The Bears and Vikings both won, improving to 6-5 prior to their showdown in Minnesota next weekend. The Packers lost to New Orleans on Monday night.
But I think the Packers can finish on top of the division. And I don't particularly feel that I'm going out on a limb in saying so. Here’s why:
- Let’s be clear about one thing. The winless Detroit Lions show no inclination to get their first win of the season any time soon.
As Bob Wojnowski observes in the Detroit News, "It's hard to tell if the Lions are feeling the pressure [of losing] or if they're just an accumulation of poor players playing poorly."
Whichever it is, Green Bay and Minnesota each have one game left with Detroit — which should be regarded as lead pipe cinch victories. The Bears have already played Detroit twice this season so the Bears have no more automatic "Ws."
And both the Vikings and Packers pick up a "gimme" victory at Detroit’s expense.
- Both Chicago and Green Bay have games to play with the 4-7 Houston Texans, but there’s a catch. The Texans have been much better at home (where they’re 3-2 so far) than they’ve been on the road (where they’re 1-5). The Bears have to play at Houston; the Packers get to play Houston in Green Bay.
The Bears have struggled on the road, so I’ll predict that Houston wins that one. And the Packers will beat Houston at Lambeau Field.
- In almost the same situation with a different home-road wrinkle, Chicago and Green Bay each have a game left against 4-7 Jacksonville. The Jaguars have struggled at home, where they’re 1-5, but they’ve got a winning record on the road (3-2). Jacksonville will play at Chicago, then come home to play Green Bay, next month.
Again, the home and road numbers suggest advantage to Green Bay and disadvantage to Chicago, but, in this case, I’m going to predict a reversal from the Houston game outcomes. Chicago wins at home, Green Bay loses at Jacksonville.
Hey, this is the NFL we're talking about. Inexplicable things always happen in the NFL.
- If Minnesota gets past Chicago and Detroit in the next two weeks, the Vikings will occupy the top spot in the division at that time with an 8-5 record — and I think that's what will happen.
But they’ve got some mountains to climb against playoff contenders in the final three weeks, when they travel to 7-4 Arizona (the Cardinals are 4-1 at home so far), play host to 7-4 Atlanta (the Falcons have struggled on the road) and finish the regular season with a home game against the 10-1 New York Giants, who are 7-0 against NFC competition.
It’s entirely possible that the Vikings will finish the season at 8-8 or 9-7 — and possibly miss the playoffs. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’ll beat Atlanta, finishing the season at 9-7.
- As for Chicago, I’ve predicted that the Bears will lose to Minnesota and Houston and beat Jacksonville.
That makes the other two games vital for them, and they’re back-to-back home games — against New Orleans on Thursday, Dec. 11, and Green Bay on Monday, Dec. 22.
Neither opponent has played particularly well on the road, but I’m going to predict that at least one — probably the Packers, who have already beaten the Bears once and are more accustomed to the windy, possibly snowy conditions of Soldier Field than the Saints — will win in Chicago.
That leaves Chicago at 8-8.
- I’ve predicted that the Packers would beat Detroit and Chicago, which would give them the best division record (5-1). I’ve also predicted they would beat Houston and lose to Jacksonville.
That leaves one more game — this Sunday’s home game against Carolina.
As I see it, this game is all about location, location, location.
Three NFC teams are undefeated at home, and Carolina (8-3 overall) is one of them. But the Panthers are 2-3 on the road.
Green Bay, on the other hand, is not unbeaten at home, but the Packers have been respectable, with a 3-2 record.
And the Panthers are trying to bounce back from Sunday’s 45-28 loss at Atlanta.
Neither team seems to have a real edge in total defense. Carolina ranks eighth in the NFC, Green Bay ranks ninth.
The Packers, however, are second in the NFC in passing defense, whereas the Panthers are 12th in passing offense in the NFC.
On the flip side, Aaron Rodgers has helped the Packers settle into sixth place in the NFC in passing. The Panthers counter with the sixth-ranked passing defense in the NFC.
And, in case you’re wondering about the weather …
The Panthers will leave the comparatively balmy climate of North Carolina (temperatures expected to be in the 50s most of this week) to play in chilly Green Bay, where the forecasters currently predict a high of about 35 on Sunday.
After losing to New Orleans on Monday night, the Packers will be eager for redemption.
And winning that game should contribute to an eventual 9-7 finish for Green Bay.
Based on the tiebreaking procedure, the next tiebreaker is best record in division play, and I predict the Packers will clinch that by winning their games with Chicago and Detroit.
Can the Packers win in the playoffs? I don't know, but the objective at this point is simply to get to the playoffs. And I think the Packers will.