The Home Stretch: NFC North Roundtable

Mike Roemer - AP
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We are in the final stages of the NFL season with still a lot to decide. An astonishing nine teams are still in legitimate playoff contention in the NFC with just four weeks to play. The Full Press team editors for the NFC North sat down to discuss their reactions to the season thus far and their expectations for the quarter pole.

With four weeks left, how do you think the division will shape? 

Tyler Kading, Bears: The only real question wth the standings comes in with the second and third spots, as the Vikings are virtually clinched into the top and, likewise, the Bears at the bottom. I think it is highly likely those two spots come down to the last week of the season, as the Packers and Lions face each other. Since I doubt that the Packers will still be in playoff contention, I would be surprised if the Packers risk Aaron Rodgers coming off a shoulder injury, and thus, the Lions take home the victory and the second-place finish.

 

Matt Urben, Lions: With four weeks left, it is pretty obvious Minnesota has this thing locked up. They have been the best team in the division all the way through the season and I do not see them slowing down over the final quarter of the season.

 

Jake Schyvinck, Packers: Right now, the Vikings are the class of this division and it is easy to see why. Case Keenum is having his best season as a pro and the defense does not really have a weakness. I see the Vikings finishing around 12-4 and possibly locking up the first seed in the NFC. As for the Lions and Packers, they both need to win out and have some help on the way. The Lions have an easier schedule, but it probably will not be enough. If the Packers win at Cleveland, Rodgers likely returns. But even Rodgers may not be able to navigate this team through three tough games. The Lions and Packers will likely finish around 9-7 and miss the playoffs. The Bears, obviously, are looking forward to building around Trubisky in the draft.

 

Sam Smith, Vikings: Minnesota has the top spot sewn up and Chicago is clearly whatever the opposite of the class of the division is. What happens in between is going to be fascinating as the Lions and the Packers, against all odds, are still in playoff contention. I do not see either team making the postseason but, despite the tougher schedule down the stretch, I would lean the Packers’ way for NFC North runner-up. Though it may not be advised, Rodgers will return week 15 and win out, but fall just shy of the postseason.

Who has been the biggest surprise, positive or negative, through 75% of the season?

Kading: To me, the biggest surprise has been the Vikings offense. I thought they were going to be better than many did coming into the season, but even I could not have expected this out of the Vikes. Adam Thielen has proven himself as a top-five receiver in the league, and Keenum looks like a Pro Bowl quarterback. They’ve also supplemented the loss of star rookie running back Dalvin Cook incredibly well, with both Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon playing like quality starting running backs.

 

Urben: The surprise has to be Keenum. I think the rest of the division felt like the Vikings would surely fall apart without Bradford. Instead, they have absolutely thrived under the Keenum to where he is almost a dark horse MVP candidate.

 

Schyvinck: The most surprising player this season is certainly the play of Keenum. After Sam Bradford went down early in the year, Keenum stepped in with low expectations. Keenum has starred for the Vikings this season and propelled them to a 10-win season thus far. His 16 touchdowns and five interceptions are plenty for the Vikings at quarterback. What has helped most is the continued development of Thielen and Stefon Diggs.

 

Smith: I will fall in line with everyone else and say Keenum. Only once in his career has Keenum signed with a team to be the starter and that was last year as the stopgap to Jared Goff. He is a 29-year-old journeyman; those are not supposed to turn into franchise quarterbacks. But Keenum has shown to be one due to his remarkable pocket presence and crisp efficiency. What is more, he is not at all a game-manager. He takes his shots and succeeds on a lot of them.

Who is the one player on the team you cover that you are most focused on for the home stretch of the season?

Kading: I am going to be looking to see development in Mitchell Trubisky. Barring the Philadelphia game, Trubisky has not looked nearly as bad as I expected coming into the season. However, he still has not blown the roof off like I would have liked. While the coaching and scheme may make it hard, I am hoping Trubisky can step it up and play at a Pro Bowl level against defenses like Cincinnati and Cleveland.

 

Urben: Going forward, the player that I am most focused on is rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis. It has been an up-and-down seasons for Davis, who started right away at the mike linebacker spot for the Lions. He has been pretty good against the run but has really struggled in coverage.

 

Schyvinck: One player I am looking at the rest of the season is Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He showed extreme promise in his first few seasons, but this season has not been good. Clinton-Dix was always praised as a willing tackler down by the line of scrimmage. He also found the football a lot on the back end of the defense. This season, he looks out of place. He is not as physical attacking and making tackles. In an offseason of key players entering free agency, Clinton-Dix needs to play better to earn an extension from the Packers.

