NFC North: Carson Palmer

Reggie Bush and Carson PalmerGetty ImagesReggie Bush and Carson Palmer have given their respective teams major upgrades on offense.

A lot has happened since the Detroit Lions' most recent trip to University of Phoenix Stadium, last December.

The Arizona Cardinals hired an entirely new coaching staff and enlisted a veteran quarterback to bolster the offense. The Lions, meanwhile, added a shifty new running back by the name of Reggie Bush. In last year’s meeting, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford played poorly, and it allowed the Cardinals to break a nine-game losing streak.

My, how times have changed. The Lions are flying high off a season-opening victory against NFC North rival Minnesota, while the Cardinals are still trying to find their footing in 2013.

Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein discuss Sunday’s matchup.

Josh Weinfuss: A lot has been made of offseason additions on both sides. How has the Lions' offense changed by adding Bush?

Michael Rothstein: It has definitely become much more dynamic. You'll see a lot more screen passes and short passes to get Bush in space and allow him to create. The perfect example came on the 77-yard screen that went for a touchdown against the Vikings. Not sure the Lions had anyone with that kind of speed out of the backfield last season. Add to that Bush's ability to run between the tackles when he needs to, and it creates another dimension for defenses to be concerned about. No longer is it pay attention to Calvin Johnson and make Detroit's other pieces find a way to win. If teams do that, Bush will force them to abandon that strategy.

Sticking with offense, has the addition of Carson Palmer aided the passing game for both Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd?

Josh Weinfuss: Without a doubt. Palmer has brought not only stability to a position that's been a hurricane in the three seasons since Kurt Warner retired, but also talent. The proof of that came Sunday when Palmer and Fitzgerald connected for two touchdowns -- one on a 4-yard fade to the back left corner, the other on a 25-yard beauty that dropped into Fitzgerald's hands. Last season, Cardinals quarterbacks targeted Fitzgerald nine times in the red zone and didn't complete any. Palmer is already 2-for-3 in the red zone to Fitzgerald. Floyd also will benefit from Palmer's accuracy. With Floyd being a larger target than Fitzgerald, Palmer can get a little more creative with where he throws the ball, an issue all four Arizona quarterbacks had last season.

Let's switch sides of the ball. After his incident against the Vikings, is Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh becoming a distraction already this season?

Michael Rothstein: Distraction? No. The reason I say that is most people around the Lions have been around this situation before with Suh. If his teammates are telling the truth and indeed accepted his apology, it should be a nonissue for most in the locker room -- for now. Where it becomes a problem, perhaps, is if Suh does something like this again. It should become a distraction or an issue only if he were to be suspended in the future.

Since you asked about Suh, how does Arizona's offensive line deal with him, Nick Fairley and the rest of Detroit's deep, talented defensive line?

Josh Weinfuss: This is a different situation from Week 1, when the Cardinals focused on stopping two very strong outside rushers. With Suh and Fairley coming up the gut, Arizona will have to rely on its guards and center more -- which could be an issue, considering that right guard Paul Fanaika played in his first game in almost two years Sunday. Don't expect the Cardinals to overload the box with blockers. Palmer said he'd rather have less time to throw and more options downfield, but the Cardinals more than likely will keep a running back home to pick up that inside rush and a tight end on the outside to allow the tackle to cheat over and help the guard.

Speaking of the offense, has any team figured out how to slow down Johnson, because stopping him is unlikely -- and if anyone has slowed the stud receiver, how'd they do it?

Michael Rothstein: Kind of, Josh. Kind of. Johnson had four catches for 37 yards against Minnesota on Sunday. While he was targeted nine times -- and missed two touchdowns by not much -- the addition of Bush to the Lions' offense has taken some pressure off Johnson. When Minnesota chose to try to take away Johnson, Detroit focused on letting Bush operate. While I don't think teams will ever take Johnson out of the game while he is in his prime, it wouldn't shock me if he has some games in which Detroit looks to Bush more instead of always featuring Johnson. That, of course, just makes the Lions' offense much more difficult to stop.

I'll wrap it up with a question to you. How much is Patrick Peterson going to be involved in the offense? And can he be a true two-way player, be it this week or beyond?

Josh Weinfuss: Ideally, Peterson would play a prominent role in the offense. And the Cardinals have planned for that, installing a package specifically for him that was, at last check, 60 plays deep. They want him out there, so much so that on cut day, coach Bruce Arians said Peterson would be considered the Cardinals’ fifth receiver. But with all the hype, he played only three offensive snaps. Granted, Peterson’s involvement will always be dictated by the situation, but I think a lot of people were expecting more in Week 1. As to your second question, that’s tough to answer. Peterson is already playing nearly every down on defense and is the Cards’ primary punt returner. He’s young -- 23 in July -- so his body can handle it, but I don’t know whether there’s anyone these days getting significant time in all three facets. He’s more likely to get hurt on offense, but if he can make an impact on defense, special teams and offense, you’re looking at a potential MVP.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer spoke with the Detroit media Wednesday ahead of Sunday's visit from the Lions.

Here, in friendly bullet points, are the highlights of what they said:

  • Arians discussed one of the more interesting topics these days for opposing defenses -- how to handle both Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson: "The addition of Reggie has really helped and added to their arsenal of weapons, which is already one of the best in the league. It's a matter of how you want to defend both those guys." For what it is worth, Minnesota clearly chose to try to take away Johnson, which allowed Bush to gain 191 yards of offense.
  • Cornerback Patrick Peterson has been playing some offense for Arizona. He apparently has 60 offensive plays in the playbook for him. Sounds like Arians is going to try to balance his work on defense and offense as much as possible.
  • Of course, Arians was asked about Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and Arians repeated what he said last season -- that he would want Suh on his team. But when it came to the hit on Minnesota center John Sullivan, he had a fairly blunt take: "I thought it was obviously uncalled-for and against the rules. I think he's known since, probably high school football, that after an interception you can't block below the waist. He might have been too concerned about hitting somebody in the head, but it's just poor judgment at that time." Arians added that he does not expect Suh to change how he plays.
  • This is pretty interesting. Arians was asked about the impact of Peterson on drafting his former college teammate, Tyrann Mathieu: "There wouldn't have been a pick if it wasn't for Patrick."
  • He and Larry Fitzgerald worked out as much as they could, including for "a handful of days" in July when they were off.
  • Palmer on Bush, who also went to USC: "I loved it. I remember watching his highlight film when I was in college. They were excited about the guy they were getting, and I was watching his San Diego high school football film saying 'Wow, this kid is something special.' You could tell back then what he was going to be in college. Just a phenomenal college career, obviously."
  • Palmer said Peterson would be a factor in the offense. Couldn't say how many plays, but he will factor in.
Reviewing Saturday's action at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum:

