NFC North: LeSean McCoy

MINNEAPOLIS -- For at least one more year, Adrian Peterson has one-upped LeSean McCoy. Or at least the virtual version of him has.

Peterson is the top-rated running back in 'Madden NFL 15,' with an overall rating of 98. EA Sports released its running back ratings for this year's version of the game on Wednesday, and Peterson edged McCoy and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles by a point, a year after carrying a 99 rating and gracing the cover of the next-generation console version of 'Madden NFL 25.' Chicago's Matt Forte and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch are the next-best running backs in the game, with overall ratings of 95 each.

Peterson
Peterson
We got a chance to talk with Donny Moore, who carries the title of "Madden NFL Live Content Producer and Ratings Czar" -- and who might have one of the only jobs in the world we'd think is cooler than ours -- about the process of rating players for the game. Essentially, Moore and his team spend countless hours dissecting proprietary NFL film, reading updates on players and digesting advanced stats in a meticulous (and in the days of week-to-week online updates, continual) effort to make the game as realistic as possible. Their job is to distill all of that information into a player profile, rating each player in the NFL across more than three dozen categories to make his digital doppelganger behave like the real thing.

"The ratings pipe right back into the gameplay," Moore said. "We get so many requests and expectations for game play; it's got to be fun, but it's got to be authentic."

Peterson, Moore said, slipped a point for several reasons: His yards per carry dropped from an otherworldly 6.0 in 2012 to 4.5 last season, he fumbled five times (his most since 2009) and he was hampered by injuries for much of last season. Still, there's no one in the game with the combination of speed and power that Peterson has.

"Everybody says, 'What? How is he the top guy? He certainly didn’t have the 2,000-yard season (in 2013), but the overall rating is still a calculation of their attributes," Moore said. "He's a 97 across the board in the three physical categories that matter the most. I don’t think there’s anyone that has that collection of ratings. He's a 93 (in) trucking, 95 (in) elusiveness. When he’s out in the open, he’s not going to be caught. In contact situations, he'll still succeed better than any running back."

Moore said the most time-consuming part of his job is creating rookies for 'Madden,' since the game developers don't rely much on the corresponding characters in EA's college football games (which were discontinued after last season). The college game was more favorable to players, Moore said, than 'Madden' aims to be, so rookie creation means starting almost from scratch.

Vikings rookie running back Jerick McKinnon, Moore said, was "pretty fun to create," in large part because of McKinnon's eye-popping numbers at the NFL scouting combine. The Georgia Southern product bench pressed 225 pounds 32 times, ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash, flashed a 40 1/2-inch vertical and an 11-foot broad jump. "It's easy to rate his physical attributes very well because of how he timed (at the combine)," Moore said. "How he rates on his trucking or his elusiveness remains to be seen, but between his speed, his agility, his acceleration and his jumping, that's pretty nice for a guy from Georgia Southern."

One more Vikings-related note on this year's game, which will be released on August 26: Teddy Bridgewater -- an avid 'Madden' player who reacted with mock indignation to his rating in this year's game -- is the second-best quarterback on the Vikings' roster, a point behind Matt Cassel. Moore said Cassel, Bridgewater and Christian Ponder are "all bunched up in the high 70s," and while Bridgewater was slated to be the top rookie QB in the game when Moore started putting his ratings together, his stock slipped because of his now-famous pro day, just like it did in real life.

"I had to knock his throw power down a point or two," Moore said. "I had him at an 89, and now it's an 87. I think he has the top short accuracy of all the rookie quarterbacks, and his overall accuracy is pretty stellar. His deep accuracy needs to improve. His speed rating is in the low 80s, which puts him in the Aaron Rodgers category (for quarterbacks).
It has been almost 15 seasons now since his abrupt retirement from the NFL, when Barry Sanders indicated he had enough of what had been going on with the Detroit Lions and chose not to play anymore.

Though there is a complete generation of fans who have seen him play only on grainy highlights from the old, decaying Silverdome, he still remains popular. He beat out Adrian Peterson last year to be on the cover of Madden and has become part of this season’s Madden cover vote.

[+] EnlargeBarry Sanders
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesBarry Sanders scored 99 rushing touchdowns and is third on the all-time rushing list.
Considering how well he is still regarded and how familiar his name is to NFL fans young and old, the obvious question is how would the running back do today in an NFL now predicated on shotgun and passing instead of the running focus from when he played.

