NFC North: For the taking

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) celebrates his touchdown with offensive tackle Jake Long (72) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md., Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Through the first five weeks of the NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings appeared to be an unstoppable force. Outscoring their opponents 119-63, they were 5-0 and the only remaining undefeated team in football. It seemed as though the NFC North division was already on the verge of being secured a third of the way through the season.

Then, trouble emerged. The Vikings were stuck with a Week 6 bye, a potential roadblock for a flourishing team. They headed into Philadelphia to challenge the hot Eagles (3-1) for a Week 7 matchup. Considering the Vikings had allowed under 13 points per game and were approaching a young, inexperienced offense in the Eagles, the game plan should have proven sufficient. What ensued was utter calamity.

Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford was thrashed all game long, fumbling four times and throwing a red zone interception despite being turnover-free through the first five weeks. In spite of a strong defensive showing, the Eagles won with ease, 21-10.

It became clear the team had an offensive line issue, an unforeseen impediment teams have taken advantage of since, bringing Minnesota’s success to a screeching halt. In the four games since their bye, the Vikings are 0-4 and have averaged a measly 14 points per game. They are now the worst offense in the NFL in terms of yards per game and 25th in points. This major flaw has also led to 24 sacks of Bradford, a number only surpassed by four other teams. Additionally, their run game has proven consistently ineffective with leading rushers, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata, averaging a meager three yards per carry.

So the question needs to be asked: who is most likely to win this division? While struggling immensely, Minnesota still has plenty of hope. Bradford has thrown 11 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions and their defense has allowed the fewest points of any team in the NFL. They also rank second in turnover ratio (+12). That said, neither Green Bay nor Detroit are finished.

Uncharacteristically, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have been erratic. Statistically, they have been the very definition of average through Week 10, ranked 23rd in defense (points per game) and 15th in offense (yards per game); but Rodgers has thrown for only 2,410 yards, which ranks outside the top ten. His touchdown-to-interception rate is also uncharacteristically low for a guy who once threw for 45 touchdowns compared to just six interceptions.

The passing attack problems can be partly attributed to a lackluster running game. The rushing attack is in the bottom half of the league, largely because of injuries to their two main halfbacks, Eddie Lacy and James Starks. Lacy, who still leads the team in rushing despite being out since Oct. 16, is on injured reserve after ankle surgery. Starks has also been battling injury, making his first appearance in over a month against Tennessee this weekend. He was limited, however, with only seven carries in the 47-25 thumping by Tennessee.

On a positive note, Rodgers has spread the ball well. He has cornerbacks and safeties frustrated, completing 50 passes each to Jordy Nelson and Davonte Adams, as well as 45 to Randall Cobb. This is easily overshadowed, though, because it is difficult to be offensively relevant without a balanced attack; being one-dimensional, as Green Bay has been (nearly 65 percent of all offensive plays have been passes), allows for effortless defensive play calling and, in turn, minimal offensive success.

Detroit also has considerable strengths. Quarterback, Matthew Stafford, is having arguably the best year of his career. With a completion percentage of 67.3 and a passer rating of 101.6, he is near the top of the league. Similar to Rodgers, Stafford has benefited from widespread production. 15 of his 18 touchdown passes have been to four receivers. The team leader in touchdowns is Anquan Boldin (five), which is important to consider, as he ranks only fourth in total receiving yards on the team. While this is partly a matter of being a reliable red zone target, it also shows that this team is equipped with a number of unique weapons, meaning defenses need to be wary of who they focus on.

It’s not all positive, though. The team’s leading rusher, Theo Riddick, has only 297 yards on the season, which ranks 34th in the league. Defensively, the Lions allow the 10th most yards per game (over 366), and have committed 69 penalties, surpassed by only five other teams. If they aspire to win the division, they need to vary their offensive play calling and be more disciplined defensively. Still, this team is on the rise, having won four of five; the rest of the division is 1-4 over the same span. Now tied for first place (5-4) with Minnesota, there is optimism in Detroit.

With the inconsistencies and streaky performances between the top three teams in the division, the NFC North title is wide open, excluding the 2-7 Bears who have yet to prove they are to be considered. It may be a fight to the very end (and a bitter one) with the winner being decided Week 17, especially since the final week consists exclusively of divisional matchups.


Daniel Varney is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.varney@uconn.edu.