Things continued looking up for the Bears, Vikings and Packers in Week Seven after victories over the Lions, Cardinals and Rams, respectively. Chicago has surged to a 5-1 start and occupy first place in the NFC North, while the Vikings are just a smidge behind at 5-2. Green Bay got above .500 for the first time this season and appear to be gearing up for a strong second half of the season. Meanwhile, Detroit continues to falter, dropping to 2-4 on the season.
What follows is our weekly team-by-team take on the state of the NFC North.
What we learned: He played eight seasons without ever receiving the honor once, but Bears CB Charles Tillman is building a case for a second straight trip to the Pro Bowl in his 10th season. He blanketed Lions WR Calvin Johnson, who had been averaging 111.6 yards per game, for much of Monday night and was credited with two passes defensed and two forced fumbles. Johnson was targeted a team-high 11 times. He was able to make only three catches for 34 yards, though. There was some talk before the season that Tillman was losing his fastball at 31 years old, but we have not seen much evidence of it thus far.
What’s in store next: The Bears will greet a team in disarray — the Panthers — at Soldier Field on the heels of owner Jerry Richardson’s firing of GM Marty Hurney. Carolina (1-5) is in terrible shape. It has lost four straight games and is alone at the bottom of the NFC South. QB Cam Newton is moving backward, and an offense that was expected to pack a punch has wasted solid defensive efforts in each of the team’s past two games. A win over the Panthers would give Chicago five wins in a row, equaling the Bears’ longest winning streak from last season and it would also improve Lovie Smith’s record vs. Ron Rivera, his former defensive coordinator, to 2-0. The Bears beat the Panthers, 34-29, at Soldier Field on Oct. 2, 2011.
What the heck? The Bears’ offensive line still looked a lot like a work in progress coming off a Week Six bye. ORT Gabe Carimi’s struggles continued, and the starting offensive line accounted for six penalties in the game (a holding call on Carimi wasn’t enforced because of an offsetting penalty). Even reliable C Roberto Garza was flagged twice for false starts. QB Jay Cutler was sacked five times, including the second-quarter shot he took from DT Ndamukong Suh, who beat ORG Lance Louis badly on the play. The Lions were credited with nine total QB hits. The Bears cannot be sure what they are going to get out of their O-line each week.
What we learned: If the Lions miss the playoffs — and they are sliding down the very beginning stages of that path after a 13-7 loss at Chicago on Monday night — they will have no one to blame but themselves. Turnovers were their undoing on Monday night. RB Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell lost fumbles deep in Chicago territory, with Bell’s fumble coming near the goal line. Before scoring a too-late TD with 30 seconds left to avert a shutout, here’s how the Lions’ red-zone trips went: lost fumble, lost fumble, fourth-down interception. The mistakes didn’t end there; RS Stevan Logan’s lost third-quarter fumble set up a Chicago field goal. At 2-4, the Lions are three games behind Chicago in the NFC North with 10 to play. They are 0-2 in the division, and they are 2-3 in NFC games. They are going to need to start taking care of business in those areas to have any chance at salvaging the season.
What’s in store next: Here’s the good news for the Lions: there’s plenty of time left to regain their footing. A win vs. Seattle (4-3) on Sunday would give them a reasonable shot at being .500 after eight games with a trip to struggling Jacksonville on tap in Week Nine. However, the Seahawks pose some significant challenges for the Lions. Seattle has an outstanding defense, and its cornerbacks have the size to match up well with Calvin Johnson. The Seahawks also have a good deal of playmaking ability on special teams. The Lions’ defense, which allowed a mere 4.3 yards per play in a fine performance on Monday night, should be able to hold its own against the Seahawks’ offense. Could this game come down to the Lions converting in the red zone — and not hurting their cause with mistakes as they too often have early this season?