“I don’t know. I think I could adjust,” Sanders told ESPN.com this week. “I think I would just have to do more things in the passing game and out of the backfield, which I think that can make you more dangerous and you see that with a guy like [LeSean] McCoy and a guy like Jamaal Charles. In some cases that can make certain guys more dangerous.

“The two elements really kind of feed off each other and really go hand-in-hand. If you’re a dangerous running back and you can catch the ball out of the backfield, I think that makes your running game more dangerous and your passing game more potent as well. If you’re one-dimensional, I think it’s easier to contain you.”

In that list of do-it-all backs, Sanders also mentioned Detroit running back Reggie Bush as a player who has taken advantage of the new style of offense and running backs.

Sanders, for his time, was about as multipurpose as it came. Besides his 15,269 yards rushing over 10 seasons, he also caught 352 passes for 2,921 yards. Though he never caught more than 48 passes in a season -- 1995 -- he never had fewer than 24 receptions, either.

If one can imagine his explosiveness and ability in an offense like New Orleans or Philadelphia or what is expected with the Lions this season, he probably would put up similar numbers to what he did in his 10-year career.

So unlike some players from other eras, Sanders would have almost definitely been able to adjust and have his skills fit in with the NFL of today just as well -- if not better -- than they did in the 1990s.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If you're a fantasy football player, then you're probably already thinking about your roster for this season.

And if you're a Green Bay Packers' fan, which is safe to assume since you’re reading this, you have decisions to make. Do you draft with your heart and select Packers players or do you draft with your head and take the best player available?

Perhaps there's a way to do both.

We have unveiled our latest fantasy rankings for the 2014 season. Among the top 200 players overall regardless of position were seven Packers.

Here's a breakdown of where they fell on the top 200 list:

6. Eddie Lacy: After rushing for 1,178 yards last season, the reigning offensive rookie of the year could top that if he can stay healthy for the entire season. He missed one full game and significant parts of two others because of injuries (concussion, ankle) last season. Running backs occupied the top six spots, and Lacy was behind Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Jamal Charles, Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch.

12. Aaron Rodgers: Only one quarterback, Peyton Manning, ranked ahead of Rodgers. That says it all.

22. Jordy Nelson: Nelson is hoping to avoid his every-other-year pattern. In 2011 and 2013, he had big seasons with 1,200 yards or more in each season, combined to catch 23 touchdowns and did not miss any games. But in 2012 he missed four games and managed just 745 yards and seven touchdowns. Ranked seventh among receivers.

30. Randall Cobb: After an 80-catch season in 2012, he was poised for another big year last season before a fractured leg limited him to six games. Like Nelson, Cobb is in a contract year, which could help his production. Ranked 10th among receivers.

122. James Starks: Had his most productive season last year as Lacy's primary backup, posting career highs in touchdowns (four -- three rushing, one receiving) and yards per carry (5.5). Ranked 51st among running backs.

154. Mason Crosby: Saved his job last season by making 33-of-37 field goals (89.2 percent) after a career-low 63.6 percent conversion rate in 2012. Has tallied at least 100 points in seven straight seasons. Ranked fourth among kickers.

161. Jarrett Boykin: Emerged last season as a viable No. 3 with 49 catches for 681 yards and three touchdowns over the final 12 games but could see reduced playing time this year after the Packers drafted three receivers. Ranked 54th among receivers.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It should not have taken the withdrawal of Adrian Peterson for Eddie Lacy to make the Pro Bowl, as the Green Bay Packers rookie did on Wednesday after Peterson pulled out because of an injury.

Lacy was seventh in the voting at a position where six players were selected.

Let’s compare Lacy’s numbers to the running backs originally voted in.

Lacy
Lacy rushed for 1,178 yards, which was more than only one of the six -- Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers (1,128). But considering that Lacy missed one full game and more than three quarters of another because of the concussion he suffered in Week 2, then perhaps rushing yards per game is a more telling stat.

In that department, Lacy averaged 78.5 yards per game in the 15 games in which he appeared. That matched or bettered the average of two of the six backs originally voted in -- Gore (70.5 yards per game) and the Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch (78.5 yards per game).

If you use 14 games as the divider given that Lacy was injured on his lone carry in the first quarter in Week 2, then Lacy’s average of 84.1 rushing yards per game would surpass one other back originally voted in -- the Chicago Bears' Matt Forte (83.7 yards per game) -- and would nearly match the Kansas City Chiefs' Jamaal Charles (85.8 yards per game).

