary weakness.
The Eagles will come into the contest as the NFL's most productive rushing offense, averaging 152.9 yards a game and 5.0 yards per attempt. Philadelphia has as many games under 100 rushing yards (three) as it does with 200 or more.
The Bears rush defense sits on the opposite end of spectrum.
Chicago is allowing 152.4 rushing yards a game and 5.2 yards per attempt. Both are dead last in the NFL this season. And the Bears have allowed four games under 100 rushing yards and four more over 199.
Can Chicago's ability to throw the football offset its inability to stop the run?
The Bears have thrown for the fifth-most passing yards (275.8 a game) and third-most passing touchdowns (29) this season. Chicago has two 1,000-yard receivers (Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall), plus a 600-yard tight end (Martellus Bennett) and 500-yard running back (Matt Forte). Jay Cutler's options are vast and talented.
Good passing teams have hurt the Eagles, who have allowed six games with 300 or more yards passing this season. Of the 32 NFL teams, Philadelphia ranks 31st against the pass (291.6 yards per game).
Defense, as well as the game's overall impact, might be a premium Sunday. But if this contest does take on some value, expect the offense that better takes advantage of the other's obvious weakness to prevail.