CHICAGO — The Bears beat the Vikings in an important NFC North game and one that kept the pressure on the Packers in the division race.
But did the Bears’ win come at a serious price?
The walking wounded following the game, impacting the defense, offense and special teams seriously:
- CB Charles Tillman, stripper of ball, hurt his ankle in the first half.
- OLs Lance Louis and Chris Spencer, parts of a new O-line brigade this week, both went down. Re-enter benched Gabe Carimi, who slid inside from right tackle to Louis’ ORG spot.
- RB Matt Forté walked off very gingerly following an ankle injury — the same ankle he injured in Week Two against the Packers, which caused him to miss Week Three — and didn’t return.
- RS-WR Devin Hester, a noted Vikings killer, left with a concussion before he could make his mark.
Typically tight-lipped Bears head coach Lovie Smith offered few answers about the Bears’ sudden rash of injuries.
“I normally don’t write down injuries on a sheet, but there were so many I had to remember them all,” Smith said. “Don’t know the extent of the injuries, except they were unable to come back in the game.”
Still, there were a ton of positives for the Bears, no doubt. As many as there were negatives for the Vikings.
QB Jay Cutler was mostly excellent. The offensive line, using a lot of six- and seven-man protections, held up despite Spencer and Louis going down. Had anyone else been hurt, it would have been a defensive player lining up on the offensive line. WR Brandon Marshall (12-92 receiving, six catches in each half) was his garden-variety standard of great, but his running mates were solid, too. Every Cutler pass not thrown to Marshall or TE Kellen Davis, a total of 10 passes, was caught — think about that a second.
The Bears won the third-down battle Sunday. They were 11-of-19 on offense (and were 10-for-14 at one point) and held the Vikings to 6-of-16, a few of those conversions occurring in garbage time. It was a diet of short passes, mostly, too: The Bears had one gain of longer than 17 yards, and other than a fourth-quarter post pattern that fell incomplete, they seldom attempted passes longer than the first-down marker.
“We were in third-and-short all day,” Vikings DE Jared Allen said. “The ball was out quick. We got some pressures, got (Cutler) off his spots, but if it’s not third-and-8 (or more), they don’t have to send people down the field. They barely threw the ball longer than eight yards all game.”
Over and over again, the Bears ran slant after quick slant, and Marshall seemed to catch nearly every one of them. He routinely got clean releases off the line and beat the Vikings’ DBs to his spot.
“I’m not the fastest guy. I don’t jump the highest. So one of the things my father taught me: use my body, be crafty,” Marshall said. “I don’t run the best routes, but I’m really confident and put myself in the position where I can be quarterback-friendly.”
The Vikings, on the other hand, were quarterback-unfriendly. They were gifted an early turnover when Forté coughed it up, running into his own lineman, on the Bears’ first offensive play and giving it to the Vikings on the Bears’ 28-yard line. But the Vikings only could kick a field goal when Christian Ponder couldn’t connect with Kyle Rudolph and when Jerome Simpson dropped a slant that would have picked up the first down.
“I played terrible today,” Simpson said, foreshadowing another drop later in the game. “I just let the team down, especially in the red zone. Those are catches I am supposed to make.”
After a punt on their second possession, the Bears took control. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson fumbled and the Bears scored 25 points — including a designed two-point play drawn up for P Adam Podlesh — on their next four possessions. A key second-quarter penalty in the endzone moved the ball from the Vikings’ 25-yard line to their 1. The Bears scored one play later and never really looked back after the Podlesh direct snap that made it 18-3.
“That’s a big body I’m dealing with,” Winfield said of his pass-interference penalty on Marshall. “The ref said after the play that he saw me grab (Marshall’s) one arm. I thought it was on him, honestly.”
The Vikings were buried from that point. They are not built to play from down three scores, even as early in the game, relatively speaking, as it was. The fact that Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier opted not to attempt a field goal down 28-10 with 14 minutes remaining tells you all you need to know: he thought there was little chance they’d get back there.
