As the calendar turns to November, elite teams have started to separate themselves from the pack of mediocrity in the NFL. None of those teams reside in the NFC North. The Detroit Lions lead the division at 5-4, holding the tiebreaker over the Minnesota Vikings who are also 5-4. The Packers come in at 4-5 with the Chicago Bears holding down the basement at 2-7. The Bears are a very bad team, but the rest of the division falls squarely into the middle of the pack in the NFL. To explain this mediocrity let’s take a look at each of these teams individually.
If you enjoy nail-biting football, tune into a 2016 Lions game. Detroit has played some heart-stoppers to this point in the season, and QB Matt Stafford has been brilliant late in games. All five of Detroit’s wins have come by less than six points, and Stafford has led game winning drives in all five. Stafford’s flair for the dramatic has come despite the fact that the team has virtually no running game. Detroit has been decimated by injury at the running back spot, leaving them with little to no running threat. There is a solid case to be made that for Detroit to make a playoff push, Stafford would have to perform at an MVP-caliber level. As great as he has been, the Lions are far too Stafford-or-bust. When his performance dips, the overall performance of the team falls off significantly. They lack the defensive playmakers to make any significant noise in the playoffs should they get there, which could very well be the case.
No team has hit a wall quite like the Vikings. After looking like the NFL’s best team through the first five weeks, they have been less than impressive in four straight losses. The main issues stem from the putrid offensive line play. A unit that was shaky to begin with has been hit hard by injury, losing starting tackles Andre Smith and Matt Kahlil. Of all the injuries that have befallen this team, including to starting QB Teddy Bridgewater and starting RB Adrian Peterson, those might be the most devastating. Having poor offensive line play is a constant negative feedback loop. The line is unable to generate holes in the running game, keeping them behind the chains. This leaves the offense constantly in third and long situations, allowing teams to pin their ears back and sell out to rush the passer against below average pass protection. A huge issue for the Vikings throughout this losing streak has been their inability to convert in short yardage situations. It cost them each of the last two weeks against Detroit and Washington. The defense, which looked like the class of the league through five weeks, has struggled to get off the field on third down. This could be a compounding factor of not being able to generate offense, leaving the defense on the field for much of the game. On top of everything kicker Blair Walsh struggled mightily throughout the year before his release earlier this week. This team still has enough talent to compete, but their offensive line issues make the qualifying for the playoffs a long shot.
Even the biggest Packer pessimists did not see this coming from a team quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers. The Packers have seemed fairly lifeless in back to back losses to AFC South foes. The losses have been compounded by cryptic comments from Rodgers about energy and effort levels of the team. Before Rodgers gets too far up on his high horse, he should take a fairly hard look in the mirror. While his numbers have been adequate, much of Rodgers production has come in garbage time in the second half of games where they are trailing by multiple scores. Outside of the first half of the Detroit game, the Packers offense has not resembled the vaunted group that have struck fear in the heart of defensive coordinators for the better part of a half decade. On top of that, the defensive secondary has seen its top three corners fall prey to injury. Running back Eddie Lacy injured his ankle earlier in the year after offseason speculation about his weight. The running game has been fairly non-existent since his injury, despite the fact that the offensive line has remained intact and is still one of the NFL’s best units. As far as pure talent goes, the Pack should still be considered the favorites in the division, but the on field product has no matched that talent level all season. They are one of the hardest teams to pin down in the league, but if they continue to have performances like the one they had in Tennessee last week, they will see their playoff hopes slip away quickly.