NFC North: NFC North

Chad Greenway inactive for Vikings

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Hello, for the last time in 2014, from TCF Bank Stadium, where the Minnesota Vikings will close out their season against the Chicago Bears. It's projected to be 18 degrees at kickoff (hold all tickets for possible certificates of participation), and the Vikings will try to win their first NFC North game this season against a Bears team that could start looking for a new coach tomorrow.

The Vikings will finish their season without linebacker Chad Greenway, who was listed as questionable on Friday but will not play on Sunday with a knee injury. Greenway, who sustained the injury last Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, had hoped to play on Sunday, at the end of an emotional week where he said goodbye to his father, Alan, but he'll have to watch from the sideline. Time will tell whether the linebacker gets back to Minnesota for another game.

He's got an $8.8 million cap figure in 2015, turns 32 in January and would likely have to take a pay cut to finish out his contract with the Vikings. Greenway has said he's willing to renegotiate his contract, and his leadership has been valuable to the Vikings' defense this season. The Vikings will have to decide whether they want to bring him back when Gerald Hodges appears ready to step into a starting role. Regardless of what happens after Sunday, it's a tough way for a classy pro like Greenway to see his season end.

The Vikings also won't have linebacker Brandon Watts, meaning they'll have to shuffle their group of linebackers. Practice-squad addition Josh Kaddu is active and he'll likely play behind Hodges, Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole. Running back Henry Josey is inactive after the Vikings added him to their roster this week. Instead, the Vikings will have fullback Zach Line active for the first time this season.

Here is the Vikings' full list of inactives:
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers say they're a different offense with a different running game than they were at Ford Field three months ago, when the Detroit Lions shut them down.

The Lions? They're the same.

What looked like a stout run defense back in Week 3 has proven to be the best in the league. Only one team -- and not a single running back -- has rushed for more than 100 yards against them this season.

And it wasn't the Packers.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesEddie Lacy managed just 36 yards and the Packers only netted 76 yards as a team in the first meeting of the season with Detroit.
They didn't come close in their 19-7 loss Sept. 21.

Running back Eddie Lacy managed just 36 yards (his second-lowest total of the season) on 11 carries, and the Packers totaled just 76 yards on the ground, which is actually more than the Lions' season average of just 63.8 rushing yards allowed per game -- a figure that puts them on pace for the sixth-best total in NFL history.

So what makes the Packers think they will have any success running the ball against the league's No. 1-ranked rushing defense Sunday at Lambeau Field?

"We didn't have an identity Week 3," Packers left guard Josh Sitton said. "It always seems to take us awhile to get going and figure out who we are. Some teams come out right away and have their identity. It always takes us longer. We know who we are now, and we feel confident."

Coming out of the Lions' game, the Packers ranked 26th in rushing yards and 22nd in yards per carry (3.63). In the 12 games since, the Packers rank eighth in the league in rushing yards, and only two teams have bettered their yards-per-carry average of 4.61 in that stretch.

Then again, they haven't faced a run defense like Detroit's in months.

"Obviously they're good," Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "But we didn't play very well. You go back and watch the film, there wasn't enough finish early on in the year there. We just didn't play well. We just didn't play well enough to beat that team, so we're going to need to up our game quite a bit."

It's easy to put the onus Sunday on the offensive line -- and that group has willingly accepted it this week -- but it runs deeper. The Packers' tight ends bear almost as much responsibility in the run game. Consider what happened in the second quarter of the first meeting against the Lions. With the Packers backed up on their own 1-yard line, they tried to run Lacy off right tackle to get some breathing room. Defensive end Jason Jones overpowered rookie tight end Richard Rodgers, and when right guard T.J. Lang tried to help, it left a gaping hole for linebacker DeAndre Levy to dump Lacy for a safety.

With the likes of Jones, Ndamukong Suh, Ziggy Ansah and Nick Fairley controlling the line of scrimmage, it allowed Levy to run free and pile up 10 tackles.

The impact was this: Because the running game failed, it put the Packers in third-and-long situations that Aaron Rodgers could not convert.

"I think we had 54 plays in the game, that's not going to cut it," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We obviously have to be productive in normal [down and distance] to create better third-down situations for ourselves, but I think third down will be a key statistic in the game."
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers have a contingency plan in place if quarterback Aaron Rodgers has another issue with his calf muscle but at this point, two days before Sunday's NFC North title game against the Detroit Lions, they expect him to start the game without any limitations.