Oakland Raiders 31, Detroit Lions 20

Preseason record: 1-2

Of interest: We hashed through the Lions' injury situation late Saturday night. The big news is that X-rays on quarterback Matthew Stafford's left hand were negative. Although the Lions don't provide explicit injury information, they usually differentiate between a minor injury and one that is long-term. Indications were that Stafford suffered the former when the Raiders' Dave Tollefson hit the hand and drove him into the hard infield dirt. … Running back Mikel Leshoure played in his first game since Dec. 2010, touching the ball eight times, including one play wiped out by penalty, and grossing seven yards. Six of those came on his lone pass reception. His most important accomplishment was getting his proverbial feet wet again. … Linebacker Stephen Tulloch's interception was caused when safety John Wendling knocked the ball out of the hands of Raiders receiver Eddie McGee. … It was an active night for the Lions' defensive line. Ndamukong Suh had a sack, Willie Young intercepted Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer and Nick Fairley had a tackle for loss.

Local coverage: Stafford said it was "scary" to see his hand "swelling up by the second," but added, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "Probably what would have happened in a regular-season game is right after it happened I would have just run up for X-rays and if they said they were negative I would have come back in the game." … The Lions' most serious injury might have been to cornerback Chris Houston (ankle), according to Chris McCosky of the Detroit News. Coach Jim Schwartz: "He was not able to return. We will have to evaluate him when we get home. Hopefully we can get him back as quick as we can." … Schwartz on the game, via Anwar S. Richardson of "There were a lot of guys that didn't play their best." … Leshoure played 18 consecutive snaps, via Birkett, and said: "It felt good man. Felt good to be back on the field with my teammates, being back to football, getting a little contact out there. Definitely not where I need to be, but it felt good to get my feet wet a little bit, get out there, get a couple carries." ... Tailback Kevin Smith, via Richardson, on his sprained ankle: "It's just a minor tweak, something I'm pretty sure I can get rid of quick. Just stay in the training room. More than anything, I was very scared. Just being that I had a high ankle sprain, I know how long it took to get back healthy. It's not a high ankle sprain, so that's positive. I'll get in the treatment room and get back as soon as I can."

Up next: Thursday against Buffalo Bills


NFC North Stock Watch

December, 20, 2011
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


1. Health, Chicago Bears: The Bears led a charmed life on the way to their 2010 NFC North title, losing only a handful of starts because of injury all season. But their four-game dive in 2011 has coincided with injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. Receiver Johnny Knox has been lost for the season, and receiver/kick returner Devin Hester clearly has been limited by an ankle injury. Two members of their Week 1 offensive line, left guard Chris Williams and right tackle Gabe Carimi, are also on injured reserve. I've always considered it silly to say that injuries come in bunches, but that has been the case this season for the Bears and provides a ready-made excuse for why they are likely to miss the playoffs in 2011.

2. Offensive line, Green Bay Packers: It's very possible that the Packers will have replacement starters at three of their five positions Sunday night against the Bears. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse will make his 10th start at left tackle after taking over for veteran Chad Clifton, who has been working through hamstring and back injuries. Left guard T.J. Lang could move to right tackle, replacing Bryan Bulaga (knee) and Derek Sherrod (broken leg). And that would mean Evan Dietrich-Smith would return to the starting lineup in Lang's spot. Dietrich-Smith made two starts earlier this season in place of right guard Josh Sitton (knee). That's hardly the kind of continuity you want heading into the playoffs, but the Packers have dealt with such issues before.

3. Sleep totals in Detroit: Lions coach Jim Schwartz admitted it Monday. "I'm just tired as hell," he said during a news conference less than 24 hours after his team pulled off a wild comeback victory in Oakland. In the interim, the Lions made the long flight back east and immediately began preparations for the biggest week in recent team history. Playing a day early because of the Christmas weekend, the Lions are hoping to clinch their first playoff berth since 1999 with a win Saturday over the San Diego Chargers. There won't be much time to sit by the fire or sip eggnog this week. Serious business is at hand.

[+] EnlargeCliff Avril
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesCliff Avril came up big with a sack of Carson Palmer in the final minute of Sunday's win over Oakland.

1. Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions defensive end: I know we've been touting Avril regularly here on the blog, but something caught my eye late in Sunday's game that merits a mention. Moments after Calvin Johnson's go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, television cameras showed Avril pointing demonstratively at defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and then at defensive tackle Corey Williams. Poking both in the chest, Avril appeared to be saying something along the lines of: You make a play. As it turned out, Avril made one himself a few minutes later, sacking quarterback Carson Palmer and forcing the Raiders to use their final timeout. Suh went on to block the Raiders' attempt at a winning field goal. Avril now has 11 sacks this season, but it was also nice to see him recognize the moment and, as a leader, challenge his teammates in a positive way.

2. Questions about Jermichael Finley, Packers tight end: When the season began, there were those who thought Finley was the best young tight end in the NFL. The New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (15 touchdown receptions) has captured that title, and Finley has regressed a bit in the past month with more drops than the Packers would like to see. He entered Sunday's game at Kansas City with five drops in 66 targets, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and probably had three more against the Chiefs, depending on how strict of a grader you are. Finley blamed no one but himself for the drops, and we should note that his 41-yard catch to set up the Packers' first touchdown required a high degree of skill and concentration. But through 15 weeks of the season, I'm not sure we can say Finley has broken through to the degree most thought he would. He'll need 10 catches over the next two weeks to match the career high of 55 he set in 2009 -- in 13 games.

