NFC North: Chad Ochocinco

DriverRick Rowell/Getty ImagesDonald Driver is the fifth current or former NFL receiver to compete on "Dancing With The Stars."
If stadium news doesn't get your blood pumping, then perhaps ballroom dancing will float your boat on this fine Monday afternoon.

After years of begging, the NFC North finally has representation on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." We in the business call it "DWTS" for short. You will soon, because Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver is one of 12 celebrities paired with a dancing professional to compete in an elimination-style competition.

(For now, we'll skip over the possibility that Driver, 37, will not be a part of the Packers' roster in 2012. He's ours for now.)

Season 14 debuts Monday night at 8 p.m. ET on, yes, ABC. Tuesday night brings us the first results show of the season, from what I understand.

A total of 10 current or former NFL players have participated in DWTS, and Driver will be the fifth wide receiver after Jerry Rice, Hines Ward, Michael Irvin and Chad Ochocinco. He is paired with Peta Murgatroyd, a native of New Zealand whose previous celebrity dance credits include Ron Artest before he re-named himself Metta World Peace.

I haven't decided whether we'll actually do a DriverWatch, or perhaps a DWTSWatch, as this exciting drama unfolds. I do think it will be fun to see how Driver's personality plays on a national level, and we've seen enough fancy footwork from him to think he has a reasonable chance to, uh, dance well over the next few weeks. (Sorry, I don't know how the kids these days describe good dancing. "Getting down?" "Gettin' jiggy with it?" "Busting a move?" I'm a big "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo" guy, but otherwise, I have no idea.)

For now, at least, consider this a public service announcement as you look for ways to fill your Monday (and Tuesday) nights until Monday Night Football returns in just a few short months.

Ndamukong Suh's bench regimen

April, 25, 2011
4/25/11
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Attention all gym jocks who slam the plates and bellow and hiss just so everyone knows you're benching: Ever wonder what an elite NFL player does for his daily workout? Here's what Detroit Lions All-Pro Ndamukong Suh tweeted earlier Monday:
Today was a good day inthe weightroom .Killed a set of 225,275,315,325 and ended on 345 all for 5! Almost back to normal!#Teamsuh #SUHsquad

Suh didn't specify he was using the flat bench, but that's the way I took it. In other words, here's what Suh presumably did Monday morning:
  • Five reps at 225 pounds
  • 5 x 275 pounds
  • 5 x 315 pounds
  • 5 x 325 pounds
  • 5 x 345 pounds

A few days ago, Suh indicated that he ran 2.5 miles in 20 minutes.

Combine the numbers on those two workouts, and you get an idea of the freaky gifts of a 307-pound man. Next stop: Suh's promised soccer shootout with Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco.

(#postswemightnotwriteiftherewasn'talockout)

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 7, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 29

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- If the measure of a good team is roster stability, then, well, we know where the Detroit Lions stand. General manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz spent most of their first year together operating like an expansion franchise, using their roster to sift through dozens of nomadic no-names and aging veterans while effecting a near-weekly rotation at a half-dozen positions -- left guard, defensive end, cornerback and safety chief among them.

So as they reported to training camp this summer, the Lions were hoping to slow that train and accelerate the installation of permanent building blocks in their lineup. Schwartz remains realistic about the job ahead of him but is certain the Lions are pointing in the right direction.

"Hope isn't a strategy," Schwartz said. "You need good players. I think what we proved last year is that we weren't ready to accept sub-par performance. We were willing to make changes and things like that. I think that was an important statement to make. In a perfect world, all of our positions would be solidified and you would feel good about it every week. Probably 32 NFL teams are going to be dissatisfied with a couple positions ... but I think the sign of a good team is having less spots that you look at and say, wow, what are they going to do there?"

After a few days at Lions training camp, it was evident the Lions are not there yet. But they're closer than they were last year, having upgraded at receiver, running back, tight end, left guard and along the entire defensive line. Questions remain at linebacker and in the secondary, but the Lions are working methodically to narrow that gap.

"We have a big sense of urgency," Schwartz said. "I don't want to say we've been patient. We just haven't deviated from our plan and we haven't gone too much for immediate gratification."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Lions are counting on Matthew Stafford to make progress from his rookie season.
1. Can Matthew Stafford make the jump the Lions need? Stafford's rookie season wasn't unusual for a highly drafted quarterback. Playing on a bad team, he threw 20 interceptions in 10 games. Injuries cost him six starts. But after surrounding him with receiver Nate Burleson, tight end Tony Scheffler and running back Jahvid Best, the Lions are expecting a much more positive second-year experience.

