NFC North: Brandon Lloyd

Amid the chaos of the Brandon Marshall trade and the start of NFL free agency, Seth sent over a tweet that I'm guessing represented many of your thoughts: "Make me feel better about my Vikings doing absolutely nothing. Please."

I'm not sure if anyone expected the rebuilding Minnesota Vikings to jump into the first-hour bidding of free agency. But it's true they were quiet while many of the market's top receivers and cornerbacks -- two positions of acute need -- made plans to visit elsewhere.

Let's revise our list of the top seven receivers available with the best information we have on them, based mostly on the fast-moving Twitter feed of ESPN's Adam Schefter. At the moment, the Vikings aren't in on any of them.
  1. Vincent Jackson: Negotiating with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  2. Brandon Lloyd: Being connected to the New England Patriots but nothing concrete
  3. Reggie Wayne: Connected with Peyton Manning's destination, but nothing concrete
  4. Mario Manningham: Nothing yet
  5. Pierre Garcon: Signed with the Washington Redskins
  6. Laurent Robinson: Visiting the Jacksonville Jaguars
  7. Robert Meachem: Buffalo Bills, St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers have all expressed interest.

Meanwhile, cornerback Brandon Carr is receiving interest from the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, among other teams. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan is expected to visit the St. Louis Rams.

With all of that said, Seth and other Vikings fans, I wouldn't fall into hysterics quite yet. All the Vikings have done at this point is sit out the madness of the first few hours of free agency, a time best reserved for teams with fewer roster holes than the Vikings. I would frankly feel more critical if they had jumped out and paid, say, Garcon $20 million in guarantees. We'll judge the Vikings over time, but not based on the past two hours. As always, there will be value deals available in the coming days and weeks.

Feel any better, Seth?
We have two receiver-needy teams here in the NFC North, so for the sake of the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, if no one else, let's take a look at what's left of the receiver market after New Orleans Saints re-signed Marques Colston to a five-year deal earlier Tuesday.

As our guide, we'll use Matt Williamson's excellent ranking of the top 50 overall free agents available Insider. Below is how Williamson ranked the seven receivers (other than Colston) that he placed on the list.
  1. Vincent Jackson
  2. Brandon Lloyd
  3. Reggie Wayne
  4. Mario Manningham
  5. Pierre Garcon
  6. Laurent Robinson
  7. Robert Meachem

It's fair to say there is a significant drop-off after Jackson, one that will only enhance his value on the open market. The Bears have already had one go-around with Lloyd, and it wouldn't be surprising for Wayne to join quarterback Peyton Manning wherever he lands.

This is where free agency gets tricky, where contracts by rule are inflated. It's one thing to overpay for a Pro Bowl player. It's another to overpay for someone who can't play a lead role. Other than Jackson and perhaps Wayne, do you see a No. 1 receiver on this list? Nope. What you have is a list of players who fit closer into the No. 3 category than No. 2 seeking elite money. The Bears and Vikings must fight that temptation.

NFC North weekend mailbag

March, 20, 2010
3/20/10
12:00
PM ET
Get your motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Lookin' for adventure
And whatever comes our way
Yeah Darlin' go make it happen
Take the world in a love embrace
Fire all of your guns at once
And explode into space


I like smoke and lightning
Heavy metal thunder
Racin' with the wind
And the feelin' that I'm under
Yeah Darlin' go make it happen
Take the world in a love embrace
Fire all of your guns at once
And explode into space


Like a true nature's child
We were born, born to be wild
We can climb so high
I never wanna die


Born to be wild
Born to be wild


That’s right, folks! I’m heading down to Florida for Spring Break … er, the NFL owners meeting, which unofficially opens Sunday and continues through Wednesday. (Question: Does connecting Steppenwolf with Spring Break date me?)

I’m hoping to run in to a number of our NFC North heroes/owners/general managers/coaches during my time in Orlando, and I think have a pretty good idea of the questions you would want asked. If you want to make sure I know what you want to know, be sure to hit the mailbag, send me a Facebook message or Tweet me.

For now, let’s address some of your lingering questions and issues from last week.

Responding to our discussion on Chicago and free agent receiver Kevin Curtis, Steve of Herndon, Va., writes: Curtis caught 60 passes in Mike Martz's system but I feel like the Bears aren't going to sign any veteran wide receiver free agents. Fair or not, Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd has left a bitter taste in Jerry Angelo’s mouth.

Kevin Seifert: Yes, nothing the Bears have done in the past 12 months suggest they are eager to add a veteran receiver to their talented but experience-shy mix. They want Earl Bennett to continue developing, they envision Devin Hester as a playmaking slot receiver and got some strong flashes from youngsters Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu last year.

But here’s where I’m coming from: Curtis (or Torry Holt for that matter) wouldn’t necessarily mean a loss of playing time for any incumbent. I just don’t think there is any harm in depth and, more important, competition. If Bennett, Hester, Knox and Aromashodu are ready to step up like many believe they are, let’s see them go to training camp and beat out a veteran receiver with experience in Martz’s system.