They listed him as probable on Friday's injury report.

Rodgers
"I don't have any concerns today, just based off of the conversation with Aaron and how he's feeling," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Friday. "You get out there … really tomorrow will be a big indicator, just to watch him move around and do the different things. And then we'll communicate during the game. But I don't have a very high concern right now."

Although the Packers did not practice on Friday – they will hold their usual light workout on Saturday – Rodgers took part in all of Friday's meetings and the walk-through session at the team's indoor field inside the stadium.

McCarthy had to adjust his game plan last Sunday after Rodgers pulled his left calf in the first quarter.

"I think that's up to coach and he as far as the game-plan meetings and what they feel like they can get done under whatever circumstances arise," Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. "But we're going in fully loaded and expecting a healthy guy on Sunday."

Even with the injury, Rodgers had a solid showing against Tampa Bay. He completed 31-of-40 passes for 318 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in the 20-3 victory.

"He's just an accurate thrower," Van Pelt said. "I think he wakes up in the morning being accurate."

Here's the Packers' full injury report:

Out
CB Davon House (shoulder)

Probable
G T.J. Lang (ankle)
LB Clay Matthews (biceps)
OLB Mike Neal (abdomen)
QB Aaron Rodgers (calf)
G Josh Sitton (toe)
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears released their final injury report heading into Sunday’s season finale, and quarterback Jimmy Clausen (concussion) will be out as expected, along with safety Chris Conte (back) and kicker Robbie Gould (right quadriceps).

The Bears announced Tuesday that Clausen will be out, while Gould confirmed that same day he’d miss the remainder of the season.

In other injury news defensive end Jared Allen (ribs) is questionable for Sunday’s game along with cornerback Al Louis-Jean, and defensive end Jeremiah Ratliff (knee).

Defensive end David Bass (knee), defensive tackle Ego Ferguson (ankle), guard Kyle Long (hip) and receiver Marquess Wilson (hip) are probable.

Gould closes out the season missing four consecutive games, while Conte will miss his third straight outing.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears announced Friday the signing of center Roberto Garza to a one-year extension, ensuring he’ll return in 2015 for an 11th season with the franchise.

Garza
Terms of the deal weren’t immediately disclosed.

“It was just a phone call from my agent. They talked. My position and my age, there’s not much negotiating. So, pretty straightforward,” Garza said.

Garza said the uncertainty currently surrounding the organization didn’t factor into his decision. It’s expected Chicago’s coaching staff will be let go at the conclusion of the season.

“Whether it’s coach [Marc] Trestman or whatever is gonna happen, I want to be a part of this team and this organization,” Garza said. “I believe in the things that we’re doing. Obviously, we have to do them better to try to win more games.”

A 14-year veteran, Garza has started in 175 of 205 career games, racking up 144 starts for the Bears. Garza missed four games earlier this season due to an ankle injury and admitted the time away only intensified his feelings about continuing to play.

After the 2013 season, Garza was unsure whether he wanted to return for 2014.

“[Thoughts of retirement are] always there. Obviously, you want to go out there and be able to do your job. If you can do your job, then you can keep playing,” Garza said. “When I got hurt, those four weeks watching the team practice, it was tough to sit on the sidelines. Right there I knew I wanted to keep going.”

When the Bears signed Brian de la Puente last April to a one-year contract, it was believed he would eventually take over as the starting center. But de la Puente suffered a season-ending ankle injury in November, and Friday’s signing signifies the Bears could be committed to keeping Garza as the starter for at least one more season.

Garza’s extension materialized on Christmas.

“Everybody knows how much I love what I do,” Garza said. “I have to go out there and do my job to the best of my ability, and that is something that football makes you do.”

Vikings appear thin at LB for Sunday

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
12:45
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings are in the middle of their final full-team practice of the 2014 season, and it's looking as though they'll have to do something about their linebacker depth between now and Sunday's season finale against the Chicago Bears.

Greenway
Chad Greenway and Brandon Watts were both absent from the practice field as the Vikings worked outside on Friday, suggesting that neither will be available for Sunday's game. The Vikings already had ruled Anthony Barr out for the rest of the season; Greenway and Watts could join Barr on the sidelines with knee and hamstring injuries, respectively.

At the moment, the Vikings have just three healthy linebackers on their active roster. Audie Cole and Gerald Hodges were taking first-team snaps in nickel situations while the Vikings practiced on Friday, and it stands to reason that Cole would start at strongside linebacker, with Jasper Brinkley in the middle and Hodges on the weak side if Greenway is unable to go.

