NFC North: Andrew Luck

MINNEAPOLIS -- It appears the Minnesota Vikings' efforts to land another receiver named Carter will come up empty-handed.

ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported on Tuesday evening that Montreal Alouettes receiver Duron Carter -- a CFL All-Star and the son of Vikings Hall of Famer Cris Carter -- is closing in on an agreement with the Indianapolis Colts. After Carter worked out with the Vikings on Jan. 9, he said the team was at the top of his list, along with the Colts, and it's believed Carter was being offered a three-year deal with a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $100,000. That's big money for a CFL receiver, and when Carter narrowed his list down to two teams late last week, the Vikings appeared to still be in the thick of things.

[+] EnlargeCarter
Claus Andersen/Getty ImagesIt appears CFL star Duron Carter, the son of Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, will not be joining the Vikings.
There are some valid reasons for Carter to head to Indianapolis, though, and as you might expect, the biggest one wears No. 12. Andrew Luck directed the league's most prolific passing offense last season, and the Colts' receiver group could be in flux with Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks possibly on the way out. Carter also has a couple former college teammates on the Colts' roster in linebacker Jonathan Newsome and running back Trent Richardson. And while he'll always be compared to his father on some level, those comparisons would be much louder in Minnesota. If part of Carter's motivation was a desire to forge his own path, there's something to be said for that.

What we can draw from the process, though, is further confirmation the Vikings are in the market for a receiver. They'd stayed in touch with Carter since his rookie camp tryout two years ago, and they liked the idea of pairing him with Teddy Bridgewater. There will be other avenues available to the Vikings if they want a playmaking wideout this offseason. The team is still hoping Cordarrelle Patterson can emerge in Year 3, though it remains to be seen if he'll work in more of a specialty role than as a split end. Players like Louisville's DeVante Parker and West Virginia's Kevin White could be options with the 11th overall pick, and there's plenty of talent among this year's group of unrestricted free agents. If Carter does indeed finalize a deal with the Colts -- as it appears he will -- the Vikings will have lots of other options this spring.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – If Tony Romo was among Aaron Rodgers' top competition for the NFL MVP award, then the All-Pro voting released on Friday should squash that notion.

Rodgers
 Rodgers was selected as the quarterback on the Associated Press All-Pro team released Friday. The Green Bay Packers quarterback received 44 of the 50 votes, while Romo received three votes. Tom Brady (two votes) and Andrew Luck (one) received the other quarterback votes. The Associated Press also conducts the voting for the MVP award.

Fullback John Kuhn was the only other Packers' player to be named to the first team despite playing only 18.3 percent of the offensive snaps this season. He received 18 votes to edge Kansas City's Anthony Sherman (14).

The full All-Pro voting can be found here.

"Those nominations and achievements are great but ultimately at this time of the year, it's about winning championships," Rodgers said. "That’s what we're focused on. Anything else is kind of icing on the cake for us. But I'm especially excited for John."

Jordy Nelson was third among all receivers, meaning he was a second-team selection. Only two receivers make the All-Pro first team. Given how little teams use fullbacks anymore, it might be time to scrap that in favor of a third receiver.

Just don't tell that to Kuhn.

"The fullback position here isn't as traditional as it was back in the 1980s," said Kuhn, a fan favorite despite only 24 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown this season. "We can mix it up, and we can do different things."

Josh Sitton was third among guards, meaning he was a second-team selection for the second straight season.

Perhaps Rodgers' biggest competition for MVP might be J.J. Watt. The Houston Texans defensive stalwart was one of two unanimous selections. The other was New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The question came up on our MVP roundtable debate, which can be found here: Will the timing of Aaron Rodgers' bad game -- one he called a "stinker" -- last Sunday in the road loss against the Buffalo Bills hurt his MVP chances?

Rodgers
Apparently not much, at least according to one oddsmaker.

