NFC North: Indianapolis Colts


CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears unleashed the explosive offense they discussed all offseason in demolishing the Indianapolis Colts 41-21 in Mike Tice’s first official game as the club’s new playcaller.

While the unit looked shaky early on, it’s not out of the question to say that with some seasoning the Bears could develop into arguably the most dangerous offense in the NFC North with all the weapons the team has acquired to put around quarterback Jay Cutler.

Cutler shook off a 1-for-10 start to throw for 333 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 42-yard bomb to rookie Alshon Jeffery in the fourth quarter to put the exclamation point on an explosive Bears performance that also featured running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush combining for 122 yards and three more TDs.

Here’s a closer look:

What it means: The Bears needed to start off with a victory because they face the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night. Minnesota and Detroit started off their seasons with victories, so it was important for the Bears to do the same to keep pace in a division that will be one of the league’s most competitive in 2012.

Shaky start: Cutler dramatically improved as the first half progressed, but the Bears know he can’t get off to such a slow start again Thursday night. Cutler completed only one of his first 10 passes, and threw an interception returned for a touchdown by Jerrell Freeman that gave the Colts an early advantage at the 11:23 mark of the first quarter. Cutler’s passer rating after 13 attempts was 0, and he finished the first quarter with a passer rating of 4.9 after completing 3-of-10 for 21 yards. Once Cutler stopped forcing passes to Marshall and the offensive line settled in, the quarterback finished the first half completing 15-of-27 for 228 yards and a touchdown and a passer rating of 80.5.

Andrew Luck makes history: Well, not really, but sort of. Luck starting against Chicago marked just the second time the Bears faced a starting quarterback making his NFL debut. The last time it happened, the Bears matched up against Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Scott Tinsley, who was playing his first NFL game during the 1987 strike season. Chicago smashed the Eagles 35-3 in that outing in front of 4,074 fans as Tinsley completed 7-of-22 passes for 65 yards. The Bears sacked Tinsley’s backup, Guido Merkins, 10 times. Obviously, Luck fared a little better by hitting on 23-of-45 for 309 yards and a TD.

Cutler milestone: Cutler’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall with 5:52 remaining in the second quarter moved the quarterback into sole possession of fourth place in franchise history in career TD passes. Cutler came into the game tied with Ed Brown and Erik Kramer for fourth with 63 TD tosses. Cutler finished the game with 333 yards and two touchdown passes. But Cutler still has plenty of work to do to catch franchise leader Sid Luckman (137 career TD passes).

Forte moves past Sayers: Forte entered the matchup with the Colts needing 46 yards from scrimmage to move past Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers for fourth most yards from scrimmage in franchise history. Forte passed Sayers in the first quarter when he gained 47 of Chicago’s 61 yards on two plays during one of the club’s two first-quarter scoring drives. Forte entered the game with 6,218 yards from scrimmage in 60 outings. Sayers had gained 6,263 yards from scrimmage in 68 games. Forte also became just the third player in Bears history to gain 4,000 career rushing yards and 2,000 receiving. Forte come into the game with 1,985 yards receiving and caught two passes for 32 yards in the first half to move into select company with Walter Payton and Neal Anderson, who rushed for 6,166 yards and gained 2,763 yards receiving during his career.

What’s next: The Bears face a short turnaround going into Thursday night’s matchup on the road against the Packers. So they’ll return to the practice field to work on Monday and Tuesday before using Wednesday as a travel day.

ESPN's Mark Schlereth talks about potential destinations for Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James and Warrick Dunn.

The Packers' popularity

March, 24, 2009
Posted by's Kevin Seifert

DANA POINT, Calif. -- In a fortuitous bit of corporate synergy, the NFL and ESPN Sports Poll collaborated on a study to determine the nation's most popular individual pro sports franchises.

Owners and team executives viewed the results of the poll this week during their opening gathering at the St. Regis Hotel. NFL teams captured six of the top 10 spots in the poll, including the Black and Blue's own Green Bay Packers at No. 2.

By one measure, the poll means that in 2008, the Packers had the second-highest percentage of supporters among all U.S. pro sports franchises.

