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The Pro Football Notebook


December 19, 2010 6:15 AM

Injuries Derail Prime-Time Showdowns

RodgersInjured.jpgTwo weeks ago the prime-time schedule for this week looked awfully good, starting on Sunday night with Green Bay-New England (8:20 ET, NBC) and finishing on Monday night with Chicago-Minnesota (8:30 ET, ESPN). It would be the kickoff of a great race for the NFC North title, with New England fighting for the AFC East and Brett Favre looking to make one more big performance on the national stage. Then Favre got hurt...now Aaron Rodgers is hurt...and the Patriots have pulled away from the Jets. Instead of the beginning of an NFC North closing push, the odds now say we'll see the end of it. If Green Bay loses in Foxboro, while Chicago wins outdoors in Minneapolis, the Bears lock up the division title.

Green Bay's passing game, when at full strength, matches up well with the New England secondary. The latter has been a troublesome unit throughout the year and both Greg Jennings and Donald Driver are playing good football right for the Packers. Even in noting Rodgers' absence, we should also note that Matt Flynn played reasonably efficiently in Detroit last Sunday and now he'll have a full week of basically knowing he would start. The considerable downside to this rosy scenario is that being efficient in Detroit is different than being efficient in New England and that even if Flynn provides efficiency, the Packers are accustomed to their quarterback providing much more--is it ironic that just six days after Brett Favre's consecutive games streak ends, a string directly related to it--consecutive games the Packers have had their starting quarterback in the lineup--also falls? Green Bay's about to learn how the other half lives and defensive mastermind Bill Belichick is undoubtedly going to come out with an array of looks to disguise his secondary's problems and plant confusion in Flynn's mind. And that's the least of the Packer problems--there's one quarterback who is healthy Sunday night and his name is Tom Brady. While Green Bay's cornerback tandem of Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams is outstanding, the Pack is vulnerable to the tight end...exactly what Brady likes to do. I won't be surprised if Green Bay hangs around in this one for a while because of their defense and their receivers, but it's only a matter of time before the dam breaks. Let's call it 27-10 for the Patriots.

The Bears-Vikings game will be outdoors at the University of Minnesota due to the roof cave-in at the Metrodome. Both teams are going to want to run the ball--Chicago's second-half surge, and that of quarterback Jay Cutler, has been directly related to the Bears' commitment to the ground game with Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz must resist the urge to try and put Minnesota away quickly and let the game develop patiently. The Vikes can run the ball with Adrian Peterson, but eventually rookie Joe Webb will have to make some plays if they're going to win the game. Ultimately, as long as Chicago doesn't force the issue, Cutler will easily outplay Webb down the stretch, the Bear defense will pick up some critical turnovers and Chicago will pull away, 31-14.

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The NFC South looks to be headed to the dynamic finish the North once promised. New Orleans is right on Atlanta's heels, one game back and the two rivals have a big head-to-head game going a week from Monday. Before that, they have business to take care of and the Saints in particular can't afford to be peeking around the corner. They travel to Baltimore for a big-time showdown with the Ravens. Like the Bears, New Orleans has really been clicking lately because the ground game has been working. Chris Ivory picked up the slack with injuries and now both Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush are back. The latter also gives Drew Brees another weapon to work with. This will be a true clash of wills with the Baltimore defense. The Saints will want to spread the field and pick on the vulnerable Raven corners. Baltimore will want to come after Brees with pressure and force the mistakes that he's been more prone to this year than last. As tantalizing this matchup is, I suspect it comes out a wash, with both teams making their share of plays. At issue here are two intangibles--how well will Baltimore bounce back after playing an overtime game on Monday night, and how well will New Orleans handle the road in a cold-weather place? Baltimore's ability to handle late leads is becoming a bigger issue with each passing week, but I think they'll get another chance at having one on Sunday and they'll sneak out with a win, 26-24.

Atlanta visits Seattle, a game that is an absolute mismatch on paper, as the Seahawks look to be coming apart at the seams. Their only hope to establish some kind of running game with Marshawn Lynch and hope that Atlanta's looking ahead. That's a very thin reed to base any hopes on, and the Falcons will roll to an easy victory. The third contender in the South is Tampa Bay, still very much in the wild-card race and they host Detroit. The Bucs will need to get LeGarrette Blount established in the running game and keep the Lions' potentially devastating pass rush from the defensive front honest. I don't see much hope for the Lions moving the ball effectively--Calvin Johnson will get his catches against a bend-but-don't break defense, but Tampa wraps up well after the catch and even though the Buc run defense can be a little suspect, the Lions don't have the ability to exploit that. On top of all that, Detroit should be a little drained after finally getting an elusive victory last week, against division rival Green Bay no less. Tampa keeps its hopes churning with a 20-10 win.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in the NFL, coverage of college basketball.  and bowl commentary in college football. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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