To be sure, Lacy couldn’t match the Philadelphia Eagles' LeSean McCoy (who led the NFL with 1,607 yards rushing) in total yards or even Peterson (who averaged 90.4 yards per game over 14 games). But Lacy revived a running game that had not sent a running back to the Pro Bowl since 2004 (Ahman Green).
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Eddie Lacy that the San Francisco 49ers saw in Week 1 at Candlestick Park isn’t the Eddie Lacy they should be studying this week.

The Green Bay Packers running back was tentative, indecisive and a fumbler.

[+] EnlargeDavid Bakhtiari
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsPackers rookie LT David Bakhtiari started 16 games this season and gained valuable experience.
He has been none of those things since then.

The David Bakhtiari that the 49ers saw in the season opener isn’t the David Bakhtiari they should be preparing for this week.

The Packers left tackle allowed outside linebacker Aldon Smith to sack quarterback Aaron Rodgers twice and had his hands full with the pass-rusher most of the game.

He has allowed multiple sacks in a game only once since then.

Almost an entire season has passed since the 49ers last saw the Packers, and perhaps the biggest difference in Green Bay is in their two rookie starters on offense. Lacy became the 1,000-yard power back that general manager Ted Thompson hoped he would be when he picked in the second round last April, and Bakhtiari held together an offensive line that could have fallen apart when veteran Bryan Bulaga blew out his knee less than two weeks into training camp.

Chalk it up to first-game jitters (in Lacy’s case) or just plain old inexperience (in Bahktiari’s case), but neither got off to the kind of start they wanted in the 34-28 loss in their NFL debuts at Candlestick Park.

“I can’t even start to describe how I felt that game,” Lacy said. “That was the first time for me, but it’s in the past, so I’m not too much worried about it.”

For Lacy, his 41-yard rushing game (on 14 carries) was his third-lowest total of the season in a game he finished. The fumble, who landed him on the bench for part of the game, was his only one of the season.

“He admittedly was very nervous for the game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “So, yeah, Eddie's playing much better, just like any rookie in this league, you know he's got 16 games under his belt now. He knows what to expect, and he's comfortable in the offense, he's comfortable being asked what to do, so yeah Eddie is in a different place today.”

Even his sprained right ankle, which has bothered him the past three weeks, appears to be feeling better heading into Sunday’s NFC wild-card game against the 49ers at Lambeau Field.

Lacy finished with a Packers’ rookie record of 1,178 yards rushing -- the eighth-best total in the league -- and scored 11 touchdowns despite missing nearly two full games because of a concussion.

So what will the 49ers see when they watch film of what Lacy has done since they saw him last?

“I think they’re going to see a confident, hard-running Eddie Lacy,” Packers fullback John Kuhn said. “He's going to be determined, assertive. There’s things that he’s learned throughout the course of the year, he’s a great running back and I think they’re going to have their hands full.”

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsPackers coach Mike McCarthy says running back Eddie Lacy has learned from his rookie mistakes.
Since Week 5, when Lacy returned from the concussion that kept him out of nearly two full games, he has rushed for 1,127 yards -- the second-best total in the league behind only Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy (1,139).

“He’s a totally different back,” Packers receiver James Jones said. “It’s night and day. He’s a totally different back -- way more comfortable, way more confident. They’ll have to account for him. I know by them watching film and seeing what he’s done during the season they know he’s not the same player he was Week 1. It’s good for us to have him in the position he is now.”

Bakhtiari, who grew up not far from Candlestick Park, is too California cool to show any signs of nerves like Lacy had in the opener. The most he would admit to was this: “I generally have been pretty calm throughout the whole process. Given my level, it was a little higher than usual, but I wouldn’t say I was completely freaking out.”

The fourth-round pick settled into the job relatively easily. After giving up four sacks in the first four games, he went seven straight games and 10 of out of the next 12 without being changed with a sack, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He allowed only four more sacks after the first month of the season.

Among the opponents he faced in his sackless streak were Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs, Minnesota’s Jared Allen (twice) and Chicago’s Julius Peppers. Later in the season, he blanked Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware. His lone disastrous performance came in the Thanksgiving loss at Detroit, where he allowed three sacks (including two by rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah).