The Vikings signed linebacker Justin Anderson to their practice squad earlier this week, and they also have Josh Kaddu on their practice squad. One or both of those players could get added to the active roster before Sunday for linebacker depth; if the Vikings aren't going to use some of their injured linebackers on Sunday, it'd be easy enough to put them on injured reserve to clear roster space for additions from the practice squad.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who hasn't participated in a practice all week, was on the field on Friday, indicating he'll have a shot to return from an ankle injury on Sunday. Wide receiver Jarius Wright also returned from a low back injury for the open portion of Friday's practice.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Bryan Bulaga needed a season like this.

Nearly two years on injured reserve will do that to an NFL player. For his own psyche as much as anything else, it was imperative that the Green Bay Packers right tackle finish a season.

[+] EnlargeRodgers
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesPackers right tackle Bryan Bulaga has been healthier this season, allowing him more opportunities to celebrate with -- and protect -- Aaron Rodgers.
Despite two brief interruptions -- the Week 1 knee injury that kept him out the next week against the New York Jets and a concussion two weeks ago against the Buffalo Bills that did not keep him out the next week -- Bulaga will reach the finish line Sunday when the Packers play the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field for the NFC North title.

"Two years on IR, it's tough," Bulaga said this week. "So to have a have a year like this -- we were just actually talking about it -- everyone stayed relatively healthy, and for me just to have one of these years to go out and play and play well and stay somewhat healthy besides the concussion and a little knee. Besides that, it's been great."

Or maybe he’s just getting started.

"It's been great to be able to contribute and play well and do my job," Bulaga said. "It's been great. It's been fun. Just looking forward to more games."

With everything Bulaga has been through -- from taking over as a rookie starter during the Super Bowl season of 2010 to the 2012 hip injury that ended his season after nine games to his offseason move to left tackle in 2013 that was ruined when he blew out his knee in August of that year to a move back to right tackle this season -- it’s easy to forget the former first-round pick is just 25 years old.

That would seemingly leave him in prime position for a second lucrative contract. The deal Bulaga signed after the Packers drafted him in the first round in 2010 expires in March, and he has no idea whether they want him back next season.

"You know, that's not really something to talk about right now with me," Bulaga said. "It's not really on my mind. I'm just going to go out and play football and enjoy my time here, and at the end of the year, whatever happens, happens. It's out of my hands at that point. That's for my agent and the guys upstairs to figure out."

If the Packers go purely off the tape, there's little reason to think they would not want Bulaga back. He has allowed only three sacks this season, according to ProFootballFocus.com, and two of them came in the Week 6 game at the Miami Dolphins.

But there's the injury history to factor.

The Packers never told Bulaga they wanted to see him get through a season before they talked contract, but that surely would have been a prerequisite.

To that end, Bulaga did just about everything he could to come back strong. He spent most of last season rehabbing his knee at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where he keeps an offseason home. It was there that he not only recovered from his knee injury but remade his 6-foot-5, 314-pound body.

"He's heavier than he's ever been; he's stronger," Packers offensive line coach James Campen said. "Remember, he was a young guy coming out of college, so he's grown into his body and he has a clear understanding of the scheme, so he's playing with total confidence. He knows exactly what’s going to happen, where it’s going to happen."
video When: 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Lambeau Field, Green Bay TV: Fox

Both teams clinched their playoff berths last week, but that doesn't mean the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions don’t have plenty at stake Sunday.

They’re both 11-4 and have their sights set on the NFC North title. The winner takes it, while the loser must begin its Super Bowl quest on the road in wild-card weekend.

ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky discuss the matchup:

Demovsky: The teams that have the most success against the Packers are the ones that can stop the run, get pressure on Rodgers with just a four-man rush and commit the rest of their players to coverage. The Lions seem to do that as well as anyone. Why?

Rothstein: The easy answer is Ndamukong Suh. Although he won't receive much consideration for the league's MVP award because it is a quarterback-driven league, Suh is perhaps more valuable than anyone else in the NFL to his unit's success this season. Opponents have told me often this season they have to scheme differently for the Lions because of the attention that must be paid to Suh. He essentially requires a double team on every play, and that allows Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Jones, George Johnson or C.J. Mosley to have a single-coverage matchup. Detroit blitzes about 25 percent of the time and records sacks on 6.6 percent of dropbacks. That's not a bad percentage at all. The pressure the front four provides gives Darius Slay, Rashean Mathis and the safeties relief from having to cover too long as well, which is usually a major issue for any defensive back. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been how efficient the Detroit run defense has been without Nick Fairley in the second half of the season. The Lions have yet to allow 1,000 yards rushing this season and since Fairley's injury, the Lions have allowed only 52.14 rushing yards a game. That's insane.