“I felt like we were doing good enough on defense at that point that I felt like if we get a touchdown, we’d have a good chance to get this thing where we wanted,” Frazier said. “Of course, that didn’t happen.”
The Bears came out of the game in a stronger position at 8-3 but wracked with injuries. Considering how lucky they have been up to this point with their health, only losing Forté (the first time) and Cutler for a game apiece after last year’s late-season debacle, the Bears should have been bracing for this kind of pyrrhic game.
So, too, in another respect should have the 6-5 Vikings, who have lived dangerously with their offense all season. They lack the firepower (especially without WR Percy Harvin) to come back from two-score deficits, much less 22-point holes.
We’ll find out which team can come out of this game in better shape. The Bears stay home against the Seahawks, the Vikings head to Green Bay, and the two teams face off again in Minnesota in two weeks.
“I look forward to it,” Peterson said. “We have to gear up these next two weeks.”
Pick-sixes becoming routine
Rams CB Janoris Jenkins became only the fourth rookie — and only the first since 1960 — to return two interceptions for touchdowns in Week 12. But we should have expected that feat to be matched in this, the season of the pick-six.
I recently wrote about the slew of blocked punts this season, and it really has been a phenomenon compared to recent years past. But the number of TD returns off interceptions is shockingly high, as well. With Jenkins’ two, the 49ers’ two against the Saints (Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner) and one from the Steelers’ Lawrence Timmons, the season total for pick-sixes is now up to 50.
According the ESPN, the record for a season is 59 — and we’re way ahead of that pace. At an average of 4½ per week, the number could pass 60 with a few weeks left in the season.
It’s a passing league, clearly, and defenses are countering that by putting more defensive backs on the field. But just because it’s a QB-driven game now doesn’t mean that every quarterback is playing at a sublime level. There are 13 first- and second-year quarterbacks now playing, with San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, Philadelphia’s Nick Foles and Arizona’s Ryan Lindley having been added to the list recently.
Of the eight rookie quarterbacks to throw passes this season, only Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have more TD passes than interceptions. As a group, the rookie QBs have 67 TDs and 59 INTs. Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton had another big game Sunday and is having a strong second season, but the second-year QBs are getting picked often, too. Dalton, Cam Newton, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Kaepernick and T.J. Yates (in mop-up duty) have thrown a combined 42 INTs.
Going young at QB has caused some risky play. Opportunistic defenses are taking advantage.
Giants ready for late-season swell?
The Giants’ domination of the Packers begs the question: Are they ready to dominate everyone else too?
This is traditionally a bit early for their late-season run, as they have remained spotty well into December, even in their Super Bowl-winning seasons. And that’s what’s fascinating about them: Win or lose in the end, the Giants are a combined 10-11 the past five Decembers since their eventual title season of 2007, with many of those games exhibiting a wide range of extremes. Some of those losses appeared devastating at the time (anyone remember Redskins 23, Giants 10 last December?) and other flourish games have appeared to foretell impending greatness only to end in disappointment.
The long and short of it? The Packers’ 38-10 victory was a great sign. It relieved a lot of the pre-bye concerns that lasted longer than the two-game losing streak coming in. Eli Manning had a great game. Victor Cruz got back on track. Ahmad Bradshaw was huge. The pass rush was revived in a big way. The secondary was great after a few early glitches. It was all there — all the ingredients the Giants culled to go on a championship run a year ago.
But the beat must go on. There’s a lot left to happen before the Giants can feel secure about things. The division lead is two games, but the Redskins (next week’s opponent in Washington) remain dangerous. The Giants’ other upcoming games against the Saints, Falcons and Ravens (with the latter two on the road) especially look tough.
Based on their past, just getting into the playoffs should be enough for the Giants. January has become their Happy Hunting Grounds. But we know better than to make too much of one dismantling of a team, even as good as the Packers are. After all, how many people are talking about the Packers’ blasting of the Texans back in Week Six? That game seems like ancient history. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin will make sure his Giants put this one behind them, even as happy as he surely is with the result.