While all four incumbents have high ceilings, they aren’t established enough to enter camp with minimal competition. Let’s see them earn their roles, and ultimately they’ll be better for it. And if they’re not up to it, the Bears could plug in Holt or Curtis. There’s a big difference between counting on a veteran player, as the Bears did with Booker and Lloyd in recent years, and employing them as safety nets.

Second, it’s always worth keeping an eye on available players with connections to the current coordinator. Look at what’s happened in Detroit. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has been reunited with former Minnesota receiver Nate Burleson and quarterback Shaun Hill. Martz, meanwhile, made a point to bring quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan with him to San Francisco a few years ago.

Will it happen? I don’t see much urgency on the Bears’ part. Should it happen? To me, there is no downside.


Lucas of St. Paul writes: What do you think are the chances of the Vikings picking up Nathan Vasher on a one or two year contract to attempt to patch the secondary holes that the Vikes need to fill? And if the did get him would they still probably draft a CB in the first or second round?

Three minutes later, Adam of Madison, Wis., wrote: I'm sure this question has been asked to you already, but do you think Vasher could have a chance in Green Bay?

Kevin Seifert: I understand the question. Both teams are a bit thin at cornerback because of knee injuries to Cedric Griffin (Minnesota) and Al Harris (Green Bay). And sometimes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But in this case, I guess I would ask Vikings and Packers fans to tell me what they saw from Vasher the past few years that would suggest he would be a significant improvement over their incumbent depth?

Vasher really hasn’t been a factor since the Bears’ Super Bowl run in 2006. Chicago is no deeper than the Vikings or Packers at cornerback, and they chose to move on rather than even attempt to negotiate a lower contract.

Vasher is certainly a recognizable name. But I’m not sure I would trust him any more than I trust the younger players currently on each team’s depth chart.


Cal of Eau Claire, Wis., writes: When will they officially release the 2010 schedule?

Kevin Seifert: The exact date hasn’t been announced, but typically it comes in the first or second week of April. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, we should get a few high-profile matchups announced next week at the owners meeting. That could include a national season-opener pitting Minnesota at New Orleans.


Alex of Wausau, Wis., writes: This new punter Green Bay signed from the Australian Football League, Chris Bryan, is he from Australia or what? I can't find any info on him other than he signed a three-year deal with the Packers.

Kevin Seifert: Yes, Bryan is in fact an Australian native who has been attending an academy known as Prokick Australia in hopes of making the transition to the NFL. According to this Australian media report, Bryan has played Australian rules football since 2005.

At this point -- and I emphasize we have many more points to go -- Bryan is competing with Tim Masthay for the Packers’ punting job. There is some precedent for Australian punters making it in the NFL. Success stories include Arizona’s Ben Graham, Philadelphia’s Sav Rocca and Dallas’ Mat McBriar.


Kody of Orem, Utah, tells us to pipe down after noticing our blurb about five years passing since the last time a Lions backup quarterback won a game: The Pack haven't had a backup QB win a game for them since 1992.

Kevin Seifert: Well-played. I can’t think of a better way to describe stability for one team and chaos for another.


CuRay of Albuquerque, N.M., writes: I am a huge lions fan. Do you think Detroit will take a long look at signing Justin Fargas or wait until the draft to find a new running back?

Kevin Seifert: I suppose it’s possible, but the Lions already have one veteran runner on their roster in Maurice Morris. At this point, it’s just as likely that they’ll sit tight on available runners like Fargas and see if they can find a younger, fresher set of legs in the draft. Running backs are quickly-spent commodities. More than any other position, it’s best to get them young.


Cody of Minot, N.D., writes: In re-signing Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, are the Packers sending the message to T.J. Lang that he is not a legitimate starter and is better off being a utility lineman? I myself am happy with what I saw out of Lang last year. I'm a little bit confused on this one. Sing the words of wisdom to me, Kevin.

Kevin Seifert: The hills are alive/with the sound of music… Oh, wait, you meant wisdom on Lang. I don’t think the Packers were necessarily sending him a message. I just believe they don’t want to enter the season with an unproven starter and no safety net. It’s still possible that Lang could end up starting in 2010. But unlike last season, the Packers will have both Clifton and Tauscher available for depth and competition.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

I think we pretty much covered the Brett Favre angle Monday night. The upshot for those who missed it: Favre said in a live televised interview that the health of his arm will dictate whether he signs with Minnesota later this summer. He clearly is hoping it will, referring to the Vikings as "we" at one point during the interview.

I've got a few projects swirling here Tuesday morning -- who could have anticipated such a newsy June here in the NFC North? -- so the blogging will be a bit light for the next few hours. Check back early this afternoon for our next installment of As Favre Turns.

