Winter may be coming with its blizzards and sub-zero temperatures, but the NFC North is heating up as we hit the last month of regular season football. Something about seeing flurries coming down on a snow-clad field this Sunday really heightened my excitement for the divisional competition in a whole new way as the regular season begins to wrap up. Regardless of one’s feelings about the competitiveness of the Lions, Vikings, and Packers in the overall league, this race is tightening up fast.
With the Detroit Lions leading the division at 8-4 and the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers tied at 6-6, anything can happen. It goes without saying that when the NFC North becomes this contentious, no one is going down without a fight. As for myself, nothing would make it more complete than adding some rough winter games into the mix, in true Midwest form.
While the AFC West is seeing a close race between the Oakland Raiders (10-2), Kansas City Chiefs (9-3), and the Denver Broncos (8-4), it seems that nothing will stop the Raiders from their destiny, now at a cruising speed of 6 consecutive wins. Perhaps the only other division with the machinations of a contentious battle ahead is the AFC South with the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans leading at 6-6 and the Indianapolis Colts at 5-6. However, the Texans have cascaded into 3 consecutive losses- their early successes undone by injury issues (notably, J.J. Watt) and shaky consistency by Brock Osweiler.
On top of injuries, Texans face away games at Indianapolis and Nashville having won only one game on the road this season (and it was against the 2-9 Jaguars). While there is no reason to think the Titans can’t win-out against the Broncos, Chiefs, Jaguars, and Texans, they have been struggling to find a winning momentum. Keep an eye on the Colts to upset the division if stars align.
The Lions have drastically transformed themselves into a team with a more-than-competent offense and a stout defense. This became painfully obvious on Sunday in New Orleans. The win itself was not so impressive as was the Lions defense holding the capable New Orleans offense to 13 points, and snatching 3 interceptions off Drew Brees. Golden Tate played like a maniac, and Stafford put on an absolute clinic finishing the day with 2 touchdowns and a 111.3 passer rating.
A quarterback is only as good as his weapons though, and Stafford has plenty with the likes of Anquan Boldin, Golden Tate, and Marvin Jones Jr. This game was a statement. That statement is, “The Lions are for real.” However, there are still tough battles ahead for Detroit. On the road they face the Giants and the seemingly indomitable Cowboys. Then, what may perhaps be the division decider on New Year’s Day, they play with home field advantage against the Green Bay Packers. These are all hot offenses which do not suit a poor pass rush, and they can afford to lose 2 but not 3 of these important deciding games.
As Packer fans, we love to trash talk the Vikings. The reality is that this team at the outset looked like Super Bowl contenders, but have since fallen on some tough times due to crushing injury woes. This high-powered defense will not go down quietly though, and they face perhaps the easiest late-season schedule of the three. Expect to see them struggle but win against the downtrodden Bears and Jaguars, but the real deciders will be against the Colts (who, as mentioned before, are looking to step up to take their own division) and in Lambeau against the Packers. They are down, but certainly not out of contention.
This offense is still as capable as it was when they were 6-0. They can count on help from this defense that has been stout all year long and will be confident after holding the Cowboys high flying offense to 17 points last week. The Vikings will need every advantage possible as they will almost surely need to win-out to snatch the division title.
If we have learned one thing about the Packers in recent years, it’s that when they start to build momentum late in the season as they have this year, big things happen. Big games happen. It’s irrefutable that the showings in the last two weeks have been exciting, and maybe even promising. What is most exciting but also most threatening are the games ahead. Seahawks. Bears. Vikings. Lions.
The Seahawks-Packers rivalry is perhaps one of the biggest extra-divisional rivalries of our time. I needn’t remind Seattle fans of the 2004 NFC wildcard game, nor the January 2008 divisional playoff game. I also needn’t remind Packers fans of the opening game of 2012 nor the 2014-15 NFC Championship game. With those painful memories in mind, the Packers have what is essentially 4 rivalry matches ahead of them, and they must almost certainly win-out to hold on to hopes of a division title. With all that said, win or lose, I am incredibly excited for some highly competitive match ups which are sure to be explosive and contentious.
Do you think your division is hotter than mine? Let me know in the comments.