3. Jim Kleinsasser, Minnesota Vikings tight end: Multiple reports suggest Kleinsasser is prepared to retire at the end of his 13th season, marking the end of a career that is to be admired in many ways, even if it rarely was reflected in the box score. Few recall that Kleinsasser was emerging as a reliable receiving threat in the early 2000s before he tore his ACL in Week 1 of the 2004 season. Since then, he has handled one of the NFL's most inglorious jobs with aplomb, serving as a blocking tight end/quasi-third tackle and earning the respect of three different coaching staffs along the way. His approach has been a model for anyone who wants to maximize an NFL career. For 13 years, Kleinsasser has hit people hard and kept his mouth shut.

Wrap-up: Lions 28, Raiders 27

December, 18, 2011

Welcome, Detroit Lions, to the land of the winning.

And, for that matter, welcome to the postseason.

In a fashion we've come to expect from their 2011 team, the Lions secured their first winning season since 2000 and are in excellent shape for their first playoff appearance since 2000. Sunday's thrilling victory over the Oakland Raiders, the Lions' fourth comeback from deficits of 13 or more points this season, raised their record to 9-5. Losses Sunday by the Chicago Bears and New York Giants give the Lions a healthy two-game lead for the NFC's final wild-card position with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

At this moment, I don't think the Lions have clinched a playoff spot, nor does it appear the Bears have been eliminated. NFL officials, as well as our friends at ESPN Stats & Information, are still running the numbers. But suffice it to say, the Lions are in pretty good shape.

I've already told you what this victory means. Now let's move on to some things I liked from what I saw of this game in the Arrowhead Stadium press box:

Final-drive theatrics: In relative terms, the 98-yard drive that ended with Calvin Johnson's game-winning 6-yard touchdown catch is every bit as meaningful as The Drive that got the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl in January 1987. It might have been the difference between a 2011 playoff spot and another offseason of disappointment for this franchise. Quarterback Matthew Stafford completed four passes to Johnson on the drive and a fifth resulted in a 17-yard pass interference to put the Lions in a goal-to-go situation. It was great to see Stafford zero in on the Lions' best chance to score in what initially appeared to be a remote situation. Remember, the Lions took over at their 2-yard line with 2:14 remaining. Johnson finished with a career-high 214 receiving yards and now has a career-high 14 touchdown receptions this season.

StaffordWatch: After his fumble gave the Raiders a 27-14 lead with 7:47 remaining, Stafford threw for a total of 156 yards and two touchdowns. I would say that's how you want a franchise quarterback to respond under playoff pressure.

Suh-spotting: Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had one tackle in his return from a two-game suspension, but his block of Sebastian Janikowski's 65-yard field goal attempt sealed the victory on the final play. A 65-yard attempt is a low-percentage kick, even with Janikowski's strong leg, but credit Suh for ensuring that the ball never got a chance to approach the uprights.

AvrilWatch: I thought defensive end Cliff Avril made the defensive play of the game, continuing his pursuit of Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer and eventually sacking him with 13 seconds left to play. The sack cost the Raiders 3 yards and forced them to use their final timeout, severely limiting their options for the next two plays.

What's next: The Lions will host the San Diego Chargers on Saturday at Ford Field.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 16, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 15:

March toward history: No Super Bowl champion has opened the following season with 14 consecutive victories, but a win Sunday at the Kansas City Chiefs would give the Green Bay Packers a 14-0 record, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and a total of 20 consecutive victories -- including playoffs and dating back to last season. The Packers' last defeat came on Dec. 19, 2010, so a win Sunday means they will have gone beyond one year -- at least 370 days -- without a loss. Even if the Chiefs pull the upset, and as of Friday they were 14-point underdogs, the Packers could still clinch the top seed in the NFC playoffs if the San Francisco 49ers lose Monday night to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

[+] EnlargeJordy Nelson
AP Photo/Morry GashWill Jordy Nelson now be the deep threat in Green Bay's stacked receiving corps?
Jennings' impact: The Packers have arguably the NFL's deepest receiving corps, and it will be fun to see how Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones and Randall Cobb compensate for the loss of Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings, who will miss the next few weeks because of a knee injury. (Tight end Jermichael Finley will also be involved.) Most notably, Jennings' injury leaves a void in the Packers' downfield passing game. Since the start of the 2008 season, Jennings has an NFL-high 39 receptions of at least 30 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's more than double the next-highest Packers receiver on that list -- Driver with 18. Nelson, Jones and Cobb are all capable of getting downfield. We'll see if they absorb Jennings' production or if the Packers shorten up their passing game with Jennings sidelined.

Go west: It's been more than four years since the Detroit Lions won a game on the West Coast, and they'll return to the scene of that victory Sunday. They defeated the Oakland Raiders 36-21 in Week 1 of the 2007 season, and on Sunday they'll have an opportunity to clinch their first winning campaign in 11 years if they can defeat the Raiders again. On paper, this seems like a good matchup for the Lions. As we discussed earlier this week, the Raiders' poor-tackling defense could be a sieve for Lions skill-position players who run well after the catch. Meanwhile, Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer has thrown 13 interceptions in seven games this season. The Lions have taken advantage of errant passing for much of this season and have 18 interceptions, tied for the second-highest mark in the league. Stranger things have happened, but the Lions have a good opportunity to pick up an important victory Sunday.

Crunch time: The Chicago Bears have little margin for error after losing their past three games to fall to 7-6. They can't worry about style points Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks and would be well-advised to keep quarterback Caleb Hanie as reined in as possible. Five of Hanie's six interceptions over the past three games came on passes that traveled more than 10 yards downfield. It might sound smart to be aggressive and trust your players to make good decisions, but after scoring a total of 33 points over the past three games, the Bears would be better off keeping things short and simple against the Seahawks.

Harvin factor: The Minnesota Vikings have the toughest task imaginable Sunday in trying to defend New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees with a defense that hasn't intercepted a pass in an NFL-record eight consecutive games. The Saints have won seven games indoors already this season and seem primed for a high-scoring game. But it's only fair to note that the Vikings' offense has debuted the full force of receiver Percy Harvin in the three games they have played without tailback Adrian Peterson. Over that span, Harvin has caught 26 passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing 14 times for 70 yards. I'm not sure if the Vikings can win a shootout with the Saints, but they at least have demonstrated firepower beyond Peterson of late.