Until then, let's catch up on local coverage around the division:

  • Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune writes that it's now the Vikings' turn to address the Favre situation in detail. That might be wishful thinking.
  • Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times writes that the Bears are among the teams to have contacted the agent for receiver Plaxico Burress. The Bears could eventually enter bidding for Denver receiver Brandon Marshall as well. General manager Jerry Angelo must weigh which is the bigger gamble: Burress/Marshall or entering the season "without an upgrade at wide receiver," as Biggs puts it.
  • Former Chicago receiver Brandon Lloyd signed with Denver. Here's the ESPN Chicago news story.
  • Bears defensive line coach Rod Marinelli on the limitations of defensive tackle Tommie Harris' knee: "We've got to be smart with him in camp, and he's got to be able to get to work to be sharp, but I'm really excited about the guy." Marinelli appeared Monday on ESPN 1000 Radio.
  • Former Detroit president/general manager Matt Millen on how his tenure with the Lions will aid his new jobs at ESPN and the NFL network: "You're only judged on wins and losses and so my tenure was not good. It was very poor. So instead, you learn a lot from failures, and I've learned a ton. So I can bring that to the table." Terry Foster of the Detroit News reports.
  • Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel looks at the adjustments required of Green Bay offensive lineman Allen Barbre, who is working as Mark Tauscher's replacement at right tackle.
Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

Scouts Inc.: Weaknesses
• AFC: South | East
• NFC: North | South
The Chicago Bears paid a huge ransom to get themselves an ultra-talented, big-armed quarterback in Jay Cutler. This is a guy who can make every throw in the playbook and create the velocity to pierce the elements at Soldier Field. Chicago also invested in veteran offensive linemen such as Orlando Pace to enhance the running game and to keep Cutler upright. But what did the Bears do to improve a very mediocre group of wide receivers from a year ago? Not very much.

 
  G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images
  Devin Hester is the most dangerous option in an otherwise ho-hum receiver corps.

The most interesting -- and electric -- member of Chicago's receiver corps is clearly Devin Hester. Hester was basically a non-position player coming out of the University of Miami and while he remains very much a work in progress as a wide receiver, he has steadily improved and showed glimpses last year of developing into an extremely dangerous offensive playmaker. He needs to become more consistent on a week-to-week basis, but few are as lethal with the ball in his hands. Personally, I like what I saw last year from Hester and he could really be primed to take the next step with Cutler behind center.

The Bears pretty much know what they have in incumbents Brandon Lloyd and Rashied Davis. They combined for 61 receptions and four receiving touchdowns. To me, this is pretty much what we can expect this season as well. If these two are the Bears' third and fourth wide receivers, they will be in decent shape, but neither is what you want in a starter.

Chicago also has two very young wideouts of interest in Earl Bennett (Cutler's former teammate at Vanderbilt) and this year's draft pick, Juaquin Iglesias. Bennett did little last year as a rookie, but was extremely productive in the Southeastern Conference. Both players have fine possession skills and there should be hope that one or both can become a suitable intermediate target as soon as this year.

While the wide receiver position is foggy right now, Chicago does have a few excellent peripheral pass-catchers in Matt Forte, Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark to supplement what is required from their wideouts. Olsen in particular could be primed for a breakout season with the arrival of Cutler.

The arrival of Cutler should make those around him better. But still, I see this football team as a one go-to wide receiver away from being among the best teams in the league. That final piece may have to wait until next year.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Rosalita came out Monday night at the Xcel Energy Center. Let's see if she visits you Tuesday at the United Center. Best of luck.

And maybe, just maybe, she'll feat new Chicago tight end Michael Gaines -- who agreed to terms Monday with the Bears. (Killer segue, if I do say so myself.) Gaines, released shortly after the draft by Detroit, offers a strong blocking option to the Bears' receiving duo of Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen.

Unless Clark or Olsen is injured, Gaines will be competing for the No. 3 tight end spot. Gaines could also figure in a hybrid role as a tight end/blocking fullback, writes Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.

If he makes the team, Gaines will earn $1.25 million in 2009, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald wonders if the Bears were soured on veteran receivers after Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd produced underwhelming seasons in 2008.
  • Green Bay safety Nick Collins insists he has stayed away from some offseason workouts because of family reasons, not because he is unhappy with his contract. Greg A. Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has the story. Bedard also notes that Collins' statement contradicts that of coach Mike McCarthy, who has said that "business" has played a role in the situation.
  • If you come to Packers games via U.S. 41 -- including anyone in the Appleton, Wis., area -- you might want to read about the construction planned for the highway. Patti Zarling of the Green Bay Press-Gazette has details.
  • Detroit signed former Green Bay defensive end Jason Hunter, according to Scout.com via the Detroit News. The Packers released Hunter because he didn't fit into their new 3-4 scheme.
  • Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune offers more details from Vikings president Mark Wilf's public comments on the possibility of acquiring quarterback Brett Favre. Included is this quote from Wilf: "We just feel as a whole, as a roster, we are trying to improve every day, but we feel we made a lot of steps to improve off an NFC North Division win, and I think we are ready to take that next step and to go all the way."
  • Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway on Favre: "He's retired a couple of times, so you wonder where his loyalties lie." Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has that and more.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Larry Fitzgerald streaks down the middle of the field for a 64-yard touchdown. Santonio Holmes snatches the ball from the air, deftly keeping his toes planted on the black part of the end zone.

