The Vikings are postseason-bound and get a rematch with Green Bay on Saturday night. The Bears have nothing to show for 10 regular-season wins and are in need of a new head coach. The Packers, meanwhile, need to find a way to stop Adrian Peterson. We explore all of this and more in the NFC North Spin cycle.
What we learned: A new era is beginning for the Bears. Losing 5-of-6 games at one point in the second half of the season pointed the Bears in the direction of a head-coaching change, and missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons sealed Lovie Smith’s fate. He was fired Monday after nine seasons as head coach. It seems fairly obvious that he would have needed a deep playoff run to save his job — there is no indication this was a particularly difficult decision for the front office to make. The Bears already have taken the first steps toward replacing Smith, reportedly asking the Broncos for permission to interview offensive coordinator Mike McCoy.
What’s in store next: A fresh perspective at the top of the coaching staff and big changes beyond even that one. GM Phil Emery has final say on roster decisions, and he will be hiring a head coach that shares his vision for building a team, and it could be one that is vastly different from Smith’s. There is a reason beyond personal respect or admiration that Smith remains very popular among Bears players — his firing means jobs that appeared safe a day ago are feeling much less secure Monday. We can’t help but wonder if MLB Brian Urlacher, the longtime face of the franchise, has played his last down as a Bear as he heads toward free agency.
What the heck? The Bears did win a big game Sunday, though it has been overshadowed by Monday's news. We know the Bears’ offense is no juggernaut, but it was still a bit surprising to watch it fail to make the most of its chances in a critical contest, though. Detroit turned the ball over four times, but the Bears scored only one touchdown off those takeaways. In fact, they converted the four turnovers into only 16 points. The Bears had great field position for much of the game — their average drive start was their own 43-yard line — but they managed only a TD and three field goals on the four possessions they started in Lions’ territory (all off Lions turnovers), which each began at the 24-yard line or deeper in Detroit territory.
What we learned: Unfortunately, we didn’t learn much about the Lions that hadn’t already been driven home in the first 15 games. Simply put, the Lions can be their own worst enemy. Four Detroit turnovers led to 16 Chicago points and a 26-24 Lions loss, their second of the season to the Bears. In two games vs. the Bears, the Lions committed eight turnovers. The games, alas, were decided by a total of eight points. And in the end, the Lions finished their season with an eight-game losing streak.
What’s in store next: The focus turns to what changes the Lions could make after a 4-12 season. Head coach Jim Schwartz was present for his season-ending press conference on Monday, one day after ESPN reported that his status with the club for 2013 was “under review.” The club has a host of major free-agent decisions, with DE Cliff Avril, CB Chris Houston and FS Louis Delmas heading the list. Change after such a disappointing season seems inevitable on some level. The question is whether the Lions’ tweaks will be minor or major.
What the heck? We’ll finish with a positive sign. QB Matthew Stafford’s three TD passes Sunday all went to players other than Calvin Johnson, with WRs Brian Robiskie and Kris Durham and TE Will Heller all reaching the endzone. Make no mistake: Johnson must be the Lions’ go-to guy; in this pass-happy offense, he needs to be one of the most targeted players in the NFL. However, the Lions need their complementary pass catchers to make plays. On Sunday, they did, which too often wasn’t the case once injuries started to take their toll on the pass-catching corps.
What we learned: Losing the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed and a badly needed bye week after getting beaten by a divisional opponent for the first time in 13 games (counting playoffs), the Packers will need to turn the tables right around against the Vikings and the mighty Adrian Peterson in a Saturday-night wild-card special five days from now at Lambeau Field. Aside from a rare lost fumble by Aaron Rodgers that set up a third-quarter Vikings TD, Green Bay’s offense did its part in a 37-34 Minnesota victory that went down to the wire. Struggling PK Mason Crosby’s field goals of 51 and 40 yards were also an encouraging sign. But a defense that allowed the Vikes to score on four of their first five possessions and struggled with its tackling from the opening gun must stage a significant turnaround if the Packers are to avoid a second consecutive one-and-done postseason exit.
What’s in store next: Another heaping helping of Peterson, who has rushed for a whopping 409 yards rushing in his first two games vs. the Packers this season. The Packers showed they could beat Minnesota in spite of Peterson when they defeated the Vikings 23-14 in Week 13, A.P.’s 210 yards rushing notwithstanding. But in that game, the Vikings couldn’t have been more one-dimensional. Since then, QB Christian Ponder has cleaned up his act considerably, adding other weapons besides Peterson to the mix. If Ponder keeps it up, the Packers could be in for another rude awakening.
What the heck? Let’s start with the Jennings boys. While WR Greg Jennings had his best game of the season (8-120-2), he also dropped a wide-open TD pass in the first half that had Rodgers talking to himself. Meanwhile, FS M.D. Jennings somehow let what looked like a sure interception go right through his hands into the mitts of Vikings WR Michael Jenkins for a go-ahead TD midway through the fourth quarter. Jenkins’ score came after a terribly ill-timed penalty on CB Tramon Williams (illegal hands) kept the drive alive.
What we learned: The Vikings will live to fight another day. Their dramatic victory over the Packers in Minnesota — led by Adrian Peterson, Christian Ponder, Blair Walsh and a game defense — sets up a rematch next week in Green Bay. Peterson might not have caught Eric Dickerson, coming up nine yards short of the all-time single-season rushing yards mark, but he came up huge once again, rushing for 199 yards on a career-high 34 carries and finishing strong on the final, game-winning drive and once more putting his team on his back.
What’s in store next: Peterson and the Vikings will prepare for the Packers and a Saturday-night matchup in the wild-card round at Lambeau Field. Ponder struggled badly in the first matchup between the teams in Green Bay, with two awful second-half turnovers, but was strong Sunday with three TD passes and a confidence that has grown in recent weeks — especially early in games and also in crunch time.
What the heck? Can the Vikings keep going without the services of CB Antoine Winfield? He reinjured a broken hand in the Week 17 victory and left after halftime, which just so happened to be when the Packers’ passing game caught fire. Aaron Rodgers hit on a number of short, medium and long passes in the second half and repeatedly picked on Winfield’s replacements, especially A.J. Jefferson, who had a brutal afternoon. If Winfield can’t play through the pain this week, the secondary will have to adjust accordingly — and play much, much better.