Rapid Reaction: Packers 46, Raiders 16

December, 11, 2011

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A few thoughts on a 60-minute romp at Lambeau Field:

What it means: The Green Bay Packers won their 19th consecutive game, dating to last year and including the playoffs, to grab sole possession of second place on the NFL's all-time list of winning streaks. The record is 21, held by the New England Patriots. Now 13-0, the Packers have clinched a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs. They can secure home-field advantage throughout with their next victory. Finally, the Packers have set a team record for points scored in a season, breaking their 16-game mark of 461 set in 2009.

Jennings injury: The Packers began removing their starters when the fourth quarter began, but that was too late to avoid a scary injury to one of their best players. Receiver Greg Jennings limped off the field in obvious pain after suffering a left knee injury early in the third quarter. He never put any weight on the leg and ultimately left the field on a cart. We'll get you further word as soon as we can.

RodgersWatch: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 281 yards in about three quarters of plays. Among his most impressive plays: a 37-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jordy Nelson while trying to catch the Raiders in a defensive switch. Rodgers surpassed the 4,000-yard mark for the season in the second quarter, tying for the second quickest to that milestone in NFL history. (Drew Brees did it for the New Orleans Saints in 12 games.)

Injury report: The Packers opened the game without tailback James Starks, but starter Ryan Grant had a 47-yard touchdown run on the Packers' first official play from scrimmage. Grant finished with 85 yards and had to play late in the fourth quarter because backup Brandon Saine suffered a head injury.

Takeaway city: The Packers defense intercepted Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer four times and also scored on a 5-yard fumble return by linebacker Erik Walden. That's 27 interceptions for the Packers this season.

First time for everything: Packers tight end Ryan Taylor caught a 4-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. It was not only his first NFL catch, but also his first play from scrimmage on offense, according to corporate cousin Jason Wilde.

What's next: The Packers will travel to the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday in search of their 14th win of the season.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 9, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 14:

[+] EnlargeChad Clifton
Bob Donnan/US PresswireThe Packers can clinch a playoff bye this week, which could be important for injured starters like left tackle Chad Clifton.
Seeking rest: Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, the Green Bay Packers will be going for their 19th consecutive victory, which would stand alone as the second-longest streak in NFL history. More important, they would clinch at least the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and thus a first-round bye. (Even if they lose to the Raiders, the Packers could clinch the bye with a loss by the New Orleans Saints.) The value of that week seems clear when you take a look at the Packers' increasingly lengthy injury list. Right guard Josh Sitton (knee) has already been ruled out. Left tackle Chad Clifton hasn't played in more than two months. Linebackers Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk have been sidelined for two weeks of practice by calf injuries. It's also possible that running back James Starks (ankle) will need some time away. The Packers aren't in disproportionate shape relative to the rest of the NFL at this time of year, but their injuries have piled up in recent weeks.

Moving east: The Raiders caught a break a few weeks ago when the NFL moved the kickoff from 1 p.m. ET to 4:15 p.m. ET. West Coast players traveling east historically struggle in early games, which start at 10 a.m. according to their body clocks. The Raiders are 4-2 on the road this season, but haven't won in the Wisconsin in 24 years. You would think the Packers' defense would try to jump on the Raiders' offense early in the game. The Packers have made a relative habit of sending at least one extra pass-rusher this season, doing so 45.4 percent of the time -- the fourth-highest mark in the NFL. And for what it's worth, Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer has a 59.3 passer rating against the blitz this season, the second-lowest mark in the NFL. He has thrown three interceptions, taken eight sacks and completed only 53.6 percent of his passes against five or more rushes this season.

Change of sentiment: My, how times have changed in the NFC North. As recently as last season, we approached the annual Minnesota Vikings-Detroit Lions matchups as presumed victories for the Vikings. Now, the opposite is true. Does anyone see the 2-10 Vikings mustering what would qualify as a massive upset in Detroit? The Lions, who have lost five of their past seven games, are whopping 12-point favorites, according to ESPN's compilation of various lines. On paper, at least, the Lions' passing game should have a field day against a decimated Vikings pass defense that has allowed its past seven opponents to complete 73 percent of their passes for 1,808 yards, 18 touchdowns and no interceptions, according to

Fighting chance: The Vikings haven't lost five consecutive games in the same season since 1997, and if they're going to avoid that Sunday, they'll need a monster game from defensive end Jared Allen. Truth be told, Allen had his way with Lions left tackle Jeff Backus in the teams' first matchup, beating him for three sacks. Allen, however, has cooled off a bit and has only one sack in his past three games. He'll likely hear his share of boos after again trashing the city of Detroit in a radio interview, but I'm guessing he won't mind.

Career trends: The Chicago Bears haven't had much luck replacing injured quarterback Jay Cutler, and now they'll try to replace tailback Matt Forte as well Sunday against the Denver Broncos. Veteran Marion Barber was once a hard-running feature back for the Dallas Cowboys, but the Bears signed him as a short-yardage specialist and change-of-pace back for Forte this season. The last time Barber averaged 4.0 or more yards per carry in a game that he rushed more than 10 times? Week 17 of the 2009 season.

NFC North weekend mailbag

March, 5, 2011
As we continue awaiting word on the NFL's labor situation, we again dip into our bag of Vince Lombardi quotes:

People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society.

I'm reachable through the mailbag, Facebook and Twitter. Please, share your stories, your hopes and your dreams.

George of Madison, Wis., writes: What are the chances Nick Barnett could move to OLB opposite Clay Matthews?

Kevin Seifert: Pretty low. Pass rushing is the top priority for an outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. Barnett turns 30 in May. Does he have the kind of top-end speed and technique to get to the quarterback from that position? I'm not sure, so I passed your question along to Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.

"I don't think that's a fit," Williamson said. "He just isn't the edge pass-rusher needed for that position."

Barnett should have several productive years ahead of him at his natural middle or inside linebacker position. The Packers appear to have moved on to younger players there, having signed A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop to multi-year extensions. It would be a stretch to expect Barnett to make such a significant change this late in his career.

