Why We Watch: NFC North at stake with Vikings-Green Bay

There are still division championships to be decided in Week 17, with the most intriguing the Minnesota-Green Bay game where the winner stays home for the playoffs and the loser hits the road.

Photo courtesy Green Bay Packers
Photo courtesy Green Bay Packers

(Aaron Rodgers photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)

(Adrian Peterson photo courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings)

By Clark Judge

Talk of Fame Network



The line: Packers by 3

The story: This one’s pretty simple: The winner is the NFC North champ, home for the playoffs. The loser is a wildcard and hits the road next week.

If you believe in momentum, you believe in the Vikings. They won their last two, outscoring opponents, 87-34. But if you believe in history, you love the Packers. They won eight of their last 10 vs. Minnesota at Lambeau and destroyed the Vikings 30-13 earlier this year. Moreover, they won the division the past four years and haven’t fallen to the Vikings since Mike Zimmer took over.

Now let's go back to that November 22 mismatch. In that game, Green Bay ran to daylight … shredding the Vikings for 124 yards rushing, and it will have to do that again to take the heat off Aaron Rodgers and a struggling passing attack. That means keep your eyes on Eddie Lacy. He averages 106.8 yards rushing vs. Minnesota – or 42.6 more than he does against the rest of the league.

For the Vikings, it’s all about Adrian Peterson. The NFL rushing leader has 12 career TDs vs. Green Bay and averages 112 yards rushing vs. Green Bay, and put up 199 the last time the Vikings beat Green Bay – which, it so happens, was the 2012 season finale at Lambeau. If he's not cooking, the pressure's on Teddy Bridgewater, and you saw what happened in November. He was sacked six times and left with a shoulder injury.

Speaking of Bridgewater, he said this week that if the Vikings just do what they do best, they’ll be OK. And maybe he’s right. But if the Packers do what they do best they win. Aaron Rodgers is 12-4 vs. Green Bay, and, since 2009, the Packers average 30 points vs. Zimmer-led defenses. One problem: Rodgers’ offensive line. It’s banged up. David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga are battling injuries, and the results speak for themselves. The Packers allowed nine sacks last weekend.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: Green Bay suffered home losses this season to Detroit and Chicago. Honest. The last time the Packers were swept at home by division opponents was 1968.


Photo courtesy of Buffalo Bills
Photo courtesy of Buffalo Bills

(Tyrod Taylor photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bills)

N.Y. JETS @ BUFFALO, 1 p.m.

The line: Jets by 2-1/2

The story: Talk about a perfect ending. The Jets can reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010 when Rex Ryan was coach, and their path is pretty straightforward. All they have to do is beat the Bills, and they’re in as a wildcard.

Just one problem: Rex. He stands in their way.

Ryan tried to tone down the hyperbole this week, saying, "I just want to win," but get real, people. This is his Super Bowl. He promised he’d take the Bills to the playoffs, and he failed. So he can salvage what's left of a lost season by keeping the Jets from going there, too, and getting in the last word on tight end Jace Amaro, who criticized Ryan after he left New York.

If that sounds like it’s something personal, it’s only because it is.

Former Bills’ quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been white-hot the last five games, with 13 touchdowns, one interception and no defeats. But he’s hurt, skipping a portion of practice Wednesday to rest minor back and elbow injuries. Fitzpatrick will play and should be OK. But his running backs are another story. Chris Ivory (knee) has been limited in this week’s practice, and Bilal Powell (ankle) hasn’t practiced, period.

No wonder coach Todd Bowles said he’s “a little bit concerned.” I would be, too. But the bigger problem is Rex. With reports swirling that the club will cut Mario Williams, Rex must prove to Buffalo he knows what he’s doing – and what better way than to derail the Jets’ playoff hopes.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Bills’ Tyrod Taylor is on schedule to become the first Buffalo quarterback since Jim Kelly to finish a season with a passer rating of 100 or more. Taylor has a rating of 100.7. Kelly had one of 101.2 in 1990.


The line: Chiefs by 7

The story: The NFL changed the time of this game to coincide with the Chargers-Denver, and there’s a reason: The AFC West title is at stake. If the Broncos win, they’re in. If they don’t, and Kansas City defeats Oakland, it’s the Chiefs.

I don’t know what happens in Denver, but you gotta love the Chiefs here -- mostly because you gotta love Andy Reid. The guy's done the unthinkable. After losing five straight games and star running back Jamaal Charles, he ripped off nine straight victories and reached the playoffs for the second time in three seasons on the job.

I know, the Raiders won six of the past eight times they played in Kansas City, but tell me how many of those wins were over Reid. Forget it, I’ll spare you the trouble. Zilch. Since taking over in K.C., he’s 4-1 overall vs. Oakland, and look for him to make it 5-1 here.

