NFC North Week 6 Preview
By Guest Writer Martin Mihaly:
The NFC North is shaping up to be a close race. The Detroit Lions are coming off a loss at Green Bay, the Chicago Bears have lost back-to-back games, and the Minnesota Vikings are coming off a Week Five bye. All four division teams are set to play this week. The Lions currently sit at the top of the division based on their head-to-head victory over Chicago in Week Four.
Detroit Lions (3-2)
With star Receiver Calvin Johnson out for the game, the Lions offense struggled at Lambeau Field in last Sunday’s matchup against Green Bay. The Packers defense was allowed to turn their attention to stopping Reggie Bush and Matthew Stafford. Defensively, the Lions were still able to hold Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense to five field goals and just one touchdown.
This weekend, the Lions will travel to Cleveland to face an improved Browns team. The Browns have won three straight since trading Running Back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts.
As many have overlooked the 3-2 Browns, they have quietly developed explosive offensive talent. Browns Tight End Jordan Cameron has become one of the leagues best at his position. The third year player has 33 receptions for 396 yards and five touchdowns through five games. Second year Receiver Josh Gordon has played in three games for the Browns this season. The speedy Receiver has 18 catches for 303 yards and two touchdowns, good for 16.8 yards-per-catch.
Defensive Linemen Ndamukong Suh, Ziggy Ansah, and Nick Fairley will have to try to disrupt the Browns second year Quarterback Brandon Weeden, and stop the teams running game, which currently features the gritty Willis McGahee. The Lions secondary of Louis Delmas, Bill Bentley, Chris Houston, Glover Quin, and Rashean Mathis will need to make sure Gordon, who is a big play threat, doesn’t break a long gain against them. Against the Packers, Receiver James Jones broke free for an 83 yard touchdown reception, which gave Green Bay a 13 point cushion.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford hopes to have star Receiver Calvin Johnson back in the lineup on Sunday. Johnson is currently listed as questionable due to a knee injury. If he plays, Johnson is expected to be flanked by Browns fourth year Corner Joe Haden. Haden has emerged as one of the best cover corners in the league. In the last two weeks, Haden has held Bills Receiver Stevie Johnson to two receptions for 19 yards before leaving the game to an injury, and Bengals Receiver A.J. Green to 51 yards.
Head Coach Jim Schwartz will need the Detroit offensive line needs a much better effort this week. The unit gave up five sacks last week and helped Running Backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell amass just 65 yards combined on the ground.
The Bears have lost each of their last two games, at Detroit and at home against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday. Despite forcing the Saints to kick four field goals and limiting their high octane as best they could to 26 points for the game, it was the Saints defense that really won the game. The Bears, despite over 400 yards of total offense, had just 10 points until a garbage time touchdown and two-point conversion that made the final score of 26-18 much more respectful than the game actually was.
This week, the Bears host the fledging New York Giants in an early week, Thursday night matchup. The Giants are 0-5. Their statistics across the board are horrific. They are giving up 36.4 points per game. They are giving up close to 400 yards per game. They have sacked opposing quarterbacks just five times. Opponents have converted on 49.4% of third down attempts. Offensively, Quarterback Eli Manning has thrown 12 interceptions and lost one fumble. He’s been sacked 15 times. As a team, the Giants have turned the ball over 18 times. The Giants are averaging just 16.4 points per game, and 56.8 yards per rush.
New York still has proud veteran players to worry about. Eli Manning has won two Super Bowl MVPs, and has made the Pro Bowl. Receiver Victor Cruz, and defensive linemen Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul have all made the Pro Bowl. Hakeem Nicks is a veteran, explosive receiver. Many of these players were apart of the Giants Super Bowl team in 2010. Tom Coughlin is one of the leagues best coaches and surely will not quit on his team this season. Coughlin will try everything he can to help the Giants finally get on track this season. However, his team looks awful, to put it mildly.