Stafford spent the early part of the offseason studying the causes of each interception, concluding that the majority of them were "trying to make a play when it wasn't there," he said. He added: "A lot of them were on third-and-long. I've got to be better on third-and-long to trust our backs, to throw a checkdown and let him run and go get it. I have to know that the best teams in this league are 35 percent [conversion rate] on third-and-long. Not everybody's making it every time. The goal this year is to stay out of those as much as possible."

The potential is there. Stafford has spent the entire offseason working with receivers, putting a special emphasis on developing chemistry with Calvin Johnson. He has taken every first-team snap in practice and has a set of skill players that can rival other NFC North offenses.

"We have a lot of weapons this year," he said. "It's up to us to get some rhythm and get it going."

2. Can an overhauled defensive line compensate for uncertainty at linebacker and safety? I like to compare the Lions' defense to an episode of "Hoarders." When Mayhew and Schwartz opened the front door, they found a mass of junk. So they picked one corner, the defensive line, and starting digging their way out.

As training camp opened, the Lions had NFL-caliber starters at right end (Kyle Vanden Bosch) and nose tackle (Corey Williams), along with a potential superstar in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. But remember, the Lions are the only team since the 1970 merger to finish with the NFL's worst defense in three consecutive years. In order to move up significantly in those standings, they'll need their line to be so good that it overshadows inexperience at linebacker and another year of patchwork in the secondary.

"If this defense is going to be good, it's going to be on us up front, and we're just going to have to wreak havoc," Vanden Bosch said. "We're going to have to bring energy to every practice and we're just going to have to keep on pushing each other and make improvements."

As we discussed earlier this week, it's schematically possible for an elite pass rush and strong run-stoppers to reduce the strain placed on other positions. Based on how the rest of the Lions' defense is shaping up, they'll need nothing less.

[+] EnlargeLouis Delmas
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesLouis Delmas has noticed a change in attitude with this year's team.
3. Can the Lions expunge what safety Louis Delmas referred to as a "ho-hum attitude?" If you're keeping track, the Lions have lost 31 of their past 33 games and 37 of their past 40. You often hear about new attitudes in training camp, so take this for what it's worth. After jettisoning a number of veteran players this offseason, Delmas said that now "everyone wants to be here and they want to learn." He added: "That's something I don't think we had last year. Guys were just here. The coaches are motivating us to go out there and get better. We've got a great attitude."

As for low expectations among national observers, Stafford said: "I don't think anyone here believes that. They play the games for a reason. The season hasn't started yet. Everybody is 0-0. Come the first Sunday, it's go out there and prove it and see what we can do."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Tight end Brandon Pettigrew tore an anterior cruciate ligament on Thanksgiving Day 2009. A little more than eight months later, Pettigrew was back on the field doing much more than at least I would have expected. He's practicing at least once per day and participating in some contact drills, even while wearing a brace on his knee.