Green Bay tried to run it a ton the latest time the Packers faced the Lions. Since then, Detroit has posted the league's best run defense. What do you think ends up being Green Bay's offensive strategy this time?

Demovsky: Coach Mike McCarthy isn't going to bang his head against the wall and run, run, run if it's not working. If you think that means he's too quick to abandon the running game, then so be it. So it probably will depend on how Eddie Lacy fares early. If Lacy can rip off a few good runs in the first couple of series, like he has done of late, McCarthy might be more inclined to go back to it later. But here's one thing to look for: If Aaron Rodgers ends up throwing a bunch of dump-off passes or screens, it's probably a sign they don't think they can run the ball, so they'll use the short passing game to simulate the run. There's no shame in admitting you can't run the ball against the Lions. Who has this season?

What do you make of all these late-game, come-from-behind victories? Are they living dangerously, or are they just a good team that finds a way to win no matter what?

Rothstein: That stems from Jim Caldwell. His eternal calmness on the sideline has been extremely beneficial for Detroit in a ton of ways this season. Multiple players have said throughout the season that the reason for their ability to score and make plays late in games comes directly from Caldwell's calmness. They never panic because he never panics. Part of this has to do with Matthew Stafford, too. He's always been pretty good at putting together late-game drives, but he's been particularly good at it this season. He has thrived in those situations this season, and it is a position he not only feels comfortable in but also wants to be in. It allows him to use his intelligence, along with playing with a little bit of reckless abandon that has made him a playmaker in the past. It really starts with the two of them, but there is little doubt they are living a bit dangerously because starting this week and entering the playoffs, every team is going to be good, and most will have a quarterback who can do similar things. If they don't find a way to play better early in games, Detroit will have a short playoff stay.

We all know about Green Bay's win streak over Detroit in Wisconsin, but what makes it so tough for the Lions -- and many other teams -- to win in Green Bay?

Demovsky: It's not the noise; it's not even that loud, to be honest. If it were, why else would the Packers have launched their "Get Loud Lambeau" campaign this week to try to increase the noise level for Sunday's game? Rather, it's how the offense functions at home, where crowd noise isn't a factor for them. It's not a coincidence that before Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay, Nelson’s 11 longest catches of the season all came at home. Don't discount the footing, either. They're familiar with the turf and what shoes to wear. We've seen a number of different opponents come in and slip all over the field.

Since you brought up the streak in Wisconsin, how are Jim Caldwell and the new regime approaching it from a mentality standpoint? Are they ignoring it, downplaying it or accepting that it's a real thing?

Rothstein: They aren't worrying about it. This staff has a pretty good understanding of the difficulty of winning in Wisconsin too. Jim Caldwell is a Wisconsin native -- from Beloit -- and the offensive coordinator is Vince Lombardi's grandson. Some players will likely acknowledge the streak during the week -- they always do -- but one of the big messages this season has been that this team is different than all the prior ones, and they have to understand and believe that. So far, Detroit has, as only two other Lions teams in franchise history have won 11 games. I don't expect Detroit to win this game, but the history in Lambeau Field won't be the reason for that.

Rodgers appears to be playing at his typical, high level with the best QBR in the league. Where does this season rank for him in terms of his career?

Demovsky: It has to rank right up there with his MVP season of 2011. The difference that season is the Packers would pile up yards and rack up the points, while so many of those games became shootouts. This year, the points and yards are down. That 2011 team was loaded with offensive weapons -- Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, James Jones, Donald Driver and even a young Randall Cobb. This season, Rodgers might be better because he's getting more out of less. Really, his only consistent weapons have been Cobb and Nelson. Plus, McCarthy has put so much more on Rodgers' plate now -- running the no-huddle almost exclusively -- that his job is even more difficult than it was in 2011. Either way, perhaps the best part of both 2011 and this season is Rodgers’ touchdown-to-interception ratio. It was 45-to-6 in 2011 and 36-to-5 this season.
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video When: 1 p.m. ET Where: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis TV: Fox

The Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears square off in what amounts to the Week 17 NFC North undercard, with third place in the division at stake before the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers battle for the division title. The Vikings-Bears matchup will feature the same two quarterbacks as the teams' Nov. 16 meeting, but Teddy Bridgewater and Jay Cutler are headed in very different directions.