The online sportsbook Bovada.LV still has Rodgers as the favorite. Two weeks ago, the same sportsbook listed Rodgers as a 1-to-2 favorite to win the MVP. This week, Rodgers was listed at 1-to-3. Tom Brady (5/1) was listed second with J.J Watt (7/1) third.

Here are the full odds for MVP this week (with the odds two weeks ago in parenthesis)
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- This should come as no surprise after Sunday's 26-21 victory over the New England Patriots, but the Green Bay Packers are now the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl.

That's according to the online sportsbook Bovada.LV, which released its latest odds on Wednesday.

The Packers' odds to win the Super Bowl now stand at 7-to-2, followed by the Patriots (15/4) and Denver Broncos (17/4).

Last week, the Packers were behind the Patriots (see accompanying chart).

Of course, the Packers were also listed as the favorite in the NFC at 3-to-2 ahead of the Seattle Seahawks (13/4), Philadelphia Eagles (6/1), Detroit Lions (10/1), Arizona Cardinals (12/1) and New Orleans Saints (12/1).

On Tuesday, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on his ESPN Milwaukee radio show that he didn't think much would change for the Packers even though most will consider them the Super Bowl favorite.

However, Rodgers has said several times over the years that he likes being an under-the-radar team.

"Early in the season, yeah," Rodgers said on his show, "and then you like the mystique to start to grow."

Rodgers also was listed as the favorite to win the MVP, which would be his second such award. His odds were listed at 1-to-2 ahead of J.J. Watt (5/1), Peyton Manning (13/2), Tom Brady (15/2), Andrew Luck (12/1) and DeMarco Murray (25/1).
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- In the recent annals of performances by rookie quarterbacks, the number of times Teddy Bridgewater's been taken to the ground has been startling.

The Minnesota Vikings rookie quarterback has been sacked 15 times in just four games, or on 11 percent of his dropbacks.

In other words, according to ESPN Stats and Information, Bridgewater is on pace to be the most frequently-sacked rookie quarterback in the league since the Dallas Cowboys' Chad Hutchinson in 2002. He's been pressured on 27.9 percent of his dropbacks, and he's thrown just one touchdown pass against five interceptions so far.

Bridgewater
 I've heard some talk recently about the idea that the Vikings could be "ruining" Bridgewater by exposing him to so much pressure -- and running the risk of either getting him injured or making him skittish -- as a rookie. The name David Carr usually comes up in these conversations as a cautionary tale, after the former first overall pick was subjected to 76 sacks in the Houston Texans' inaugural season, and then another 173 in the following four seasons, before the Texans let him go.

It's true that the list of the most-sacked rookie quarterbacks in history (usually passers playing for bad teams behind leaky offensive lines) includes a number of busts: Carr tops the list at 76, followed by Tim Couch at 56, Jake Plummer at 52, Dieter Brock at 51, Tony Banks at 48 and Rick Mirer at 47. But then we come to names like Warren Moon and Jim Kelly (albeit after time in the CFL and USFL, respectively), and Andrew Luck, who was taken down 41 times as a rookie and pressured on 28.8 percent of his dropbacks while playing for a team that threw the ball 627 times. Phil Simms took 39 sacks as a rookie. Russell Wilson was sacked 33 times, Joe Flacco 32 and Ben Roethlisberger 30.

It'd be one thing to worry if Bridgewater was showing signs of letting the rush affect him, either by taking off early or hurrying throws to avoid sacks. We've seen him rush throws on a couple occasions, but not to the point where I'd attribute it to something more deep-seeded than a rookie still figuring out his timing in the NFL. He rebounded from two interceptions on Sunday, making some of his best throws when he stood in the pocket and fired decisively to a receiver, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner sounded pleased on Thursday with how composed Bridgewater has remained in the face of all the pressure.

"He's got good sense in the pocket. He's getting better at getting the ball out," Turner said. "He threw the ball away a couple times Sunday when there was nowhere to throw it, where against Detroit [on] those plays he took sacks. We're working on getting him a lot quicker, we're working on design to help get the ball out quick, we're working on protection so we don't have to have the conversation about how he handles it."

