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How I See It: NFC North Stock Watch

12/15/2009

Falling

1. Lovie Smith, Chicago coach: The Bears have lost seven of their last nine games. Their only victories in that stretch have come against Cleveland and St. Louis (combined records: 3-23). It’s becoming more evident that Smith and offensive coordinator Ron Turner didn’t prepare adequately for the transition made necessary by the arrival of quarterback Jay Cutler, who looks lost and frustrated. And while it didn’t cost him Sunday’s game against Green Bay, Smith has no excuse for the kind of sideline disorganization that led to a two-timeout fiasco in the fourth quarter. Perhaps you excuse that for a rookie coach, but Smith has been in his job long enough to expect a well-oiled infrastructure for challenging plays -- regardless of the circumstances.

2. Drew Stanton, Detroit quarterback: What does it say about Stanton that the Lions aren’t willing to give him a chance to play at the end of a lost season? With starter Matthew Stafford rehabilitating his left shoulder, the Lions continue to use veteran backup Daunte Culpepper in his place. Culpepper has received a decent opportunity this season, but the Lions' offense has scored only one touchdown in his three starts. Since arriving in Detroit last year, Culpepper hasn’t won a game. If Stanton doesn’t merit a chance in those circumstances, it should be clear the Lions have no future plans for him.

3. Jay Cutler, Chicago quarterback: We’ve seen this name here before, but Cutler’s performances have gotten worse as the season continues. His two interceptions Sunday came off horrible, back-foot throws. The Packers could easily have doubled that total by hanging on to a few more passes. Cutler continues to lead the NFL with 22 interceptions, the most by a Bears quarterback in 47 years. In case you’re wondering, the franchise record for most interceptions in a season is 31, set by Sid Luckman in 1947.

Rising

1. Ryan Grant, Packers tailback: Grant demonstrated his explosiveness with a game-opening 64-yard touchdown run Sunday at Soldier Field, part of a 137-yard performance in a 21-14 victory over the Bears. It was Grant’s longest run since Week 16 of the 2007 season, a span of 30 games. Leg injuries limited him for most of 2008, and the Packers’ offensive line didn’t open many holes during the first three quarters of this season. But Sunday’s run was reminiscent of the game-breaking dashes Grant made routinely during the Packers’ run to the 2007 NFC Championship Game.

2. Antoine Winfield, Minnesota cornerback: Simply put, the Vikings' defense looked like a different group Sunday with Winfield in the lineup. Winfield’s sure tackling (nine solo tackles) and solid coverage helped the Vikings limit Cincinnati to 210 offensive yards. His sprained foot isn’t likely to heal completely until the offseason, but it was hard to notice any limitations Sunday. It’s no coincidence that the Vikings clinched a playoff spot in Winfield’s first game back. His return is a substantial boost as January football approaches.

3. Chester Taylor, Minnesota tailback: In case you forgot, Taylor reminded everyone Sunday that the Vikings have a second option in their backfield behind Adrian Peterson. Taylor played a crucial role in the Vikings’ opening drive of the second half Sunday, converting two third downs with receptions that totaled 32 yards, and also ripping off two runs for 22 yards. Peterson’s subsequent 1-yard touchdown gave the Vikings a commanding 23-7 lead. As Peterson navigates one of the less productive stretches of his career, it’s important to remember Taylor is healthy, fresh and available to contribute in many ways.