"We're a very recognizable brand and I think we still have a national following," Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said. Here's the full list for 2008:

  1. Dallas Cowboys
  2. Green Bay Packers
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers
  4. New England Patriots
  5. New York Yankees
  6. Los Angeles Lakers
  7. Indianapolis Colts
  8. Boston Red Sox
  9. New York Giants
  10. Atlanta Braves
I'm sure there will be some dissenters out there. By all means, discuss.

Rapid Reaction: Colts 31, Lions 21

December, 14, 2008
Posted by's Kevin Seifert

Sorry, Detroit fans: The Lions' record is officially broken.

Once again, your team hung with a strong opponent for most of its game Sunday, turning what many figured would be a blowout into an interesting and competitive game. Quarterback Dan Orlovsky upheld the team's faith in him, and although they never led in this game, the Lions actually were tied with Indianapolis midway through the fourth quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But in the end, thanks to a key 39-yard pass from Peyton Manning to Reggie Wayne, the Lions became only the third team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to open a season 0-14.

And in case you're wondering, no one has started 0-15. To avoid that bit of infamy, the Lions will have to defeat New Orleans at a presumably blacked-out Ford Field next Sunday.

Rapid Reaction: Packers 34, Colts 14

October, 19, 2008
Posted by's Kevin Seifert

Green Bay did exactly what it needed to against resurgent Indianapolis: Control the time of possession and let the Colts self-destruct.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy actually called more running plays (21) than passes (20) in the first half at Lambeau Field. More importantly, Green Bay limited the chances for Colts quarterback Peyton Manning by holding onto the ball for 20:25 of the first half.

In building a steady lead, the Packers' defense was able to sell out against the pass. Safeties Nick Collins and Aaron Rouse both returned interceptions for touchdowns, and overall the Colts committed 12 penalties.

Tailback Ryan Grant produced his first 100-yard game of the season. But perhaps the best news for Green Bay is that Grant -- who was slowed earlier this season by a hamstring injury -- has now carried 64 times in the past two games. He'll have the bye week to rest up and conceivably provide the Packers a consistent weapon for the rest of the season.

Posted by's Kevin Seifert

CHICAGO -- Not sure what they were calling for here in the midwest, but it's a pretty perfect day for football in Chicago. I'm looking at a cloudless sky on the other side of the hotel window. It's 44 degrees now but the temperature should break 60 by this afternoon. There's no wind to speak of, but I'll let you know if that changes once we arrive at Solider Field.

The media buildup to this game has been interesting from the perspective of both starting tailbacks. Minnesota's Adrian Peterson ranks third in the NFL with 563 yards and Chicago's Matt Forte is fifth with 459 yards, but there is some local hand-wringing going on with both players.

As Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune notes, Peterson has created such wild expectations that it's hard to get excited about three 100-yard efforts in the first six games of the season. Maybe that's because Peterson has seen a notable decrease in explosive plays of late. In fact, Zulgad points out this statistic: In the 12 games since rushing for an NFL-record 296 yards in November 2007, Peterson's longest run is 34 yards.

Forte, meanwhile, hasn't had a 100-yard game since debuting with 123 yards on opening night in Indianapolis. David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune suggests Forte has proved himself to be talented enough that he should be judged with higher expectations.

The way this game matches up, you would think the passing games will be more critical than the run games. But there will be plenty of eyes on Peterson and Forte. See you there.

Continuing around the NFC North this morning:

Al Harris practices in Green Bay

October, 15, 2008
Posted by's Kevin Seifert

Green Bay cornerback Al Harris returned to the practice field Wednesday, a month after suffering a lacerated spleen in a freak collision with Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk.

Harris' work was limited and coach Mike McCarthy said it's doubtful Harris will play Sunday against Indianapolis. But if Harris continues making progress, it seems reasonable he will be ready for the Packers' Nov. 2 game at Tennessee.

That's quite a turn of events for a player whose season, and possibly career, seemed threatened in the days after the injury.

Posted by's Kevin Seifert

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Assigning blame and credit in pass coverage is a tricky business in the NFL. The closest defender isn't always responsible, and sometimes a smart adjustment by one player makes another look good.

 David Stluka/Getty Images
 Cedric Griffin expects to be tested by Drew Brees and the Saints on Monday night.