If he has a hitch in his gait, it's barely noticeable. And on at least one play this week, Pettigrew displayed enough speed to get past linebacker Julian Peterson and catch a nice seam pass from Stafford. "He's had a really good rehab and we don't want to set him back by trying to do too much too soon," Schwartz said. At this rate, it seems quite reasonable to expect Pettigrew to be ready for a significant role in the season-opening game at Soldier Field. That has to be the best-case scenario the Lions could have imagined when the injury first occurred.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Two key parts of any defensive improvement the Lions will have this season weren't on the field for any part of the five practices I watched. Delmas hasn't practiced since the spring because of a groin injury that Schwartz said has healed but impacted his conditioning. But Delmas is an "established" player who probably could get away with missing a portion of training camp after starting 15 games last season. Linebacker DeAndre Levy, however, needs every practice rep he can get while making the permanent transition from the outside to the middle. Levy reported to training camp with tightness in his back, and he was pulled from practice this week. There is no long-term concern at this point, and the Lions must hope nothing develops. At this point, there are no viable internal options to turn to. Levy's backup is veteran Vinny Ciurciu, an undersized career special-teams player.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAdditional weapons on offense should open things up for Calvin Johnson.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Burleson signed a five-year, $25 million contract in the offseason that included $11 million in guaranteed money. Then, in one of the first meetings of the Lions' reconfigured receiver position, Burleson stood up to speak. "There's a lot of things that can get between players when new guys come along, especially when money's involved," he said. "So I made an announcement that I've been in the league long enough to know, as a guy who just got paid, I'm going to play a lot. So my goal is to prove I'm worth more than what they paid me. I'm here for the team, not to pat myself on the back." In part because No. 1 receiver Calvin Johnson is so quiet, Burleson has taken on the leadership role of this group.
  • Johnson is hopeful that coverages will loosen on him this season, but it will require players like Burleson making big plays to do it. Burleson doesn't think it will be a problem. "My goal is to come in and make enough plays to where Calvin will get more single coverage and Bryant [Johnson] will make plays," he said. "You hear about [Terrell Owens] and Chad [Ochocinco] in Cincinnati. I'm going to say firsthand that we will be the most-respected receiving corps after it's all said and done." Wow.
  • Suh is one serious man. During a news conference to announce his arrival to camp, a reporter asked a pretty standard first-day question for a top draft pick: "What are you going to treat yourself to after becoming a millionaire?" Most players bite and say they bought a new car, or a house for their mother or some such splurge. Suh? Here's what he said: "I'm treating myself to getting on this field and getting ready." OK then.
  • Vanden Bosch makes it a point to touch the ball on every practice play from scrimmage. Sometimes that happens at the line of scrimmage. But whether the play comes directly toward him or goes 30 yards downfield, he chases without fail. If that means sprinting 40 yards, so be it. Although the Lions didn't necessarily sign Vanden Bosch for that reason, he sets an excellent example for a historically moribund defense. "You don't get any points for that," Schwartz said. "But if I was a professional football player, I would hope that I would practice and I would play the way Kyle Vanden Bosch does. I think it is contagious for sure and I think that it's tremendous leadership. I think it makes the running backs better. The running backs are now finishing their runs deeper down the field because they don't want him catching them."
  • Right tackle Gosder Cherilus, the Lions' No. 1 draft pick in 2008, might be down to his final chance to lock down a permanent starting job. He's sharing repetitions with veteran Jon Jansen, and a decision might not come until the end of the preseason.
  • Linebacker Zack Follett is on his way to locking down the weakside linebacker job a year after he nearly cost himself his career with a poor showing in training camp. "I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off," Follett said. "This year, it's 100 percent different."
  • Poor Chris Houston. As the Lions' erstwhile No. 1 cornerback, Houston finds himself lined up against Johnson in 1-on-1 drills more often than not. That's not even fair. I saw Houston make some decent plays against other receivers, suggesting he deserves to be on the field as a starter. But few teams have a true No. 1 cornerback, and the Lions aren't one of them.
  • With Delmas injured, the same four players made up the first-team secondary during my visit: Houston and Jonathan Wade at cornerback, with C.C. Brown and Marvin White at safety. One thing I'll say is that Wade is feisty, even if he is a bit undersized. Delmas noticed the same thing. "He gave up a big play on Calvin," Delmas said. "And then he came back to us as a group and said, 'We can't do that! I can't do that!' Then he went out and didn't give up another big play. In order to be one of the best secondaries in the NFL, we have to start with that."
  • In an earlier post, I suggested that rookie receiver Tim Toone had looked sharp and ranked him no worse than No. 4 among the Lions' receivers. In the comments section, some of you suggested that second-year receiver Derrick Williams was having a better camp than I gave him credit for. All I can say is that every time I looked, Williams was dropping a pass while Toone was catching one. Regardless, there is a long way to go for both players.
  • One beneficiary of Suh's holdout was second-year defensive tackle Sammie Hill. Schwartz said Hill "has taken the biggest step that I've seen him take." Assuming those weren't just kind words for a player destined to cede his first-team status to Suh, this development offers the Lions a level of depth they didn't have last season.

Winfield pushes up Minnesota's defense

December, 13, 2009
12/13/09
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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.

Bengals break through

December, 13, 2009
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Cincinnati managed 32 total yards on its first four possessions before moving 82 yards on its fifth possession, which ended with a strange-looking 15-yard touchdown pass to receiver Chad Ochocinco.

(If Ochocinco plans a celebration, we haven’t seen it yet.)

