By Chris Burke
October 14, 2013

Green Bay's defense could prove to be the X-Factor in the NFC North. Green Bay's defense could prove to be the X-Factor in the NFC North. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/MCT via Getty Images)

The NFC West is again set up for a race to the finish line, between at least Seattle and San Francisco. The AFC West also has an intriguing battle ongoing up top, with 6-0 Denver and 6-0 Kansas City scrapping for the top spot. And the NFC East, AFC South and AFC North all are set up to deliver some drama over the season's final 11 weeks.

It is in the NFC North, however, that the fiercest fight for first place might ensue. The Vikings have fallen out of contention early with a 1-4 start, but the Bears, Lions and Packers all appear to have what it takes to hang in the playoff conversation, meaning that the Black and Blue Division should be drama-filled from here on out.

The Bears improved to 4-2 Thursday night by fending off the winless Giants. Detroit joined them at that spot Sunday, courtesy of a road win in Cleveland. The Packers sit a half-game back at 3-2, but they earned the most impressive NFC North victory of the weekend, on the road in Baltimore.

Circle Nov. 4-10 on your calendars. The Bears travel to Green Bay on the 4th for a Monday nighter, then turn around to host the Lions in what could be a defining stretch. Detroit and Green Bay then clash in the Motor City on Thanksgiving Day, before the Bears and Packers wrap the season in a Week 17 meeting at Soldier Field.

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The wild card in all this: Green Bay's defense. It's a group lost in the NFC North conversations behind talks of Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson, Jay Cutler, Chicago's own turnover-forcing D and the Lions' defensive front. But the Packers finished 11th last season in points allowed, and they're riding two straight strong performances -- a 22-9 win over the Calvin Johnson-less Lions; and a 19-17 victory over the Ravens, in which Green Bay's defense thrived despite not having Clay Matthews Jr.

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It was a terrific week for the NFC North's top teams. Who else got the job done (or hit the skids) in Week 6?

First Down: Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis.

Kaepernick really has yet to settle into the type of groove that he found last season during San Francisco's Super Bowl run. Part of that may be attributable to Davis struggling to get to 100 percent for much of the year.

He played at full gear in Sunday's 32-20 win over Arizona, and Kaepernick found him early and often en route to 180 yards receiving.

"We knew he'd be a mismatch," Kaepernick said afterward.

Was he ever. And boy, did the 49ers need him to be. Kaepernick looked Davis' way on 11 of his 29 passes. The only other 49er to see more than two targets all day was Anquan Boldin, who finished with three catches for 28 yards. Obviously, the Kaepernick-led attack still has work to do, but getting Davis fully involved would be a significant step in the right direction.

Fourth Down: Baltimore's run game.

Not the first time Baltimore's backs have received a thumbs down in this space ... and it won't be the last, if they continue at their current pace. Green Bay now has a top-five run defense after its showing in Sunday's 19-17 win, but the Ravens simply have to find a way to get Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce on track.

Prior to a 10-yard run by Rice late in the first half, the Ravens' leading rusher was QB Joe Flacco, at six yards. Up until that point Rice and Pierce had combined for five yards on 11 carries. They finished the day with 43 yards on 20 attempts (34 yards for Rice, nine for Pierce). We've seen time and again that the Ravens cannot win that way.

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First Down: The Indianapolis Colts.

The Colts don't even take the field until Monday night in San Diego. But they still received a bump Sunday as more evidence confirmed that they're the class of the AFC South. All three of Indianapolis' division rivals fell in Week 6: Jacksonville in Denver, Tennessee in Seattle and reeling, imploding Houston at home to St. Louis. The Titans could pull back within a game of first if Indianapolis falls in San Diego, but they're 0-2 without injured starting QB Jake Locker.

Fourth Down: Health insurance rates for Buffalo's QBs.

