NFC North: 2013 Week 16 Rapid Reaction

Rapid Reaction: Chicago Bears

December, 22, 2013

PHILADELPHIA -- Here are a few quick thoughts on the Chicago Bears' 54-11 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field:

What it means: The drama of the NFC North race continues another week. With the perfect opportunity to clinch the division because of losses earlier in the day by the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, the Bears ran into a Philadelphia buzz saw and were shredded to pieces.

Because all three teams lost, Sunday’s matchup between the Bears and Packers at Soldier Field will decide the NFC North winner.

Given the chance to win the division, Chicago should’ve been plenty motivated to play against the Eagles. But this loss didn’t appear to be a result of a lack of effort by the Bears as much as a sign of how inadequately they appeared to be prepared on both sides of the ball to face the Eagles. On offense, Chicago’s offensive line struggled to protect quarterback Jay Cutler consistently, and the Eagles dropped him three times for sacks in the first half alone. Defensively, the Bears allowed LeSean McCoy to run roughshod. By the start of the fourth quarter, the running back had already torched Chicago’s defense for 95 yards and two touchdowns.

Rarity for Hester: Already down 7-0 after Nick Foles' 5-yard touchdown pass to Riley Cooper, the Bears suffered another crippling setback on the ensuing kickoff return. Devin Hester returned the kickoff 36 yards, but Bradley Fletcher stripped him at the end of the run with Cary Williams recovering. The recovery gave Philadelphia possession at the 39 with 9:45 left in the first quarter.

Prior to Sunday, the last time Hester suffered a lost fumble on a kickoff return was Oct. 25, 2009, in a 45-10 loss at Cincinnati, according to STATS Inc.

Offensive line horrid: Chicago’s revamped offensive line received plenty of publicity throughout the season for its dramatic improvement from last season, but the argument could be made that the unit caused most of the team’s struggles moving the ball against the Eagles.

By the start of the fourth quarter, Cutler had already taken five sacks, two from Mychal Kendricks and three from Trent Cole. Throughout the game, the quarterback rarely threw a pass without a defender in his face. Cutler also took several shots after throwing the ball.

The offensive line struggled to open holes for the rushing attack, too. Running back Matt Forte entered Sunday’s game coming off three consecutive 100-yard outings, only to finish with 29 on nine attempts. A third-quarter Forte attempt stuffed by Cedric Thornton for a 2-yard loss and a safety that made the score 26-3 pretty much summed up the offensive line’s performance against the Eagles: offensive.

Starters pulled: With eight minutes remaining and the Bears behind 47-11, coach Marc Trestman pulled several starters including Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Forte. Given the importance of Sunday’s season finale against the Packers, apparently Trestman didn’t want to risk injuring any of the key players in a game Chicago wasn’t going to come back and win.

What’s next: The Bears will take off Monday and Tuesday before returning to Halas Hall on Wednesday to begin preparations for the regular-season finale against the Packers. The winner of the matchup takes the NFC North crown.

Rapid Reaction: Green Bay Packers

December, 22, 2013
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A few thoughts on the Green Bay Packers' 38-31 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Lambeau Field:

What it means: The loss did not eliminate the Packers (7-7-1) from playoff contention, but it might be only a matter of hours before it does. If the Chicago Bears beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Sunday night game, the Bears will win the NFC North. It would make the Week 17 finale between the Packers and Bears a meaningless game from the Packers' perspective.

Stock watch: Quarterback Matt Flynn did not have another comeback in him. He turned the ball over twice. He threw an interception that cornerback Cortez Allen returned 40 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Then, with the game tied at 31-31, Flynn fumbled at the end of a scramble, giving the Steelers the ball with 1:51 left at the Packers' 17-yard line, setting up the game-winning touchdown.

Injuries galore: In a season filled with injuries, the Packers lost more playmakers against the Steelers. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews left in the second quarter with another thumb injury. On the 50th sack of his career, Matthews appeared to reinjure his right thumb, which he broke on Oct. 4. Matthews missed four games after he had surgery to place pins in his thumb. Running back Eddie Lacy dropped out in the third quarter after he reinjured his right ankle that he first sprained on Dec. 8 against the Atlanta Falcons. Linebackers Mike Neal (injury not immediately known) and Brad Jones (ankle) also did not finish the game.

