How the (NFC) North was won
It was obvious long before it was official Monday night. Chicago Bears players and coaches celebrated for much of the fourth quarter of a romp over the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium, finally breaking out their "Division Champions" caps with about three minutes remaining in a 40-14 victory.
How did it happen? How did the Bears become the first NFL team to win its division, locking down a title before the New England Patriots (12-2) and Atlanta Falcons (12-2), among others?
The collapse of the Minnesota Vikings this season has, uh, been well-chronicled on this blog. So let's examine the most relevant question: How did the Bears beat out the Green Bay Packers, the trendy and near-consensus preseason pick to win the NFC North?
I have a few ideas:
On more than a few occasions, we noted that the road to the NFC North title would go through Detroit. That sentiment was based mostly on a schedule that would bring the division's other three teams to Ford Field within the final five weeks of the season.
From a pure tiebreaker standpoint, that's exactly how it worked out. What had been a virtual tie for most of the season turned in Weeks 13 and 14. The Bears came back for a 24-20 victory over the Lions on Dec. 5, and the Packers lost in Detroit 7-3 the following week. The resulting disparity in each team's division record made it impossible for the Packers to overtake the Bears in the final two weeks of the season.
So the Bears' season sweep of the Lions -- a prerequisite for the past six division titles -- directly accounted for their early opportunity to clinch. The past seven NFC North champions have swept the Lions.
Packers fans will note that both Bears-Lions games included a highly debatable fourth-quarter officiating call: Calvin Johnson's non-touchdown in Week 1 and Ndamukong Suh's personal foul in Week 13. But, as we'll see, the Packers had other opportunities to make up for that disadvantage.
Both teams entered the season with essentially all of their intended starters in their respective positions. Injuries are a part of the NFL, but there is no debating the Bears have been far less afflicted this season than the Packers.
The Bears' Week 1 starters have missed a total of 10 games this season; not one of those starters has missed more than four. The Packers have lost 69 games by my count, including 13 for tailback Ryan Grant and nine for tight end Jermichael Finley. Three of their four starting linebackers are lost for the season, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has suffered two concussions and overall the Packers have placed 15 players on their injured reserve list.
The Bears and Packers have fielded two of the NFL's top defenses this season. Their offenses have been less consistent but productive in their own contexts. On special teams, however, the Bears have maintained a huge advantage.
Football Outsiders evaluates special teams based on five categories -- field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kick returns, punts and punt returns -- and then compares them to the league average to develop leaguewide rankings. Based on that method, the Bears have the NFL's top special-teams group. The Packers rank No. 29.
The Bears' Devin Hester has returned three punts for touchdowns, and all of them have come at critical times. One accounted for nearly a third of the Bears' points in their key 20-17 victory over the Packers in Week 3, and another helped seal the division-clinching victory last Monday over the Vikings.
But Hester's scores tell only part of the story. The Bears rank second in the NFL in the average start position of their drives, a tribute to the kickoff returns of Hester and Danieal Manning. Meanwhile, place-kicker Robbie Gould is tied for ninth in the NFL with 15 touchbacks on kickoffs. (The Packers' Mason Crosby is tied for No. 29 with three.)
On the other hand, special-teams miscues and/or poor coverage have played substantial roles in at least four Packers losses this season -- to the Bears, Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots. The Packers never settled on a kickoff returner after waiving Will Blackmon, and punt returner Tramon Williams has averaged 7.9 yards per return (15th in the NFL). Finally, the Packers have the NFL's second-worst kickoff coverage in the NFL, as measured by the average start of their opponents' drives this season.
The Packers made huge strides after leading the NFL with 118 penalties last season. Through 14 games this year, they rank No. 28 with 71 accepted penalties. But 18 of them came in one game, their Week 3 loss to the Bears, and was the most important factor in the game. In a three-point margin of defeat, the Packers lost a touchdown and two takeaways to penalties. Further, a late-game pass interference penalty against rookie safety Morgan Burnett put the Bears in position for Gould's 19-yard winning field goal.
The Packers have averaged about four penalties in their other 13 games. But their mistake-filled performance against what turned out to be their primary division competitor was an early indication of a recurring poise issue. Namely...
The Bears are 3-2 in games decided by four points or fewer this season. The Packers are 2-6. Four of those losses came down to the game's final play or last 10 seconds of regulation. Each had its own circumstances, but ultimately the Packers' margin of error this season was too thin to come up short routinely in close games.
You won't win all of them, but more often than not, a division winner has to do what the Bears did in Week 13 against the Lions: Score the go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, get a defensive stop, and then run out the rest of the clock to clinch the game.
The Packers still have a clear path to a wild-card playoff berth. But this season, the Bears were the better and more fortunate team in a handful of key areas. It didn't take much, but it was enough for the Bears to be the NFL's only team to bring their fan base an early Christmas present.