What the heck? As teams look to stop the Lions’ strong passing game, the Detroit running game must capitalize. The Lions are counting upon Leshoure (12-63-0 in Week Seven) and Bell (3-13-0), and both have been reasonably productive of late. However, ball security is a must for both backs, especially Leshoure, who’s lost a fumble in two of his first four NFL games. The Lions are clearly all-in with Leshoure, who has been their featured back from the moment he was eligible to return from a two-game suspension. This is a great opportunity, and the Lions need him to make the most of it.
What we learned: Fresh off their first two-game win streak of the season, the arrow definitely appears to be pointing up for the Packers after their 30-20 assault of the Rams that capped off a 2-1 road trip. With QB Aaron Rodgers clearly back in an MVP groove — he registered his fourth consecutive 100-plus passer rating (132.2) with 342 yards passing and a 3-0 TD-interception ratio — the offense, which sputtered a bit initially in St. Louis, caught fire in the second half, with WRs Jordy Nelson (second game in a row with 100 receiving yards) and Randall Cobb (8-89-2 receiving), who is looking more and more like the Packers’ answer to the Saints’ Darren Sproles, also coming up with impressive efforts. Don’t look now, but Rodgers’ completion percentage for the season is just below 70 percent (69.8).
What’s in store next: The Packers figure to be huge favorites back at Lambeau Field this Sunday against the lowly Jaguars, who fell to 1-5 in the relatively weak AFC South after a 26-23 loss to the Raiders on the road in overtime. Making matters worse for the Jaguars were the injuries suffered by arguably their two most important players — RB Maurice Jones Drew and QB Blaine Gabbert. Dare we say beware of the classic trap game? The Jaguars, after all, were leading Oakland 20-6 as late as the third quarter on Sunday.
What the heck? We haven’t mentioned the defense, because it was merely adequate against the Rams. Actually, it was less than adequate vs. the run, as the Rams’ RB combo of Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson effectively gouged the middle of a defense missing NT B.J. Raji (ankle) and ILB D.J. Smith (knee, out for season). Looking for more cause for concern? Look no further than the three Rams sacks allowed in the Packers’ first two series, a weak effort by RB Alex Green (only 1.8 yards per carry on 20-35 rushing) and the latest injury to the extremely injury-prone DE Mike Neal (right knee).
What we learned: For years, the Vikings have had their most success when the defense has flown around and Adrian Peterson has chewed up opposing teams, and that formula was good enough — albeit with a few held breaths late — in a 21-14 Vikings victory over the Cardinals to move the team to 5-2 to keep its position near the top of the NFC North. Peterson has been a revelation coming off ACL surgery, but he was at his 2012 best against the Cardinals. He totaled 153 yards with a 13-yard score, but some of his best runs (including his two longest of Sunday: a 22- and a 27-yarder) came when the Vikings were backed up inside their own 20, helping to flip field position. Peterson’s runs accounted for seven of the team’s 10 longest plays — in short, he was the Vikings’ offense.
What’s in store next: It’s a short week, but no travel, as the Vikings host the Buccaneers and a suddenly hot passing game on Thursday night. The Bucs might not be able to stop many teams, but Josh Freeman has been connecting with WRs Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams quite often lately, and the trio came up big again in a loss Sunday to the Saints. If the Vikings’ pass rush (seven sacks Sunday) and coverage (no pass plays of longer than 22 yards allowed; Harrison Smith had an interception return for TD) is up to par, it should be a good matchup of strength vs. strength.
What the heck? QB Christian Ponder is in a slump, and Vikings fans are getting a little antsy. They gave Ponder a Bronx cheer Sunday when he threw a pass away instead of forcing something and seemed to moan whenever the Vikings were in a passing situation. That’s because Ponder was 8-for-17 passing Sunday for 58 yards, with two bad interceptions. The Vikings tried to help him with a series of high-percentage throws in the game, but even those proved tough as Ponder’s accuracy was horrible. He appeared irritated by his own play, which has taken a nosedive recently. After not throwing an interception in the first four games this season, he’s up to seven turnovers (six picks) the past three games. The Vikings need him to get back on track. "It's a good thing to be disappointed when you are 5-2," Ponder said.
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