With six seeks left in the regular season, the Packers and Bears sit atop the NFC North standings at 7-3. They have a one-game lead on the 6-4 Minnesota Vikings, and the Detroit Lions trail by three games at 4-6. Winning the division is a huge boost for any team going into the playoffs, but it seems likely that the division will get at least two teams in the playoffs.
Green Bay Packers: 7-3
Remaining games: @ NYG, vs. MIN, vs. DET, @ CHI, vs. TEN, @ MIN
Projected finish: 5-1, 12-4 overall, NFC North champions
The Packers' schedule bodes fairly well down the stretch, as Green Bay has had a lot of success against divisional foes in the past several years. The Giants game this weekend could be a bit of a stumbling block, as that team took the Packers to the brink in the regular season last year before winning the playoff game at Lambeau Field. Asking this team to run the table would probably be too much of a stretch, but 5-1 is definitely a strong possibility. I just am having trouble seeing this team losing to Chicago or Minnesota on the road when they are getting injured players back on the field. I'm guessing here that the Packers lose to the Giants, then sweep the next five games to lock up the division.
Chicago Bears: 7-3
Remaining games: vs. MIN, vs. SEA, @ MIN, vs. GB, @ ARI, @ DET
Projected finish: 3-3, 10-6 overall, Wild Card
I don't see the Bears beating the Packers, even in Soldier Field. I also see them losing one of their games against the Vikings, as well as dropping a game to Detroit on the road at the end of the season. Fundamentally, this team is built on one thing: forcing turnovers. When they don't turn the ball over, they struggle.
Even more damning for the Bears has been their early schedule. As has been dissected in detail, they have lost to the Packers, Texans, and 49ers, arguably the only three good teams on their schedule so far. They did beat the Colts, but again that was against a rookie QB in his first NFL start, so I'm not willing to put any stock in that. Furthermore, the Bears offensive line is going to get Jason Campbell and/or Jay Cutler killed by the end of this season. That's not a recipe for a successful end to the season, and while I think the Bears will sneak into the playoffs, they will not do so by winning the division.
Minnesota Vikings: 6-4
Remaining games: @ CHI, @ GB, vs. CHI, @ STL, @ HOU, vs. GB
Projected finish: 2-4, 8-8 overall
The Vikings have an ugly late-season schedule, with only one game against a team with a record currently worse than 7-3. I'll buy into the cliche and throw out the records in the divisional games, saying that they split with both Chicago, but with how good the Packers are indoors, I can't pick them to win against Green Bay at home, especially if the Packers have a chance at a first-round bye. There's no way they beat a great Houston team on the road, but they'll get to respectability and .500 with a win against the Rams.
There's no doubt that Adrian Peterson is as dynamic as ever, and Percy Harvin was Randall Cobb before Cobb was Cobb. But aside from those two, there are zero legitimate playmakers on offense for the Vikings (apologies to Kyle Rudolph, but he's not there yet). Plus they have a QB who can't consistently complete passes longer than 5 yards downfield. Their defense has been struggling of late as well, which is not a good sign for a team that can't rely on its offense to put up points in bunches.
Detroit Lions: 4-6
Remaining games: vs. HOU, vs. IND, @ GB, @ ARI, vs. ATL, vs. CHI
Projected finish: 2-4, 6-10 overall
I want to find a third win in here for Detroit, but I just don't see it. I see wins against Arizona and Chicago, but the other four teams are playoff-bound, and really I could only see them upsetting the Colts at home.
This would be a major step back for Jim Schwartz and company, but the signs have been there all season. Against really good competition, the Lions have broken down in the fourth quarter, as evidenced by the Packers long game-winning drive in Sunday's game and the Lions' distinct lack of response afterwards. Much like the Bears, I have no faith in Detroit to win tough games against good teams.
Part of the reason for this is the fact that the Lions don't really have any major offensive weapons other than Calvin Johnson. It seemed on Sunday that Matthew Stafford was looking to Calvin Johnson constantly, and while he had a big day numbers-wise, he caught fewer than half of the balls thrown his way (5/11). Teams will constantly double and triple cover Megatron, and Stafford doesn't have another really solid option yet. Plus, their secondary is still banged-up and a team with a good interior offensive line can make a lot of progress when they limit the Lions' defensive tackles' impacts.
Am I way off-base? Which team am I selling short, and am I far too optimistic about the Packers down the stretch? Sound off in the comments below.