By Dave Campbell
AP Pro Football Writer
Detroit Lions, division champions?
That’s far from a far-fetched scenario. Forget that the Lions finished last in the NFC North in 2012, six games behind the next-closest teams. Matthew Stafford is on pace for a career high in yards passing while taking sacks and throwing interceptions at significantly lower rates than in the past, and Calvin Johnson still the game’s most dangerous wide receiver.
Quarterbacks are the obvious key to success in this sport, so a midseason dissection of this division has naturally centered on each team’s status at the critical position, a situation that took sharp turn for Green Bay on Monday night when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone.
Seneca Wallace, the only backup on the roster, was overwhelmed in relief. If Rodgers misses even a couple of games, the Packers are in for a daunting November, with wide receiver Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley already out with injuries. This offense revolves around Rodgers as much as any NFL team.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to put anyone in there and think they’re going to pick up and run it the way he has run it,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
The balance of power in this division just shifted. The question to be answered during the second half is by how much.
Chicago, missing Jay Cutler due to a torn groin, took advantage of the injury to Rodgers and beat the Packers to pull into a first-place tie with them and the idle Lions. The Bears, for one night at least, proved more prepared than the Packers to handle the loss of their rocket-armed starter. Veteran Josh McCown stepped in with a solid, turnover-free performance to help the Bears improve to just 3-7 in games when Cutler doesn’t start since he arrived in 2009.
Then there are the Vikings, who have turned 2013 into essentially an open quarterback tryout. Christian Ponder has the job back for now, after Josh Freeman wasn’t ready for it, but Ponder has played more like the rookie he was two years ago. Adrian Peterson’s storybook MVP season has given way to a 1-7 mess.
“It’s a terrible feeling. But we’ve got eight more. That’s something to look forward to,” Peterson said.
With the Packers hoping for quick healing, the Bears and Lions salivating at the opportunity to pull ahead of the two-time defending division champion, and Vikings fans poring over top-of-the-draft quarterback prospects for 2014, here are five things to know about the NFC North at the halfway point:
ON THE LINE: Stafford’s connection with Johnson is the best asset the Lions have, and the addition of Reggie Bush has provided more balance, but this is a more productive offense because of the blockers up front. New starters Riley Reiff and Larry Warford have helped strengthen a line that’s allowed a league-low 10 sacks.
IMPROVEMENT NEEDED: Rookie Eddie Lacy has established himself as a powerful alternative to the pass for the Packers, but their primary responsibility with Rodgers out is to play more consistent defense. The return of star linebacker Clay Matthews will help the pass rush, but this group has forced a total of two turnovers over the last five games.
RUSH RESTORATION: The Bears have 14 sacks, more than only four other teams in the league, and five came Monday in victory over the Packers. Shea McClellin had three, including the fateful takedown of Rodgers in the first quarter. Contributions from recently signed defensive tackle Jay Ratliff are welcome on this injury-affected front four.
PETERSON’S PACE: Peterson leads the NFL with 88.9 yards rushing per game, and he’s only 64 yards shy of last year’s midpoint total, but he’d need another stellar finish to sniff Eric Dickerson’s record again. Ponder, and perhaps Freeman, will have more chances to persuade the Vikings not to take a quarterback with their first-round draft pick.
PREDICTED FINISH: As unreliable as it can be to forecast outcomes of NFL games based on current records, the schedule should serve the Packers well for remaining in the race without Rodgers. The problem for them is that the same goes for the Bears and, especially, the Lions. The combined winning percentage of Green Bay’s remaining opponents is .394. Chicago’s is .441. Detroit’s is a paltry .338, including well-timed home games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-8) Nov. 24 and New York Giants (2-6) Dec. 22.
In a cruel twist for a reeling team, the eight foes the Vikings have left tout a current combined mark of .582.
Here’s some second-half symmetry: The Lions, Bears and Packers will each finish 10-6, but the Lions win the tiebreaker for their first division title in 20 years. The Packers claim the NFC’s second wild-card spot and leave the Bears out of the picture for a second straight season. The Vikings find a few more wins to finish 4-12.