Nathan of Phoenix writes: Interested to hear your thoughts on Clinton Portis and the Detroit Lions being a match. I think he would serve tremendously as a mentor and as a complementary/short yardage back to Jahvid Best. But perhaps more than anything, he would be an enormous upgrade in blitz-pickup and pass protection. Additionally, isn't he known for being a wonderful "team guy?"

Kevin Seifert: We actually had this discussion last offseason when it appeared the Washington Redskins might trade defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. I agree with most of your assessment of Portis, especially the part about pass protection and how well he could transition as a third-down type of back.

Of course, Best's open-field skills also make him an important weapon to have on the field in passing situations. I'm guessing offensive coordinator Scott Linehan could draw up some plays that called for both Portis and Best to be on the field at the same time.

The biggest challenge here would be managing Portis in a reduced role. Would he sign with the Lions knowing he would be the clear backup to Best? Would he hope for the same experience the New York Jets gave LaDainian Tomlinson last season, elevating him to a primary role based on competition?

Of all the big-play ability Best showed us last year, I didn't walk away from the season convinced that he can be a 20-carry running back on a weekly basis. Maybe it was just the unfortunate consequence of his toe injuries. Regardless, the decision to non-tender backup Kevin Smith means the Lions absolutely have a need for a relatively established back behind Best.

That person could be holdover Maurice Morris. Portis would also fit that mold, if he is willing to take it on.

Russell of Norwalk, Iowa, writes: Let's just say a new CBA is agreed upon and we have football next year. I love Joe Webb as the Minnesota Vikings' potential starting QB for next year. I feel he would struggle a bit early on, but it would start to click later on in the second half of the season for him. However, if Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave feel they need to go elsewhere, why don't the Vikings take a look at Carson Palmer? He clearly wants to leave Cincinnati and the Vikings could low-ball an offer (4th round pick or 3rd rounder next year) and wait for Cincinnati to accept it with him not wanting to stay.

It would save the 12th pick and a second-round pick to improve in other areas where they need help.

Kevin Seifert: Palmer fits the profile of someone who could help maximize the roster the Vikings currently have. He is 31 and relatively healthy at this point, but there are a couple obstacles to your scenario.

First, I'm not sure any established starting quarterback could be acquired for a fourth-round pick. I'm not sure what the price tag would ultimately be, but I'm guessing the Bengals would start the bidding with at least a first-round pick. All it would take was more than one interested party to make that value stick.

Second, Palmer reportedly is willing to retire rather than continue playing for the Bengals. Some might consider that sentiment an attractive sign of high intelligence, given the decades of incompetence in Cincinnati. But I would also want to make sure that Palmer is still passionate about the game, that he truly wants to play rather than simply being willing to if the situation is right.

If all of that checks out, Palmer is among the best-case scenarios the Vikings could encounter this offseason.

But here's another option, one that wouldn't require draft choice compensation: Matt Hasselbeck, who is poised to leave the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent. He has been brittle the past few seasons, but he might make sense as a bridge plan to a quarterback the Vikings could draft this spring.

Denfran66 of Denver writes: Would you assess a signing of Robert Gallery to the Bears to work with Mike Tice. Could a good o-line coach make a difference for him and the Bears?

Kevin Seifert: Certainly. From the outside, you look at a talented athlete like Gallery and wonder what he could have been if he had started his career in a, well, more stable environment. That doesn't mean Gallery shouldn't shoulder some of the blame for his career fizzling in Oakland, but he seems tailor-made for a fresh start.

There is no doubt the Bears could use a personnel influx at offensive line, at any and all of the five spots. Tice has had some success refining the mechanics of some veteran offensive linemen, most recently Bears center Olin Kreutz, and I think it would be fascinating to see if he could resurrect Gallery's career.

The big question will be whether the Bears are willing to drop some money into the free agent market for the second consecutive year, or if they'll seek to improve their line through the draft. I don't have an answer to that question.

Via Twitter, @OSUwizard asks: Would Stephen Paea of Oregon State be too much of a reach based on Lions needs? Still amazed by his combine performance.

Kevin Seifert: Yes, Paea set a combine record with 49 repetitions of a 225-pound bench press. He's a 303-pound defensive lineman who grew up playing rugby in Tonga. Based on Scouts Inc.'s evaluation, Paea is a classic run-stopping nose tackle.

The answer here applies to all draft questions: It depends on where the Lions were to draft him. I'm not sure I would rank nose tackle as one of the Lions' top needs, but if he is available in the middle-to-late rounds, he becomes a good value.

From a pure need standpoint, Paea fits the Vikings more than any other NFC North team. They haven't re-signed nose tackle Pat Williams, and they didn't tender Fred Evans. There is an absolute need for fresh legs at the position.

How badly has Favre played?

October, 28, 2010
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was not on the field during the early portion of practice Thursday, which was fully expected and doesn't have much bearing on whether he will start Sunday at the New England Patriots. Favre, who has two fractures in his left foot, has said the earliest he would try to practice is Friday.

This relative break in the news cycle gives us a chance to consider in further detail the darker part of this scenario. Will Favre's poor play this season factor in to coach Brad Childress' decision?

I've already suggested that the Vikings would have a hard time benching Favre outright after begging him to return and giving him a raise to at least $16 million in total compensation this season. But what about a benching masked by an injury? That might be a possibility, especially when you consider a unique and telling statistical analysis over at Brian Burke's Advanced NFL Stats.

Burke uses a metric called Win Probability Added (WPA). Essentially, it's a way to measure how a player's performance impacts his team's chances to win or lose. (Here is the complete explanation for those interested.)

We already know that Favre's 68.0 passer rating is the fourth worst among NFL quarterbacks. But the nuanced WPA paints a more dire picture. His WPA rating is by far the worst among 39 qualifiers. In fact, his standing in this metric is three times worse than the next-lowest rated quarterback.

One way of looking at this statistic is that no quarterback is hurting his team more than Favre -- not the Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler, not the Cincinnati Bengals' Carson Palmer not even Trent Edwards of Buffalo/Jacksonville. In fact, Favre is hurting his team three times as much as Cutler, who ranks one spot ahead of Favre in WPA.

Quoting Burke: "Everyone knows Favre isn't doing well, and we don't need fancy stats to tell us that. But when we actually quantify just how bad his play has been so far, it's eye-popping."

