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State of the NFC North: Week 15 Recap

The Detroit Lions inch closer to a division title after a 1-3 week for the North.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Detroit Lions David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

Things were pretty bleak across the NFC North this weekend as the Lions and Vikings took center stage in the league’s first Saturday matchups of the year. While Jared Goff and the Lions got back on track, the Vikings blew a 14-point lead that put their division title hopes in jeopardy. The Lions are now in a position to clinch the playoffs and their first division title in 30 years this week against the Vikings.

The Bears know misery loves company and joined the Minnesota by blowing their own fourth-quarter lead to Joe Flacco and the Browns. Meanwhile, the Packers suffered defeat at the hands of Baker Mayfield, who put up one of the best statistical performances at Lambeau Field, well… ever. While they are still alive in the NFC Wild Card race, time is running out. Let’s get into all the week 15 action below.

Current Standings:

Detroit Lions (10-4)

Minnesota Vikings (7-7)

Green Bay Packers (6-8)

Chicago Bears (5-9)

Detroit Lions (10-4)

Week 14 Result: 42-17 win over the Denver Broncos

Week 15 Opponent: @ Minnesota Vikings (7-7)

After a monthlong stretch of shaky play and questions galore, the Lions rebounded in spectacular fashion on Saturday night in Detroit. Facing Sean Payton’s resurgent Denver Broncos, the Lions put their pedal down from the opening kickoff and never let up. Sam LaPorta was unstoppable as he became the third rookie tight end in NFL history with 70 receptions in a season. With three touchdowns on Saturday, LaPorta inched closer to Mike Ditka’s rookie tight end record of 12 touchdowns. At 71 receptions for the season, LaPorta needs only 11 more to break that record, held by Keith Jackson.

Jared Goff is… back? The embattled quarterback found the light on Saturday after a dark stretch defined by turnovers and high-pressure rates. Goff threw for 278 yards and five touchdowns in what was his best game of the season. The Lions’ playoff hopes go as far as Jared Goff can take them, and on Saturday he answered the call.

Not without blame for the Lions’ recent struggles has been their tortured defense. Against Russell Wilson and the Broncos, they too got their day in the sun. Denver was held to 1 of 6 on third downs, turned the ball over once, and only put up 75 yards in the first half. Ifeatu Melifonwu’s forced fumble in the opening quarter set the tone and the Lions never looked back.

Up next is a date with the Minnesota Vikings, whose blitz-happy defense will look to knock the Lions off the tracks again and delay their NFC North division title by one week.

Minnesota Vikings (7-7)

Week 14 Result: 27-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)

Week 15 Opponent: vs. Detroit Lions (10-4)

Up 17-3 in the fourth quarter against backup quarterback Jake Browning, the Vikings felt pretty good about their chances. After all, they’ve excelled in late-game situations under Kevin O’Connell time and time again. On Saturday afternoon, the magic ran out.

Jake Browning got his revenge against the team that cut him two seasons ago, scoring three fourth-quarter touchdowns including the game-tying throw to Tee Higgins with 0:39 left on the clock. After a 44-yard completion to Tyler Boyd in overtime, the Bengals completed the comeback with a walk-off field goal.

Justin Jefferson didn’t miss a beat in his return to action following a chest injury last week. The superstar receiver totaled seven receptions for 84 yards but was bested by rookie running mate Jordan Addison, who caught six balls for 111 yards and two touchdowns. Although his erratic decision-making led to two interceptions and a few other dangerous passes, Nick Mullens was able to get the ball to the Vikings’ playmakers, something the team felt Josh Dobbs just wasn’t prepared to do. Mission accomplished, I suppose?

Brian Flores’ defense was lights out in the first half, completely stifling a hot Bengals offense. Browning was under constant pressure and sacked five times, but consistently made tough-as-nails throws downfield in the fourth quarter. Prior to Saturday, the Vikings had not given up a fourth-quarter touchdown since November 19. Hats off to Browning for consistently finding soft spots in the zone and making magic.