It appeared that Ochocinco was preparing to run a reverse behind quarterback Carson Palmer before he stopped, pivoted toward the sideline and caught a swing pass. No Vikings defensive player was with 10 yards of him at the time, and Ochocinco cruised into the end zone.

I thought the Vikings defense had been doing an excellent job against the Bengals’ unbalanced line, filling every hole, but Palmer found his form on that drive. We've got a 10-7 ballgame here with about 3 minutes left in the half.

Ochocinco already on prowl

December, 13, 2009
12/13/09
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Greetings from the Metrodome press box, where things got off to a hectic start but just took a fun turn.

Ochocinco
As we noted earlier, it already appears evident that Minnesota receiver Percy Harvin won’t play against Cincinnati because of migraine headaches. One receiver who will play, however, is the Bengals' Chad Ochocinco, who has already found and “confronted” Minnesota mascot Ragnar.

As you might remember, Ochocinco said earlier this week that he wanted to steal Ragnar’s Viking horn and motorcycle when and if he scores in this game. Ragnar responded with a challenge of his own. At about 10:15 a.m. ET on Sunday morning -- almost three hours before kickoff -- a few of us noticed Johnson checking out the “Gjallarhorn” on the Vikings’ sideline.

A moment or two later, Ragnar came out of a tunnel good-naturedly gesturing toward Ochocinco. The two men hugged, spoke for a minute and then parted ways. I tried to take a picture with my cell phone, but apparently cell phone cameras aren’t good from 200 yards away.

I’m told by reliable sources that the Gjallarhorn will be locked up during the game. Ragnar? It appears that he’s ready to participate in any skit Ochocinco might have cooked up. Stay tuned.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 11, 2009
12/11/09
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Andy KingJay Cutler, the NFL's INT leader, will face the No. 2 defense in takeaways.
First things first. Somebody is going to be pretty happy Sunday at about 4:30 p.m. ET. Minnesota’s matchup with Cincinnati carries significant playoff implications for both teams. The Vikings can clinch a playoff berth with a victory (or a tie, if the New York Giants lose to Philadelphia). They can clinch the NFC North with a victory and a Green Bay loss at Chicago. The Bengals face a similar opportunity. They will clinch the AFC North with a victory (or a tie, if Baltimore loses or ties Detroit). The Bengals can also win the division even with a loss if the Ravens are upset by Detroit. We’ll keep you updated.

There are plenty of subplots to the Vikings-Bengals game, not the least of which is the expected brawl between Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco and Minnesota mascot Ragnar. But as Steve Wyche of the NFL Network pointed out earlier this week, this game will feature defensive coordinators whose names could be in circulation for head-coaching jobs this offseason. Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier has interviewed for five jobs in the past two years and has the NFL’s eighth-ranked defense. Cincinnati’s Mike Zimmer has molded the Bengals into a hard-hitting group that ranks No. 4 overall, all while grieving the death of his wife.

One of the NFL’s leading interception throwers will take the field Sunday against the league’s second-best takeaway defense. Somethin’s got to give. Or something like that. No quarterback has thrown more interceptions than Chicago’s Jay Cutler (20). And the only team that has intercepted more passes than Green Bay (21) is New Orleans (23). If their game plan is anything like what they used last week against St. Louis, the Bears won’t give Cutler enough passing opportunities to throw a full complement of interceptions. The Packers have been stout against the run, but injuries to their top four defensive linemen might convince the Bears to pound the ball on the ground.

Chicago was the first team to expose Green Bay’s pass protection problems, coming in the teams’ first meeting Sept. 13. Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye mauled right tackle Allen Barbre for much of the night, and the Bears sacked quarterback Aaron Rodgers four times. But the Packers have made several recent adjustments to mitigate those problems, emphasizing shorter drops and replacing Barbre with Mark Tauscher. Rodgers was sacked 37 times in the Packers' first eight games but only eight times over the past four. The Bears will do their best to make life difficult for Rodgers, but the Packers should be better equipped this time around.

It’s not the ideal setting, but Detroit quarterback Daunte Culpepper will get a chance to put a full December game on film for scouts and personnel executives who will be looking at veteran quarterbacks this offseason. We’re assuming Culpepper won’t be back in Detroit next season, and it’s possible that starter Matthew Stafford (shoulder) will return to the starting lineup as early as next week. A strong game on the road, against a Baltimore team battling for a playoff spot, could put Culpepper back on the free-agent radar. Given the state of quarterbacking in the NFL, it’s reasonable to think Culpepper could spark some interest from teams looking for depth.