Many factors contributed to the scores that electrified the final three minutes of Super Bowl XLIII. Arizona and Pittsburgh boast innovative offensive schemes. Both teams are led by Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks. And at least some of it boiled down to the simple fact that Holmes, and to a greater extent Fitzgerald, are productive receivers with dynamic skills.

A handful of NFL teams subordinate the importance of receivers in building a roster, including a certain member of the NFC North, which considers it a secondary position and a disproportionate weight on both the salary cap and cashflow. The Chicago Bears entered the offseason with a host of priorities stacked ahead of improving their thin receiver group, and it remains to be seen whether the course of the 2008 playoffs will impact their plans.

Top Receiver on 2008 Playoff Winners
Team Receiver Yardage
Pittsburgh Hines Ward 1,043
Arizona Larry Fitzgerald 1,431
Baltimore Derrick Mason 1,037
Philadelphia DeSean Jackson 912
San Diego Vincent Jackson 1,098

 Four of the five teams that won a playoff game in 2008 boasted a 1,000-yard wide receiver during the regular season. Philadelphia was the only team that did not, but rookie DeSean Jackson was close with 912 yards. In the Super Bowl, Fitzgerald and Holmes combined for 37 percent of the total offense and 50 percent of the touchdowns despite touching the ball on 14 percent of the plays.

These figures don't provide conclusive proof that blue-chip receivers are mandatory pieces of a championship puzzle. They do, however, demonstrate that a receiver can make a great impact despite limited touches; it was more than notable that the Cardinals and Steelers both relied on wide receivers with the championship on the line.

The Bears, on the other hand, set themselves up for an unproductive season from their receivers in 2008 by failing to replace the departed Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad. They mostly relied on tailback Matt Forte and the tight end duo of Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen in the passing game while awaiting Devin Hester's development. Hester finished the season as Chicago's leading receiver but his production ranked deep in the netherworld of NFL statistics.

Devin Hester's 2008 Rankings
Category Among WRs Among all pass-catchers
Rec
(51)
46th 63rd
Yards (665) 42nd 49th
TDs
(3)
44th 61st

Rashied Davis (445 yards), Brandon Lloyd (364) and Marty Booker (211) combined for fewer yards than Fitzgerald accumulated on his own during the regular season. Booker is the only current Bears receiver with a 1,000-yard season in his career, and that came six years ago. The Chicago passing offense, while not the primary reason the Bears missed the playoffs, finished the season ranked No. 21 in the league.

And yet when Bears general manager Jerry Angelo stepped to the podium last month, he emphasized quarterback play as his primary focus. It is a defensible priority considering Kyle Orton's second
-half slide, but what Angelo said next was a cause for at least some concern.

"I know that there is going to be a lot of talk about a No. 1 receiver," Angelo said. "Guys, it starts with the quarterback. It's all about the quarterback. You don't win because of wide receivers. You don't win because of running backs. You win because of the quarterback. We've got to get the quarterback position stabilized. We're fixated on that and I don't want us to lose sight of that. The rest of that is peripherous stuff. That's something that if you don't have anything to write about, you'll write about that. It starts with the quarterback and that's the bottom line."

(Thanks to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times for posting the transcript of Angelo's news conference.)

It's true: The Bears don't necessarily need to acquire one of the top receivers expected to be available this offseason, whether it is Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh (free agent) or Arizona's Anquan Boldin (likely trade). But there is a happy medium between a Boldin-type receiver and the group the Bears have now.

Someone like Pittsburgh's Nate Washington (40 receptions for 631 yards in 2008) could help and wouldn't upset the Bears' cap structure. It might be worth signing Dallas' Sam Hurd, a restricted free agent who is recovering from ankle surgery, to an offer sheet.

Otherwise, the Bears are limiting the ceiling for Orton's improvement if they rely on the same formula as 2008. A soft-handed tailback and two good tight ends are not enough options for an offense that strives for balance. And from this vantage point, the Bears don't have enough potential for internal improvement to stand pat.

If Hester starts 2009 the way he finished 2008, he could push toward 1,000 yards. But Davis? He has proved to be, at best, a No. 3 receiver. Booker? He hasn't played a full season since 2002. Lloyd? His contract expires this month and the Bears hardly seemed enamored with him last season. Earl Bennett? His next NFL catch will be his first.

There are plenty of ways to win games in the NFL, and a big-time receiver isn't part of a mandatory formula. Competence and consistency are required, however, and for the Bears that would be an upgrade.

Hot stove: Chicago Bears

January, 23, 2009
1/23/09
10:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Let's continue our early look at the NFC North offseason with this season's second-place team.