In that context, we can't specify how many completions Minnesota cornerback Cedric Griffin has given up this season. What we can tell you is that opponents are targeting him frequently -- enough to make him the Vikings' fourth-leading tackler, an ominous statistic for an NFL cornerback. Griffin doesn't have an interception this season, has batted away only one pass and faces a stiff challenge Monday night against New Orleans' top-rated passing offense.

Speaking last week in the Vikings' locker room, Griffin acknowledged he is being picked on this season but attributed it to a pair of extenuating factors:

  • The presence of veteran Antoine Winfield on the other side of the Vikings' defense. Teams naturally prefer to throw away from Winfield, Griffin said.
  • His status as the right cornerback. According to Griffin: "Most teams are right-handed, and the ride side is usually the single-receiver side ... where they run their outs and curls. I love playing right corner because I get a lot of action."

Griffin, of course, has seen a lot of action in part because he hasn't stopped receivers from catching medium-range passes in front of him. Vikings coaches note Griffin has given up only one long pass play, a 58-yard completion to Indianapolis receiver Anthony Gonzalez, and they don't appear unhappy with his performance.

Here's how defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier assessed Griffin's play thus far:

"Some people have caught some passes underneath, some outs and some curls, and with the exception with that one play with [Anthony] Gonzalez, he's done a good job of not allowing big plays over the top of him. That's what we ask him to do in our scheme. As long as he does that and tackles well ... then he'll be fine. There are things that people try to do because Antoine [Winfield] is such a good player on the left side. He's holding his own. You just have to do a good job of tackling and not giving up big plays over the top and we'll be fine."

From our vantage point, a collection of 7-yard receptions can hurt a defense just as much as one long pass. Griffin is a physical player, but it only takes one missed tackle to turn a short pass into a big play. It seems fair to expect opponents to continue targeting him unless he tightens up his coverage enough to make an interception or at least break up passes more consistently.

Griffin doesn't disagree, but said the worst thing he can do is start pressing for an interception.

"You can't be too aggressive out there," Griffin said. "You have to patient, you have to relax and you have to have a lot of confidence. When my time comes ... to get some picks, it's going to come."

Monday night would be a good time for the Vikings.

Hicks to start for Vikings

September, 14, 2008
Posted by's Kevin Seifert

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings left tackle Artis Hicks is going to give it a go today at the Metrodome.

Hicks, who injured his elbow last Monday against Green Bay and couldn't finish the game, is expected to start today against Indianapolis. The Vikings will have Marcus Johnson ready to replace him if the elbow proves too painful.

Saturday won't play against Vikings

September, 14, 2008
Posted by's Kevin Seifert

MINNEAPOLIS -- The first of several significant injury questions has been settled here at the Metrodome.

Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday (knee) told ESPN's Bob Holtzman a few minutes ago that he is inactive and won't play today against Minnesota. Jamey Richard will start. He'll face the Vikings' Pro Bowl duo of defensive tackles, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams.

Colts tight end Dallas Clark is also inactive for today's game.

We'll bring you more news, sights and sounds as the day develops.

Posted by's Kevin Seifert

MINNEAPOLIS -- As we told you in our Friday programming note, we'll be courtside at the Metrodome today for Minnesota's Week 2 matchup with Indianapolis.

Someone mentioned an interesting stat earlier this week that bears passing along: The Vikings are facing a team that hasn't been 0-2 in 10 years. Yes, the last time the Colts lost the first two games of the year was 1998, which also happened to be quarterback Peyton Manning's rookie year. In fact, the Colts have only lost twice in September over the past six seasons, including last week's home defeat to Chicago.

Historically, at least, you expect the Colts to bounce back. But for the record, we like the Vikings in this one.

We'll be heading downtown in a few hours. In the meantime, let's take a jaunt around the rest of the division.

  • Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press traces the relationship and similar personalities of Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and Colts coach Tony Dungy. According to Frazier, Dungy proved their similarly quiet approach can work in the NFL: "It reinforced my beliefs that you could be who you are and do it the way I wanted to do it, as opposed to the other model that the majority of people recognize as a coach -- a guy who is a screamer, maybe profane in his language. That's how you motivate. Well, to do that, I would have had to change my personality, and I wasn't willing to do that. When I saw that there was a guy who was successful, who was similar to myself, I was very encouraged to stay with what I was doing and the way I was doing it."
  • Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune notes that Vikings defensive end Jared Allen will be looking for his first sack of the season against a quarterback in Manning who almost never gets sacked. (To be exact, 3.4 percent of his career pass plays).
  • Tom Kowalski of points out Detroit had four losses of 31 points or more last season. In the games that immediately followed, the Lions won three times and lost by one point to Dallas in the other.
  • Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press thinks the Lions offense will do everything it can to keep the defense off the field today against Green Bay.
  • You might not think of him as nifty, but Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is adding an element of mobility to the position that Brett Favre largely abandoned in his last few years with the team. Rodgers ran for four first downs in the season opener against Minnesota. As Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, Favre hadn't run for more than four first downs in a season since 2002.
  • Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette wonders whether the Lions will catch a break thanks to the sore hamstring of Packers tailback Ryan Grant.
  • Chicago's matchup with Carolina will feature two of the NFL's most skilled players at causing fumbles, writes Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune. The Panthers' Chris Harris led the NFL with eight last season, while the Bears' Charles Tillman has 12 since the 2003 season.
  • The Bears are hoping to get rookie defensive tackle Marcus Harrison more and more playing time, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Sharper knows his limits against Manning

September, 11, 2008
Posted by's Kevin Seifert


EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- No NFL safety works harder to read the quarterback than Minnesota's Darren Sharper, who has made a career of studying tendencies and taking educated risks to make a big play during games. But Sharper has a firm grip on his limits as he prepares for the Vikings' game Sunday against Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning.

The Colts' unique offense -- Manning calls and changes plays at the line of scrimmage with a flurry of code words and hand signals -- is among the most sophisticated in the NFL. Sharper would drive himself batty trying to guess Manning's intentions.

"You just can't worry about it too much," Sharper said. "You can't pay attention, try to get a clue and say, 'OK, did he signal this before and then do this route?' Knowing him, it could be a dummy signal that he's trying to confuse you with."

Sharper last faced Manning in a legendary shootout during the 2004 season. A member of the Green Bay Packers at the time, Sharper watched as Manning lit up his defense for five touchdown passes -- in the first half. The Packers rallied furiously in the second half, but the Colts hung on for a 45-31 victory. Manning and Packers quarterback Brett Favre combined for 751 passing yards and nine touchdown passes.

"That's a memory I have," Sharper said. "[Manning] throwing five touchdowns in the first half. I've been trying to lose that memory, but thanks for making me think of it."

No problem.

Posted by's Kevin Seifert

My AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky has the details on the Indianapolis Colts' quick decision to waive starting defensive tackle Ed Johnson.

This will have no small effect on the Minnesota Vikings, who host the Colts in four days at the Metrodome. As of Wednesday, coach Tony Dungy wasn't sure who will replace Johnson in the starting lineup. But whoever does will have the unenviable task of taking on Pro Bowl offensive linemen Matt Birk and Steve Hutchinson for a defense that gave up 183 yards rushing last Sunday to the Chicago Bears.

Think Adrian Peterson isn't licking his chops right now?

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if Colts center Jeff Saturday, who returned to practice Wednesday, actually tries to play Sunday against the Vikings. Saturday is two weeks removed from a knee injury that was supposed to hold him out six weeks.

The Colts listed him as having participated fully in practice Wednesday. Saturday is quarterback Peyton Manning's alter ego and his presence almost certainly would have helped smooth out some of the rough edges in Manning's performance last Sunday.

Familiarity has its advantages

September, 9, 2008
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 In his first game with his new team, Minnesota's Jared Allen said Monday's game was "one of the least productive games of my life."

 Posted by's Kevin Seifert

The ball sailed past Minnesota receiver Bernard Berrian a few times. Once, it hit his feet. Another time, he couldn't adjust quickly enough as the ball was in the air.

On the other side of the ball, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen burst through the line a handful of times, tripped on a couple of plays and ultimately finished with what he called "one of the least productive games of my life."

In Atlanta, a defense stocked with newcomers was bumbling all over the field. The Detroit Lions gave up 21 points in the first quarter to the Falcons and never recovered.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears' veteran defense carried it to a surprising victory at Indianapolis. And the Green Bay Packers' homegrown roster proved to be the most decisive team on the field Monday night.