 

Smith: I am looking at left tackle Riley Reiff. For much of the season, Reiff was a godsend, looking like Rick Spielman’s best offseason pickup. But the last four weeks, Reiff’s play has cratered, allowing pressure on about nine percent of dropbacks. Granted, Keenum makes up for a lot of this with his maneurability. But if Minnesota has any hopes of maintaining their top-notch passing game against better defenses, Reiff has to return to form.

Which coaches are on the hot seat?

Kading: While no other NFC coaches are on the hot seat (besides the obvious one in John Fox), two should be. As the Aaron Rodgers injury showed, the Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson tandem do not know how to truly run a football team. The inept ability of that offense without Rodgers speaks volumes to the preparation McCarthy puts his offense through. The other coach that should be on the outs is Jim Caldwell. There is something to be said about a coach, with a good roster, elite coaching staff and good quarterback that is always playing close games. They are not losing more games than they necessarily should, but I trust Teryl Austin and Jim Bob Cooter, Detroit’s coordinators, over Caldwell.

 

 Urben: In the mind of the fans, Caldwell is certainly on the hot seat. In reality, however, Caldwell got an extension and the team can still realistically finish 10-6. If Detroit somehow loses out, I can see Caldwell getting fired. But if he wins 9–10 games I don’t think he is going anywhere. Also, Fox is definitely on the hot seat.

 

Schyvinck: Other than Fox, I do not see any NFC North coaches on the hot seat. Detroit did not have a bad enough season to warrant the firing of Caldwell. While Packers fans may cry for McCarthy’s job quite often, there is no way that happens this season. The Packers have made the playoffs for eight straight season prior to this year. As far as the Vikings, Mike Zimmer has this team playing well after losing their starting quarterback and running back. He is ertainly in the running for Coach of the Year.

 

Smith: Fox is gone, that much is certain. As for the other three, I would be surprised if any of them lose their job this offseason. However, 2017 has exposed the Packers and McCarthy as wounds masked by the world’s strongest Band-Aid, Aaron Rodgers. Look at how Minnesota’s season went after their starting quarterback went down. Compare that to Green Bay’s. The Packers are so reliant on Rodgers that if he misses just six games their season goes in the toilet. Of course, that is more of an indictment of Ted Thompson than McCarthy.  But I would imagine the leash for McCarthy has shortened this year.

Who do you think represents the NFC in the super bowl?

Kading: Minnesota is going to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and someone would needs to convince me otherwise as to them not winning it. They are the most complete team in the NFL right now, as the only team in the league top-five in both yards per game and yards allowed per game. They have the best receiving combo in the league, an absolutely elite defense and a quarterback playing at a Pro Bowl level. The Vikings may not have to leave the state of Minnesota until their first road game in 2018.

 

Urben: I like the Seattle Seahawks to get to the Super Bowl this year. They have had kind of a quiet year, but they are right on track to be in the playoffs where anything can happen. They are a veteran, experienced team with a great quarterback. Look out for the Seahawks in the playoffs.

 

Schyvinck: Right now, the NFC has five or six teams that could make a run. After a tough loss on the road, the Eagles are still inexperienced with Carson Wentz at the helm. The Rams have struggled against top defenses like Seattle thus far. We will learn a lot from their matchup this week. The Saints, when healthy, have the defense and the running game to win in January. The one team that can withstand it all might be the Vikings. I picked Seattle at the start of the year however, and I will stick with them. But, if I got to pick again, I’d go with the Vikings.

 

Smith: I am torn between two teams: the Vikings and the Saints. They are both complete offensive and defensive squads (assuming Marshon Lattimore returns to form) with a lot experience on both sides of the ball. If I had to choose one, and I am going to anger my readers here, I would go New Orleans. Their running game reminds me a lot of the 2009 Saints who won it all with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush and they have the very same quarterback-coach combo manning the fort with Drew Brees and Sean Payton. But there are legitimately seven teams that could make a deep run in the NFC. That is what makes this conference so much fun to watch.

Tyler Kading is the managing editor for Full Press Bears. Follow @FPC_Bears and @bearcub712 on Twitter.

Matt Urben is the managing editor for Full Press Lions. Follow @FPC_Lions and @MattUrben88 on Twitter.

Jake Schyvinck is the managing editor for Full Press Packers. Follow @FPC_Packers and @JSchyvinck13 on Twitter.

Sam Smith is the managing editor for Full Press Vikings and Full Press NFC North. Like and

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