If the Vikings keep giving up pressure to the point where Bridgewater's sack totals are pushing into the 50s, then we might have something to worry about long-term. But right now, the issue seems to be affecting the Vikings' ability to win in the present more than it's stunting Bridgewater's growth. The amount of pressure the Vikings have allowed is alarming, especially from an offensive line that was supposed to be one of the team's strengths. But the Vikings were drawn to Bridgewater in part because of how masterfully he handled pressure in college, and any sense of a maladjustment because of what he's faced as a rookie probably is premature.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Eddie Lacy is many things -- the Green Bay Packers' standout running back, the reigning NFL offensive rookie of the year and one of the most popular young players in the league.

Could he be the next face of the EA Sports Madden video game?

The 2013 second-round draft pick who last season set a Packers rookie rushing record with 1,178 yards is one of 16 players vying for the honor to be on the cover of the upcoming Madden '15 game.

The winner will be determined by fan voting based on head-to-head matchups. Lacy must outgain New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in order to move on to the next round. First-round voting, which can be done by clicking this link, ends Thursday.

Perhaps if Lacy moves on, he will take his Madden cover campaign to video in the form of these highly entertaining spots with other finalists Andrew Luck and Alfred Morris. Check out Luck's video here and Morris' video here.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Three years ago, the Minnesota Vikings took Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick in the draft, setting in motion a chain of events that ended -- or at least crossed the start/finish line for a second lap -- on Thursday night, when they spent the 32nd overall pick on Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, hoping to give new coach Mike Zimmer a better solution at quarterback than they gave former coach Leslie Frazier.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWith QB Christian Ponder mostly ineffective in his three seasons in Minnesota, the team will be looking to quickly develop Teddy Bridgewater.
It was no surprise at all the Vikings would take a quarterback high in the 2014 draft, after emerging from the rubble of what turned out to be a disappointing 2011 quarterback class. What was interesting, though, was how much company they had in making a quick pivot at the position.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns became just the fourth, fifth and sixth teams in the common draft era to take a quarterback in the first round for the second time in three years. Before Thursday night, it had never happened twice in the same draft, and it hadn't happened at all since 2005, when the Washington Redskins took Jason Campbell three years after drafting Patrick Ramsey.

There are multiple reasons why it's easier to move on from quarterbacks after the 2011 collective bargaining agreement than it used to be, but the structure of the current CBA -- and the profound changes it's enacted on rookie contracts -- might also be driving teams to be less patient. Gone are the days of contracts like the six-year, $78 million deal the St. Louis Rams had to give No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford in 2010.

It's much less cost-prohibitive to replace a quarterback, with both salaries and contract guarantees down significantly for young players, and there's also an incentive to get players on the field sooner. Four of the final six teams playing last season -- the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts -- all had quarterbacks playing in their rookie deals, and all four got high-level quarterback play at a price that allowed them to spend money on other players. Those teams all have bills coming due for Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck, respectively, but they've combined to get seven playoff appearances out of those players while ranking in the bottom half of the league in quarterback spending.

With quarterbacks directing more complex offenses in college and high school, it's easier to expect more out of them at a young age, and while the Vikings have talked about wanting Bridgewater to sit this season, it wouldn't be surprising if they want to have him on the field by 2015. They've got a little extra time, thanks to the fifth-year option that will automatically be added to his contract after they took him in the first round, but one of the best tools in roster construction these days is to have good quarterback play at below-market cost.

If the Vikings can capitalize on those years from Bridgewater, they'll be in great shape to put a playoff team around him. If they can't? Well, as Ponder can attest, it isn't expensive to be impatient in today's NFL.

NFLN survey/franchise player: Vikings

January, 16, 2014
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It's probably no coincidence that all 10 Minnesota Vikings players surveyed for ESPN's NFL Nation Confidential survey named a quarterback when asked whom they would take if they had to start a team with one player. New England's Tom Brady, Denver's Peyton Manning and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers claimed all 10 votes, from a team that's been without a consistent starting quarterback for almost a decade and might not have had a bona fide franchise QB since Fran Tarkenton in the 1970s.