Vikings mascot ready to rumble

December, 10, 2009
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Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco said Wednesday he might steal the motorcycle of Minnesota’s game-day mascot, Ragnar, if he scores a touchdown in Sunday’s game at the Metrodome. Ragnar himself had a playful (I think) response when contacted by the Star Tribune’s Mark Craig.

"He might want to think twice about taking my bike," said Ragnar, whose real name is Joe Juranitch. "I poop things bigger than him."

If Ochocinco wants to steal a motorcycle, horn or anything else, he is in for a fight. Said Ragnar: "Let's see if he's man enough to come and get it."

I think I’m going to have to bone up on boxing terms. Or maybe just MMA.

"MMA?" Ragnar asked. "Tell him I dare him to spell that. And you can also tell him that after Sunday, he'll be changing his name again to Ocho Stinko."

Oh boy.

Mascots beware

December, 9, 2009
12/09/09
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Look out Ragnar (or maybe Viktor): Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco is coming after you Sunday at the Metrodome.

I missed this Tuesday during the trip back to NFC North headquarters, but here is what Ochocinco told ESPN’s Adam Schefter via Twitter:

"Adam this Sunday when I score I'm taking that loud horn from the Viking mascot and using it<--is that a fine to?"

I’ve never actually seen Viktor or Ragnar carrying a horn. Like many other parts of the Metrodome experience, the horn you hear during games is artificially generated. But I’m sure Ochocinco has already thought of that. The NFL, by the way, fined Ochocinco $30,000 for donning a sombrero during a Dec. 6 game against Detroit.

Wrap-up: Bengals 23, Lions 13

December, 6, 2009
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Matthew Stafford's 54-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson, off a well-conceived double play-action call, was a thing of beauty. Unfortunately for Detroit, there were few opportunities to revisit that play Sunday afternoon.

Cincinnati’s offense didn’t run up a high score and didn’t really light up the Lions' pass defense. But the Bengals controlled the ball throughout the game, holding it for 38:48, and ran 25 more plays than the Lions. Receiver Chad Ochocinco did total 137 receiving yards, but it was Cedric Benson's 111-yard performance that kept the Lions' offense on the sideline.

The Lions fell to 2-10 and are in the rough stretch of their schedule. They’ll play three of four games away from Ford Field, including next week at Baltimore, and in two weeks at San Francisco. Based on that schedule, coach Jim Schwartz’s team will have its work cut out to finish 2009 strong.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 4, 2009
12/04/09
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Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

We should have a better picture of the NFC wild-card picture by the time Green Bay takes the field Monday night against Baltimore. At 7-4, the Packers and Philadelphia are leading the conference’s wild-card standings. But the Eagles will travel Sunday to face at Atlanta, which is one game back at 6-5. The conference’s other 6-5 team, the New York Giants, face a tough matchup at home Sunday against Dallas. So one way or the other, it’s very possible the Packers will have an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the wild-card field with a victory over the Ravens.

[+] EnlargeRice
James Lang/US PresswireRay Rice has become one of the Ravens' top weapon in the passing game.
Baltimore running back Ray Rice will test Green Bay’s tackling skills Monday night. Rice leads the NFL with 593 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and has become arguably the Ravens’ top weapon in the passing game. Although the Packers miss the veteran leadership of linebacker Aaron Kampman, his replacements might have a better chance to contain Rice. Rookie Brad Jones and veteran Brady Poppinga are more comfortable making open-field tackles. On the other side, we’ll find out how far rookie Clay Matthews has come. This is one of the primary reasons the Packers traded up in the draft for Matthews: To combine speed and tackling ability on the outside.

Minnesota is expecting a heavy dose of three-step drops and max protection Sunday night from Arizona’s offense, whether or not Kurt Warner starts at quarterback. Warner and backup Matt Leinart were hammered in last season’s matchup between the teams, a 35-14 Vikings victory, taking four sacks and being hit on six other occasions. This season, the Vikings enter the game with an NFL-high 40 sacks, and teams are starting to make adjustments. “We ended up getting a lot of three-step drops from the team we just played [Chicago],” said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. “I wouldn’t doubt that will be the case this week.”