Chicago Bears offseason analysis

  • 2008 record: 9-7
  • Coaching changes: Hired Rod Marinelli to replace defensive line coach Brick Haley. Put defensive coordinator Bob Babich in charge of linebackers, replacing Lloyd Lee. (Babich won't call defensive signals.) Replaced defensive backs coach Steve Wilks with Jon Hoke.
  • Salary-cap space: $17.4 million before end-of-year credits and adjustments.
  • Restricted free agents: None of note.
  • Unrestricted free agents: Safety Mike Brown, quarterback Rex Grossman, running back Kevin Jones, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, safety Brandon McGowan, offensive lineman Fred Miller, offensive lineman John St. Clair.
  • Draft highlight: The Bears have the No. 18 overall selection.
  • Free-agency comment: It seems unlikely the Bears will bring back Brown or Grossman. Jones was nearly a nonfactor and reduced to special-teams work. Lloyd's fade in the second half of the season suggests the Bears won't be eager to bring him back.
  • Three biggest needs: (1) Playmaking receiver to draw coverage away from Devin Hester. (2) A coverage-oriented safety to replace Brown and protect Kevin Payne. (3) A trusted running back to take some burden off starter Matt Forte. (Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times wonders if holdover Garrett Wolfe might get that chance.)

NFC North injury roundup

December, 10, 2008
12/10/08
4:51
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

We have a lot of significant injury information flowing Wednesday afternoon here in the Black and Blue. Let's take a team-by-team look:

Chicago: The Bears have listed receiver Marty Booker (cracked rib) as doubtful for Thursday night's game against New Orleans. Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times reports Booker almost certainly won't play. For a while now, the Bears have been relying on Devin Hester, Rashied Davis and Brandon Lloyd as their top three wide receivers.

Detroit: Quarterback Daunte Culpepper (shoulder) was on the Lions practice field for warm-ups, but that's about it. Coach Rod Marinelli told reporters that Culpepper is "more doubtful than probable" for Sunday's game at Indianapolis. Former starter Dan Orlovsky practiced Wednesday but is still recovering from a hand injury, making it increasingly likely that Drew Stanton will get his first NFL start. The Lions' other option, barring a quick turnaround from Culpepper, would be Drew Henson.

Green Bay: The Packers have ruled out safety Atari Bigby (ankle) for Sunday's game at Jacksonville. That means cornerback Charles Woodson will make his third consecutive start at the position. Linebacker Brandon Chillar (groin) was limited and could give way to Desmond Bishop for the second consecutive game.

Minnesota: Quarterback Gus Frerotte said late Wednesday afternoon that he heard something "pop" when he injured his lower back Sunday at Detroit. Asked if he has a fractured bone, as has been reported, Frerotte said: "No." Frerotte said he hopes to return to practice at some point this week but that he is uncertain when or if it will happen. ... Frerotte and defensive end Jared Allen (knee) were two of five players who sat out practice. Coach Brad Childress said Allen is expected to play Sunday at Arizona.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

After the Bears' 27-3 victory at St. Louis, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:

1. Linebacker Lance Briggs apparently asked a group of reporters Sunday if it looked like the defense "wanted it" Sunday against the Rams. It was a reference to an interview from earlier in the week, when Briggs said the Bears' defense will improve when it wants it enough. This was a timely week for Briggs to bring that dynamic into play; the Rams' offensive line is injury-depleted and couldn't have handled much of anyone Sunday. But to their credit, the Bears didn't let up: Five sacks and four interceptions made for their best performance in a long time.

2. This is neither here nor there, but I've been impressed with how many times I've seen diminutive Garrett Wolfe show up on special teams. Wolfe is listed as 5-7 and 186 pounds, but he's managing to be on the active roster every week primarily because he is willing and able to participate on coverage teams. His latest example was chasing down St. Louis' Derek Stanley at the end of a 75-yard kickoff return. Wolfe prevented a touchdown, and ultimately the Rams came up empty-handed on the ensuing drive.

3. Both of tailback Matt Forte's touchdowns Sunday came on inside trap plays. Left guard Josh Beekman made an especially good block on the first. It's a perfect playcall for a north-south runner like Forte.

And here is one question I'm still asking:

Is anyone going to emerge from the Bears' receiving position, which has produced 16 catches in the past three games? Everyone assumed that tight ends Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark would be the team's primary receivers, but when things were going well earlier this season, the Bears were getting weekly contributions from Rashied Davis, Brandon Lloyd and Marty Booker. Davis and Lloyd combined for two receptions Sunday, and Booker didn't play because of a knee injury.

'A race to the finish'

November, 18, 2008
11/18/08
12:00
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
NFC North leaders' remaining schedule
WEEK 12:
Chicago at St. Louis
Minnesota at Jacksonville
Green Bay at New Orleans (Monday night)
WEEK 13:
Carolina at Green Bay
Chicago at Minnesota (Sunday night)
WEEK 14:
Houston at Green Bay
Minnesota at Detroit
Jacksonville at Chicago
WEEK 15:
New Orleans at Chicago (Thursday night)
Green Bay at Jacksonville
Minnesota at Arizona
WEEK 16:
Atlanta at Minnesota
Green Bay at Chicago (Monday night)
WEEK 17:
New York Giants at Minnesota
Detroit at Green Bay
Chicago at Houston

Cue the dramatic music.

