There’s an Insider article asking whether the Lions have the inside edge to the NFC North title. The main points (about the only points, really) are that the Lions have a pretty easy schedule the rest of the way and the Bears and Packers are dealing with injuries. I thought I would take a closer look with Luigi’s predictions and rankings.
Team Quality: Let’s start with the obvious. The Packers, Bears, and Lions all have four wins but they are not equally good teams. According to the model rankings, the Packers are actually the second-best team in the league right now, a bit above Seattle but well below Denver. Chicago and Detroit are closer together but the Bears are a little better; the Vikings are fifth-worst in the league. So everything being equal, you would have to give the division race to the Packers.
Degree of difficulty: Of course, everything isn’t equal. If you look at the season predictions in the last post, the Packers, Lions, and Bears are all pegged for about 9 wins if they played the whole season over. Why, if the Packers are so much better? Because of strength of schedule. As the ESPN article notes, the Lions are going to have it pretty easy relative to the rest of the division. Since this is important, let’s break it down. With the Vikings basically already out of the race, I’ll focus on the other three.
Games in the Bag: The Packers are 4-2 and have had their bye. They lost in San Francisco and Cincinnati and have beaten Washington, Detroit, Baltimore (on the road), and Cleveland. That’s a relatively tough schedule as far as it goes, and they have a win over the Lions already. The Bears are 4-3 and have also already played Detroit and Washington (both on the road, both losses) and Cincinnati (a win). They also lost to the Saints but beat Minnesota, Pittsburgh (on the road), and the Giants. The Lions have road losses to Green Bay and Arizona to go with last week’s home loss to Cincinnati, and victories over Minnesota, Chicago, Cleveland, and Washington (the last two on the road). As far as Luigi is concerned, all three have performed about as expected. The Packers have been a tiny bit lucky and the Bears a tiny bit unlucky, but four wins for each is pretty reasonable. But the upside is that as it stands, the Packers have the advantage since they’ve lost one fewer game.
AFC Match-ups: These games count in the win column obviously, but won’t affect any tie breakers. The Packers still have Pittsburgh, which shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. The Bears have Baltimore, which is tougher. The Lions have both, with the Steelers game being on the road. The NFC North teams should be favored, if narrowly, in each game.
At this point you have to start getting into the injury and team strength issues. Even with a harder schedule, the Packers might have a better time since they’re the better team. The Bears are going to have rough sledding with Jay Cutler out. That affects two divisional games (which we haven’t gotten to yet) and the Baltimore game. So I think the order of benefit here is Packers, then a drop to the Bears, then a bit of a drop to the Lions just because they have two games and one is on the road. Overall we would have a current order of Packers, Bears, Lions.
NFC Non-Division Games: In order, the Packers have the Eagles, at the Giants, Atlanta, and at Dallas. Dallas and Atlanta are rated as fairly decent, so those could be challenges (especially on the road for the Cowboys). The Eagles and Giants should be less of a threat, but they still have to play the games. The Bears are at St. Louis, Dallas, at Cleveland, and at Philly. Relative to the Pack, the Bears have a leg up by having Dallas at home and Philly on the road, since they get the stronger team at home and the weaker on the road. Even on the road, Chicago has an advantage with Cleveland compared to Atlanta, although going to St. Louis isn’t as good as going to play the Giants. But overall you have to give the nod to the Bears for the easier slate. Finally, the Lions get Dallas, Tampa, at Philly, and the Giants. Getting the Cowboys at home is ahead of the Pack and even with the Bears; at the Eagles is the same; getting the Giants at home is better than Green Bay (playing them on the road) and the Bears (I matched up with a Rams road game); and Tampa at home is better than Green Bay’s Atlanta or Chicago’s Cleveland road game.
If Cutler misses an extra week or is just rusty when he returns, that affects the Rams game. St. Louis is bad enough that it might not matter, but it still makes the game harder. So in terms of benefit the order for this section is Lions, Bears, Packers. Since we have more games in this section, the Lions’ benefit is bigger than the Bears’ in the AFC games, so I think the division favorite order now is Packers, Lions, Bears.
Division Games: The Packers still have a home and home with Minnesota and Chicago and a Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit. It seems reasonable that they would go 3-2 or 4-1 with some chance of 2-3. With the win over Detroit, that would put them at somewhere between 3-3 and 5-1, with 4-2 seeming fairly likely. The Bears have the home and home with Green Bay, a trip to Minnesota, and Detroit at home. They could probably go 1-3 or 2-2; they’re going to be missing Cutler for Detroit and a trip to Green Bay. I’m willing to give them the Vikings and either the week 17 Packers game (if things go well or Green Bay is resting) or Detroit, but I don’t see them getting both. With their 1-1 record, that adds up to 2-4 or 3-3. That leaves the Lions with only three games, at Chicago and Minnesota and the Packers at home. They should be able to go 2-1 or 3-0 if they manage to regain some Thanksgiving magic. They’re already 2-1, so that would put them at 4-2 or 5-1. So in the division games, you would go Packers and Lions about even followed by the Bears.
Of course, all this is somewhat abstract without any hard numbers to put on things. How much of an advantage does Green Bay have over Baltimore compared to Chicago? How does Detroit versus Tampa really compare to Chicago traveling to Cleveland? I turn to Luigi and the expected remaining wins for that. Green Bay is at 6.5, which would match up with a 3-2 division record the rest of the way, a win over Pittsburgh, and a 2-2 or 3-1 record in other NFC games. Chicago only has 4.7, and that isn’t counting Cutler’s injury (which the model doesn’t know about). But that would be something like 2-2 in other NFC games, 2-2 in the division, and a toss-up against the Ravens. The Lions have 5.2 wins left, which would be maybe a split in the AFC, 2-1 in the division, and 2-2 or 3-1 in the other NFC games. More importantly, it puts the expected final record at 10 or 11 wins for Green Bay, 9 or 10 (but more likely 9) for Detroit, and 8 or 9 (but, especially with Cutler’s injury, more likely 8) for the Bears.
It might be close, and they obviously still have to play the games, but you have to give the NFC North edge to the Packers. Unless things go wrong the Lions will be in the hunt, especially with a friendly end to the season with the Giants and Vikings, but they probably aren’t quite good enough to get the title. If they manage to win that Thanksgiving Day game though? Things could get interesting.