It will be a doozy of a matchup Sunday at Soldier Field, where the Bears will try to avoid the embarrassment of a home loss to St. Louis (1-10). There’s nothing on paper to suggest the Rams have the capacity to win Sunday, but the Bears haven’t shown much of that themselves lately. If you want an in-game focus, watch where the Rams line up pass rusher Leonard Little. He’s technically listed as the Rams’ left end, meaning he would line up over the right tackle. Normally, that would be 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams. But it’s likely that Williams will make his first career start at left tackle. Will the Rams move Little to that side to take advantage of Williams? Or will they like the matchup better against new right tackle Kevin Shaffer? Tune in to find out. Or not.

To say that Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco is licking his chops is an understatement. Ochocinco couldn’t even bring himself to talk his usual trash about Detroit’s pass defense. During a conference call with Detroit-area reporters, Ochocinco said the Lions’ secondary is “beautiful.” Presumably, he’s referring to its capacity to give up a monster game. The Bengals have relied on their running game this season, but that could change when they realize that opponents are completing an incredible 70.5 percent of their passes against the Lions this season. Opposing quarterbacks also have a 111.8 passer rating against them, having thrown 27 touchdowns against only six interceptions.
Some of you have asked why Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson wasn’t charged with reckless driving after police clocked him driving 109 miles per hour Saturday night in suburban Minneapolis. I’m not sure I have the answer to that, but according to the Star Tribune, Peterson will lose his driver's license for six months unless he successfully challenges the ticket.

Minnesota state laws require an automatic revocation of license for driving over 100. Peterson, who was driving on a highway that carries a speed limit of 55 miles per hour, has 21 days to challenge the ticket. He told the Associated Press on Wednesday that he wasn’t driving that fast.

If the Vikings plan any discipline, it won’t be made public. Peterson started last Sunday’s game against Chicago.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Black and Blue all over: Tiebreakers

December, 1, 2009
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Some parts of the NFC North were hoping that the sun would rise Tuesday morning with Minnesota and New Orleans tied for the best record in the NFC. Alas, the Saints maintained their one-game advantage over the Vikings with a resounding victory over New England on "Monday Night Football."

But for those of you who have been asking, there are a set of 11 tiebreakers that would apply if the teams finish with the same regular-season record. To determine who gets home-field advantage throughout the playoffs:

1. Head-to-head, if applicable.
2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four.
4. Strength of victory.
5. Strength of schedule.
6. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
7. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
8. Best net points in conference games.
9. Best net points in all games.
10. Best net touchdowns in all games.
11. Coin toss.

Obviously, the top tiebreaker won’t apply because the teams won’t play during the regular season. So keep this post in your back pocket as the season continues. Onward…

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The Bears didn't have any answers for the Cardinals in Sunday's 41-21 loss.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

CHICAGO -- I think I heard a collective groan here Sunday when Bears coach Lovie Smith stepped to the podium and said: “I don’t have a lot of reasons to give you on why we played that way.” In this case, however, I’m with Smith: The Bears’ performance Sunday was inexplicable.
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How does a team with playoff aspirations fall as flat as the Bears did Sunday? Why were no adjustments effective as the opponent scored on its first six possessions? How did a starting defensive lineman get so worked up after four plays that he punched an opponent, leading to his ejection? And why did your quarterback take a 15-yard penalty for arguing with officials and then question his team’s internal makeup afterward?

That’s right. Quarterback Jay Cutler was asked if the Bears have a chemistry and leadership problem after their 41-21 loss to Arizona. Cutler response: “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

To a man, the Bears had no answers after their second blowout loss in three games. The only variance was how alarmed they were. Smith noted “our entire play was bad,” but he optimistically suggested the quick turnaround to Thursday night’s game at San Francisco would serve the Bears well. Tight end Greg Olsen said it was “unfair” to suggest the team is going in the wrong direction after blowout losses Sunday and two weeks ago at Cincinnati.

Only Alex Brown, the Bears’ classy and well-spoken defensive end, was visibly disturbed by what happened. Brown has been with the team since 2002, and if anyone deserves to hit the panic button, it’s him.

“For this to work,” Brown said, “we have to believe it’s going to work and we have to have a sense of urgency and we don’t have that right now. I don’t know what the hell is wrong, but we have to change it. It’s the eighth game of the season, and I know a lot of people like to think we’re better than 4-4. But hell, our record is 4-4. ... If we want to have any aspirations of going further or making it to the playoffs and stuff like that, then we’ve got to play a hell of a lot better.”

