McGinn: 'Electric' finale pits Packers, Lions

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY – No division in the National Football League was hammered harder by injuries this season than the NFC North.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers runs for a first down past Detroit Lions defender Tahir Whitehead in the third quarter at Lambeau Field in September.

According to Man-Games Lost, the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears ranked 1-2 on the list of teams affected most by player injuries through games of Week 15.

It should be no surprise that the de-facto divisional championship game Sunday night at Ford Field will match the Detroit Lions, who are 15th on the injury impact list, and the Green Bay Packers, who are 21st.

“The two teams that didn’t lose quarterbacks are in the final,” an executive in personnel for one of the NFC North teams said last week. “I think the Lions have been the healthiest team, and when the Packers got healthy look what happened. They started to win.”

The attention of the entire NFL will center on Detroit for the final game of the regular season and, quite possibly, the biggest game the Lions have played in the 15-year history of their downtown domed stadium.

“It’s going to be electric,” said another NFC North personnel man. “You get unquestionably two of the best quarterbacks in the league. (Matthew) Stafford has been just as good as any quarterback this year … but (Aaron) Rodgers is the ultimate eraser.”

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Scouts from the Vikings and Bears took a stab at predicting the outcome. They picked the Packers, 31-24 and 28-17.

“That quarterback (Rodgers) is on fire,” said one personnel man. “He had a lull in the season, there’s no question, and he was part of it. As he goes, so go the Green Bay Packers.”

Last week, for the 23rd year, scouts from the four teams selected the all-NFC North team (it was the all-NFC Central team from 1994-01) during my extended interviews with them.

The scouts were asked to rank the top three players at each position but weren’t allowed to vote for their own players. A first-place vote was worth 3 points, a second-place vote was worth 2 and a third-place vote was worth 1.

Votes were cast for 17 positional categories on offense, 17 on defense and five on special teams.

In preparing the ballot, in most cases I considered only players who played half the games.

It’s a laborious process, to be sure, but because of the patient, thoughtful participation of the personnel people the result is the most accurate measuring stick of players available.

Because the devastating rash of injuries knocked out so many key players from consideration in Minnesota and Chicago, however, the team measurements might be skewed.

“At the end of the year I didn’t even know half of the Bears’ guys,” one scout said jokingly. “Minnesota lost the quarterback, the running back and everything that could go wrong in the offensive line did go wrong.

“That’s the No. 1 theme of the season. The injuries in the division this year had a bigger effect compared to any year I was in it. Maybe that’s why we didn’t fare as well against other divisions.”

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Barring ties on Sunday, the NFC North will finish fifth among the eight divisions with a record of 30-34. Six times in the previous seven seasons the NFC North had a better mark.

The Pro Bowl voting was revealing as well. Whereas the NFC East and AFC West each had 15 players selected, the NFC North finished last with seven: The Vikings had four, the Packers had three.

Last year, when the division tied for fourth with a 34-30 record, it had merely six Pro Bowl picks.

The fact that 45 players (19 for the Bears, 11 for the Vikings, 10 for the Lions and five for the Packers) began the week on injured reserve can’t be discounted. Among players on IR with Pro Bowl capability were Sam Shields and Eddie Lacy in Green Bay; Matt Kalil, Sharrif Floyd and Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota, and Kyle Long in Chicago.

In total points accumulated by individuals in the 39 categories, the Packers led with 246, their same total as a year ago when they finished 13 points behind Minnesota and in second place.

The Lions were second with 239, followed by the Vikings with 233 and the Bears with 218. From 2007-’15, Minnesota had the most points six times.

When it comes to just the 22 starting positions, however, the Packers totaled 146 points compared to 129 for the Vikings, 128 for the Lions and 125 for the Bears.

Of the 22 starters, Green Bay had a division-leading 10 selections (eight on offense) whereas its opponent Sunday night, Detroit, had just one (cornerback Darius Slay). Minnesota was second with seven (six on defense), and Chicago had four.

A year ago, after Lions management fired general manager Martin Mayhew, sources close to the situation said the situation was set up for Green Bay’s Eliot Wolf to replace him. Wolf, however, was denied permission by GM Ted Thompson to interview for the job.

In turn, the Lions hired Bob Quinn, for 16 years one of coach Bill Belichick’s personnel men in New England. It was the first time one of the NFC North teams had brought in someone so closely associated with the Patriots’ method of building and sustaining a team.

Not unlike Belichick, Quinn signed a bevy of veteran free agents to augment what has turned out to be an impressive first draft.

“They needed to get better in the O-line and he addressed that,” said one of the division personnel men. “He got a few vets that were great leader kind of guys, like (Anquan) Boldin. He drafted well. It’s early, but he’s done a pretty good job.”

Other than Stafford, there’s a glaring lack of star power in Detroit. The fact the Lions trailed in the fourth quarter in eight of their nine victories underscored a team concept that overcame the retirement of wide receiver Calvin Johnson exactly two months after Quinn took over.

The Lions’ last division title was in 1993 when, on the last day of the regular season, they upset the slightly favored Packers, 30-20, at the Silverdome. The Packers, who were denied their first division crown since 1972, broke their drought in 1995.

If the Lions, a 3 ½-point underdog, lose to the Packers, it would be their third straight defeat after holding a two-game lead with three to play and leave coach Jim Caldwell with a 27-22 record in three seasons.

“In Detroit, if they miss the playoffs, there could be a head-coaching change,” a division executive said. “I don’t foresee it because of the success they have had so far.”

Barring ties, the loser Sunday night would be out of the postseason if the Washington Redskins, a 7 ½-point favorite, beat the New York Giants at FedEx Field.

“This is the best Detroit’s been in a long time even if they lose,” said one NFC North personnel man. “You couldn’t do that (fire Caldwell), could you?

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“I thought it was the best team I’ve seen them be since Barry Sanders. Did I think they’d be in first place going into the last game of the season? I would have said not a chance.”

The NFC North has sent two teams to the playoffs in six of the last seven years. Only one division, the AFC North, has sent more of its members to the postseason since 2009.

It’s perhaps instructive to remember Thanksgiving night 2013 when Detroit stood 7-5 compared to Green Bay’s 5-6-1 after a 40-10 drubbing of the Packers earlier in the day. One month later the late William Clay Ford fired coach Jim Schwartz after the Lions finished 0-4 and out of the playoffs.

His widow, Martha Firestone Ford, has promised and so far delivered a new, more aggressive way of doing business in Detroit.

That season was culminated by the Packers’ last-second, 33-28 victory over the Bears in a winner-take-all finale at Soldier Field. This will be the fourth straight season in which the NFC North has been decided on the last Sunday, and the Packers have won two of the first three.

“They’re one of the model franchises in the NFL today,” an NFC North executive said. “The Packers are the Packers. It’s a big challenge to be in their division.”

Green Bay’s five-game winning streak all but insures that the top positions in the football department will remain the same for 2017 and beyond.

“Ted’s there to stay, I think, until he decides not to,” said one personnel man. “With Ted and the coaching staff and the quarterback Green Bay’s always going to be good.”

This will be the 175th meeting between the Packers and Lions dating to 1930 when the Detroit franchise was located in Portsmouth, Ohio. By winning, the Packers would claim their 100th victory in the series and fifth NFC North crown in the last six years.

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