Bum-bum-bummmmm.

Three teams.

Six games.

One playoff spot.

(Or so we presume based on the current NFC standings, in which eight teams have a better record than the NFC North co-leaders.)

Bum-bum-bummmmm.

By NFL rule, someone from the log-jammed Black and Blue must win the division and advance to the playoffs. And as Chicago coach Lovie Smith pointed out, after 11 weeks of football, "we're starting over again."

The Bears are tied with Minnesota and Green Bay atop the division. All three teams have a 5-5 record, separated only slightly by their performance in division games. (The Bears and Packers are 3-1 against NFC North opponents, while the Vikings are 2-2 -- a distinction that could play a tiebreaking role at the end of the regular season.)

"It will be a race to the finish," Vikings coach Brad Childress said.

"It's really a six-game season," observed Packers coach Mike McCarthy.

So let's reset ourselves. If this is Week 1, Part II, who is the favorite to win the division title? Other than the Vikings' tiebreaker deficit, the field is wide open. Or is it? Let's examine the possibilities:

CHICAGO BEARS

  • Remaining strength of schedule: .400 (24-36)
  • Head coach's career record in final six games of season: .500 (12-12)
  • Ascending or descending: Two consecutive losses
  • You're only as good as your last game: 37-3 loss at Green Bay

How they could win it: The Bears have the friendliest remaining schedule. They must face three 5-5 teams (Minnesota, Green Bay and New Orleans), but two of those contests will be at Soldier Field; they have no remaining opponents with a winning record. Quarterback Kyle Orton is back on the field, his sprained ankle presumably improving. Orton now has a full complement of receivers with the return of Brandon Lloyd. Two of the Bears' six remaining games are indoors, where the passing game will be unaffected by weather. If Smith and defensive coordinator Bob Babich make a few schematic adjustments, the Bears could level off their defensive freefall. And you have to figure that Devin Hester will pop one sometime, don't you?

How they could lose it: It's difficult to move past the kind of pent-up frustration many Bears players are expressing. It's pretty clear they are dissatisfied with the defensive scheme and aren't certain they're being put in the best position to succeed. Such feelings usually take weeks, not days, to get over. And as long as some Bears are fixated on those issues, it's hard to imagine a unified run at the playoffs. Opponents have exposed their defensive weaknesses for all to see. In response, coaches have been shuffling defensive personnel all season -- but the result has been a visible lack of continuity that might be hard to re-establish.

The key player: Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. Outside linebacker Lance Briggs has performed at a high level all season, but obviously it hasn't been enough. The Bears' defense centers on the middle linebacker. Urlacher hasn't produced the big plays that made him a perennial Pro Bowler, but his position and status make him the best candidate to energize the defense. That is, if he can. If Urlacher can't raise his game down the stretch, it's hard to imagine the Bears' defense making the necessary improvements.

The key game: Dec. 22 vs. Green Bay. "Monday Night Football." Soldier Field. If the Bears have any pride, they'll be building to that rematch. Ultimately, this Week 16 game could decide the division.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

  • Remaining strength of schedule: .417 (25-35)
  • Head coach's career record in final six games of season: .667 (8-4)
  • Ascending or descending: Lost two of past three
  • You're only as good as your last game: 37-3 win over Chicago

How they could win it: The Packers' offensive line dominated against the Bears after an uneven performance this season. If it proves to be a turning point, the Packers should be able to capitalize on their array of skill players to keep defenses off balance. Meanwhile, an unintended consequence of linebacker Nick Barnett's season-ending injury could be an improved run defense. At this point, replacement A.J. Hawk might be better suited to stop the run than Barnett. As for the schedule, Green Bay will get its toughest remaining opponent -- the 8-2 Carolina Panthers -- at Lambeau Field.

How they could lose it: One of the Packers' top weapons is pass defense, but you could only consider two of their remaining opponents -- New Orleans and Houston -- to be pass-first teams. That scenario could mitigate a top attribute. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has proved his toughnes
s this season, but if anything were to happen to him, it's hard to imagine a positive outcome with rookie Matt Flynn running the offense.

Key player: Running back Ryan Grant. Last season, Grant rushed for 563 yards and seven touchdowns as the Packers won four of their final six games. Green Bay has four potentially difficult weather games remaining: Three home games and the Dec. 22 matchup at Chicago. But even in perfect conditions, it's obvious how an effective running game enhances this offense.