It's hard to see the forest for the trees in Buffalo's rebuilding project, because the team cannot keep a healthy QB on the field. The Bills lost EJ Manuel last week to a knee injury, which will sideline him for more than a month; his replacement, Thaddeus Lewis, delivered a spark in a near-upset of Cincinnati Sunday, only to leave the stadium in a walking boot with a foot sprain.

The Bills absolutely do not want to start undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel, who looked awful in relief of Manuel back in Week 5, so another new QB (Matt Flynn?) could be under center next Sunday.

First Down: Nick Foles.

Maybe the Eagles have a quarterback controversy. Or maybe they're just in an ideal situation, with a pair of QBs capable of executing in a tricky offense. Foles delivered a gem Sunday with Michael Vick out of the lineup, throwing for 296 yards and three touchdowns against a previously stout Tampa Bay defense. The Eagles now have two straight wins under their belt and are tied for first in the East, heading into a home back-to-back against 3-3 Dallas and 0-6 New York.

Will it be Foles or Vick at quarterback for those key intra-divisional games? It may not matter for a Philadelphia team that's found its footing.

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Fourth Down: The Saints' conservative approach.

The Saints threw the ball on a 3rd-and-7 with 2:33 left in Sunday's fourth quarter, and it proved to be a costly incompletion to Marques Colston -- one that stopped the clock and saved the Patriots a timeout. A running play in that spot might have been the correct course of action.

The circumstances were different, though, when New Orleans got the ball back just a few seconds later after a Tom Brady turnover. New Orleans took over possession with 2:16 left and one timeout remaining in Bill Belichick's pocket (plus the two-minute warning). The Saints knew that they would have to give the ball back to Brady if they could not pick up a first down. They still didn't even really try to move the chains, instead running twice before having Drew Brees keep it on a third-down bootleg.

That conservative approach left the Patriots with 1:13 to march 70 yards for a game-winning touchdown. Another incompletion on that final possession would have been ill-timed, but the Saints' offense is built around Brees' passing. Playing it safe backfired.

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First Down: BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Gio Bernard.

Bernard's work on the ground was less than stellar Sunday (15 carries for 28 yards). Green-Ellis picked up the slack there, with 86 yards on 18 carries. Bernard, meanwhile, racked up 72 yards on receptions, including a shifty second-quarter TD to put the Bengals up 10 in Buffalo. Green-Ellis and Bernard continue to grow as a combo, threatening to take the Bengals' offense to the next level.

Fourth Down: Any team that has to deal with Kansas City's defense.

The Broncos-Chiefs matchups later this season will be fascinating simply from the perspective of how Peyton Manning deals with Kansas City's defense. Oakland's Terrelle Pryor did not fare so well on Sunday.

The Raiders' QB took 10 sacks and fired three interceptions, capped off by a late, game-sealing pick-six, in a 24-7 loss. The Chiefs' offense continues to be a little humdrum, but the defense is as good as it gets in the NFL.

First Down: Justin Blackmon.

Yes, the Jaguars lost ... again. A little appreciation is due, though, for what Blackmon has done offensively since returning from a four-game suspension. Chad Henne threw his way 20(!!) times on Sunday, connecting for 14 completions and 190 yards. That effort came on the heels of a 136-yard outburst in Week 5. Blackmon missed a quarter of the season and yet has put himself on a near 2,000-yard pace.

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Fourth Down: Backup quarterbacks.

Let's see here ...

T.J. Yates finally got a shot in Houston, only to throw a pair of interceptions (including another Texans pick-six). Tennessee's Ryan Fitzpatrick, in for Jake Locker, fired two INTs of his own in a loss at Seattle. Thaddeus Lewis showed well for the Bills, only to come up short against Cincinnati. Matt Cassel and Chad Henne both ended up on the losing end Sunday. Mike Glennon, now the firm No. 1 QB in Tampa Bay, fell short too in his second start after replacing Josh Freeman.

Only Nick Foles shined among the formerly No. 2 QBs, getting his Eagles an important win in Tampa Bay.

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