What’s Ahead For Packers, NFC North?

Had it been April Fool’s and not Thanksgiving, it would have made sense.

This week I received in my e-mail a news release so ridiculous in its obviousness that it might as well have been sub-titled “People Prefer Drinking Soda To Being Stabbed” or “Babies Under The Age Of Three Months Found To Be Unable To Solve Economic Crisis” or “Impressionist Frank Caliendo Annoying As Hell.”

The press release in question was titled “Poll Finds Favre Favorability Plummets In Wisconsin.”

Gee, you think?

The poll, conducted among 600 Wisconsin residents, compared Favre’s favorability in December 2007 and November 2008. Shockingly, in December 2007, when Favre was guiding the Packers to a 13-3 season and setting the NFL record for touchdown passes, 73 percent of the state’s residents liked him. (Surely the other 27 percent were Bears and Vikings fans.) Now that Favre is having similar success with a different team, only 48 percent of state residents like him. (Surely that number would be lower if Favre was leading the Vikings to an 8-3 record and not the AFC’s Jets.)

(What’s more fascinating than the loss of Favre love in America’s Dairyland is the number of people among the 600 polled that had apparently never heard of Favre. 45 people. How do you live in Wisconsin and not know who Favre is, especially given that this summer Favre’s un-retirement was the most widely covered story since Watergate?)

What’s less obvious than Favre’s drop in Cheesehead popularity is how the NFC North will shake out this season. With the Bears, Vikings, and Packers all within a game of each other with five games to play (as of this writing), the division seems to be up for grabs. What is clear, though, is that the number of teams the NFC North will send to the playoffs will equal the number of hits that Katrina and the Waves had. That’d be one for those of you still a little groggy from overindulging on Thanksgiving. So winning the NFC North is a must for any of the three teams in contention.

Let’s see who’s got the best shot.

The Vikings have the toughest remaining schedule of the three teams, as they have to take on the NFC North division-leading Bears, the NFC West division-leading Arizona Cardinals, the NFC East divison-leading New York Giants, and the 7-4 Atlanta Falcons. The good news for Minnesota? The Giants, who the Vikings play in the final week of the season, should have their division wrapped up and might rest their starters. The bad news for Minnesota? Their other game comes at Detroit, and if you believe like I believe that no team — even a team as bad as Detroit — will go 0-16, then that match-up suddenly looks scary for Brad Childress’s team.

The Vikings are also faced with the possible suspensions of Kevin and Pat Williams and the continuing underwhelming (though still better than Tavaris Jackson) play of Gus Frerotte. Should the Williamses get suspended (and they could be as soon as the Monday after the Bears game), than the Vikings would have inept pass defense, inept run defense, inept pass offense, and inept special teams. Not the way to win a division.

After a strong (but short) 2-0 start, the Packers have lost six of nine and have been head-scratchingly inconsistent, mixing strong games against Indianapolis and Chicago with awful games against Minnesota and especially New Orleans. Aaron Rodgers is the key to this inconsistency, as he has  sometimes been brilliant in a “Brett Favre Who?” kind of way and has sometimes been awful in a “Looks Worse Than Brett Somers In A Bikini” kind of way. Two things that have been consistent is that the Packers are playing much better at home than on the road and that they can’t stop the run. The good news? The Packers play three of their last five at home. The bad news? Four of their remaining five opponents (save Detroit) have above-average run offenses.   

Despite the fact that only two remaining teams on the Packers’ schedule have winning records, the matchups concern me. As does their inconsistent play. As does the fact that the Bears and Vikings play this Sunday, meaning that if Green Bay loses to Carolina on Sunday, the Packers will be two games back with four to play. This team is the most talented team in the division. This team is also in grave danger of missing the postseason.

Hard to believe that a team that the Packers throughly whipped 37-3 just two weeks ago could win the division, but the Bears, especially if they can get past the Vikings on Sunday night, appear headed to do just that. They have a nice three-game home stretch coming up against teams that have struggled all season (Jacksonville) or struggled on the road (Saints, Packers) and finish off at Houston. The play of Kyle Orton and Matt Forte have been two of the biggest surprises of the season.  The defense hasn’t been great, but it’s been mostly adequate (except late in games, which has been the team’s downfall this season). 

The Bears are 6-5, but could easily be 9-2 had they not let three games get away from them late (losses to Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta). Their only bad game was against Green Bay. I could easily see them losing to Minnesota on Sunday and then running the table and finishing with a record of 10-6, which is either good enough for third place in the NFC East or first place in the NFC North. Luckily for the Bears, they play in the NFC North. But you knew that. But did you know that Brett Favre isn’t as popular among Packer fans as he used to be? Astonishing . . .

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