NFC North: 2011 Week 12 coverage

OAKLAND, Calif. -- What looked like a debacle in the making turned out to be a hard-fought contest Sunday with the Bears' five-game winning streak coming to an end by virtue of a 25-20 loss to the Oakland Raiders.

No need to over-analyze this one. Undoubtedly, the three interceptions thrown by Caleb Hanie made the difference.

Despite the turnovers, Hanie displayed enough moxie to give the Bears at least a small level of comfort regarding his ability to lead them to wins in the absence of starting quarterback Jay Cutler.

Still, there will be questions about Hanie, the play calling, the running game and everything else.

We’ll cover a couple of those, in addition to pointing out some positives:

What it means: Chicago appears to have opened the door to the other contenders fighting for the two NFC wild-card playoff spots with the loss against the Raiders. The Bears own tiebreakers against the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons -- both 7-4 -- but they missed out on an opportunity to solidify their standing. The New York Giants (6-4) face the New Orleans Saints on Monday night, and also have a shot at getting into the picture.

In addition, a victory in Hanie’s first start would have gone a long way toward the team building confidence he can get it done over the next few weeks with Cutler out with a broken thumb. Despite Hanie’s gutsy attempt to rally the Bears in the fourth quarter, it’s likely there are questions within the staff and locker room about the quarterback’s ability to carry them into the postseason.

Obviously the schedule sets up well with a home game Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, followed by matchups with the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings to close out the regular season. The expectation within the staff is that Cutler will be back for one of the last two regular-season contests.

So the team needs to know Hanie can carry them until then.

Three in a row: Starting his second consecutive outing at nickel corner in place of D.J. Moore, who missed the game with an ankle injury, Corey Graham picked off his third pass in as many games in the first half.

Safety Brandon Meriweather tipped a Carson Palmer pass intended for Chaz Schilens with Graham coming up with the loose ball. The play only demonstrates that Graham -- one of the team’s best special-teams players -- is also capable of stepping into a major role on defense.

Graham is playing on a one-year deal so it will be interesting to see what kinds of overtures the team will make to bring back Graham for 2012.

Penalties costly: Officials flagged the Bears four times for 40 yards in the first eight minutes of the game.

A holding penalty by Craig Steltz forced Chicago to start its first possession of the game on the 18. The Bears started their third drive of the contest on their own 16 as a result of a Zack Bowman holding penalty.

Once that drive started, a personal foul by Tyler Clutts killed a 17-yard scramble by Hanie. On the very next play, a J’Marcus Webb false-start penalty pushed the team back to its own 14.

The lost field position proved valuable because after the Webb penalty, Stanford Routt picked off a Hanie pass intended for Matt Forte. The Raiders gained a net of 2 yards on the ensuing drive with Sebastian Janikowski kicking a 47-yard field goal to help his team to a 6-0 lead.

Interestingly, the Raiders came into Sunday’s game as the league’s most penalized team. With 10 minutes left to play, the Bears had been flagged six times for 51 yards, while the Raiders committed just four penalties for 29 yards.

Catch it Jennings: It’s often said that defensive backs are failed receivers, and Bears cornerback Tim Jennings demonstrated why against the Raiders.

Jennings dropped at least two interceptions that could have led to Bears points.

What’s next: The Bears host the Chiefs on Sunday at Soldier Field.

Wrap-up: Falcons 24, Vikings 14

November, 27, 2011

A few thoughts on another loss for the NFC North's last-place team:

What it means: Down 17-0 at halftime, the Minnesota Vikings made it interesting but ultimately absorbed their ninth loss of the season. It's the franchise's first 2-9 start since 1962.

Harvin Watch: With tailback Adrian Peterson sidelined by a high ankle sprain, receiver/running back Percy Harvin was the team's lone remaining offensive playmaker. And Harvin made two huge plays to give the Vikings a chance in this game, hauling in a 39-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-13 in the fourth quarter and also returning a kickoff 104 yards to the Atlanta Falcons' 3-yard line with six minutes, 28 seconds remaining. Harvin caught eight passes for 95 yards and, including special teams, accounted for 200 all-purpose yards.

Late-game questions here: The final seven minutes in this game will be hotly debated among Vikings fans. Here are the primary questions: Even without Peterson, were the Vikings justified in using Harvin on two consecutive inside running plays on the goal line after his kickoff return? Should coach Leslie Frazier have challenged Harvin's second run, in which he appeared to have crossed the plane on second effort? Down by 10 points, should the Vikings have taken an easy field goal rather than go for a touchdown on fourth down? And should they have given the ball to tailback Toby Gerhart, who hasn't been much of an effective short-yardage runner in his career?

Opinion here: My quick reaction to those questions goes as following. I'm fine with using Harvin. He was the Vikings' best player Sunday. Frazier would have had nothing to lose by challenging the ruling on third down. I would have taken a field goal, but either way you need a field goal and a touchdown to force overtime. But handing the ball to Gerhart on fourth down, especially with a quarterback in Christian Ponder who excels at plays that give him a pass-run option on the outside, was the least defensible of the decisions we saw from Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

Injury report: Already playing without safety Husain Abdullah and cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook, the Vikings lost safety Tyrell Johnson (hamstring) and cornerback Asher Allen (shoulder) during the game. I thought their defense played well considering they had Benny Sapp, on the street two weeks ago, playing at one cornerback spot and rookie Mistral Raymond at safety. The Vikings also lost long snapper Cullen Loeffler to a back injury. Defensive end Jared Allen did a flawless job as Loefller's replacement and even made a special teams tackle after his first snap.

What's next: The Vikings will host the Denver Broncos next Sunday at the Metrodome. Remember, the game has been moved from CBS to FOX. As of last week, the team had more than 5,000 tickets to sell to avoid a local television blackout.

Rapid Reaction: Packers 27, Lions 15

November, 24, 2011
DETROIT -- A few thoughts after a physical and revealing Thanksgiving game at Ford Field:

What it means: As many thought, the Detroit Lions did indeed provide the Green Bay Packers a tough matchup and proved a legitimate threat to hand them their first loss of the season. But the Packers managed to keep their poise amid the Lions' shenanigans and pulled away in the second half. (James Bond beat Rambo, in other words.) They're now 11-0 for the first time in team history and have won 17 consecutive games, dating back to last year and including the playoffs.

SuhWatch: It's fair to wonder whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will suspend Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh after his well-deserved third-quarter ejection. I've already made my thoughts known on the topic, but there is no defending the way Suh kicked Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith and pounded his head into the ground.

RodgersWatch: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers finished with a passer rating of 120.2. He has now had at least a 110 rating in all 11 games this season, tying the NFL record set by Steve Young in 1994.

Injury report: These division rivals went after each other all game long, and the injury list got long enough that the Lions ended the game with receiver/special teams ace Rashied Davis reprising his role as a cornerback. For the Lions, running back Kevin Smith (leg), safety Louis Delmas (knee) and cornerback Chris Houston (knee) couldn't finish the game. For the Packers, linebacker Desmond Bishop (calf), guard Josh Sitton (knee) and linebacker A.J. Hawk (calf) all finished the game on the sideline. The Packers finished the game with Robert Francois and rookie D.J. Smith manning the inside linebacker positions.

What's next: Both teams will have a long weekend to recover from this game. The Packers will play Dec. 4 at the New York Giants. The Lions will play that night at the New Orleans Saints.