Up next, the Vikings have the Lions at home. After a win in which Detroit looked back on track, Flores and co. will look to dial up the pressure and fool Jared Goff and hope he makes the mistakes that Jake Browning did not.

Green Bay Packers (6-8)

Week 14 Result: 34-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-7)

Week 15 Opponent: @ Carolina Panthers (2-12)

Packers fans will look up and shout “Fire Joe Barry!” Matt LaFleur will look down and whisper “No.” With everything on the line once again, the Packers laid another goose egg in no small part thanks to Joe Barry’s abysmal defense. Giving up another season-best performance to the opposing quarterback is becoming something of a habit for the 2023 Packers. Baker Mayfield secured his first win in three tries at Lambeau Field by torching the Packers’ defense to the tune of a perfect passer rating, the first ever by an opposing QB in Green Bay.

Despite being sacked five times, Mayfield looked like his 2020, pre-injury self and slung it around with ease for 381 yards and four touchdowns. Soft zones gave Mayfield, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and even David Moore all the space in the world to go 7-11 on third down and produce three straight touchdowns in the second half to ice things.

Jordan Love and the offense performed admirably in the second half, but this is ultimately not an offense with enough experience to go blow for blow and score every drive. Love finished 29-39 for 284 yards and two TDs, with his best throw coming to Jayden Reed on a 3rd and 14 scramble in the 3rd quarter. Dontayvion Wicks was once again unstoppable, finding space drive after drive to spark a dormant offense in the second half.

While winning out more than likely nets the Packers a playoff spot, it’s tough to feel like their recent 6-week stretch of consistency was anything more than an aberration. But with their backs up against the wall, the Packers will travel to Charlotte to take on the 2-12 Panthers. For all intents and purposes, the playoffs start Sunday for the green and gold.

Chicago Bears (5-9)

Week 14 Result: 20-17 loss to the Cleveland Browns (9-5)

Week 15 Opponent: vs. Arizona Cardinals (3-11)

Despite a comedy of errors to open the season, the Bears entered Sunday in control of their playoff destiny. Win out, and they would probably sneak in. Chicago has seen this story time and time again in the past decade. Just as they get comfortable, Lucy pulls the football away, leaving them cold, bruised, and alone. Matt Eberflus’ Bears have been defined by a lack of consistent execution and Sunday was no different. The Browns’ late rally to win with their fourth quarterback of the year felt like a portent of doom. Not just for Eberflus, but for Justin Fields and Ryan Poles.

Entering the fourth quarter, the Bears were up 17-7 and in control. Then Joe Flacco happened. The recently anointed starter threw for 212 yards in the fourth quarter after throwing three interceptions prior, including a pick-six to Tremaine Edmunds. Amari Cooper’s 51-yard game-tying touchdown with 3:08 left was a shot to the heart the Bears could not recover from, and Dustin Hopkins knocked through the game-winning field goal minutes later.

Justin Fields had a rough day at the office and may have shut the door on his chances in Chicago in 2024. Fields was 19-40 for 166 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions that both came on half-ending hail mary attempts. To put this one all on Fields would be disingenuous however, as Robert Tonyan dropped a surefire touchdown, and Darnell Mooney was unable to come down with his own score on the hail mary to end the game. Regardless of where the blame lies, the Bears have now blown three double-digit leads in the fourth quarter this year, and are likely turning the page to the 2024 NFL Draft.

Next up for the Bears is a pivotal game at home vs. the Arizona Cardinals. While the Bears’ #1 pick is not in jeopardy due to the Panthers’ ineptitude, a win by the Cardinals would inch the Bears closer to picking in the top 3 with their own pick. A good old-fashioned late-season tank-off on Christmas Eve! What could be better?!

That’s it for week 15’s State of the NFC North recap! Check back next week as we recap a pivotal matchup between Minnesota and Detroit, while Green Bay and Chicago attempt to get back on track vs. the bottom-dwelling Panthers and Cardinals, respectively.