In Week 16, the Packers sealed the #1 seed in the NFC Playoffs and home-field advantage through the playoffs with a 35-21 win over the Chicago Bears , which sealed a season sweep of the Bears and moved the Packers to 5-0 in the NFC North. Aaron Rodgers bombed the Chicago secondary for 5 TD passes without an interception,
This was not the first time that a team from the NFC North has started off 5-0 in division play. After all, the Chicago Bears were 5-0 in the NFC North going into Week 17 in 2005, 2006 and 2010.The Minnesota Vikings were 5-0 in the NFC North going into Week 16 of 2009. However, in 2005, the Bears lost 34-10 to the Minnesota Vikings to close out the year (Mike Tice was still fired). The 2006 and 2010 Bears both lost to the Packers in Week 17, while the 2009 Bears knocked off the 2009 Vikings in Week 16.
With a 45-41 win over the Detroit Lions in Week 17, the Packers became the first team to ever sweep the NFC North, adding an exclamation point to their season and extending their win streak over divisional opponents to 8 games (the last loss having come at the hands of the Lions in Week 14 of 2010).
Sweeping all 3 opponents within a division is not something that has happened often in the NFC of late. The last time an NFC team did so was the 2008 Cardinals, and before the Cardinals, the last team to accomplish the feat was the 2005 Seahawks. Oddly enough, the previous season, the Philadelphia Eagles swept the NFC East, However, in the AFC, divisional sweeps happen with greater frequency: this past year, the Ravens went 6-0 against the AFC North during the regular season. The Oakland Raiders swept the AFC West in 2010 (missing the playoffs by virtue of a 2-8 record outside of division play), the Steelers swept the AFC North in 2002 and 2008, the Patriots swept the AFC East in 2007, and the Colts swept the AFC South in 2005 and 2009. Also, Cincinnati swept the AFC North in 2009.
Now: On to the wild card games!
Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints
Oh. Boy. This looks like a shootout, and the fact that the Detroit Lions gave up 480 yards and 6 touchdown passes to Matt Flynn in Week 17 could swing the balance in favor of the Saints, who possess a truly lethal offense (one that the Packers were able to withstand in Week 1).
The Saints had a rugged stretch where they lost to two of the worst teams in the NFC (the Buccaneers and Rams), but bounced back by winning 8 games in a row. In that 8-game stretch, the Saints watched as Drew Brees destroyed Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a season (Brees finished with 5,476 passing yards on the year, compared to Marino's 5,084 in 1984, the previous record). However, New Orleans lost rookie RB Mark Ingram to the Injured Reserve. With both Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory healthy, the Saints should still mount a somewhat decent ground game.
However, the Saints won't have the luxury of Lance Moore's sticky hands, and will miss former Wisconsin Badger Jonathan Casillas at LB: both players were declared out for the Wild Card game. Casillas's absence could hurt a back 7 that has allowed 24 passing touchdowns to just 9 interceptions this season.
The Detroit Lions started off 5-0 and then...lost interest? Stopped facing Tony Romo? Whatever the reason, the Lions endured a brutal 7-game stretch where they dropped 5 of 7 games, the last three losses coming by 10+ points. The Lions then pulled off 3 straight wins, capping off the streak by blasting the San Diego Chargers by 4 TDs, but ended the season with their pass defense in flames at the hands of Matt Flynn's 480-yard, 6 TD performance.
To say that the Lions' running game has been an adventure would not be an exaggeration, as not one of their running backs has managed greater than 400 yards rushing through the entire season. Consequently, the Lions are 29th in the NFL in rushing offense. Strangely, Detroit ranks solidly in the middle of yards per rushing attempt (4.3, which is tied with Baltimore and San Diego), but Jim Schwartz's staff simply doesn't stick with the running game, as the Lions are 31st in the NFL in rushing attempts per game (22.3, only Tampa Bay is worse).
Injury-wise, only Chris Harris is listed as doubtful for Detroit. All other injuries are listed as probable or injured reserve.
PREDICTION: New Orleans 38, Detroit 34 - Drew Brees carves up Detroit's secondary, but the Lions remain in the game well into the 4th Quarter thanks to Matt Stafford keeping pace. When you consider that both QBs in this game combined for more than 10,000 yards passing on the season, this kind of result becomes even more likely. Brees leads a TD drive in the final minutes for the win.
Drama. Both teams have combined for 19 wins and 13 losses. New York lost 5 consecutive games but somehow retained control of their playoff destiny. They still remained in the playoff hunt despite getting swept away by the Washington Redskins (the worst team in the NFC East at 5-11). And in the end, the Giants enter the playoffs with a 9-7 record and the dubious distinction of the defense having allowed more points than the offense has scored. The Giants beat the rival Cowboys in Week 17 in a winner-take-NFC-East game, sealing a sweep of the Cowboys and sending the Giants to the playoffs.
The Atlanta Falcons have also been quite the adventure. They started off the season by getting destroyed by the Chicago Bears, and lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two weeks later. In Week 5, the Falcons lost 25-14 to the Green Bay Packers in the Georgia Dome. Unlike the Giants, who clustered 6 of their 7 losses together, the Falcons have managed to scatter their losses about the schedule. Mike Smith's Atlanta team did not have a winning streak longer than 3 games all year long, but closed the year by incinerating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
PREDICTION: New York 24, Atlanta 21 - Matt Ryan's winless playoff record continues, but the Falcons do make a game of things before eventually falling to the Giants in New York.