But the Vikings were hardly alone in that opinion. Of the 320 players ESPN surveyed, more than 220 provided the name of a quarterback when they were asked that question. Manning won the ballot, with 62 votes -- six more votes than Andrew Luck, his successor in Indianapolis. Brady finished third with 41 votes, Rodgers came in fourth with 40 and Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson finished fifth with 37. Johnson finished higher than any non-quarterback, and then the results dropped all the way down to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who finished sixth with 20 votes.

It's impossible to know how every player answered the question, and Manning's age (37) might have led some players around the league to vote for Luck, who's the only quarterback in his 20s among the top four. But it's a hypothetical question, and if we're answering regardless of age, it's hard to come up with a name other than Manning, who just finished the most prolific season by a quarterback in NFL history.

Vikings players who voted for Manning certainly admired what he did this season, and given the team's current state at quarterback, the Vikings can't be blamed for wishing they had someone such as Manning, whose father finished his career playing in the Metrodome. As the Vikings prepare to possibly select their next quarterback in this spring's draft, Manning is still the gold standard of what they'd hope to find.

NFLN survey/franchise player: Packers

January, 16, 2014
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Our latest NFL Nation survey asked players around the league to pick one player with whom they would start a franchise.

Nearly 13 percent of the players surveyed picked Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. While that doesn't sound like an overwhelming number for a former league MVP, the leading vote getter, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, tallied only 19.3 percent of the vote.

Rodgers came in fourth behind Manning, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (17.5 percent) and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12.8 percent). In all, 37 different players received votes in this category.

Keep in mind that most of the polling was done midway through the season, when Rodgers was sidelined because of his broken collarbone. In a fully healthy season, perhaps Rodgers would have garnered even more votes. Had this poll been conducted in 2011, when Rodgers was on the way to leading the Packers to a 15-1 regular season, he might have come in at the top of such a list.

The fact that more players chose the 37-year-old Manning and the 36-year-old Brady over Rodgers, 30, and Luck, 24, tells how players think -- they want to win now.

Upon Further Review: Colts Week 16

December, 23, 2013
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- An examination of five topics from the Indianapolis Colts' 23-7 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

[+] EnlargeDonald Brown
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsDonald Brown had 110 total yards and two scores against the Chiefs.
Charles causes pain: Colts defensive lineman Cory Redding left the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury. He said it happened while trying to tackle Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles. “I was trying to get a diving tackle on Jamaal and landed on my shoulder, and it just kind of popped out and came back in,” Redding said. “I’m good to go. I’m from Texas where we’re tough.” Redding took part in the sack party that the Colts had on Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. Redding had a sack and recovered a fumble.

What can Brown do for you? Running back Donald Brown rushed for a team-high 79 yards on 10 carries with a touchdown. His 51-yard touchdown is the longest run of the season for the Colts. Brown also had two catches for 31 yards and a touchdown. The 110 total yards are a season high for Brown. He’s averaging 5.6 yards a carry this season. That average is good enough for second-best in the NFL among running backs with at least 90 carries. That’s the good. Here’s the not-so-good part. The rest of the Colts are averaging 3.7 yards a carry this season, with quarterback Andrew Luck averaging 6.1 yards a carry.

Protecting the ball: Protecting the football is part of the reason the Colts have a chance to match their win total of 11 from last season. They didn’t commit a turnover against the Chiefs and have committed a league-low 14 turnovers this season.

Toler returns: Cornerback Greg Toler returned to the lineup for the first time in seven weeks. He didn’t start, but the fact that he was able to play after an extended absence because of a groin injury was a step in the right direction for him. Toler didn’t have any tackles. “I was happy. I was able to get my foot in the ground when I wanted to,” Toler said. “They had me on a couple of meds before the game, but I was happy to have a chance to get back out there. I’ve been past the stage of thinking about my groin.”

