Three for the money. Three for the show.
Here is one prediction that comes with no risk, and no need for a guarantee:
If the Lions win three of their last four games, they clinch the NFC North and host a playoff game for the first time since Ford Field opened in 2002. They’d have a 10-6 record that no team in the North can match. That’s guaranteed.
The Bears can get to 10-6 if they win out, but the Lions have the tiebreaker advantage based on a sweep of their season series.
The Packers can get to 9-6-1 if they win out.
The Lions have their best chance to win a division title in 20 years – since they won the NFC Central with a 10-6 record in 1993. They haven’t finished first since that season.
With the Lions having the weekend off after their 40-10 victory over the Packers on Thanksgiving Day, their fans should have had a stress-free Sunday afternoon – unless they chose to watch the Bears-Vikings because of the outcome’s impact on the Lions’ playoff chances.
To say the game was a nail-biter would be an understatement. Nail salons in my neighborhood were selling paste-on replacement sets – by the six-pack.
This week’s Monday Countdown looks at the Vikings-Bears game and what it means to the NFC North and the Lions. There’s a review of the last four games of the North contenders, and a look at some Lions individual and team stats in the running game.
There’s also an observation on how two of the game’s stars – Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning – performed Sunday.
We start with the quote of the day Sunday from Vikings defensive lineman Jared Allen that was tweeted out after the game:
1. They went to Jared: "You just got to keep playing," a reporter tweeted Allen saying. "Really, anything can happen at any time. Look at Auburn. I thought we were going to do an Auburn."
Allen was referring to Auburn beating Alabama Saturday night on a return of a missed field goal. On the last play of regulation, Bears kicker Robbie Gould was short on a 66-yard field goal attempt. Cordarelle Patterson was tackled on the return as time ran out, sending the game into overtime.
In overtime, Blair Walsh made a 39-yard field goal that was nullified by a penalty, then missed a second chance from 57 yards. Gould was wide right from 47 yards, giving the Vikings the chance to win on Walsh’s 34-yarder.
2. All Day – two days: Adrian Peterson is a marvel – one of the NFL’s most tenacious competitors. He never seems to wear down, either from carrying the load for the Vikings’ offense, or the weight of a losing season.
The Vikings played two overtime games in eight days, and Peterson was the dominant player in both. Peterson had 32 carries for 146 yards in the overtime against the Packers and came back to carry 35 times for 211 yards against the Bears.
In overtime, he gained 51 yards on nine carries. The man defines relentless.
3. Coaching error: With first down at the Bears’ 16 and 1:47 left, Vikings Coach Leslie Frazier sent Walsh out to kick the game-winner.
He should have waited. A miss by Walsh could have given the ball to the Bears at the 24-yard line, with 1:43 on the clock – plenty of time for the Bears to drive to field-goal range.
The Bears had used their allotment of two timeouts. The Vikings should have called kneel-downs on first and second down and kicked the field goal on third down. In case of a miss, the Bears would have been left with about 20 seconds to mount a game-winning drive.
4. Lions’ last four games: at Eagles (7-5, tied for first NFC East); home vs. Ravens (6-6, second AFC North); home vs. Giants (4-7, third NFC East going into Monday night game with Washington); at Vikings (3-8-1 and wreaking havoc in the North with a win over Bears and tie with Packers in the last two games).
The toughest game will be next week at Philly. Eagles QB Nick Foles has thrown 19 TD passes without a pick, and the Eagles have won four straight and six of their last seven.
5. Bears’ last four games: home vs. Cowboys (7-5, tied for first in NFC East); at Browns (4-8, last AFC North); at Eagles (7-5, tied first NFC East); home vs. Packers (5-6-1, third NFC North).
Unless the Eagles and Foles collapse at the same time, the Bears aren’t going to win at Philly with a defense that hasn’t stopped anyone of late.
6. Packers’ last four games: home vs. Falcons; at Cowboys; home vs. Steelers; at Bears.
It all rides on whether Aaron Rodgers returns from a broken left collarbone. The Packers are 0-4-1 since he went out, and one prominent Packers insider said before the Thanksgiving game that he doesn’t expect Rodgers to play next week against the Falcons.
7. Lions’ advantage: They have to play to their strengths – attacking offense, strong run defense, and continue to pressure quarterbacks the way they have the last two weeks. Obviously, they have to cut down on turnovers.
Two crucial tiebreakers favor the Lions. They swept the Bears, and they’ll beat out the Bears and Packers on division record. Against North opponents, the Lions are 4-1 with Minnesota the only division team left on their schedule. The Bears are 2-3 and the Packers 2-2-1. Both have one division game left – against each other.
This is the first season the Lions have finished above .500 in a division since they were 6-2 in 1997 in the old NFC Central. They made the playoffs as a wild card with a 9-7 record.
8. Rush job: Improvement in the run game has helped the Lions this year on both sides of the ball.
Bush’s rushing total of 854 yards through 12 games would have led the Lions in 10 of the last 14 seasons – since Barry Sanders retired before the 1999 season. The four exceptions were two seasons by James Stewart – 1,184 yards in 2000 and 1,021 in 2002, 1,133 by Kevin Jones in ’04, and 976 by Kevin Smith in 2008.
The Lions had four runs of 20 yards or longer last year. They already have eight. It seems like a small difference, but it isn’t. The greater the threat to break a long run, the more chances the offense has to complete passes off play action.
Only three running backs in the league who have at least 30 catches are averaging 10 yards or more per catch. The Lions have two of them – Bush and Bell. The third is the Eagles LeSean McCoy.
Bush has 45 catches for 448 yards, which works out to 9.955 yards per catch and is rounded up to 10.0 in the NFL’s official stats. Bell has 34 catches for 378 yards, an average of 11.1 yards per catch.
McCoy is No. 1 with 39 catches for 435 yards – 11.15 yards per catch.
9. Run stuffing: The Lions have allowed their last six opponents a combined 241 yards rushing and 10 rushing first downs. The Packers had no rushing first downs. The Bengals, Bucs and Bears had one each, the Cowboys three and the Steelers four.
The Eagles are one of the NFL’s best running teams. They excel in every category. They’ll give the Lions their toughest matchup in two months.
10. Peyton’s place: After the Broncos’ blew a big lead to the Patriots and lost the previous week, a lot of analysis involving Peyton Manning centered on whether he could play in cold weather. Specifically, the issue was whether Manning could lead a team in a playoff run.
Manning wore a glove on his right hand for Sunday’s game at Kansas City. The temperature was 55, not summery, but not golf weather, either.
Manning threw five TD passes, and the Broncos won, 35-28.