When the NFL regular season ends next week, the Minnesota Vikings will officially be the NFC North division champs. They will ceremoniously hoist a cloth banner somewhere in the rafters of the Metrodome.
But if true champions are measured by their capacity to win critical games late in the season, then the real NFC North champs are the Green Bay Packers.
And the Packers have earned it. Trailing the Vikings by four full games just six weeks ago, the Packers have demonstrated unyielding determination and grittiness to battle back in the NFC North.
They have gone 6-1 in their last seven games and were it not for a miraculous toenail catch by Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace two weeks ago, then the Packers would be playing for the banner next weekend on a scorching 7-0 run.
The Packers' incredible comeback has come as a result of superb quarterback play by second year starter Aaron Rodgers, solid defense, and the true spirit of champions. As John Madden was fond of saying, “Great teams make great plays to win really big games.”
For the Vikings, that maxim cannot apply. They have lost three of four in December, including two consecutive road losses where their vaunted defense has allowed 62 points. Both last week in Carolina and last night in Chicago, the Vikings defense surrendered twenty second half points to teams not only struggling on offence, but playing with key starters injured.
In Carolina, the Vikings were lit up by unknown backup quarterback Matt Moore and last night by Bears starting quarterback JaMarcus Cutler. (Note: when you throw 25 interceptions, in our household your name changes to JaMarcus until you earn it back, which he just about did.)
Cutler threw four touchdowns against the Vikings secondary, even though their top receiver Devon Hester was sidelined with an injury.
In both games, the Vikings' talented front four failed to apply sufficient pressure on the quarterback. (Someone should tell that to Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and coach Brad Childress, by the way.)
The Bears easily contained Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, whose only calf roping motion on the evening was tying his shoe. Cutler superbly targeted Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, who was torched not once, but twice in overtime, including a game winning strike to Devin Aromashuda. For the evening, Aromashuda had seven receptions for 150 yards, most of which came lined up against Winfield.
The offensive performance by Cutler and the Bears was easily their best of the season against a defense that was supposedly in the top five in the league.
The Vikings complete inability to shut down the Bears offensive attack otherwise obscured an admirable comeback by Brett Favre, who steered the Vikings ship to thirty second half points in a valiant attempt to rescue the sinking prow from imminent disaster. Favre threw for nearly 300 second half yards, including two touchdowns to tie the game with only seconds left in the fourth quarter before fumbling expert Adrian Peterson leaked the game away with a costly drop in overtime.
Earlier in the first half, the Bears built an impressive 16-0 lead. They dominated the game in all phases in limiting Favre to 36 passing yards and zero trips to the red zone.
On the sidelines, Vikings head coach Brad Childress could only shiver and watch as his team repeatedly struggled miserably in the early part of the contest. Childress’s early look of concern gave way to one of stupefaction as the first half progressed, a kind of bewilderment not unlike a chimpanzee defeated by shoelaces.
In the second half, the Vikings' admirable rally nearly approached the kind of stuff that true champions muster when the going gets tough.
Unfortunately for Viking fans, they were unable to make enough great plays in a really big game to win.
That talent these days, seems to belong to division rival Green Bay, whose tremendous performance down the homestretch makes them look like the real champs of the NFC North.