Indeed, anyone who has watched Favre commit 14 turnovers this season knows he hasn't been very good in 2010. But Burke's metric reflects the type of analysis NFL teams often make, detailing what the mistakes lead to and whether they are made up for in other situations. When your quarterback is not only struggling, but is hurting your team far more than any other quarterback in the league, would you at least consider a change?

More Rewind'09: Weekend mailbag

January, 9, 2010
Wow. We just wrapped up one of the busiest weeks in the NFC North in some time. I felt like I was writing all day, every day. We had two teams headed to the playoffs, a third planning to swap out two coordinators and a fourth making some news late in the week.

It all happened while we were trying to put a bow on some of our central themes of the season, including Brett Favre’s impact on Minnesota, the changing face of NFC North offenses and the development of young tight ends within the division. Let’s continue that wrap-up, using questions from the mailbag and Facebook. (You can also send questions and thoughts to me via Twitter.)

Let’s get to it:

Kyle of West Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Early in the preseason, there was a discussion between you and the AFC North blogger about which division would come out on top between the two. I was wondering if you could revisit that discussion!

Kevin Seifert: Great idea Kyle! I presume you’re talking about this post from July. I offered seven points on the AFC North–NFC North matchup.

First, we should count up the record and realize the 16 games between the four teams were split down the middle. Each division went 8-8 against the other. Let’s look at the breakdown, naturally from an NFC North perspective:

Minnesota (3-1): Beat Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati. Lost to Pittsburgh.
Green Bay (2-2): Beat Baltimore and Cleveland. Lost to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Chicago (2-2): Beat Pittsburgh, Cleveland. Lost to Cincinnati, Baltimore.
Detroit (1-3): Beat Cleveland. Lost to Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Now, let’s look at the seven points I made at the time and reconcile them with the facts.

I wrote then: Detroit was 0-16 last season, but its new coach went 4-0 against the AFC North in his previous job. As the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, Jim Schwartz helped the Titans defeat Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Included in that run was a 31-14 late-December shellacking of the Steelers. Schwartz's new team is in a much different place than the Titans were last season, but it's a rare advantage to have seen all four interconference opponents the previous season. The Lions can use every edge they can find.

I see now: The Lions won only one of the four, but it’s worth noting they were relatively close against the Steelers (28-20) and Bengals (23-13) before getting crushed by the Ravens (48-3).

I wrote then: Who will have the last laugh between Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson (Oct. 18)? As you might recall, Peterson said at the Pro Bowl that he wanted to gain 12 pounds during the offseason. "I don't think too many guys would be excited to see me at 230 two times a year," Peterson said. But his father told USA Today last month that a group of veterans -- including Lewis -- "set up" his son, hoping to convince him to make a change that ultimately would slow him down. Let's see if Peterson, who by all accounts will remain close to his playing weight of 217 pounds, returns the favor.

I see now: Peterson ran for 143 yards on 22 carries in the Vikings' 33-31 victory. Case closed.

I wrote then: The AFC North boasts two of the game's best pass-rushing linebackers in Pittsburgh's James Harrison (16 sacks in 2008) and Baltimore's Terrell Suggs (eight). You never know exactly where outside linebackers will line up in a 3-4 defense, but I'm guessing they'll find their way toward the NFC North's host of young right tackles. Chicago (Chris Williams), Minnesota (Phil Loadholt) and Green Bay (Allen Barbre or T.J. Lang) are all expected to have new starters at the position -- and Detroit's Gosder Cherilus is entering his first full season as a starter. Defensive coordinators would be remiss not to test all four spots.

I see now: I don’t have the breakdown of where he was lined up, but I can tell you that Harrison had five of his 10 sacks this season against NFC North opponents. Three came against the Lions and two against the Vikings. Suggs, limited by injuries this season, did not have a sack against the NFC North.

I wrote then: This season will be a referendum on whether Orlando Pace can still play left tackle in the NFL. During the free-agent period, Baltimore heavily courted Pace but wanted him to move to right tackle so that youngster Jared Gaither could continue his development on the left side. Pace, however, wanted to maintain his traditional position and ultimately signed with Chicago. The Ravens have installed rookie Michael Oher as their new right tackle and suddenly have a raw set of tackles. We'll soon find out if Pace can give the Bears a full year at left tackle, or whether the Ravens were right to hold firm on youth.

I see now: The Ravens won on this decision. Pace was ineffective for most of the season before being sidelined by a leg injury. Even after he returned to health, the Bears respectfully left him on the bench. Oher, meanwhile, was one of the NFL’s best rookies this season.

I wrote then: To the extent that practicing against a 3-4 defense helps in game preparation, Green Bay should have a clear advantage over its NFC North rivals. The Packers' offense spent all spring practicing against its 3-4 scheme and won't face that choppy in-season transition when preparing for the Steelers, Ravens and Browns. This is becoming less of an issue every year as more NFL teams return to the 3-4 -- the total is expected to be 13 in 2009 -- but familiarity can only help the Packers in this vein.

I see now: The Packers finished 2-1 against AFC North teams that run a 3-4, beating the Ravens and Browns while losing to the Steelers.

I wrote then: The Bears, Packers and Lions all are working hard to improve their weak pass rush. Two AFC North teams -- Cincinnati and Pittsburgh -- are hoping to shore up their pass protection. Which teams can make quicker enhancements? You might know that the Bengals gave up the NFL's third-most sacks last season (51). But it might have escaped you that the Steelers were right behind them with 49 sacks allowed. It almost goes without saying that the best way to stop the Bengals' Carson Palmer and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is to keep them from throwing the ball.

I see now: The Bears had no sacks against the Bengals and two against the Steelers. The Packers had two and five, respectively. The Lions had two and three.

I wrote then: AFC North teams like to think of themselves the same way we do here in the Black and Blue, as hard-nosed, bad-weather running teams. Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are two of the best run-stoppers in the game, and there's a little stretch of the season where they would be particularly missed should their NFL suspensions kick in. (Such a scenario would require a prolonged but ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge to their NFL discipline.) The Vikings play Baltimore and Pittsburgh in consecutive October weeks (Oct. 18 against the Ravens and Oct. 25 at Pittsburgh). That makes for two old-fashioned football matchups -- if the Williams Wall is on the field.