Moving up the rankings: Luck was 26-of-37 for 241 yards and two touchdowns. Luck is 7 yards shy of surpassing Carolina quarterback Cam Newton for the most passing yards in the first two seasons of a career. Luck shouldn’t have a problem moving ahead of Newton because the Colts close the regular season against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 29. Luck threw for 257 yards against the Jaguars in the Week 4 meeting between the two teams.
Another in a series of posts circling back on the 2012 season and some of our preseason themes:

Burnett
Burnett
In 2012, 38 NFL players stayed on the field for 100 percent of their teams' plays. Of that that total, 34 were offensive linemen -- a position where players are rarely rotated or used situationally.

That breakdown generated a unique accomplishment for Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett, who was one of four non-offensive linemen in the NFL to achieve 100 percent participation in 2012. The others were St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinitis and two quarterbacks, the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers, and the Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck.

Good fortune has to be considered part of playing 100 percent of a team's snaps rather than 99.7 or 99.2. A torn shoelace or blade of grass in the eye can force a player off the field for a play or two. Some players are given unscheduled rest at the end of a blowout victory or defeat.

And in Burnett's case, it's also worth noting that like offensive linemen, safeties aren't typically rotated. In fact, of the nine defensive players with the top play-time percentages last season, five were safeties.

But let's not allow those qualifiers to diminish Burnett's achievement. At various points in the season, the Packers lost more than a half-dozen defensive starters to injury. Burnett, on the other hand, provided the most basic service imaginable in a team sport: He was available at all times. He has now started 32 consecutive games for the Packers after his rookie season was cut short by a knee injury in 2010.

I'm not sure if Burnett's level of play reached the point the Packers were hoping in training camp, when coach Mike McCarthy said he would "definitely be somebody that they'll be talking about throughout the league." Burnett was the Packers' second-leading tackler (137), according to the team's internal film review, but wasn't the kind of consistent playmaker that generates Pro Bowl buzz.

For the season, Burnett had two interceptions and two sacks. He forced two fumbles and batted away 13 passes. But in what might be an offseason of upheaval for the Packers' defense, you can rest assured that they can rely on at least one of their safety positions.

Inside Slant: 2012 rookie performance

December, 26, 2012
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We have spent time this season breaking down the "Fail Mary" and its implications in every way imaginable. In this week's Inside Slant podcast , Mike Sando and I discussed the possibility that the player who threw the infamous pass -- Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson -- could win the NFL's Rookie of the Year award.

The award is highly competitive this season given the performances of Wilson, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III. No one in the NFC North is in the mix, but I thought the podcast would give us an opportunity to review the top rookie seasons in the division here on the blog. One look at eight rookies in the NFC North who merit mention for their performance in 2012:

Player: Minnesota Vikings place-kicker Blair Walsh
Comment: A strong Pro Bowl candidate who has converted 32 of 35 attempts, including an NFL-record 9-for-9 from at least 50 yards, and has the NFL's fourth-best touchback ratio (62.0) on kickoffs.

Player: Green Bay Packers cornerback Casey Hayward
Comment: Tied for fifth in the NFL with six interceptions even though he has only played about 65 percent of the Packers' defensive snaps. Also ranks third in the NFL with 26 pass breakups.

Player: Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil
Comment: Has stabilized the Vikings' pass protection. Quarterback Christian Ponder has been sacked 30 times, the 12th-lowest mark in the NFL, and Pro Football Focus has assigned only one of those sacks to Kalil.

Player: Vikings safety Harrison Smith
Comment: Has brought play making to a position of historic weakness for this team. Has 98 tackles and three interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.

Player: Chicago Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery
Comment: Injuries have limited Jeffery to nine games, but he has proved a physical and dangerous downfield receiver. Among his 20 receptions are three touchdowns.

