Seven weeks into the 2011 NFL season, the structure of the NFC North is starting to take place for the Green Bay Packers and their other NFC North foes. Each team has played seven games so far as none of the North teams have had their bye weeks.
So far, the Packers are in command of the division race with a perfect 7-0 record followed by the Detroit Lions with a 5-2 record, the Chicago Bears with a 4-3 record and lastly the Minnesota Vikings, who sit at 1-6.
After starting the season 5-0, the Lions have dropped two straight games at home to the San Francisco 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons. Behind the Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson connection and fearsome defensive line, the Lions appeared to be a legitimate contender, but the two losses re-open the question.
The Lions should be able to bounce back on the road against Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos before getting their bye in Week 9. Coming out of the bye, the Lions travel to Soldier Field for a divisional battle against the Chicago Bears before returning home to Ford Field to host the Carolina Panthers, followed by the Green Bay Packers.
Over the next five weeks, the Lions will be revealed for what they really are, whether that is a Super Bowl contender, a playoff contender or a team too young and not quite ready to take the leap into the playoffs. The future of the Lions' season may rest on the ability of Stafford's right ankle to heal up quickly.
In Chicago, the Bears have re-built some momentum after starting the season 2-3 with back-to-back wins over NFC opponents. They destroyed the Vikings at home before traveling to London to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an "away" game.
After traveling across the pond, the Bears get a much-deserved bye in Week 8 before returning to action in a road game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Following the road game, the Bears return home to take on the Lions and the San Diego Chargers. The Bears then travel to the West Coast to play the Oakland Raiders.
The four weeks following their bye week are brutal for the Bears as they get four quality teams that could all be making pushes towards the playoffs. They will need to survive this stretch with only one loss in order to be in good standing in the NFC North and wild-card races.
For Minnesota, the season has been mostly lost due to its horrific start. However, the recent play of Christian Ponder comes as a ray of hope in an otherwise depressing season. The Vikings lost their first four before taking out their frustration against the Arizona Cardinals. Two straight division losses have the Vikings at 1-6.
In Week 8, the Vikings travel to face the Carolina Panthers in a battle of two rookie quarterbacks. Following that game, the Vikings get a much-needed bye week to sort out injuries, legal problems and further game plan around Ponder. It doesn't get much easier after of the bye as the Vikings travel to face the Packers at Lambeau. They then return home to host the Raiders before going back on the road to face the Falcons.
In an already-tough season, the next five weeks look nightmare-ish for the Vikings outside of the bye week. That could be the only weekend that the team doesn't suffer a loss. At best, the Vikings are looking at coming out of the stretch 3-8.
The Packers appear to be in great shape in the NFC North and should be heavy favorites to win the division. If the Lions can get back on track, the Thanksgiving Day game against the Packers could have big implications if the Lions hope to tighten up the division.
The other big game remaining in the NFC North comes two weeks before the Turkey Day showdown and features the Bears hosting the Lions in Chicago. A Chicago win goes a long way in challenging Detroit for second place in the division.
For now, much like the rest of the league, it looks like the NFC North is far from overtaking the Packers at this point.