Key game: Nov. 24 at New Orleans. True, this is not a division game. But conference record plays a role in tiebreakers too. More important, it will be instructive to find out whether the Packers merely caught the Bears at the right time, or if they have made a permanent turn north. A victory over an explosive but flawed Saints team -- and not just a competitive performance -- would provide ample proof that the Packers are up to the challenge of winning this division.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

  • Remaining strength of schedule: .517 (31-29)
  • Head coach's career record in final six games of season: .500 (6-6)
  • Ascending or descending: Won two of past three
  • You're only as good as your last game: 19-13 loss at Tampa Bay

How they could win it: When Adrian Peterson is in the backfield, anything is possible. We saw how Peterson can will his team to victory Nov. 9 against Green Bay. The emergence of receiver Bernard Berrian ensures the Vikings will have a viable alternative should opponents gang up on Peterson. Gus Frerotte is the most experienced -- but not the most careful -- quarterback in the division and isn't fazed by big-game pressure. Although Minnesota's remaining schedule is difficult, it does not include a bad-weather venue. In fact, the Vikings will play at least four and possibly five games indoors if Arizona closes the roof Dec. 14.

How they could lose it: It's hard to imagine the Vikings winning more than half of their games without defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, and that is a kind assessment. (Let's not even discuss the possibility of a Jared Allen suspension.) Because of their tiebreaker disadvantage, the Vikings might need a 5-1 finish to ensure the division title. That's a difficult task considering they finish against Arizona (7-3), Atlanta (6-4) and the New York Giants (9-1). Finally, do you trust their special teams to go mistake-free for six games?

Key player: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whose decision on the defensive line will make or break the Vikings' season. Simply put, they have a chance with both Williamses and Allen. Without them, it would be nearly hopeless.

Key game: Nov. 30 vs. Chicago, Sunday night football. The Vikings almost certainly need to sweep their remaining division games, starting with this matchup at the Metrodome. A loss would eliminate the Vikings in any head-to-head tiebreaker with the Bears as well as give them a near-crippling 2-3 division record. Even a four-game winning streak to end the season might not be enough.

UPDATE
So how do I see this division finishing up? I was asked that very question Tuesday afternoon in a SportsNation chat. I didn't set out to pick a winner, but I'm thinking the Packers have perhaps the most realistic road to the division title in a flawed division.

Here's how I put it in Tuesday's chat:

BJ (Des Moines): Packers, Bears and Vikings continue to look hot and cold from week to week. How do you see the remaining six games playing out?

SportsNation Kevin Seifert: I played out some scenarios on the blog today. The Vikings have the most difficult schedule and the Bears have the most obstacles in terms of their internal problems. That leaves the Packers as the pseudo-favorites.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

One bit of business escaped us Friday: Justin Harrell, Green Bay's increasingly enigmatic former first-round draft choice, sprained his knee Thursday and sat out Friday's practice.

Harrell is listed as questionable on the injury report, although coach Mike McCarthy said he was leaning toward letting Harrell play in Sunday's game against Chicago. Still, it's another physical mishap for a player who entered the league with a history of injuries.

Harrell played in only seven games as a rookie, and a pair of back surgeries sidelined him for the entire offseason, training camp and the first six games of this season. He hasn't stood out since returning to the field, but the Packers need him to help maintain a healthy rotation among their defensive tackles.

McCarthy will make a final decision on Harrell's status Sunday morning. By that time, we'll be in place at Lambeau Field and will update you accordingly.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • The Packers have lost more yards due to penalties than any other NFL team, but McCarthy isn't overly concerned. Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal breaks down the issue.
  • The Bears are working on their defense against slant patterns, according to Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Rookie receiver Earl Bennett hasn't gotten much of a look this season from the Bears, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. That doesn't figure to change upon the expected return of veteran Brandon Lloyd.
  • Minnesota tailback Chester Taylor is finding a niche as a receiver out of the backfield, writes Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Vikings safety Madieu Williams on his latest injury, a shoulder ailment that could keep him out of Sunday's game at Tampa Bay: "It's kind of unfortunate, but there are worse things that could happen. I just have to bounce back." Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune has more details.
  • One year ago this week, Detroit was 6-2. Since then, the Lions have lost 16 of 17 games. John Niyo of the Detroit News lays out the debacle.
  • Lions offensive coordinator Jim Colletto on the debut of quarterback Drew Stanton: "I thought he did good." Colletto, as Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press points out, said two weeks ago that he was concerned Stanton would embarrass himself on the field.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times has an interesting column Wednesday about the extended recovery time for Bears receiver Brandon Lloyd, who sprained his knee Sept. 28 and has missed five games -- over a course of six weeks -- for what was originally deemed a 2-4 week injury.

When a player misses more time than expected, it's usually because the injury was worse than the team let on. Most players have non-guaranteed contracts and fear job loss if they don't return as quickly as possible.

But Mulligan writes that the Bears essentially punished Lloyd for taking too much time. Lloyd said several weeks ago that he didn't want to return until he was 100 percent healed -- a rarity for an NFL player -- and the implication is that the Bears lost faith in him.

Here's how Lloyd, who hopes to play Sunday at Green Bay, explained his mindset:

"What I meant is that I want to be able to make the kind of moves I always make -- run the kind of routes and make the kind of cuts. If I don't have that confidence, I'm worthless. If I'm not out here playing how I normally play, what good am I?"