Player: Detroit Lions offensive lineman Riley Reiff
Comment: Displayed his athleticism in a regular role as a third tight end. Reiff also looked competent in one start at left tackle in place of starter Jeff Backus.

Player: Lions receiver Ryan Broyles
Comment: Like Jeffery, Broyles didn't play much. But over about a third of the season, Broyles showed he could get open. He caught 22 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns.

Player: Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels
Comment: Daniels hasn't played as much as fellow rookie Jerel Worthy, but he has had some nice moments. Daniels has two sacks and made one of the Packers' biggest plays of the season by returning a fumble 43 yards for a touchdown in Week 14.

Did I leave anyone out?

Final Word: NFC North

November, 30, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 13:

Non-Favre dominance: Over the past six years, the only time the Minnesota Vikings have won at Lambeau Field was when Brett Favre was their quarterback. All told, the Green Bay Packers have won five of the past six games between the teams there. In his career, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has 19 touchdown passes and three interceptions against the Vikings. The Packers have been vulnerable this season to teams with strong frontline pass-rushers, and it's worth noting that Vikings defensive end Jared Allen has sacked Rodgers 12.5 times in eight career games. But Allen doesn't have a sack in his past three games this season and is tied for No. 19 in the NFL with seven sacks on the year. The return of Packers receiver Greg Jennings (abdomen) will give Rodgers another outlet if he does find himself under pressure.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireThe Vikings have given Adrian Peterson the ball on just 20 percent of third- and fourth-down plays in which they need three yards or less.
Using Peterson: You would think the Vikings' offense will need to score more than its 2012 average of 22.5 points per game to win Sunday. Converting third (and fourth) downs is the key to sustaining scoring drives, of course, and you wonder if that will necessitate a change in the way the Vikings have used tailback Adrian Peterson this season. Last Sunday at Soldier Field, Peterson touched the ball only once on seven plays the Vikings ran when they faced third- or fourth-down and 3 yards or less. Overall this season, Peterson is getting the ball on 20 percent of those occasions, significantly less than his career average of 33.3 percent. Perhaps it's no surprise that the Vikings have the NFL's second-worst conversion percentage of third downs with 3 or fewer yards to go.

Power of Soldier Field: The Seattle Seahawks have continued riding their home-road roller-coaster this season, the most obvious reason all but two of ESPN's experts have picked them to lose Sunday to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Seahawks did beat the (Jay Cutler-less) Bears on the road last season, but in 2012 they are 1-5 away from CenturyLink Field and have now had a losing record on the road in six consecutive seasons. The Bears are 5-1 at home this season, their only loss against the 10-1 Houston Texans when Cutler was knocked out of the game just before halftime. The Bears' rebuilt offensive line will have its hands full with a Seahawks pass rush that has 29 sacks, tied for the ninth-most in the NFL. But recent history suggests the Bears should win this game.

Tight coverage: There was a moment earlier in the week when it appeared the Seahawks wouldn't have either of their starting cornerbacks, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, who are awaiting an appeal hearing to avoid four-game NFL suspensions. They remain eligible for this game and will provide formidable opponents for Bears receiver Brandon Marshall. With Sherman and Browner in the lineup, the Seahawks have the NFL's second-best defense on passes thrown outside the numbers and more than 10 yards downfield. Basically, that means it's really difficult to hit deep sideline routes against them. The Bears, however, have hardly focused their offense on such throws and figure to do so even less with Devin Hester (concussion) sidelined. Cutler has directed almost two-thirds of his throws (177 of 286) over the middle, as defined by the receiver catching the ball inside the numbers.

Shootout at Ford Field: We will see a matchup of two gunslinging former No. 1 overall draft picks who each has one of the NFL's most productive receivers at his disposal. The Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck has thrown 125 downfield passes (15-plus yards past the line of scrimmage), more than any other quarterback. The Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford ranks second with 106. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson leads the NFL with 1,257 receiving yards, while the Colts' Reggie Wayne ranks second with 1,105 yards. Luck has not played nearly as well on the road as he has at home this season, having thrown four touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in five games. The Lions, meanwhile, have lost three of their past four home games to see their playoff hopes all but eliminated. If nothing else, this should be a fun game. All but two of ESPN's experts picked the Lions to win.

