The Packers continued their dominance over the Bears, sweeping the season series and clinching first place in the NFC North division by virtue of their 21-13 victory at Soldier Field on Sunday. The Bears now need help to reach the playoffs, something that was a foregone conclusion when they were 7-1. The Vikings continue to stay in contention for a playoff berth thanks to the incredible Adrian Peterson. And the Lions' losing skid reached six games in a mistake-filled 38-10 loss to a Cardinals team that came in having lost nine consecutive games.
What we learned: Doubt was already creeping in for this Bears team, which once seemed so confident about its ability, but it's at an all-time high coming out of a Week 15 loss to the Packers, who clinched the NFC North title for the second consecutive season. The Bears are no longer in control of their own destiny when it comes to the playoffs — Chicago, currently the No. 7 seed in the NFC, could win out and still miss the postseason. So, whether the Bears finish by beating the mediocre competition remaining on their schedule or not, the second half of their season could be viewed as a collapse, and big changes for the club might be the result.
What’s in store next: The Bears’ home schedule is done, so on Sunday they will begin a two-game road trip to close out the regular season at Arizona, which has done a Jekyll-and-Hyde act in recent weeks. After being embarrassed in a 58-0 loss at Seattle, the Cardinals (5-9) returned home in Week 15 and handled the Lions with ease in a 38-10 win, which was their biggest margin of victory this season.
What the heck? It appeared the Bears would go into halftime vs. the Packers with the game tied at seven, at worst, but QB Jay Cutler and WR Devin Hester apparently had some sort of miscommunication and Cutler threw a pass that was in the direction of only one player — Packers CB Casey Hayward, who made the pick and set up a Packers touchdown drive in the final minutes of the half. Cutler pointed the finger at himself for the miscue after the game, saying “that’s how you lose ballgames against good teams like that.” The play put the Bears in a hole they weren't able to dig out of.
What we learned: The Lions were heavily favored to beat the Cardinals, and were these teams to meet again, Detroit would likely be expected to even the score with Arizona. But when the Lions play like they did Sunday, they are not going to beat any NFL team, not even a Cardinals club with an exceptionally limited offense. Four Lions turnovers, including a pair of interceptions returned for TDs, propped up Arizona’s sputtering offense as the Cardinals rolled to a 38-10 victory. The Cards’ TD drives were the following lengths: three yards (set up by a muffed punt), five yards (after an interception of Lions QB Matthew Stafford), 29 yards (the result of the Lions’ turning over the ball on downs late in the game). Stafford played a poor game, completing 24-of-50 passes for 246 yards with no TDs and three interceptions. That said, he was under a good deal of pass rush pressure, and he lacked a consistent target other than WR Calvin Johnson. The defeat was the Lions’ sixth in succession and gives them double-digit losses for the 10th time in 12 seasons.
What's in store next: The Lions (4-10) host the Falcons in the lone Saturday regular-season game of 2012. Atlanta (12-2) can clinch homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs with a victory against Detroit. The teams met a season ago, with the Falcons winning 23-16 at Ford Field. On paper, the Falcons would seem to have a tremendous motivational edge, but perhaps Sunday’s humbling loss at Arizona will inspire Detroit to pick up its play.
What the heck? The Lions scored the game’s first TD, a one-yard Mikel Leshoure rush off the left side early in the second quarter. Then, they forced the Cardinals to punt. One more scoring drive and Detroit might have seized control of the game. However, Lions CB Pat Lee collided with RS Stefan Logan. The ball bounced off Logan, and the Cardinals recovered on the Detroit 5. One play later, Wells rushed for a TD, and Arizona was back in the game. The Lions had a chance to put the Cardinals away, and they had missed it.
What we learned: It was pretty much the same story we’ve come to expect in recent matchups between the Bears and Packers: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was excellent and at times brilliant, and Bears QB Jay Cutler couldn’t have been more erratic in Green Bay’s 21-13 victory that clinched their second NFC North title in a row. Improvising when necessary and masterfully taking what he was given, Rodgers gave Cutler a lesson in Grade-A clutch quarterbacking, converting 7-of-17 third-down situations and 2-of-2 fourth-down situations and registering a 116.8 passer rating, with three TDs to scoring machine James Jones (12 of Jones’ 51 catches are TDs) and zero interceptions. A defense energized by OLB Clay Matthews’ return to the starting lineup (two sacks, six tackles, four tackles for loss) did a fine job holding Bears WR Brandon Marshall in check, with rookie CB Casey Hayward’s sixth interception of the season — the Bears’ only turnover — essentially turning the tide in the Packers’ favor.
What’s in store next: The Packers play out their string of games this season against the AFC South with a matchup at home against the Titans. Tennessee will be coming off a short work week after playing the Jets on Monday night. In the Packers’ previous games this season against the AFC South, they imploded in a jaw-dropping 30-27 loss to the upstart Colts in Week Five, bounced back in prime time the next week with a rousing 42-24 win over the heavyweight Texans and basically did just enough to win in their 24-15 victory over the lowly Jaguars in Week Eight. Green Bay’s run defense, which has looked shaky coming out of the gate the last couple of games, must be prepared for Titans dynamic but erratic RB Chris Johnson.
What the heck? Forget the fact that the run defense got ripped apart early on for the second straight week and beleaguered PK Mason Crosby missed two more field goals, including a 43-yarder in the second quarter that was particularly pathetic. What the heck were Mike McCarthy and special-teams coach Shawn Slocum thinking when they decided to exercise a gadget play on a punt return with eight minutes remaining — a throwback pass from Randall Cobb to Jeremy Ross — that went terribly awry. Ross fumbled the pass and the Bears recovered. Lucky for McCarthy and Slocum, the “D” stiffened, and the Bears’ pathetic offense was forced to settle for a field goal.
What we learned: Eric Dickerson is on alert now. Forget 2,000 rushing yards — Adrian Peterson is gunning got 2,105. Dickerson’s record rushing total from 1984 is suddenly in jeopardy as Peterson finds himself a mere 294 yards away from breaking it. So that means Peterson must average 147 yards in the final two games — a total he has surpassed in five of the past six and six of the past eight games. His 212-yard rushing performance Sunday helped lift the Vikings to 8-6 and remain in the hotly contested postseason race in the NFC.
What’s in store next: The Vikings head to Houston to face another MVP candidate in DE J.J. Watt and the Texans. Both teams will be in it to win it with the Vikings jammed at 8-6 with the Giants and Bears in wild-card contention and with the Texans chasing the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Forget where the Vikings find themselves at (in the sixth, and final, playoff spot) now; it will change. But beating the potent Texans would be a big help.
What the heck? Can the Vikings lather, rinse and repeat with their Week 15 formula the next two weeks? It was – despite Peterson’s super heroics – a fairly balanced game from the Vikings, who kicked five field goals, induced a lot of penalties on defense, received a pick-six from DE Everson Griffen and saw steady play from QB Christian Ponder. They took charge from the first snap of the game and then stood up to the charge the Rams put on at the end. Frankly, it was a playoff-caliber performance from a team desperately trying to get into the postseason derby. They could use two more of those.