Lloyd was the Bears' leading receiver in terms of yardage when he was injured, and the reality is the Bears still need his playmaking ability. At the same time, Lloyd needs to get back on the field. The Bears took him off the scrap heap, and a sour end to this season could scuttle his final chance in the league.

Elsewhere around the NFC North:

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Divisional rivals always like to point out how their opponents have changed when it comes time for the second matchup of the season. This week Green Bay has had good reason to take a second look at Minnesota.

The Vikings are 4-2 since switching to quarterback Gus Frerotte and are averaging 27.8 points in their past five games. That latter mark is the fifth-best figure in the NFL over that stretch. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said this week that the Vikings offense is running plays he didn't see in preparing for the teams' Sept. 8 opener at Lambeau Field, noting many of them are similar to ones he uses in Green Bay's downfield passing offense.

The Vikings have made 32 plays of 20 or more yards, just five off the NFL lead. Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune writes that coach Brad Childress deserves credit for turning around his once-clunking offense.

Childress, though, might have saved the season -- or at least extended his team's window of competitiveness -- by having the guts to make a quarterback change after two games. He recognized that he could have lost a veteran lockerroom that has experienced too little success since his arrival, and he installed a quarterback who has proved to be inspirational in terms of toughness and leadership, even if he is older than Joe Kapp. Whatever your perceptions of Childress, the numbers indicate that his offense has thrived with Frerotte under center.

Childress has listened to Frerotte's play suggestions for several weeks, writes Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Frerotte:

"At my point in my career I'm also saying I don't have anything to lose with telling them what I think about plays and how I feel about things. We've been open and honest since the beginning, and it's been really good."

The Vikings will need an explosive offense Sunday against the Packers, whom they haven't defeated since Nov. 21, 2005.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • Packers left tackle Chad Clifton discusses the allergic reaction he suffered to an anti-inflammatory drug before last Sunday's game at Tennessee. As Greg A. Bedard and Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel write, Clifton's body swelled and he had difficulty breathing. The Packers' medical staff reversed the reaction with other medication, but Clifton did not play.
  • Rookie tight end Jermichael Finley apologized for his frontal criticism of Packers coaches and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, according to Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "I promised [McCarthy] that it's not going to happen [again]," Finley said, "and I'm going to keep my head on right and just do what I'm trying to do."
  • The Chicago Bears practiced in the rain Thursday at Halas Hall, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. It was another reason for holding out quarterback Kyle Orton (ankle).
  • Receiver Brandon Lloyd might have rankled some people in the Bears organization by saying he didn't want to return from a knee injury until he is 100 percent healed, according to David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune. Lloyd returned to full practice mode this week.
  • Take it from someone who was at practice: Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press writes that Lions quarterback Daunte Culpepper looks sharper than quarterback Drew Stanton -- at least in individual drills.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Yes, Chicago quarterback Kyle Orton refused to rule himself out of Sunday's game against Tennessee. But if everything follows the most likely scenario, with Orton sitting and Rex Grossman starting, the Bears' game day backup would be rookie free agent Caleb Hanie.

A prospect originally destined for the practice squad, Hanie put forth a preseason performance that forced the Bears' hand. Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald points out the highlights.

"I feel like I am ready," Hanie said, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. "Am I completely ready to make all the right checks and everything? Probably not. But I think I am ready to get in there, make some plays and make smart decisions."

Orton didn't practice Wednesday and almost certainly won't see the field Thursday. But it's unlikely, as David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune points out, that the Bears will drop the charade of his potential availability for Sunday's game. It's all part of a carefully orchestrated script to keep the Titans guessing.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • LeGere also notes that receiver Brandon Lloyd participated in all of practice Wednesday for the first time since spraining his knee Sept. 28.
  • Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette looks at the surprising situation of Packers receiver James Jones, who opened the season as the team's No. 3 receiver but now can't get back on the field after recovering from a knee injury. Jones was a healthy scratch from last Sunday's game at Tennessee.
  • Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel compares contract details between the extensions of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Dallas quarterback Tony Romo. Rodgers' deal has a higher average over the first three years, an important benchmark in NFL contracts, but Romo received $10 million more in guaranteed money.
  • Minnesota left tackle Bryant McKinnie said he is still working off the rust from his four-game suspension earlier this season. McKinnie told Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune: "My weight is good; I'm in good shape. It's just getting my confidence back because I haven't been here for a little bit. So certain things I do, I probably lack a little confidence in, but I'm getting it back slowly. I'm just going to continue my progress and work to get better each game."
  • Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press notes the uptick in explosive plays for the Vikings' offense.
  • John Niyo of the Detroit News provides a partial transcript of new Lions quarterback Daunte Culpepper's first interview session. Asked about his conditioning, Culpepper said: "I was coaching my son's [pee wee] team and after practice, believe it or not, I was doing a little running, just in case the opportunity came. I'm not there yet, but I'll be there shortly."
  • Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press suggests a politically-themed slogan for the Lions' plans to start Culpepper against Jacksonville on Sunday: "No ... they ... can't."

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