Wild third quarter: In the third quarter alone, the Packers had a field goal blocked only to get the ball back and turn it into the go-ahead touchdown after the Steelers were called for illegally batting the ball out of bounds, then gave the lead right back to the Steelers, who went 68 yards on six plays, and then fell further behind when Flynn threw a pick-six. On the final play of the quarter, Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass.

What's next: The Packers close out the regular season against the Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field. The game is currently scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff but could be moved under the league's flexible schedule plan for Week 17.

Rapid Reaction: Detroit Lions

December, 22, 2013
DETROIT -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' 23-20 loss in overtime to the New York Giants.

What it means: In many ways, this was a fitting end to Detroit's season: a fourth-quarter turnover returned for a touchdown to tie the game, the Lions choosing to play for overtime instead of taking a shot of getting in field goal range on the last drive of regulation, then seeing their season end on a winning field goal in overtime.

This loss epitomized so many of the Lions' problems this season -- the turnovers, the questionable clock management and play calling and, ultimately, a collapse that saw Detroit go from controlling its own destiny to out of the playoffs in six days.

Yes, the Lions have one more game to play -- on the road at Minnesota -- but they are now out of the playoffs for the fourth time in five years under Jim Schwartz, and the Lions might be close to a coaching change.

Stock Watch: Rising -- Nick Fairley. The defensive tackle has games where he disappears. Then he plays like he did Sunday, where he recorded a safety and had multiple pressures on New York quarterback Eli Manning. Falling -- Matthew Stafford. Another game, the same problems over and over again. He threw another fourth-quarter interception -- this time a pick-six to Will Hill -- that took a seven-point Detroit lead and turned it into a tie game.

The case for Bell: After Reggie Bush lost another fumble -- his second since guaranteeing he wouldn’t fumble again this season in November -- Joique Bell received the majority of the work for the Lions in the backfield. Not surprisingly, Bell played well. He scored Detroit’s first touchdown of the game and kept the Lions in the game while the rest of the offense looked listless. He finished with 91 yards rushing and 63 yards receiving, and should make the Lions at least think about who should receive the majority of carries for Detroit the rest of this season and possibly beyond. He runs hard, smart and with patience.

What's next: The Lions have their season finale on Sunday at Minnesota.

Rapid Reaction: Minnesota Vikings

December, 22, 2013

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Minnesota Vikings' 42-14 loss against the Cincinnati Bengals:

What it means: Whatever momentum the Vikings had created last Sunday with a win against the Philadelphia Eagles, whatever spark they had provided embattled coach Leslie Frazier as he tries to keep his job, all blew away on Sunday. The Vikings looked as lifeless as they had all season, giving up two touchdowns in each of the first three quarters, turning the ball over three times in the first half and mounting little resistance in a blowout loss. Minnesota finishes the season 0-7-1 in road games, and after a blowout loss like this, it's tough to see Frazier lasting past next Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions.

Stock watch: Falling: Chris Cook. After missing last week's game because of a knee injury, the cornerback began the game out of the Vikings' starting lineup, and when he got in the game, the Bengals went after him. Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green for a touchdown after Green beat Cook on a double move, and the Bengals completed 21- and 13-yard passes to Marvin Jones against Cook on their next drive. Dalton later found Green for a 2-yard touchdown against Cook, who was called for a pass interference penalty on the same play. Cook is a free agent after the season, and he's probably cost himself a chance at a big contract with a miserable season. If he's back with the Vikings, it will likely be because he's available at a discount.

Cassel struggles: After throwing for 382 yards last Sunday against the Eagles, quarterback Matt Cassel brought the Vikings back to their familiar realm of awful quarterbacking. He was sacked on his first dropback of the game, setting up a Bengals touchdown, and wound up throwing three interceptions on a day when he hit just 13 of his 27 passes for 114 yards. The performance was reminiscent of what Christian Ponder had done in several games this season, and while the Vikings had already announced Cassel as the starter for the final game of the season, it will be interesting to see if Frazier goes in another direction now.

Patterson's big day wasted: Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson returned four kicks for 135 yards, taking advantage of the Bengals' inability to kick the ball out of the end zone. But the Vikings wasted a day of good field position, scoring just once after starting four drives past their own 40. One of the Vikings' two touchdowns was also created by Patterson, who took a handoff and scampered 35 yards for his second rushing score of the season. With Adrian Peterson playing hurt and limited to 11 carries, Patterson finished the day as the Vikings' leading rusher.

What's next: The Vikings (4-10-1) finish the season against the Lions, in the final game at the Metrodome next Sunday.