I see now: With both members of the Williams Wall on the field, the Vikings gave up 81 rushing yards to the Ravens and 107 to the Steelers. Neither total figured in the outcome of either game.

I wrote then: Who benefits most? In some ways, this schedule ensures that each NFC North team will be playing 10 divisional games this season. There are many similarities between the general styles of the Black and Blue and AFC North. Minnesota's defense should match the intensity of the physical offenses of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Green Bay's offense shouldn't be surprised by the 3-4 defense, but its own defense won't have the advantage of surprise, either. It's too early to make specific predictions, but it's safe to say that whoever has the divisional advantage in the NFC North will also fare best against the AFC North.

I see then: The Vikings won the NFC North and also had the best record against the AFC North. Ding-ding-ding!

Robert of Oostburg Wis., writes: Hello. Dom Capers was not the first choice for defensive coordinator for the Packers last offseason. Could you compare the job he got done this year with the few others that got away. I think the Packers got the steal of the year.

Kevin Seifert: You’re right. The Packers interviewed several candidates who ultimately went elsewhere, including Mike Nolan (Denver) and Gregg Williams (New Orleans). The Broncos defense finished the season ranked No. 7 in the NFL. The Saints finished No. 27, but Williams scheme did create the second-most turnovers in the NFL and played a big role in the Saints’ hot start.

That said, I don’t think there’s any doubt Capers’ defense had the best season of that group. Capers is well known for making an immediate impact, and that’s exactly what the Packers got this season.

Keith writes: Is there a more natural way to make Week 17 more competitive than to seed teams based on overall record? Arizona surely would've showed up last week.

Kevin Seifert: I wish there were, Keith. To date, I haven’t heard or thought of any that make sense.

Awarding teams draft picks to continue playing their starters seems counterintuitive. Would a sixth- or seventh-round pick be enough to risk the health of a key player? I don’t think so. And what would it say about the league that it must reward teams for competing?

Penalizing teams for sitting starters is also problematic. The decision can have too much gray area. How long would the player have to be on the field? What would prevent him from leaving because of “tightness?” or some other nebulous injury?

Weighing playoff seedings disproportionally based on late-season record doesn’t fly with me, either. Shouldn’t every game count the same?

Ultimately, I think the NFL should be patient and see what happens to Indianapolis, especially, this postseason. It’s a copycat league. If the Colts are bounced early from the playoffs, you can bet future coaches in the same position would think twice about benching starters.

Jonathan writes via Facebook: So....when do we find out that Woodson won DPOY?

Kevin Seifert: The Associated Press will announce the Defensive Player of the Year Award next Wednesday, Jan. 13. That’s when we’ll find out if Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson won it.

Winfield pushes up Minnesota's defense

December, 13, 2009
Antoine WinfieldTom Dahlin/Getty ImagesAntoine Winfield picked up where he left off as the NFL's best tackler.

MINNEAPOLIS -- A few minutes passed Sunday before Antoine Winfield arrived at his moment of truth. It had been two months since he last attempted a tackle, a gap caused by a slow-healing sprained foot. So on a third-down play during Cincinnati’s second series, Winfield saw a screen play coming his way.

“I’ve pretty much perfected the art of tackling,” Winfield said. “I wrap up. Usually when I hit you, you’ll go down.”

But no one knew if that would be the case when the Vikings’ Pro Bowl cornerback finally returned to the field. Would he pick up where he left off as the NFL’s best tackler? Would he be rusty? Would the foot hamper his movement?

Winfield answered those questions and much more as Minnesota clinched a playoff berth with a 30-10 victory over Cincinnati. After catching the screen pass, Bengals tailback Brian Leonard attempted to jump over a pile of potential tacklers. Winfield grabbed his leg and pulled him down for no gain. The play was the first of Winfield’s nine solo tackles in the game, the key part of a defensive effort that harassed the Bengals' offense into its worst game of the season.

The Vikings’ defense has played winning football without Winfield. But Sunday, there was little doubt about how he elevates it to another level. As you can see in the chart below, the Bengals managed only 36 yards on the nine plays where Winfield made the tackle. He stopped the ball carrier short of a first down on seven of those plays.

Perhaps the most significant instance came just before halftime, when Winfield upended Leonard on another pass and forced a fumble. The Vikings recovered in time for Ryan Longwell to kick a 44-yard field goal, giving Minnesota a 16-7 lead at halftime and permanently swinging the momentum of the game.

“When you lose a key guy like Antoine, there is just a void on your team,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “You can’t fill those voids. There are intangibles that guys bring to the position that you can’t see on paper. You might have another guy in there, but he can’t make the kind of splash plays that an Antoine Winfield can make. It has a domino effect and makes everybody better.”

Indeed, Winfield helped the Vikings hold what has been a potent Cincinnati attack to a season-low 210 yards. Minnesota also dramatically improved its perimeter run defense with Winfield in the lineup.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings entered Week 14 allowing the second-highest average per rush (4.8) outside the numbers of the field this season. Although Bengals tailback Cedric Benson rushed for 96 yards on 16 carries, most of the damage came in the middle of the field. The Bengals averaged 2.7 yards outside the numbers.

“Those are the kinds of things you miss from him,” Vikings coach Brad Childress said. “Those splash plays that happen on the edge when he approaches a sweep, usually those are lost yardage plays. It has a tendency to elevate the rest of the defensive guys.”

That seemed to occur even in the passing game, where the Bengals smartly schemed themselves away from Winfield. But fellow cornerback Cedric Griffin limited receiver Chad Ochocinco to three receptions for 27 yards while also teaming with Winfield for two key plays early in the fourth quarter.

The Bengals were threatening to make it a one-score game after getting a first-and-goal at the 8. Winfield diagnosed their second-down play, abandoning coverage on a tight end to stop Benson for a 5-yard gain. On third down, Griffin knocked away a pass intended for Ochocinco in the end zone.

“Antoine is just an exciting player,” Griffin said. “We feed off of him and his intensity.”

Winfield, in fact, said he hoped to bring “energy” to the defense after watching from the sidelines as it got steamrolled last week in Arizona.