Brown went on to say that “anybody that doesn’t feel bad after that shouldn’t be here,” making me wonder which Bears players he was referring to.

“We keep saying, 'Go home and soul search and look at yourself,' but I don’t know. Something’s a little ... there might be a little more than that.”

Brown said he had “no idea” exactly what “a little more” was. But I’m less inclined to believe the team has quit or that there are some bad apples damaging the group. More than anything, when I watch the Bears, I see a team that has lost its edge and deleted its own identity. Simply put, there is no longer an internal or external expectation in Chicago that the Bears can play good defense.

Two weeks ago, Cincinnati led 31-3 at halftime and finished with 30 first downs. On Sunday, the Cardinals rolled up 296 offensive yards and 20 first downs in the first half alone. After defensive tackle Tommie Harris got himself ejected in the first quarter, the Bears allowed an average of 6.1 yards per middle rush for the rest of the game, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Finally, the Cardinals converted eight of their first nine third-down opportunities.

I suppose every team is allowed one lemon per season, one game where nothing seems to work and the end result is a college homecoming-style blowout. But deeper problems are evident when you can’t slow down your opponent twice in a three-game span.

The Bears' defense seems beyond repair to me. I know. Just last week I suggested the Bears could milk six more wins out of their schedule. But in Sunday’s affair, at least, I underestimated the impact of a steamrolled defense on the entire team. It seemed to send the Bears’ offense into a panic; coordinator Ron Turner called passes on 10 of his first 12 plays. Tailback Matt Forte got only five carries.

Brown suggested that players should play “like our backs are against the wall” from the first whistle, but that seems like wishful thinking to me. The Bears briefly got back into Sunday’s game in the fourth quarter when the Cardinals started emptying their bench. Danieal Manning’s interception of backup quarterback Matt Leinart might have been a turning point, but the Cardinals restored order as soon as starter Kurt Warner returned to the game.

“If we don’t figure it out, there’s going to be a lot of those games,” Brown said. “We’re going to have a lot more of those games these last eight games if we can’t figure it out.”

After watching Sunday’s game, however, I don’t have much faith in the Bears’ ability to do that. We should all agree that cornerback Charles Tillman shouldn’t be matched up in single coverage with an opponent’s top receiver, as he was Sunday against Larry Fitzgerald and two weeks ago against the Bengals’ Chad Ochocinco. But would Cover 2 approach be any better considering the Bears’ questionable pass rush of late?

Can we now accept that the Bears don’t have the personnel to blitz effectively? On Sunday, they faced a quarterback in Warner who had been highly vulnerable to the blitz this season. In the first eight games of the season, in fact, Warner had a 61.3 passer rating when opponents sent added pressure.

On Sunday, Warner’s rating was 104.8 against the blitz, and it didn’t matter how the Bears schemed it. He went 3-for-3 when the Bears blitzed two linebackers. He was 4-for-4 when the Bears blitzed a safety. And when they emphasized coverage, rushing only four defensive linemen, Warner completed 10 of 13 passes.

(Those figures are all courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.)

So let’s try to put it all together. The Bears are supposed to be a team built around defense and an offense that, to use Smith’s phrase, “gets off the bus running.” But they no longer have a competent defense, let alone one that can play at an elite level. They haven’t been able to run for most of the season, and Sunday they never even tried.

Chicago is three games behind Minnesota in the NFC North and has three days to prepare for a Thursday night game at San Francisco. Smith referred to that quick turnaround as an “opportunity” and said the Bears are no different than a team that “played bad ball right at the end of the half” and has a “chance to regroup quickly.”

Smith, of course, couldn’t say why his team had played “bad ball” or how it would “regroup quickly.” I hope this conclusion isn’t too dramatic, but it sure seems like his team has strayed irrevocably from the core values he installed in 2004. They don’t play decent defense and they don’t even try to run the ball. What is the Bears identity? Who are they? It’s inexplicable.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

PITTSBURGH -- Greetings from what might be the United States’ sports and entertainment mecca, at least for this weekend. They had Pitt-South Florida on Saturday afternoon. Penguins-New Jersey in the evening, Steelers-Vikings on Sunday afternoon and a big WWE event Sunday night. Hotel rooms are scarce but the beer was flowing Saturday night, from what I could tell.

I’ll be heading over to Heinz Field in a few hours and will check in with you upon arrival. For now, let’s take a quick spin around the division:

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