Bridgewater has completed better than 70 percent of his passes in each of his past four games and seems to be asserting himself as a solid young NFL quarterback. Cutler, meanwhile, was benched last week in favor of Jimmy Clausen and is starting this week only because Clausen sustained a concussion against Detroit. Sunday could be Cutler's last game with the Bears.

ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright discuss Sunday's matchup:

Goessling: Michael, it looks like we’ll see Cutler one more time this Sunday. Is that a good thing for the Bears at this point? He played well against the Vikings last time, but how invested will he be?

Wright: Ben, it depends on how you look at it. Marc Trestman mentioned that Cutler gives this team the best chance to win against the Vikings, which is absolutely true. But to me, Trestman probably irreparably damaged the relationship with the quarterback by benching him. When the announcement was made, I asked Trestman directly about Cutler’s future in Chicago because once you make the type of decision he made, to go with Clausen, there’s no turning back. I still believe that. So if the Bears actually plan to move Cutler this offseason, they’re taking a big risk in playing him against the Vikings in this meaningless game. Cutler’s $15.5 million salary for 2015 is already fully guaranteed, and if he’s on the roster on the third day of the new league year, the Bears would be on the hook for more than $10 million of his 2016 salary. And guess what? You can’t trade an injured player. So to me, this is a risky proposition. Based on the decision to start Cutler, my guess is the team isn’t planning to move him this offseason. I think the relationship between Cutler and Trestman is broken. So Cutler will be invested, but he’ll also probably be out there doing his own thing as opposed to playing within the confines of Trestman’s system. My expectation is Cutler will play a backyard brand of ball in this last outing.

The teams own similar records, but I’d be willing to bet you the feelings about the future of both these franchises are way different. Minnesota (6-9) has lost its last five by a combined 16 points, while what’s going down with the Bears (5-10) is downright embarrassing. Despite Minnesota’s record, there seems to be some optimism about the future. What’s next for the Vikings?

Goessling: They're 6-9, but after everything they've been through -- losing Adrian Peterson, starting a rookie quarterback, dealing with several injuries on the offensive line -- the Vikings feel as though they're headed in the right direction. The key to the whole thing, of course, is Bridgewater. If he continues to get better, the Vikings will have a young quarterback they can build around for the first time since ... Daunte Culpepper? They got only a few years of franchise QB-level play from him, but that tells you how starved this team has been for an answer at the position. The defense probably needs another offseason of player acquisition, but with the right moves, this could be a top-10 unit next year. That, plus an improving young quarterback, is a nice foundation.

The Bears’ pass rush hasn’t gotten the job done enough this season, and now Willie Young is out, so this looks as if it could be a matchup of resistible force vs. movable object when the Vikings are trying to stop the Bears’ pass rush. Can Jared Allen pick up some of the slack in his return to Minnesota?

Wright: I think he can, and you know he’ll be motivated to play well in front of the Vikings' fans at TCF Bank Stadium. Allen throughout his career has always been a guy who has kind of come on as the season progressed, and it seems as if this season is no different. He’s sitting at 5.5 sacks right now, and it seems very likely he'll finish the season without a double-digit sack total for the first time since 2006. So you know Allen is going to give it everything he’s got to try to get the 4.5 sacks he needs to get to double digits, which you and I both know probably isn’t happening. But that’s not going to stop him from trying. My guess is he’ll draw a little extra attention because the Bears will be forced to play unheralded guys such as Cornelius Washington and David Bass opposite Allen. So he’ll have a difficult time trying to pick up the slack for Young.

Remember Bridgewater’s dreadful pro day workout? That seems like ages ago, and now he certainly seems like the answer at quarterback moving forward. In what areas does Bridgewater need to improve this offseason to take that next step?

Goessling: He's really made some significant strides in recent weeks, particularly with how well he throws downfield. He's completed better than 70 percent of his throws of 15 yards or longer in the past four weeks, which is a huge development for a QB who wasn't hitting anything deep earlier this season. I'd still like to see him be able to manage a higher volume of those throws -- you know Norv Turner would love to make the old "Bang 8" skinny post a staple of his offense again -- and he probably needs to get stronger this winter. He still throws high at times and misses some easy completions, but his improvement even during the past month has been noticeable. Bridgewater wants to be great; he believes he's capable of it and he'll put the work in to try to get there. An offseason of strength training and prep work can only help.