“Last week,” he said, “we didn’t really feel it and came out and got our butts whupped. Today was different.”

Although Winfield’s injury isn’t likely to heal completely until after the season, there’s little doubt he brought the Vikings a big lift at the lowest point of their season. Defensive end Jared Allen, for one, said the Vikings have “so much confidence” when Winfield is on the field and defending the perimeter.

They also have a few more laughs.

Winfield had everyone smiling in the second quarter when he dropped an easy interception at midfield. After watching the replay on the Metrodome video board, Winfield dropped to the ground and performed 10 pushups. A sellout crowd of 63,854 roared in approval.

“That’s the thing I just automatically thought to do,” he said. “In practice, when you drop a ball, you go down and get your 10 pushups in. I mean, the ball hit me right in the chest.”

It was his only mistake during an otherwise glistening return. There was no doubt Sunday. Winfield is back.

Third and one: Lions

December, 7, 2009
After Detroit’s 23-13 loss at Cincinnati, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:
  1. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has shown us how tough he is by making his next two starts after separating his left shoulder Nov. 22. But whether there is a risk of further injury, I don’t see the benefit in allowing him to continue playing when it’s clear his performance has been impacted. In losses to Green Bay and the Bengals, Stafford has completed only 31 of 69 passes (44.9 percent) for 356 yards. He’s thrown two touchdown passes and six interceptions. Before the injury, he was completing 56.3 percent of his passes with a 10-12 touchdown-interception ratio. There is always a long-term value to playing time for a rookie, but the benefit is limited if an injury hampers effectiveness.
  2. The Lions got after Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer more than I thought they would, intercepting him twice and notching a pair of sacks. Palmer’s 65.3 passer rating was by far the worst mark of a Lions opponent all season. And although Cedric Benson had 111 rushing yards, it’s important to note it took him 36 carries to get there. I still think Detroit has a long way to go on defense. But for one day, at least, the Lions held their own.
  3. I know this is the time of year when Lions fans expect their team to throw its hands up and starting playing youngsters to see if they can help next season. Here’s a novel idea: The Lions should play whomever can be most effective at this instant. Instead of continuing to feed a culture of losing, how about making every effort to win? A strong finish to this season, meaningless as it might be in the standings, would foster more momentum for 2010 than some kind of in-season evaluation for younger and/or practice squad players. Just a thought.

And here is one question I’m still asking:
How many Lions fans watched Saturday night’s Big 12 championship game and drooled over the prospect of adding Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh? With the Lions cruising toward a top-5 selection in the 2010 draft, it was hard not to think of the possibilities. If anything, Suh’s performance means he might not get past the or third pick. You never know how a college player will transition to the pro level, but it certainly looks like Suh would give the Lions elite-level disruption in the interior. Detroit hasn’t had that kind of play since … well, let’s not go there.

Anticipating Bears-49ers

November, 12, 2009
Posted by’s Kevin Seifert

Here’s how unpredictable the NFL is: As dark as these days are for Chicago and its fans, I have no trouble conceiving the possibility that the Bears could go to San Francisco on three days’ rest and beat the 49ers. Often, that’s how this league works: You get steamrolled one week (or, in the Bears’ case, twice in the past three weeks) and then win a game that logic dictates you shouldn’t.

How could it happen? Let’s run through a few tips as we anticipate an 8:20 p.m. ET kickoff:
  • Never underestimate how bad the other team might be, or might be playing at the moment. Sure, things seem dire for the Bears as they sit at 4-4, having recently been on the losing end of 45-10 and 41-21 games. But don’t forget the 49ers have lost four consecutive games and haven’t won since the first week of October. San Francisco fans are feeling the same way about the 49ers as you feel about the Bears.
  • Don’t oversell to stop tailback Frank Gore. There’s no doubt Gore has been a game-breaker at times this season. But know this: Almost half of his season yardage total have come on three big carries. That’s right. Gore has touchdown runs of 80, 79 and 64 yards; that’s a total of 223 yards. On his other 77 carries, Gore has 224 yards. That means on 96 percent of his runs this season, Gore is averaging 2.9 yards per carry. I’m not diminishing the game-changing potential of a long run. But it’s important to remember that in the big picture, Gore has been pretty well shut down by opposing defenses. If it were me, I wouldn’t necessarily be compelled to bring an eighth defender in the box.
  • Consider quarterback Alex Smith eminently shakable and scheme your blitzes accordingly. In his past two starts, Smith has thrown four interceptions and has been sacked eight times. The Bears shouldn’t back off their pressure packages just because Arizona’s Kurt Warner handled them well last week. With the Bears’ injury-depleted secondary, pressure will be at a premium. Smith is more likely to force passes and make poor decisions than Warner or even Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer.
  • Resist the urge to remove some pressure from quarterback Jay Cutler. After eight games of an almost nonexistent running game, there is no reason to believe the Bears can suddenly dominate the game on the ground against a Patrick Willis-led defense. It’s true that Cutler has struggled in two prime-time games this season, throwing a combined six interceptions at Green Bay and Atlanta, but he is still the Bears’ offensive MVP. In a time of crisis, you have to count on your top players. Or, at least, go down with them having every opportunity to right the ship.
Let’s circle back on these issues after the game.

Posted by’s Kevin Seifert

Just to make sure you saw the news, Detroit has named rookie Matthew Stafford its starting quarterback. I’ll be back later with more thorough analysis, but for now I’ll leave you with a few quick facts from Scott Beamon of ESPN Stats & Information:
  • Houston’s David Carr was the last NFL quarterback taken No. 1 overall to start all 16 games of his rookie season. As the Lions’ Week 1 starter, Stafford obviously has a chance to do that. Incidentally, the Texans’ record in Carr’s first season (2002) was 4-12.
  • The last four quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall -- Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer, the New York Giants’ Eli Manning, San Francisco’s Alex Smith and Oakland’s JaMarcus Russell -- all started their rookie years on the bench. Palmer sat all season. The other three combined to start 15 games, going 3-12. Collectively, they threw nine touchdown passes and 24 interceptions.
I’ll be back with more after we hear from Lions coach Jim Schwartz. I’m especially interested to know what impact Daunte Culpepper’s late-summer toe injury had on the decision.