Last night was a painful night for one of Minnesota's divisional rivals. Not only did Chicago lose 29-14 to the Eagles, but they suffered eight different injuries, many of them to key players.
|Jay Cutler (QB)||Sprained thumb/ligament damage|
|Lamarr Houston (LOLB)||Torn ACL|
|Danny Trevathan (RILB)||Sprained thumb|
|Bryce Callahan (CB)||Concussion|
|Adrian Amos (S)||Concussion|
|Ka'Deem Carey (RB)||Hamstring|
|Chris Prosinski (S)||Calf|
|Eddie Goldman (NT)||High ankle sprain|
Even before these injuries took their toll on the Bears, Chicago wasn't in a great position to compete for a division title. Their offensive line is down their 2015 starting center for the year, is playing a guard out of position at center, and their best offensive lineman, Kyle Long, is playing the season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. Losing the talents of so many good players have clearly sapped the Bears dry, because they looked generally pathetic against an Eagles team starting a rookie quarterback on the road on Monday Night Football. The Bears might be in the middle of a rebuild right now, but I'm not sure I'd want to be a fan of a team running a rebuild like they are.
Despite their 6-10 record, the Bears weren't terrible stats-wise. They were top-5 in passing yards and attempts against and top-10 in rushing touchdowns allowed. Their rushing attack was top-15 in attempts, yards and touchdowns, making up for a passing attack that was 25th and 23rd in passing attempts and yards, respectively. This year? A middle of the road passing defense (10th in attempts against, 6th in yards against, and 6th in net yards/attempt against) is finding it hard to make up for a largely bottom-ten offense (bottom-ten in passing attempts, yards, TD's, net yards per attempt, rushing attempts, and rushing yards). And that was before all these injuries took their toll. So Chicago is left to determine just how deeply and far this dumpster fire will burn through their roster.
The Bears aren't the only team in our division dealing with injuries. The Lions have a spade of injuries to some of their top players, including a foot sprain to starting running back Ameer Abdullah, star linebacker DeAndre Levy has been injured even more often than Sharrif Floyd has been for the Vikings, and Ezekiel Ansah is dealing with a high-ankle sprain that could keep him out for a while. They are currently running with just two healthy linebackers, and according to Pride of Detroit, are desperately working to bolster their injured lineup. They've signed wide receiver Aaron Dobson to a league-minimum contract, hosted former Lions running back Joique Bell on a visit and have brought in four free-agent linebackers for looks, including former Falcons and Jags linebacker Joplo Bartu.
The Lions have actually played very well on offense so far, with the only two stats landing outside the top-10 being net yards per attempt, in which they are 16th, and rushing attempts, in which they are 21st. If they can manage to keep the pieces from falling apart on offense, they should be okay. Their only major injury on that side of the ball appears to be Abdullah, and there's no real timetable as of yet as to when he might make a return. The defense for the Lions has been killing them a lot more; not only did it nearly cost them a win against the Colts, it for sure cost them a victory against the Titans, though that was due more to the sheer number of injuries suffered by the Lions on the defensive side of the ball. All in all, a 1-1 record isn't impossible to climb out of the hole of, and a win against the Packers would be a huge boost for the Lions chances to make some kind of noise in the playoffs this year. But if they lose against the Packers, they'd be 1-2 and at least a game behind both the Packers and the Vikings.
Green Bay Packers
Speaking of the Packers, they will likely be a contender as long as they have Aaron Rodgers, and they have been dealing with the fewest injuries of the four teams in the NFC North, but they have lost top corner Sam Shields for an unknown period of time with a concussion, starting safety Micah Hyde with a foot injury, and Letroy Guion with a knee injury. These injuries leave the Packers dangerously light on defense, and despite their ability to pressure Sam Bradford, he still managed to tear their weakened defense up with the help of Stefon Diggs. Of their next six games, five will be played at home, which is a massive advantage to the team that is 50-13 at home with Aaron Rodgers at the helm of their offense. Despite the ability of the Vikings to pressure Aaron Rodgers into a number of mistakes, not all teams (in fact, very few) have the ability to shut a quarterback down on defense like the Vikings do and they will likely surrender several more plays than the Vikings did. The ability of the Packers to make a push back into the divisional race will likely depend on the offense finding a way to escape its doldrums and that its defense can find a way to shut down opponents. Despite the home games, the Packers will be facing the Lions and the Giants in their next two games, both teams who have the ability to either put up 30+ points or be completely shut down on offense and are still struggling on defense.
Aaron Rodgers will obviously have to step up his level of play, as numerous tweets about his recently declining level of play have found their way onto various sites around the Internet.
Clearly Rodgers has to play far, far better for the Packers to make it anywhere this year. The question is, can he reach that next level anymore?
What about the Vikings?
The Vikings' fortunes will be riding on the ability of Sam Bradford to look as comfortable in the new offense as he did last Sunday against the Packers, on Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata's ability to keep at least a semi-competent rushing attack around while Adrian Peterson recovers and our defense being able to shut teams down. Fortunately, they're the team with the 2-0 lead, which gives them a slight cushion early on but their next three games aren't easy; the Panthers, Texans and Giants are all looking as though they'll be tough teams this year. More than anything, this stretch of games will likely determine the ability of the Vikings to compete against top teams in each conference and just how likely they are to compete for a division title, if not more. Mike Zimmer will have to have his team ready to compete every week and they will have to get players healthy and more effective in a hurry, because while they might be able to pull off wins against the Titans and Packers, the Panthers are a whole other story.
While I'm sure these numbers will be changing weekly, the Vikings/Panthers game is currently rated a "60" on playoffstatus.com's Most Important Games list, tops in the NFC (there's currently a tie for second place with both the Packers/Lions game and the Buccs/Rams game getting 47's) and second only to the Texans/Patriots game on Thursday. This game likely has massive implications for who could be winning the NFC North and South divisions, but also who might be the top seeds in the conference come playoff time.