The NFC North suddenly is fascinating and filled with drama. We examine the factors that will decide the division, Schein Nine style.
1) How the Bears' offense holds up without Jay Cutler
I gasped when I saw Cutler get hurt last Sunday. He had been playing so well and, with new coach Marc Trestman in place, seemed primed to break through and become a franchise quarterback in Chicago. Now he'll be out at least four weeks with a torn groin muscle. And I think the key words are "at least," as that kind of injury usually takes longer to heal.
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The Bears have a history of fading away when Cutler is injured. Make no mistake; this shapes up as a catastrophic, season-altering loss. Cutler and the passing attack were humming, and had the potential to be even better in the second half of the season.
The key for Chicago is to run with Matt Forte. On our "Madden Football" show on SiriusXM Radio, John Madden said the Bears can still compete with backup quarterback Josh McCown. "You have to do it different ways," Madden said. "You need Matt Forte as a runner and pass receiver. You need to score on special teams and defense."
The savvy Trestman must adjust the offense while still making sure his big and physical receivers are weapons. Chicago is 4-3. The Bears have a bye this week, then face the Packers in Green Bay. But after that, they have the Lions, Ravens, Rams -- without Sam Bradford -- and Vikings. They should be able to at least beat the Rams and Vikes, which would put them at 6-6 heading down the stretch.
2) How the Bears' defense holds up without Lance Briggs
This is part of the reason I think the Bears' playoff dreams will come crashing down: Chicago's defensive leader was also hurt against the Redskins, with Briggs suffering a shoulder fracture that will knock him out for as many as six weeks. And it was just the latest injury to hit that unit, which has been playing without D.J. Williams, Henry Melton and Nate Collins.
With Cutler and Briggs missing significant time, the Bears are staring an 8-8 record (at best) in the face -- which is sad, because Chicago had the look of a team that was going to make a legit run to the playoffs.
3) Can the Lions' defense improve?
The Lions have what should be a dominant defensive line, but Detroit's defense as a whole hardly dominates, ranking second-to-last in the NFL in total D and 21st in scoring D.
4) Can Detroit take advantage of its schedule?
After the Cowboys, the Lions get the Bears without Cutler, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Packers on Thanksgiving, the Eagles in Philadelphia and the Baltimore Ravens. Then Detroit finishes out with the New York Giants and Vikings, two teams that just completed the single worst "Monday Night Football" game I've ever seen.
(Madden said the exact same thing about that 'MNF' debacle, and he's seen a lot of football. The game was pathetic. But I digress ...)
In theory, the 4-3 Lions should be favored to win at least six of their final nine games. But is Detroit ready to deal with prosperity?
5) The health of Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush
This factor is only, well, everything.
Calvin's a freak. I can't stop watching that acrobatic touchdown catch in which Johnson out-grappled three Bengals defenders in the end zone last Sunday. He's the greatest receiver in the game, and he changes everything for Matthew Stafford.
6) Matthew Stafford's decision-making
I've been impressed with how Stafford has improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio since last season. After finishing with 20 touchdown passes and 17 picks in 2012, the Lions quarterback had been great, notching 15 scores against just four interceptions. He's making good decisions, completing 61 percent of his passes while throwing the deep ball arguably better than any quarterback in the sport.
Now Stafford needs to keep it going under the pressure that comes with driving for the playoffs.
7) How will Green Bay deal with injuries?
I've always been of the belief that Aaron Rodgers is the Packers' human eraser, eradicating areas of deficiency or injury. While this ability will be tested, I still believe that to be the case. Plus, Eddie Lacy has proven himself a legit NFL running back, providing Mike McCarthy's offense with balance.
I believe the Packers' attack will be more than fine. Rodgers is a mega-star, and this team knows how to play its best when it matters the most.
8) The Packers' defense
Is it overstating things to say Rodgers also can replace and erase on defense (by outscoring the opposition)?
9) Adrian Peterson
The Vikings are a total mess. I didn't have a problem with their decision to start Josh Freeman last Monday, but I did have a problem with the way they took the ball out of Adrian Peterson's hands. I did have a problem with the way they kept Freeman in the game even after it became painfully obvious he couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat. They had to make a change.
However, while I believe the Vikings are toast, they aren't talentless. Peterson is still Peterson; he's still a threat, which means the other three teams in the division still must take Minnesota seriously. And the Vikings' players and coaches will be in "job preservation" mode, surely desiring nothing more than to spoil the dreams of their rivals.
MY CRYSTAL BALL PICK
Peering into the future, I see the Rodgers/McCarthy-led Packers winning the NFC North by a few games -- despite all the injuries -- and nabbing the conference's No. 3 seed.