Of the Bears teams you’ve covered, how surprising has the collapse of this one been? I thought they’d be a playoff team; some had them among the NFC contenders. What sticks with you most about what went wrong?

Wright: This is just my fifth season on the Bears beat, but it’s by far the worst I’ve seen it out here. All the internal drama obviously sticks out. But I think what sticks out the most is how badly Bears general manager Phil Emery miscalculated in terms of the contributions this team would be able to get from some of the additions he made. Emery paid big money to sign Allen and Lamarr Houston in free agency and they’ve combined for 6.5 sacks. Houston had never produced more than six sacks in a season, yet Emery billed him as the crown jewel of the team’s free-agent class. Then the Bears went out and signed a bunch of no-name safeties. M.D. Jennings was the most experienced safety of all the signees and he didn’t even make the team. Let’s not even get into the big money paid to Cutler.

Coming off a promising 2013 season, the Bears sold everyone on the notion they’d be a playoff contender. But the fact is that Chicago’s offense in 2013 -- despite finishing second in scoring last season -- wasn't as good as everyone seems to think. They caught teams by surprise because they didn’t know what to expect from Trestman’s offense, but at the core, the unit is flawed. You’ve got three big receivers in Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Marquess Wilson, but not one target capable of taking the top off coverages. So I knew the offense would take a step back in 2014, but not as dramatic as what we’ve seen. On the other side of the ball, nobody expected the Bears to return to the level they’d been under Lovie Smith. But the expectation was the defense would be at least mediocre, which obviously isn’t the case. I’d say about 80 to 85 percent of this team’s problems in every facet are the result of bad personnel moves. So although Trestman and the coaching staff -- deservedly -- take plenty of heat, Emery dealt them a horrible hand from a personnel standpoint.

It’s difficult to get a team up when there’s nothing to play for. But what is Mike Zimmer’s message for how he’d like to see the Vikings close out this season?

Goessling: Zimmer was livid with the Vikings after their 37-35 loss to the Dolphins last Sunday, and I'd be willing to bet they'll be sharper this weekend. He's made it clear that he's not going to go into evaluation mode, that it's still about winning games this season. But at the same time, the Vikings are trying to make decisions about their future and Zimmer has sent the message that players who coast to the finish line won't have as much security as they might expect. I think the Vikings will respond to that Sunday, especially playing at home and facing a team that appears to be in disarray.
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Bears hold out four starters

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
5:18
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears started preparation for Sunday’s season finale at Minnesota holding out four starters: defensive end Jared Allen (ribs), safety Chris Conte (back), kicker Robbie Gould (right quadriceps) and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff (knee).

Gould confirmed on Monday he’d miss the remainder of the season. The club also held out quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who has already been declared out for Sunday’s game because of a concussion suffered in last Sunday's loss to the Detroit Lions.

Defensive end David Bass (knee) and guard Kyle Long (hip) participated in a limited capacity at practice Wednesday along with receiver Marquess Wilson (knee).

Defensive tackle Ego Ferguson (ankle) was a full participant.

Matt Forte eyes milestones

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Matt Forte remained upbeat Wednesday despite missing out on being named to his third Pro Bowl as the running back eyes a couple of significant milestones Sunday when the Chicago Bears face the Minnesota Vikings.

With 94 receptions through 15 games, Forte needs just eight more to break the NFL single-season record for receptions by a running back, set in 1995 by Larry Centers (101 receptions). In addition, if Forte gains 13 yards rushing against the Vikings and catches six passes, he’ll join LaDainian Tomlinson as just the second player in NFL history to finish a season with 1,000 rushing yards and 100 catches.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Brian Kersey/Getty ImagesMatt Forte is just eight receptions from setting the NFL record for running backs in a single season.
“It’s important, but not the most important thing to me,” Forte said of the single-season record for receptions by a running back. “I’m not going to go out looking to get eight catches. I’m really just going out there to run the ball, catch the ball, block, and do what I’ve got to do for us to be successful on offense and help us win the game.”

Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long, however, wants to make the record reality for Forte.

“I was gonna butt in there when he was talking about how it’s not important to him,” Long joked. “We’re in the National Football League, and I’m sitting next to a guy who has an opportunity to catch the single most passes in NFL history for a running back in a season. I know I’m gonna be yelling at our quarterback to throw him the ball. Are you kidding me? What a tremendous honor to get to play with a guy like Matt and have an opportunity to be a part of something like that that will stand for a really long time.”