Reason: The Chiefs don’t make the mistakes Oakland does, they play better defense and they’re home. Put them together, and you have 10 straight. Plus, there’s this: Justin Houston, who missed the last four games, and Tamba Hali, who missed the defeat of Cleveland, are practicing again. And safety Husain Abdullah, who sat out the last five starts, is back at practice and close to returning.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: Alex Smith is 6-1 vs. Oakland, with 16 touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 110.5.

SEATTLE @ ARIZONA, 4:25 p.m. (EST)

The line: Cardinals by 6-1/2

The story: The way I see it, there are two teams out there that can beat Carolina to the NFC championship … and you’re looking at them.

There’s no better club anywhere than Arizona, and there are few that are more dangerous than Seattle. Both have playoff-tested quarterbacks. Both can run the ball. And both have solid defenses. So which is better? That's why we play this game. The Seahawks are hot. The Cardinals are hotter. And each wins on both sides of the ball.

But this is Seattle’s time of year, with the Seahawks reaching the past two Super Bowls. No, they don’t have Marshawn Lynch, and their defense has leaks where there were none a year ago. But Russell Wilson is playing some of his best football now -- and he's going to have to again if the Seahawks are going to pull the upset.

Does that happen? I don't think so. Arizona is playing at a different level than everyone but Carolina, but the Cardinals haven't lost in nine straight games -- including a win in Seattle. Plus, they're getting stronger with each week, with last week's demolition of Green Bay the latest evidence.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Cardinals rank in the top five in total offense (1), points per game (1), total defense (5) and points allowed per game (5). They’re the only NFL team to rank in the top five in all four categories. Arizona and Seattle are the only NFL teams to rank in the top five in total offense and total defense.


Carolina Panthers play against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, November 15, 2015.
(Luke Kuechly photo courtesy of the Carolina Panthers)

CAROLINA over TAMPA BAY, 4:25 p.m. (EST)

The line: Panthers by 10-1/2

The story: First of all, the game’s in Carolina, where the Panthers haven’t lost. Second, the game is meaningful to one team … and it’s not Tampa Bay. With a win, Carolina gains home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. And third, the Panthers are vastly better, with an MVP candidate in Cam Newton, Defensive-Player-of-the-Year candidates in Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman and a Coach-of-the-Year candidate in Ron Rivera.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: Luke Kuechly has 15 tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble in his last two games vs. Tampa Bay.


(Home team in capital letters)

Clark Judge. BUFFALO (+3) over N.Y. Jets. Rex gets his revenge and salvages what's left of a disappointing his season.

Ron Borges. Washington (+4) over DALLAS. I like Washington in this game not because I like the Redskins, who stink, but because I find the Cowboys even more odorous.

Rick Gosselin. Detroit (+1) over CHICAGO. Matthew Stafford has thrown only one interception in his last six games. When Stafford doesn't turn the ball over, the Lions are a quality team.


Matthew Stafford photo courtesy of the Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford photo courtesy of the Detroit Lions

(Matt Stafford photo courtesy of the Detroit Lions)

Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers. He’s 12-4 vs. Minnesota, averaging 2.1 touchdowns per game. Moreover, he��s won 10 of his last 11 against the Vikes, with 28 touchdowns and three interceptions.

Chicago QB Matt Stafford. He aims for his sixth straight win vs. Chicago. He has 14 touchdowns and one interception in his last five.

Baltimore LB Elvis Dumervil. In eight career games vs. Cleveland, he has six sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and three deflected passes.

New England QB Tom Brady. He won nine of his last 11 vs. Miami, with 21 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Denver LB Von Miller. In nine games vs. San Diego, he has 10 sacks, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery – including two sacks and a forced fumble in his last start.


At least three teams that missed the 2014 playoffs will make it this season – Washington, Minnesota and Kansas City. Since the 12-team playoff was adopted in 1990, at least four teams reached the playoffs that failed to get there the year before.

Nine different quarterbacks have thrown for 30 or more touchdowns this season, tied for the most in a single season. With one Matthew Stafford or Ryan Fitzpatrick touchdown pass Sunday this season surpasses 2014 for the most quarterbacks to throw 30 or more TDs in one season.

With 127 yards receiving, Julio Jones surpasses Jerry Rice for the second-most receiving yards (1848) in one season. Calvin Johnson holds the single-season record at 1,964.

Since 2013, Arizona and Seattle are tied with the best record in the NFC (34-13).

With 109 yards rushing, Frank Gore joins Emmitt Smith (11), Barry Sanders (10), Curtis Martin (10) and Walter Payton (10) as the only backs to rush for 1,000 yards in nine seasons or more.

With a 50-yard field goal Sunday, Sebastian Janikowski would surpass Jason Hanson for the most 50-yarders (53) in NFL history.