Detroit, Green Bay, Chicago and Minnesota are reaching the stretch run in the NFC North race.
Detroit holds a one-game lead in the division but there’s a lot that can happen in the next month and a half.
Green Bay (5-4) and Chicago (5-4) are trying to survive the next couple weeks without their starting quarterbacks. Detroit (6-3) wants to keep rolling with four of their next six at home. Minnesota (2-7) needs to win out to salvage their season.
This is an important weekend in the NFC North so let’s take a look at the major issue facing each team.
Opponent: at Pittsburgh (3-6)
Issue of the week: No time for a let down.
If there’s one thing this Detroit Lions team hasn’t done well in the past, it's handle success. The entire 2012 season is a prime example of that. The Lions thought they’d arrived after a playoff campaign in 2011, only to realize they still had a long way to go.
“There is a lot of criticism that goes on, players are used to that,” head coach Jim Schwartz said. “There is also the other side of that and you have to deal with success and praise. Not just our team, but sometimes that’s harder to deal with than criticism.
“Sometimes people use criticism as a chip on their shoulder and as motivations, but it’s a little bit harder when it’s praise. You just need to put it in its place. The team, when they leave here just sort of ignores all the other talk that goes on and concentrates on the next opponent. I think we have a good personality that way.”
The Lions haven’t been in first place in any division after Week 10 since 1999, so they can’t afford to come out flat in Pittsburgh. They need to play with the same kind of urgency they've had all season when they were looking up at the Packers in the standings.
This week is a good test of this team’s character and focus.
Stats pack: Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 35 times for the NFL's second-highest total.
Opponent: at New York Giants (3-6)
Issue of the week: First career start for Scott Tolzien.
Green Bay is in survival mode until the fractured left collarbone of MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers is healthy enough for him to return to the field. Reports out of Green Bay say that could be as early as next week, but that would be a dream scenario. It's likely going to be a couple more weeks.
Until then, they’re counting on Tolzien, who completed 24 of 39 passes for one touchdown and two interceptions in a loss to Philadelphia last week.
The Packers signed journeyman Matt Flynn this week, but Tolzien gets the start on Sunday.
“I tell you what, I thought he played an outstanding football game based on the amount of preparation,” head coach Mike McCarthy told the Green Bay Press-Gazette of Tolzien.
“I saw a young man get better during the course of a game running plays he hasn’t played yet and doing things that I thought was exceptional for a young quarterback. So I was very pleased with his performance.”
Tolzien could also be without center Evan Dietrich-Smith and right tackle Don Barclay, however, against a talented defensive front of the Giants that has helped them win three straight.
Can the Packers survive with their third option at quarterback?
Stats pack: The Packers are sixth in the league with 143.1 yards per game and rookie running back Eddie Lacy is eighth in the NFL with 669 yards on the ground.
Opponent: vs. Baltimore (4-5)
Issue of the week: Getting backup contributions.
No team has been more affected by injuries than Chicago.
Defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins were lost for the year early in the season. So was linebacker D.J. Williams. Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman was lost for the rest of the year in last week’s game against Detroit. Linebacker Lance Briggs (shoulder) and defensive end Shea McClellin (hamstring) are currently sidelined, though they are expected to return at some point. Same thing goes for quarterback Jay Cutler (ankle), who will miss this week’s game.
The Bears will start veteran Josh McCown at quarterback, who has played well in relief roles for the Bears this season.
‘‘It’s hard to find 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL that are productive on a regular basis,’’ Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer told the Chicago Sun-Times ‘‘So in order to get to 64 — everybody having a good backup — that’s extremely tough. Unless you’re fortunate, like we are.’’
Stats pack: Chicago ranks 31st giving up 129.4 rushing yards per game, and have allowed a 100-yard rusher three of the last four games.
Opponent: at Seattle (9-1)
Issue of the week: Can quarterback Christian Ponder hold up?
Ponder told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he’s hoping to start this weekend in Seattle, despite separating his non-throwing shoulder in a win last week over Washington.
Ponder was 17 of 21 for 174 yards and two scores before dislocating his shoulder trying to dive for a touchdown.
“Obviously, I’m going to get hit at some point,” Ponder told the paper. “I’m sure it will be a little painful and hopefully the Seahawks don’t have a target on it.”
Ponder won’t be so lucky. He’s facing a physical Seattle defense that ranks fifth in the NFL with 31 sacks.
The Vikings could rely more on All Pro running back Adrian Peterson, which is never a bad thing. Peterson ran for 182 yards and two touchdowns last year against Seattle.
Stats pack: The Seahawks defense giving up just 178.0 passing yards per game, the league's second-best mark.