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Final Word: NFC North

12/10/2010

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:

Exposed? National doubters believe the Chicago Bears will finally be exposed as something less than an elite team Sunday by the red-hot New England Patriots, whose offense has averaged 40 points per game in its last four contests. I'm not picking a winner in this game, but I would be really surprised if the Patriots romped in this one. No matter what you say about the Bears' offense or think about quarterback Jay Cutler, their defense has been consistent throughout the year and currently ranks third in the NFL in points allowed per game. The Bears are at their best when they use their standard four-man rush, which maximizes their potential to make big plays, create turnovers and at the very least, keep this game close.

Strength-on-strength: You could make a whole list of interesting comparisons for this game. So let's do it. The Patriots rank first in the NFL in points per game. The Bears rank third in fewest points allowed. The Bears have the best third-down defense in the NFL. The Patriots' third-down conversion rate (44.8) is the fourth-best in the NFL. The Bears have caused 26 turnovers, the fourth most in the league. The Patriots have committed nine turnovers, tied for the league's fewest. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is known for his innovative schemes. The Bears are known for playing their standard scheme as well as anyone in the league. I'll be fascinated to see where the ball drops on this one.

The Cutler factor: I wonder how many NFC North fans realize the Patriots' defense has given up the second-most yards in the NFL this season. (They rank No. 18 in points allowed.) The Patriots have survived in large part by intercepting 18 passes, which provides a cautionary tale for Cutler. But this week we endeavored to paint a picture of why Cutler has been so successful lately. He's been a playmaker as a runner. He's focused most of his passing efforts on high-percentage throws and has been excellent in play-action. I don't know about you, but to me, that sounds like a good combination as you head into a December game against an elite opponent.

Fine tuning: As you know by now, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is on an 11-touchdown, 0-interception streak over the past five games. Receiver Greg Jennings is on a seven-game tear of 43 receptions, 761 yards and eight touchdowns. And so naturally, Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions offers the Packers an excellent chance to re-balance their offense as they begin their final push to the playoffs. The Lions are giving up 127.4 rushing yards per game, the eighth-highest total in the NFL, and the Packers achieved a bit of a breakthrough last week against the San Francisco 49ers. Rookie running back James Starks rushed for 73 yards on 18 carries. It will be interesting to see if he can emerge as a legitimate weapon moving forward. The Packers' final three games are all outdoors and in cold weather -- twice at Lambeau Field and once at New England's Gillette Stadium. Chances are, they'll need more of a running game than they've had to this point. Let's see if they can build off Starks' performance Sunday at Ford Field.

Talk about numbers: As of this posting, we have no idea whether Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre will extend his consecutive games streak to 298 or if he will miss his first game since 1992. So let's focus on the quarterback on the other sideline. In four career starts against the Vikings, all losses, Eli Manning has a 47.8 passer rating. He's thrown nine interceptions among 139 attempts. Every year is a new year, but those numbers have spanned six seasons. Just sayin'.