On the offensive side for the Bears, Quarterback Jay Cutler is off to one of the best starts of his career. The eighth year product out of Vanderbilt, has thrown 10 touchdowns, has thrown for 1,368 yards, and completed over 65% of his throws. Despite that, Cutler has still turned the ball over nine times (6 interceptions, 3 fumbles lost). Rookie Head Coach Marc Trestman has improved the offensive line play. Cutler, who was sacked 38 times last season, has been sacked just nine times through five games.
Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, and Matt Forte have given Cutler some viable receiving options. Marshall leads the team with 31 receptions. Alshon Jeffery, in his second year, is having a breakout season for the Bears. Through five games, he has caught 28 passes for 429 yards and two touchdowns. Jeffery had a monster game against the Saints. He finished the game with 10 catches for 218 yards. Jeffery has given the Bears a big time receiver next to Brandon Marshall. Bennett, in his first season with Chicago, has 25 catches for 281 yards and two touchdowns.
Matt Forte is thus far playing as one of the top running backs in the early parts of this season. Forte is a dynamic back. He can do whatever you ask of him, whether he takes a handoff or catches it out of the backfield. Thus far, Forte has done it all for the Bears. He has 81 carries for 375 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground, good for 4.6 yards-per-carry. He also has 27 receptions for 200 yards.
As far as the defense goes, the Bears have suffered devastating injuries to Henry Melton and Nate Collins. The team still has some of the leagues best playmakers on that side of the ball. Julius Peppers is one of the leagues best defensive players, not just linemen. While he only has one sack thus far this season, Peppers could have a big game against a struggling Giants offensive line. The Giants have given up 15 sacks and will be without Guard Chris Snee for the remainder of the season. Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are ball-hawking corners. The duo has combined for three interceptions this season and has forced three fumbles. With how Manning has turned the ball over this season, the cornerback duo could add to their total on Thursday night.
Add in the threat of Devin Hester returning kickoffs and punts, the game being played at Soldier Field, one of the toughest places to play, and the Bears are the clear cut favorite to win on Thursday.
The Packers are coming off a 22-9 win over the Lions at home following their bye week. The win puts the Packers half a game back of the Lions and Bears for the division lead, each of whom have played one more game. In Week Six, the Packers will head to Baltimore to play the defending champion Ravens in their stadium.
The victory for the Packers came with a costly loss. Linebacker Clay Matthews is expected to miss a month with a broken thumb that he suffered late in last week’s game. The loss of Matthews figures to have a significant impact on the Packers pass rush against Ravens Quarterback Joe Flacco. Since his rookie season in 2009, Matthews has been one of the league leaders in sacks.
Expect the Packers to once again be using their linebackers to apply pressure on the quarterback. Last week, the Packers linebackers recorded all five of the team’s sacks. Nick Perry led the team with two. Mike Neal also recorded his first sack since converting to outside linebacker this season.
The Ravens have a couple of big time offensive players. Torrey Smith is now the team’s number one receiver, following the offseason trade of Anquan Boldin. The speedy receiver is a big play threat any time he touches the ball. Smith is currently third in the league with 556 yards. With 27 receptions, Smith is averaging 20.6 yards per catch, which is second best in the league. Expect the Packers Cornerback Tramon Williams, to see most of the time against Smith. Sam Shields and Micah Hyde could also see Smith at some points.
The Ravens running game has struggled mightily this season. Between Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice, the two backs are averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. Rice, a Pro Bowler, has struggled in part due to a hip injury that has bothered him all season. Rice is a dual threat who is still amongst the most feared running backs in the league. In the four seasons prior to this year, Rice has amassed over 1,000 yards in each season, and is the league leader amongst running backs in receptions.
Quarterback Joe Flacco is also off to a slow start. The reigning Super Bowl MVP, has just five touchdowns compared to eight interceptions. He has also fumbled the ball twice, and is completing just 57.7% of his passes. Flacco is a smart and experienced player who still has the ability to turn his season around.
Despite the offseason retirement of linebacker Ray Lewis, and the departures of Safety Ed Reed and Cornerback Cary Williams, the Ravens defense has still held its own. On opening night, however, they were shredded by Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos for 49 points. Since then, the team is giving up just 14.5 points per game in their last four games. Defensively, the Ravens are led by two of the best players at their position, Haloti Ngata at nose tackle, and Terrell Suggs at linebacker. Packers Center Evan Dietrich-Smith will have to do his best to keep Ngata from applying pressure on Aaron Rodgers.
