It's easy to forget how often divisional tilts often result in narrow margins of victory regardless of the quality of each team involved. Familiarity with an opponent naturally breeds better game planning from coaches and greater focus from players. Look no further than the previously winless Raiders' 24-20 win over Kansas City or the Giants' near upset of the 8-3 Dallas Cowboys. Rivals can never be discounted no matter how the contest should play out on paper.
Such was certainly the case in the NFC North where the division-leading Packers narrowly defeated the sub-500 Vikings Sunday afternoon. Undoubtedly, some will spin the outcome to suggest any number of problems for Green Bay. Yet a deeper look into the matchup reveals a far different story.
A road win over the Vikings is a solid victory
After back-to-back weeks of eye-popping scoring outburst, a 24-21 Green Bay victory may seem underwhelming. Certainly, the Packers offense didn't scorch Minnesota as three of their first four drives ended in a punt. Likewise, they only entered the red zone three times, their lowest such total since losing to the Lions 19-7 in Week 3.
However, Sunday's win shouldn't be regarded as a near failure. Though only 4-7, the Vikings are no pushovers. Head coach Mike Zimmer has transformed the defense from one of the worst in the NFC a year ago into a top third unit. Furthermore, Minnesota has held teams to 26 points or less in every game since the massacre at Lambeau Field almost two months ago. A hard-fought win over the Vikings isn't a statement game, but neither is it a blemish on the Packers' record.
And that's to say nothing of the fact that the Packers beat this team on the road. For all Minnesota's shortcomings, they compete at home and draw a large, boisterous crowd. The Packers certainly should have won this game, but it shouldn't surprise anyone that it took four quarters to seal the victory.
Lacy quietly had his best game of the season
Lost in the hoopla surrounding how Green Bay won Sunday's game is the fact that Eddie Lacy enjoyed his finest game of 2014. His raw numbers were impressive in a vacuum -- 25 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown with 13 more yards and another score coming via the passing game. But when considered within the context in which they were gained, Lacy's production takes on greater significance.
In the second half when Green Bay was trying to eat away at the clock, Lacy touched the ball 18 times, accounting for a robust 54.5 percent of the team's non-kneel-down offensive snaps during that stretch. Largely because of his efforts, the Packers killed 17 minutes and 49 seconds while limiting the Vikings to just 11 points after halftime. Lacy's presence was such that even Zimmer had to tip his hat, saying, "He's a load. The run game today was more about the end of the ball game. That's what got us at the end there."
The Packers' Achilles heel during most of the Aaron Rodgers era has been their ability (or lack thereof) to control the clock after gaining the lead. It played a role in their demise in 2011 and again in '12. Lacy's arrival last season was meant to put those concerns to bed, but Rodgers' collarbone fracture effectively derailed that team's title hopes. Now that he's fully recovered and playing perhaps the best football of his career, Green Bay has regularly built leads in the first half. Just as importantly, Lacy is there to protect those leads and keep opponents from clawing their way back into games.
Green Bay picked up valuable ground in race for the top seed
Other than the games involving the NFC East, Week 12 played out as well as possible for the Packers. In addition to their win over Minnesota, New England decimated Detroit 34-9, handing sole possession of the NFC North to Green Bay in the process. The Seahawks also took care of business at home, dispatching the Cardinals 19-3. As a result of these games, securing the top playoff seed in the NFC has become a realistic goal for Green Bay.
At 8-3 and with only two games against teams with winning records remaining, the Packers rank second in the conference standings and are well positioned to make a run for the No. 1 spot. Though they have competition coming from the NFC East and West, their path isn't quite so arduous.
The Eagles and Cowboys each have the same record as Green Bay, but only one can win the NFC East and qualify for a top four seed. More importantly, the two teams play twice over the next three weeks with a split a likely outcome. Green Bay already holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Philadelphia, and the Cowboys trail in conference record by a half game. Should the Packers finish with an equal record to either team, they would likely take the higher seed.
Meanwhile, Arizona appears to have the only viable path to the top seed in the NFC West. Even after losing to Seattle, the Cardinals lead the division by two full games. They have already banked a win over the 49ers, and play only one team with a .500 record or better over the next three weeks. The Seahawks, however, play a murderers' row over the next four weeks, playing San Francisco twice along with road games in Philadelphia and Arizona. The 49ers' schedule over the same time frame isn't quite as difficult, but they might just be paper tigers. Five of their wins came by under a touchdown, and they've scored by far the fewest points of any of the contending teams in the division.
Still, playing in the NFC West will be rough for all parties involved. If the Seahawks and 49ers can drag Arizona down by just enough, the Packers and their comparatively easy schedule could overtake them in the final stretch.