(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)
On paper, at least, the Arizona Cardinals' quarterback shift sounds favorable for the Minnesota Vikings. Backup John Skelton is expected to start Sunday at the Metrodome, providing the Vikings with a stronger-armed but far less mobile adversary than the injured Kevin Kolb.

The Cardinals have allowed an NFL-high 28 sacks, including 23 in their past three games alone, and Kolb was injured last Sunday while running for his life in a loss to the Buffalo Bills. The Vikings' two losses this season have each come against teams whose quarterbacks broke the pocket against them.

Indianapolis Colts rookie Andrew Luck gained 21 key yards on four scrambles and avoided several near-sacks in Week 2. Meanwhile, Washington Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III scrambled for a game-clinching 76-yard touchdown and a total of 138 yards last Sunday at FedEx Stadium.

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

October, 8, 2012
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After the Green Bay Packers' 30-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    The Packers will take second looks at injuries to tailback Cedric Benson (foot), nose tackle B.J. Raji (ankle) and tight end Jermichael Finley (shoulder) in the coming days. But to me, the Benson injury had the biggest impact on Sunday's game. Coach Mike McCarthy clearly didn't trust back Alex Green with the original game plan. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers dropped back to pass on 30 of their 44 plays after Benson departed in the second quarter. Prior to the injury, they had a nearly even split (nine passes in 17 plays). This season, the Packers' offense has been at its best when McCarthy keeps his play calling relatively even. It's no coincidence that Rodgers was sacked five times and forced to scramble on four other drop backs after Benson departed. If he has a long-term injury, you wonder if James Starks will re-emerge as the Packers' lead runner. The Packers simply haven't found success as a pass-only offense this season.
  2. We noted last week that the Packers avoided the onset of "Snowball Effect," refusing to allow a Week 3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks to become the start of a bad run. But after opening a three-game road swing with a loss, the Packers are facing a tough prospect: They'll have to defeat the currently 4-0 Houston Texans next Sunday night to avoid a two-game losing streak that would leave them at 2-4. Plenty of people are referencing the Packers' 2009 turnaround, but let's not forget they were 4-2 and then 4-4 before finishing the season on a 7-1 run. This team is still capable of big things, but for the second time in the first five weeks of the season, it's facing the possibility of falling two games below .500. If they are 2-4, the Packers will have to finish at least 7-3 to be in the playoff conversation at the end of the season.
  3. The sudden NFL-wide accuracy on long-distance field goals has skewed our expectations for place-kickers. Just a few years ago, a 50-plus yard attempt to tie or win a game would have been considered desperate. Now, many of us expected Mason Crosby to trot onto the field Sunday and drill his 51-yard attempt to tie at the end of regulation. You would hope that a veteran like Crosby would make it closer than he did on what was clearly a mis-hit ball, but I find more fault elsewhere for this defeat. You can start with the failure to run one more play to get Crosby a little closer. Still, here are the facts: Subtracting Crosby's two misses Sunday from beyond 50 yards, NFL placekickers are hitting almost 75 percent of similar attempts (29-of-39) this season.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Is the Packers' defense substantially improved from last season? Through five games, I'm not sure we can answer that question. It has had two dominating performances, in Week 2 against the Chicago Bears and the following week against the Seahawks. On the other hand, the Packers have allowed a 446-yard game to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and a 125.6 passer rating to the San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (362 yards) torched them throughout Sunday's game, and on his final drive he completed four of five downfield passes. That's 808 passing yards allowed in the past two games. Is it that the Packers still can't compete against good quarterbacks but have taken better advantage of poor performers (or performances)? Is it a reflection of their youth? I don't know, but the Packers will need to even it out if they intend to make the playoffs. Their offense might not be able to bail them out in 2012.

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