Bears coach Marc Trestman doesn’t plan to alter the game plan to make sure Forte reaches his milestones. With nothing left to play for, it would be easy for the team to turn its attention to such matters.

“Last games, oftentimes there’s those types of things that are up on the table,” Trestman said. “But I think the primary focus is to do what we have to do on each and every play to win the game, and those things will usually take care of themselves.”

That’s fine by Forte.

“I’m just looking forward to this weekend. I’ve got a chance to do something special this week,” Forte said. “Obviously I’m focused on winning the game first. But on this offense, we’ve obviously this year underachieved, but there’s still room to go out there and improve and finish strong in the last game. It’s not just, ‘Oh, it’s the last game of the season.’ You’ve got to go out there and prove that you deserve to be in the league. We’ve got another chance to go out and play well.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Nothing tangible remains to play for Sunday in the season-finale at Minnesota, but Jay Cutler plans to muster up investment for "the guys in the locker room" in what could wind up being his last game as quarterback of the Chicago Bears.

Cutler
"The guys that have been in the huddle all year long that I’ve been with, those are the guys I’ll play for this week," Cutler said.

Signed to a seven-year contract worth $126.7 million last January, Cutler takes over as the starter after being benched last week in favor of Jimmy Clausen, who on Monday was diagnosed with a concussion. In 10 starts against the Vikings, Cutler has thrown for 2,434 yards, 23 touchdowns and 13 interceptions for a passer rating of 98.0.

Cutler declined to speculate on his future, but admitted it will be difficult to generate energy for the season finale with so little to play for and uncertainty about what might transpire as soon as the Monday following Sunday’s outing at TCF Bank Stadium.

Cutler’s 2015 base salary of $15.5 million is fully guaranteed, and another $10 million guarantee for his 2016 salary kicks in if the quarterback remains on the roster on March 12, the third day of the 2015 league year.

"I think you’ve just got to prepare yourself that anything could happen," Cutler said. "That’s kind of what I’m prepared for. I mean, everyone could stay. Everyone could get axed. You just never know what direction it’s going to go. You just have to stay open-minded and know that things happen for a reason."

Asked whether he’s ever come to grips with the human element of what could take place on Monday and the number of people it could affect, Cutler said he ponders such scenarios during training camp.

"You chop [the roster] down, chop it down," Cutler said. "You wonder where those guys go, what happens to them. Some of them never play football again. The situation after the year, it’s gonna be similar. Coaches could leave. Players could leave. I could leave. That’s part of it."

Cutler has called the 2014 season his most difficult as a professional, and admits all the turmoil has conditioned him to "expect the least expected at this point."

"Hopefully, we can make it through the next couple of days without something else happening," he said. "You never know though."
GREEN BAY, Wis. – On Monday, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Clay Matthews has "probably had his best year." There could be some debate about that.

Matthews
But there's no question Matthews had his best game of the year on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and for that he was named the NFC's defensive player of the week on Wednesday. Matthews had a season-high 2.5 sacks against the Bucs to run his season total to 10, making it the fourth time in his six NFL seasons that he has reached double digits.

His fourth career defensive player of the week award, which tied Charles Woodson for the most in team history, came less than 24 hours after Matthews was named to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time in his career.

Matthews has been on a sack tear the last eight games. He has 8.5 sacks during that stretch, fourth in the NFL in that span. He'd love nothing more than to keep up that production on Sunday when the Packers play host to the Lions for the NFC North crown.

"You look at the first half of the season, and I think I was at two-and-a half [sacks] through eight games, and now I am at 10 [with] five in the last three games," Matthews said. "Some of those are coverage sacks. Some of those are just being fortunate, and some are just winning my one-on-one matchups. So that's part of the deal.

"The one thing you look for more important than the sacks is the pressure that's being generated, and I felt myself around the quarterback a lot these last several games as well as the other pass rushers on this team. Ultimately I think we're doing a good job in the front seven, the DBs are covering their man and this week it is going to be very important to step it up a spot especially with big, playmaking wide receivers."
» Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster

SELECTIONS

Aaron Rodgers, QB, fourth Pro Bowl selection: This was a lock considering he's also the frontrunner for the MVP award. Rodgers ranks second in the league this season in passer rating (111.0), first in interception percentage and third in touchdown passes (36). He's the biggest reason the Packers are 11-4 and playing for the NFC North title on Sunday against the Lions.

