The NFC North is upside down.
One month ago, the Minnesota Vikings, buoyed by the league’s top defense, moved to an NFL-best 5-0 after a convincing victory against the Texans. That gave them a solid lead over the Green Bay Packers who, despite whispers of trouble, stood at a Packers-like 3-1 after an early bye week. Though not even one-third of the way into the 2016 season, the North had quickly developed into a two-horse race with Detroit and Chicago running well behind.
Fast-forward 28 days and the division is in upheaval, barely resembling those halcyon days when Sam Bradford could do no wrong, the Vikings were a Super Bowl contender and the biggest question about the Packers’ season was whether Lambeau would be hosting a playoff game in January.
Minnesota hasn’t won since. Green Bay has lost three of four. And all of the sudden the Detroit Lions, a team that’s trailed in the fourth quarter of every single game in 2016, are a half-game back of the first-place Vikings, with whom they own the tiebreaker after Sunday’s stunning come-from-behind win in Minnesota. With the Vikings visiting Washington next week, there’s a legitimate chance the Lions could come out of their bye week leading the NFC North.
Is it all smoke and mirrors for the Lions, or is Jim Caldwell’s team for real? At this point, the answer might not matter. Detroit is officially hot with four wins in its last five games and, more important than anything, is the only team in the division with a pulse. With every team in the NFL now through half its schedule, the Detroit Lions are the team to beat in the topsy-turvy NFC North. How did we get here, with the Lions in control of their own destiny to win their first division title in 23 years?
The arc of the season and momentum of the division changed in a stunning two-minute stretch Sunday in Minnesota. Detroit had led all game for a change but gave the Vikings their first lead after allowing an 89-yard drive that culminated in a touchdown with 23 seconds remaining. That made it 16-13 Vikings. The Lions had no timeouts. When the subsequent kickoff went into the end zone, it meant Minnesota had to keep Matthew Stafford from driving 35 yards in just a handful of seconds with no ability to stop the clock. The game was over, Minnesota had staunched the bleeding, the Lions were going to have two weeks to think about what could have been, and with the Packers hosting the lowly Colts later that afternoon at Lambeau the NFC North would be back to normal.
Then Detroit got seven yards and out of bounds on first down. Seventeen seconds left. On second down, Minnesota put three men on the line, only one other player within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and had the rest hanging back in a prevent that was defending more against a touchdown rather than the possibility of a long field goal.
Stafford, with as much time to throw as he wanted, threw a perfect ball to a wide open Andre Roberts who was being watched by five — five — nearby defenders.
The Lions rushed to the line, spiked the ball with two seconds left and sent in Matt Prater, the NFL record holder for longest field goal who showed he’s got some leg outside of the thin air of Denver and drilled a 58-yarder down the middle to send the game to overtime. Detroit won the toss, took the kick and went 87 yards on 11 plays to score the game-winning touchdown with a 28-yard pass from Stafford to Golden Tate.
It was Stafford’s fifth fourth-quarter comeback of the season, which already puts him two off the NFL record.
Detroit earned the win, but the Vikings gift wrapped it. Much-maligned kicker Blair Walsh missed a game-tying extra point and had another kick blocked. Tate should have been easily pushed out of bounds at the 15-yard line on his overtime touchdown. And the one most under the radar: The Vikings botched the endgame in regulation, failing to milk the clock despite having timeouts and only two shots at the end zone.
It’s the team’s third straight loss and the first without offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who parted ways with the Vikings last week. Minnesota has scored 33 points in its last three games with a struggling offensive line, no running game and an inability to get the ball to its only playmaker, Stefon Diggs.
As the Vikings game was ending, the Colts were taking the lead in Green Bay just 13 seconds into the game (Jordan Todman scored a 99-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff) and never relinquishing it even with a furious Packers comeback bid in the final minutes. The game was a perfect microcosm for what the Packers season seems destined to become. Aaron Rodgers is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and two-time MVP. The team has made the playoffs seven straight years. They were going to win this game. The rest of the way, at worst, they were going to tread water, get to 10-6 and sneak into the playoffs because that’s what the Packers do.
It’s expected. This is a franchise that was the subject of countless "what’s wrong with" columns when they were still 4-2. (Only New England could be the topic of similar conversations with a .667 winning percentage.) Rodgers had been put under a bigger microscope despite seven TD passes and zero interceptions over the past two games. Even this week, if you’d listened to the chatter about the Packers you’d have thought their record was more in the Chip Kelly range than above .500. The team and its supporters had to spend all week defending Rodgers, with coach Mike McCarthy saying "the scrutiny’s ridiculous" and former teammate A.J. Hawk telling ESPN radio “honestly, people talking about what’s wrong with Aaron and blah blah blah — this is the dumbest thing ever.”
That’s a tougher argument to stand behind on Sunday night. Rodgers had thrown for just over 175 yards with one touchdown and one interception when the Pack were down 31-13, only pushing his numbers back to respectability in the failed comeback bid — Blake Bortles style. Rodgers has been an average quarterback for the past year, despite that uptick in his performance in Weeks 7 and 8. He went 14 straight games without a passer rating over 100, has been bouncing passes like Andrew Luck, skying them like the aforementioned Mr. Bortles and hasn’t been helped by his ragtag supporting cast — but also hasn’t done much to help them.
By default, that leaves the Lions. They’re the embodiment of the modern-day NFL, when the difference between 11-5 and 5-11 could very well be six plays in six different weeks. In their five wins, they’ve outscored opponents by 11 points in regulation and just 17 points overall. Their four losses have come by 18 points, giving Detroit a minus-1 point differential that’ll impress nobody in the stat community, nor will the team’s ranks in total offense and defense (sixth and 17th going into this week, respectively).
The Lions haven’t rushed for more than 100 yards as a team since Week 2. Stafford stayed relatively clean Sunday but has been getting popped too often, even in victory. Ziggy Ansah is one of the top pass rushers in the league but has been slowed by injury. The group behind him, the linebackers, are no-shows most weeks. Caldwell inspires confidence in no one, including, it often seems, Jim Caldwell.
Still, Detroit is 5-4 and heading into a perfectly timed bye week before these four games: Jacksonville, Minnesota, at New Orleans and Chicago. (Minnesota’s next four, for instance: Washington, Arizona, Detroit and Dallas.) Road games at the Giants and Cowboys are tough Week 15 and 16 matchups for Detroit, and a Week 17 game against the Packers and feels like it could end up as one of those de facto division championship games. (You’ll notice all three remaining division matchups are at home.)
Are the Detroit Lions the most talented team in the NFC North? No; they’re probably third, second if you’re being generous. But this isn’t baseball or basketball. The numbers don’t normalize, and the cream doesn’t always rise. All that matters is which team in the North has the biggest number in the win column come 11 p.m. on New Year’s Day. With the first-place team on a three-game losing streak and the third-place team unable to hang with mediocre AFC South teams at home, why not the Lions?