By Joseph Gunther
The NFC North Division has been the best in football this season.
The Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings have combined for a 23-14 record, while no other division has more than 19 combined wins.
The Bears are atop the division at 7-2. Their offense is good enough, but quarterback, Jay Cutler, was injured with a concussion. It does not appear to be a serious issue, but concussions are the hot topic in the entire sports world and no one really knows when the symptoms will go away. It can seem fine for a couple days and then all of a sudden they’re back and worse than ever. Minnesota sports fans know this all too well with its baseball and hockey teams.
The defense, led by linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and defensive back Charles Tillman, is second in the NFL in points allowed. The playmakers on the defense come at multiple levels; end Julius Peppers and tackle Henry Melton up front, Urlacher and Briggs at linebacker and cornerbacks Tillman and Tim Jennings in the backend. The entire unit, led by Briggs and Tillman with two each, has scored seven touchdowns.
The Bears are winning with turnover differential, a league-best plus-14. In their two losses, the Bears turned the ball over eight times combined, while forcing four combined turnovers. That amounts to 26 forced turnovers and eight times giving the ball away in the seven wins. The two losses came against two of the best teams in the league, the Packers and Houston Texans.
At some point, the Bears are going to need the offense to win a game, especially in the playoffs. It may not be able to and a less-than-100-percent Cutler is not going to get it done.
The Bears have home games remaining against the Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Packers and road games at the San Francisco 49ers, Vikings, Arizona Cardinals and Lions.
The Packers are still the team to beat. They trail the Bears by one game in the standings, but have already beaten the Bears once this season in rather convincing fashion. They currently hold the top wild card spot, which gets them a trip to the worst division winner (currently the New York Giants of the NFC East).
The Packers have the most explosive offense with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. He hasn’t had an MVP season, mostly because of injuries and drops from his receivers. His best two receivers, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, have battled injuries, but Randall Cobb has stepped up along with James Jones. Like most teams in the division, the offensive line could use a few upgrades.
Last season, the Packers defense struggled. The Packers tried to bolster the unit with its first six selections in the draft. The pass rush remains all about Clay Matthews. He leads the team with nine sacks while no one else has more than 2.5. The secondary got a boost from rookie second round draft pick Casey Hayward. Finally, read into this however you like, but safety Morgan Burnett leads the team in tackles while cornerback Tramon Williams is third. The Packers are still going to have to outscore everyone.
The Packers have home games remaining against the Vikings, Lions and Titans and road games at the Lions, Giants, Bears and Vikings.
The Vikings were expected to be out of contention and playing for next season at this point, but it remains in the hunt for the division title and a playoff spot. It currently sits in a tie with the Seahawks for the final wild card spot, but loses the tiebreaker based on head-to-head results. The Vikings are one and a half games behind the Bears.
Adrian Peterson is making a strong case for the Comeback Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player of the Year Awards. He can carry the offense when the passing offense is not on its game. Christian Ponder remains the question mark for the unit. He played really well as the team jumped out to a 4-1 record, then poorly as it fell to 5-4 and strongly again in last week’s victory.
When the Vikings drafted Matt Kalil in the first round the entire offensive line got better with Charlie Johnson shifting inside to left guard. It may be the best offensive line unit in the division, led by the left side and center John Sullivan.
The defense is much improved, but still has some holes. Rookie safety Harrison Smith made plays in the secondary by punishing receivers for coming over the middle. In recent weeks, his play has slowed down a bit. Jared Allen remains one of the best pass rushers with seven sacks on the season, which is good for 10th in the league. He was on a six-game sack streak, but has been shutout in back-to-back weeks. Chad Greenway is well on his way to a career season with a league-best 99 tackles. He needs just 55 tackles to match last season’s career-high. He is also on pace to set a career-high for passes defensed.
The Vikings will only go as its quarterback goes.
The Vikings have home games remaining against the Bears and Packers and road games at the Bears, Packers, St. Louis Rams and Texans.
The Lions are three games behind the Bears, but have already lost to the Bears once and the Vikings twice this season. They need to get hot and get help to make the playoffs.
The offensive combination of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson is the reason the Lions are never out of a game. The running game is improving, but still needs better play from its offensive line and running backs. The Lions’ offense is still not elite, because a questionable offensive line, weak offensive line and inconsistent second and third receiving options.
The defense is led by the front seven, most notably tackle Ndamukong Suh and end Kyle Vanden Bosch. Suh is tied with Cliff Avril for the team lead in sacks, but both are having disappointing seasons. The backend has been ravaged by injuries. The secondary is a question mark; even though the run defense has been worse this season.
The Lions may have the best remaining schedule with so many home games, but it is very close to thinking about next season.
The Lions have home games remaining against Packers, Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons and Bears and road games at the Packers and Cardinals.
For more Local Football Bloggers and the latest Vikings news, see CBS Sports Minnesota.
Joseph Gunther is an avid fan of Minnesota sports, including football, hockey and baseball. He covered a wide variety of sports while attending Hastings College in Hastings, Neb. While at Hastings College, he was a part of the first collegiate media group to broadcast a national tournament via television, radio, internet and newspaper at the 2004 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament. He grew up in the Twin Cities playing three years of varsity football in high school. His work can be found on Examiner.com.