Aaron Rodgers figures to have his full slate of receivers in Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Tight End Jermichael Finley. Eddie Lacy, coming off his 99 yard performance, will be the Packers featured back, with Randall Cobb and Johnathan Franklin possibly receiving some time in the backfield as well.
John Harbaugh of the Ravens and Mike McCarthy of the Packers are two of the leagues best head coaches, each having won a Super Bowl. Expect both teams to come out ready to play in what should be another tight game for the two clubs.
Minnesota Vikings (1-3)
The Minnesota Vikings are coming off of their bye week and will play host to the struggling Carolina Panthers. The last time the team played was in London, where they defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-27. The Vikings currently stand in last place in the NFC North, but they are only two games back of the top spot with still plenty of football left to be played.
There are many questions now in Minnesota, mostly concerning the quarterback position. Christian Ponder struggled in his first three games with just two touchdown passes and five interceptions, and a league-worst 6.9 yards per pass attempt. Ponder missed the Steelers game due to a broken rib. Matt Cassel started and completed 16 of his 25 passes for 248 yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers. Now, the Vikings have signed former TampaBay first round pick, Josh Freeman. Let the quarterback competition and controversy begin!
Cassel is the most likely to start this week as Ponder is still recovering and Freeman needs time to learn the offense and get acclimated with his teammates and coaches. If Cassel plays well, or whoever does end up starting for that matter, expect the Vikings to stick with him for at least a few more weeks.
One of the most erratic teams thus far in the NFL this season has to be the Panthers. They started out the season with close losses to Seattle and Buffalo. They then blew out the Giants 38-0 at home. Following their bye week, the Panthers put on a dismal performance as they got dominated by the Cardinals 22-6 in Arizona.
Cam Newton, the former number one overall pick in 2011, continues to fluctuate. Coming into the Arizona game, Newton had six touchdown passes, one rushing touchdown, two interceptions, and no fumbles for the season. Against the Cardinals, Newton threw three interceptions, lost a fumble, and did not throw or run for one touchdown.
Newton is a diverse quarterback who can hurt opponents by running or throwing the ball. His main targets this year are Tight End Greg Olsen, 21 catches, and Receiver Steve Smith, who has 18 catches. Newton has run for 123 yards and thrown for 885.
Carolina has one of the best rushing attacks in the league. Led by DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, and Newton, the Panthers have the ability to wear down opposing defensive linemen with effective running. Williams has 330 yards for the season and is averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
The Vikings defense will need to step up. Statistically, Minnesota is one of the worst ranked defenses in the league. They are giving up 430.8 yards per game, 326 through the air, and 104.8 on the ground. Opponents are averaging over 30 points per game through the first four games.
Carolina also has one of the top statistically ranked defenses. They are giving up just over 300 yards per game, 209 through the air, and 92 on the ground. They are allowing opponents to score just 14.5 points per game. The defense is led by linemen Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson.
The Vikings still have one of the leagues best players, Adrian Peterson. The star Running Back reminded everybody in his performance against the Steelers, of why he won last year’s MVP. Peterson ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns, including a 60 yard scamper in which he broke multiple tackles. While still not quite up to the lofty numbers he set last season, Peterson has still been terrific in his first four games this year. So far, he has rushed for 421 yards and five touchdowns while getting 4.6 yards per carry. The guy got better last season as the year went on. He averaged over 160 yards in his final eight games.
Carolina will probably load the box with seven or eight man fronts to try and stop Peterson. For most teams that have tried that in the last 20 regular season games for the Vikings, it hasn’t mattered much. Peterson will still break loose for multiple big gains. On a great day, Peterson can single handedly win the Vikings a game.
Leslie Frasier, of the Vikings, and Ron Rivera, of the Panthers, know the strength of their offenses is to run the ball. Expect which ever team can slow down the run the most and force the opposing quarterback into a couple mistakes to come away with the victory.