In retrospect, it shouldn't be a surprise that the NFC North teams who largely stood pat in the free-agent market were more prepared to play on the opening weekend of the season. High-profile acquisitions impress the media and whip up fan support, but it is a difficult task to bring a group of new veterans together in time to play your best football in September.

Perhaps that's why the Vikings were surprisingly calm and, in many cases, smiling after their 24-19 loss to the Packers on Monday night. Berrian entered the game with almost no game-speed work with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. They played one quarter of one preseason game together because of injuries. He ended up catching three of the seven passes Jackson threw his way.

Allen's unofficial stat line was filled with zeros, with the exception of one defensed pass. And yet when we ventured into the Vikings' locker room, you couldn't hear a bowling ball drop, let alone a pin. Players weren't exactly jubilant, but they seemed far from discouraged.

"We're going to be fine, man, really," nose tackle Pat Williams said. "We gave up a few big plays, and that's it. I'm not worried at all. If we can get a little more consistency and not give up big plays, we'll be alright. We've just got to work on a few small things."

(Read full post)

Posted by's Kevin Seifert

APPLETON, Wis. -- This town got off to a rousing start Monday morning. We're headquartered in Appleton, about 30 miles away from Green Bay and the home of most visiting teams for Packers games.

So it was pretty easy to connect the dots of intention when a truck cruised down College Ave., slowed down considerably in front of the Minnesota Vikings' hotel, and started laying on the horn like there was no tomorrow. Not sure what time the Vikings' wakeup call was Monday morning, but we're doubt anyone slept past 7 a.m. CT. Game time: 11 hours.

We'll be heading up to Green Bay in a few hours and should be in Lambeau Field by early afternoon, where the blogging will commence in earnest. In the meantime, here are extended posts I wrote on the Vikings-Packers rivalry and the teams' running games.

We've brought you our "Black and Blue all over" feature since the ESPN blog network launched in July, with a goal of distilling the volume of NFC North-related stories. We hope this will be an especially valuable service on Monday mornings, considering the thousands of words most newspapers still devote to Sunday games.

Monday night's matchup between the Packers and Vikings left us with only two games Sunday, and like most people, we were surprised by the outcome of both. The Detroit Lions looked nothing like the calm and crisp team that sailed through preseason, while the Chicago Bears were able to turn the switch in time to post an improbably dominant victory at Indianapolis.

Looking at the highlights of Monday's coverage:

  • Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times noted the Bears' impressive victory. But, as only a Chicago media member can, Mulligan pointed out the Bears caught the Colts at the right time. Peyton Manning missed the preseason because of a knee injury. The interior of the Colts' offensive line was new. Lucas Oil Stadium robbed the Colts of their hometown crowd weapon. And they're an easy team to run against. Otherwise, it was a great win.
  • The Bears made two personnel changes official: Kevin Payne is the new starting safety while Dusty Dvoracek unseated Anthony Adams at nose tackle.
  • Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye had a dominating night, as the Chicago Tribune writes. Three of Ogunleye's six tackles were behind the line of scrimmage, including a safety.
  • Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press puts the Lions' opener in perspective: "When the Atlanta Falcons put a whupping on you, it's time to close shop."
  • Lions quarterback Jon Kitna was trying to stop the confidence bleed afterwards. "You cannot allow yourself to get in the mindset of, it's the same old thing," Kitna said, according to the Free Press.
  • Kitna was part of a sideline dispute with several Lions assistant coaches, but downplayed it afterwards.
  • Speaking of the same old thing: Receiver Roy Williams had one acrobatic touchdown reception, but he admitted to making the wrong adjustment on another play, leading to a third-quarter interception.
  • Tom Kowalski of writes the Lions' poor tackling Sunday is a reflection of a basic lack of talent, not a lapse in coaching.
  • Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune and Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal touch on the rivalry between the teams they cover. Wilde asked coach Mike McCarthy if he disliked the Vikings more than any other NFL team. McCarthy responded with a broad smile that lasted for 15 seconds before Wilde realized that was his (non-) answer.
  • Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes that its time for the Packers' offensive line to come of age, even with injuries that have forced lineup changes at three positions: "Either play up to the standards of a real NFL offensive line -- starting tonight against the Minnesota Vikings -- or step aside for someone else."