Who he beat out: Probably everyone. He was the No. 1 overall selection among the fan balloting, which counts for one-third of the vote.

John Kuhn, FB, second Pro Bowl selection: The fan favorite has been an effective short-yardage back and a solid blocker but still doesn't get much playing time. He has only 21 carries for 79 yards and one touchdown, but he deserves some credit for helping Eddie Lacy reach 1,000 yards rushing for the second straight season. However, the Packers play far more single-back sets than two-back formations.

Who he beat out: There's not much competition at this spot since teams rarely use fullbacks on a full-time basis anymore. They've become nearly extinct because so many teams use three-receiver sets as their base offense.

Jordy Nelson, WR, first Pro Bowl selection: Nelson ranks tied for seventh among all receivers with 92 catches, fourth in receiving yards (1,433) and second in touchdown catches (13). He has three touchdown catches of at least 65 yards this season, the most by a Packers receiver since 1998.

Who he beat out: Among those on the alternate lists were Larry Fitzgerald, Jeremy Maclin, Golden Tate, DeAndre Hopkins and his teammate, Randall Cobb.

Josh Sitton, G, second Pro Bowl selection: Sitton has not allowed a sack all season while playing through a painful toe injury and is part of an offensive line that helped block for Lacy. It's his second Pro Bowl but his first as an original selection. He went in 2012 as an alternate. ProFootballFocus.com has him ranked as the third-best guard in the league.

Who he beat out: Sitton was selected over PFF's top-two guards in their rankings, Marshal Yanda of the Ravens and Joel Bitonio of the Browns. Evan Mathis of the Eagles and Alex Boone of the 49ers were among the alternates.

Clay Matthews, OLB, fifth Pro Bowl selection: With 10 sacks, Matthews has been in double digits in four of his six NFL seasons. However, it's interesting to note that he had only 7.5 when the players and coaches voted took place last week, so his 2.5 sack game last Sunday against the Buccaneers wouldn't have been factored in. Coach Mike McCarthy called this Matthews' best season in part because he has added inside linebacker duties to his job description.

Who he beat out: It could have come down to Matthews and Raiders rookie Khalil Mack, who was one of the alternates. Lavonte David of the Buccaneers also was among the alternates.

SNUBS

Randall Cobb, WR, no Pro Bowls: Only six receivers have more touchdown catches than Cobb's 10 this season. But it's not just scoring where Cobb has excelled. He ranks eighth in catches (87) among receivers and 10th in receiving yards (1,207).

Who he should have beaten out: The only questionable selection at receiver was A.J. Green, and that's largely because he missed three games for the Bengals this season. But if Detroit's Golden Tate (96 catches, 1,286 yards) didn't make, then Cobb probably had little or no chance, either.
SELECTIONS

Kyle Long, OG, Second Pro Bowl selection: Long earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl selection and became the first Chicago Bears offensive lineman to receive the honor in each of his first two seasons with the franchise. Long became the first Bear since Devin Hester (2006-07) to be named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons. According to STATS, LLC, Long hasn’t allowed a sack in 2014, and he anchors a Chicago offense that ranks first in franchise history in completion percentage (65.1), second in passing touchdowns (30), tied for second in completions (373), fourth in net passing yards (3,627) and sixth in passer rating (88.1). Long is part of an offensive line that has helped running back Matt Forte rank No. 3 in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,772).

Who he beat out: Orlando Franklin, Louis Vasquez, T.J. Lang, Ronald Leary, David DeCastro, Mike Pouncey, Dan Connolly

SNUBS

Matt Forte, RB: Forte racked up 1,772 yards from scrimmage through the first 15 games, which ties for third in the NFL. But the problem is the Bears refuse to commit to the rushing attack, which significantly affected Forte’s numbers. Arguably the league’s best all-around back, Forte leads the Bears with 94 catches for 785 yards, and he’s just 13 yards shy of reaching 1,000 yards rushing for the fifth time in his seven-year career.

Who he should have beaten out: LeSean McCoy.

Alshon Jeffery, WR: Jeffery generated a team-high 1,099 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns on 83 receptions, despite playing the majority of the year hampered by nagging injuries. Jeffery has gained 2,887 yards over his first three seasons. Jeffery has already gained the second-most receiving yards by a Bears player in his first three seasons, and he ranks No. 5 in the NFL in receiving yardage since 2013.

Who he should have beaten out: A.J. Green, T.Y. Hilton.

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