NFC North: One Thing’s For Sure — Nothing Is Sure

Charles “The Prodigy” Richey is an on-air host and producer for chicagolandsportsradio.com, he writes on the NFC North for WARR

Fresh off a 10-day rest, the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings will be put to the test once again as a conference-wide contender this Sunday.

In taking on the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons today the Vikes (9-2) are matching up with a team that is almost as hot as they are. While Minnesota hasn’t lost since Week 5, the Falcons have a 4-1 in their last five games, taking what looked like a disappointing season at one point and resurrecting it as another run at the NFC South title.

The Falcons (7-4) are currently slotted in the NFC’s final wild card spot but they are only 1 game behind the division-leading and No. 4-seeded New Orleans Saints, with the Carolina Panthers in the middle, cementing the South as the conference’s toughest division right now.  To the Falcons favor, they own tie-breakers over four of the other teams still in the hunt and can add a fifth if they are able to knock the Vikings in Atlanta.

Atlanta’s Julio Jones enters this match as its most high profile wide receiver, a regularity for him, but Minnesota’s one-two receiver punch in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are definitely worth mentioning as well. Thielen and Diggs have contributed greatly to an offense which has a scoring average of more than 24 points per game and currently ranks fifth in the league in total yards (Thielen has 62 grabs for 916 yards and Diggs has scored five touchdowns with 532 receiving yards in just eight games), Believe it or not, since Randy Moss, this franchise has managed to have only one other receiver crack the 1,000-yard mark (Sidney Rice in 2009), Thielen should be able to make that exclusive group due to his size and athleticism, making cornerbacks’ jobs more difficult to cover him in the slot.  

Now with only three games left to clinch the NFC North, Minnesota seems to be in cruise control and its unlikely star quarterback Case Keenum, continues to impress. After passing for 282 yards for a 70 percent completion percentage with two touchdowns in Minnesota’s solid Thanksgiving win over Detroit, the former undrafted journeyman earned these words from Thielen.  

“He’s fearless, and he’s made the most of his opportunity,” said Thielen.  

Thielen, along with Randy Moss, has become one of two Vikings players in franchise history to have 70 catches and 1,000 yards receiving within the first 11 games.

Adding to this newfound air attack, the Vikings No. 5- ranked defense has held five out of their last seven opponents to under 20 points. With the upcoming Super Bowl taking place in Minnesota, a question that gets begged to be asked is if the Vikings can continue this hot role during the playoffs and be the first team to host the Super Bowl? According to ESPN, the Westgate Las Vegas Super Book  has the Vikings with the fourth-best odds currently (10/1).  

Chances Running Out For Lions

Over in Detroit things are looking dim for the Lions’ playoff chances.

In the opposite of Minnesota’s 10 days of rest, Detroit had to have had 10 days of uncertainty after losing on Thanksgiving. The Lions (6-5) are only a game out of the last wild card spot but three of their five remaining games will be on the road and the two at home will be against divisional opponents. There’s nothing but big games left for this team and that’s not the best platform for a team with a quarterback like Matt Stafford, who still hasn’t proved that he can win important games consistently. 

When asked about that topic during the post-game press conference on Thanksgiving, Lions coach Jim Caldwell said, “There’s a guy that I know who is in this league for a long time, he said if you’re around .500, little bit before when you’re sitting down for your Thanksgiving meal, you’ve still got a chance. Don’t count us out just yet.”

True, but a couple of more ugly losses can wind up giving you a rawer deal in time for Christmas dinner. One could come this week at a hot Baltimore Ravens team looking to keep itself in the final AFC playoff spot or better after Sunday.

The Lions enter this game as +3 underdogs according to Oddsshark, but the Lions enter one of their most fruitful times of the year under Caldwell, December, where they have a 7-5 record all-time with the coach. It will be crucial for the Lions to try and maintain focus down this stretch, them not doing so or not has often made the difference in making the playoffs in recent years. Its mostly been a one-year on, one-year off proposition for Detroit since their breakthrough 2011 season, with return trips coming after the ’14 season and last year. The team hasn’t made two consecutive playoffs since the 1994 and ’95 seasons.

Hoping With Hundley

With the Green Bay Packers season still hanging in the balance under Brett Hundley, the team is coming off what is by far their best performance minus-Aaron Rodgers.

Yes, it was a tough and close loss at Pittsburgh for the Pack last Sunday night, but encouragement existed both on and off the turf at Heinz Field.

Hundley matched his season-high of 245 passing yards against Pittsburgh, with the biggest difference in his game being that he threw and averaged 49.3 yards deep for three touchdown passes while also going 1-for-1 in the red zone.  Hundley he has only produced one win under center while starting, but there is still slight hope with him in action and the Pack still in range of a playoff spot at ninth place.

If that’s not enough, if you’re a Packer fan who can only accept salvation via No. 12 then seeing Aaron Rodgers throwing aggressively with no problems in warmups in Pittsburgh had to be great medicine. Rodgers aired out many of his passes in the session, Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, who has been monitoring his progress, had nothing but high praise for A-Rod.

“(Rodgers has been) knocking it out of the park, he’s going at it 120 miles an hour. We’ll see what the end of the week brings,” McCarthy said.

Remarkably for the Packers, they have maintained being top three in Red Zone Scoring percentage even without Rodgers, you have to look at this being key in Green Bay still playing competitively especially against better teams like the Steelers.

At earliest, Rodgers won’t be eligible to return until Week 15 when they travel to take on Cam Newton and the Panthers. Much could be decided by then, but if Green Bay wants to keep things up in the air they should really win their next two games in a row against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home and the Browns on the road.  According to John Breech of CBSSports.com, many expect Green Bay to finish no better than  7-9 pending on how Rodgers’ possible return in Week 15 affects things.  

Opponent Tampa enters Sunday’s matchup with the worst total defense in the league, look for Green Bay to continue to capitalize on Hundley’s increased confidence under center.

Look for at least one of the receiver duo of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb to break out as neither can claim a game with 100+ receiving yards all season and look for Green Bay to go 2-0 these next two games, hold out slight playoff hope and then “It’s showtime, folks,” for Rodgers.

Follow Charles at his personal blog and on Twitter @ProdigyRichey; Follow We Are Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under We Are Regal Radio

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