Taking our weekly look at the Bears' NFC North rivals, with four games to go in the regular season ...
Following consecutive seasons of finishing in third place in the North and out of the playoffs, the Packers are on the cusp of a division title in Matt LaFleur’s maiden head-coaching voyage.
Their convincing rebound — after the prime-time pummeling from the Niners — at MetLife over the hapless New York Giants, paired with Minnesota’s loss in Seattle Monday night, means the Packers technically could lose to the Vikings in Week 16 and still win the North by virtue of a tiebreaker based on their divisional record. Green Bay remains a perfect 3-0, while the Vikes are 1-2 and surely feeling regret regarding their failure to beat a Bears team without Mitch Trubisky, Akiem Hicks and Roquan Smith in Week 4.
Of course, the Packers’ rosy divisional outlook still requires them taking care of other orders of business in the North — including playing host to the Bears next weekend and traveling to Ford Field for the regular-season finale, one week after their visit to Minnesota — following Sunday’s date at Lambeau with a 3-9 Washington team that isn’t going down easily.
Green Bay’s focus, then, come Sunday is likely to first be on slowing an ascending Washington run game, not a second consecutive rookie QB foe, first-rounder Dwayne Haskins. While the Packers made life miserable for Giants top pick Daniel Jones by intercepting him three times and injuring his ankle, they let Saquon Barkley rack up 115 yards from scrimmage, including 84 rushing yards on 19 carries.
Powered by an Adrian Peterson-Derrius Guice combination, Washington managed a season-high 248 rushing yards and three TDs on 30 carries in the road upset in Carolina preceding Panthers head coach Ron Rivera’s firing. It’s up to Packers DL Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry and LB Blake Martinez to prevent the visitors from repeating that success and getting the ball back to Aaron Rodgers, who followed up his worst 2019 game in San Francisco with one of his best in the snow on the opposite coast.
Good news and bad news this week in Minnesota: After watching their season flash in front of their eyes on a singular play in the Monday-night loss in Seattle, where Dalvin Cook lost a fumble and departed for good with a re-injured shoulder while Stefon Diggs simultaneously writhed on the field with a rolled ankle, the Vikings’ offensive centerpiece and most dynamic receiver, respectively, are doing OK.
Cook said he expects to play Sunday in Detroit, it’s mostly a pain-tolerance issue and he’ll have to improve his ball security when his shoulder gets dinged; Diggs was back on the field on the next series.
That’s the relatively good news.
Not so hot, the Vikings’ postseason ambitions, albeit still healthy, took a hit in Seattle and theoretically now could hinge on beating the Bears at home in Week 17 — which they were unable to do in the same time and place a year ago, when Chicago had nothing to play for, unlike Minnesota, which faced a win-and-in scenario.
All the Bears have to do is beat three consecutive division leaders first, while the Vikings lose at home to the Packers, if not to the 3-8-1 Detroit Lions Sunday or on the road against the Chargers in Week 15.
Indeed, Minnesota still controls its own fate — including tightening up its defense after allowing the most rushing yards in Seattle (218) since Mike Zimmer’s first year at the helm and somehow mitigating the dramatic demise of Xavier Rhodes, who was absolutely torched yet again Monday night.
But notice how we hadn’t even mentioned Kirk Cousins until now. He played solid yet again in prime time, leading two fourth-quarter TD drives following an interception that required sensational skill and concentration by Seahawks CB Tre Flowers. Also encouraging, Cousins led Minnesota to the cusp of another riveting comeback, doing so sans Cook while third-rounder Alexander Mattison continued his excellent under-the-radar rookie campaign.
Last week in this space we explained how it might be a lost season for the Lions, but not Kenny Golladay, their shooting star receiver from Northern Illinois who proceeded to have a career day on Thanksgiving vs. the Bears.
Of course, Golladay couldn’t have gone holiday wild without David Blough, the undrafted rookie from Purdue whose NFL debut almost certainly exceeded even his own expectations.
So consider it yet another reminder on the importance of continuing to develop and evaluate young players even after a team’s postseason hopes are fully extinguished. And more specifically relative to the Bears, Blough’s success should also signal their own need to give Matt Nagy a developmental rookie passer this offseason — something GM Ryan Pace has yet to procure in his first five years, former No. 2 overall pick Mitch Trubisky notwithstanding.
Is Blough likely to be the heir to Matthew Stafford? Obviously that remains to be seen, but it’s almost certainly not Detroit’s endgame here. Still, with this NFL season also reminding us of the great value in having a competent clipboard holder — even in Detroit, where the Lions have been fortunate to have one of the game’s few ironmen at the position — Blough going from fourth-stringer in Week 1 to performing well on a short week vs. a top-5 defense at least suggests he belongs on a roster and competing for more chances.
“I think the team tried to rally around him,” Matt Patricia told reporters of Blough this week, “and I think he tried to do everything he could to help the team win from that aspect, too. I thought all that was really positive.”
Blough now gets another chance, against another dangerous divisional defense, Sunday in Minnesota, and may even share a backfield before the season is out with RB1 Kerryon Johnson, who returned from IR to practice and can play as early as Week 16.