“Against different body types and very good pass-rushers, he's done a very good job of handling that,” Packers offensive line coach James Campen said. “And he’s done a very good job of handling success but at the same time he’s had some rough games like Detroit, which was his worst game, and he came back and played his [expletive] off. He’s done a very good job for a young guy to not let success creep into it in a negative way and handling it the right way, but he’s also bounced back every time something’s happened."
CINCINNATI -- Last Sunday, when coach Leslie Frazier told Adrian Peterson he wouldn't be playing against the Philadelphia Eagles, Peterson was livid. He tried to plead his case to play, told reporters in the Mall of America Field press box that "the decision was taken out of my hands," and when he recalled the exchange on Friday, Peterson said he was "devastated" not to be on the field despite a sprained foot and strained groin.

Peterson
Peterson
When Peterson got back on the field on Sunday, he looked tentative and unable to explode past defenders. He had carried just 11 times for 45 yards when Frazier made the decision after halftime to take Peterson out. This time, the running back didn't fight it -- much.

"We got down early, and he pulled me out," Peterson said. "I didn't like it, but when you think about it, being down 28 points, is the risk really worth it? I just accepted it for what it was."

Peterson, in all likelihood, won't repeat as the NFL rushing leader a year after gaining 2,097 yards and winning the league MVP award. He is 122 yards behind Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, who plays Monday night, and Peterson is so hampered by injuries at the moment, it doesn't look like he's got the kind of performance left in him that it would probably take to catch McCoy this year. He will undoubtedly push to play in the final game of the season next week against Detroit, but Peterson won't be completely healthy until he gets a chance to recover from the season.

"It's been a good minute (since I felt completely healthy) -- probably five or six weeks," Peterson said. "I don't feel like I played with as much confidence as I would like. I was kind of hesitant on some runs. Mentally, I'm there. I'm in tune. My body is just not responding the way I want it to right now."

Peterson said he would have argued to stay in the game if the Vikings had been closer, and he continues to be remarkably productive while playing with injuries that would sideline many running backs. But it was striking to hear even Peterson admit he needed to sit down on Sunday.

"We were down by 28," Peterson said. "When they pulled me, it was a good call."

The Philadelphia Eagles have found themselves in the middle of the NFC North race as much as the NFC East race over the past month. Sunday night’s game against the Chicago Bears is their third game in a row against an opponent from the North.

Two weeks ago, the Eagles and Bears helped each other out. Chicago defeated the Dallas Cowboys, pushing the Eagles into first place in the East. The Eagles beat the Detroit Lions, opening the door for the Bears in the North.

They won’t be helping each other this week. ESPN.com Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discuss some of the issues facing both teams.

Sheridan: Like the Eagles, the Bears survived this season when a backup quarterback took over and played unexpectedly well. Unlike the Eagles, who stayed with Nick Foles, Chicago went back to Jay Cutler and sent Josh McCown to the sideline. So, Michael, how is that scenario playing out in the locker room, on the field and among the fans?

Wright: The reaction is quite a bit different between the fans and the players, obviously. In the immediate aftermath of Cutler’s ankle injury on Nov. 10 against Detroit, Bears coach Marc Trestman told the team and the media that Cutler would be the starter again as soon as he was medically cleared to play. The coach never wavered on that declaration, and that was apparent even among the players during McCown’s incredible four-game run. In answering questions about McCown during that stretch, Trestman and the players seemed to temper the compliments regarding the backup, making it a point to state that Cutler was still the starter once he would be able to return to action. So within the locker room, the message was always that Cutler would return, but among the fan base, as McCown flourished, the call to make him the permanent starter grew louder regardless of what Trestman and the players said on the record. Cutler certainly helped himself by bouncing back from a bad start at Cleveland to throw for three touchdowns in a win, but there’s certainly a segment of the Chicago fan base still calling for McCown to be the man under center.

Phil, Chicago’s defense simply can’t stop the run, so LeSean McCoy is poised to have a pretty big game if the Eagles decide to feature him. What was the deal with McCoy running the ball just eight times against the Vikings?

Sheridan: That was one of the head-scratching strategies Chip Kelly deployed Sunday. It was like stepping into a time machine and watching an Andy Reid-coached game. Kelly’s explanation was simple enough: The Vikings were missing four cornerbacks and the Eagles thought they could exploit the inexperienced backups. Then, he said, the Eagles fell behind and had to throw, but McCoy had run for 217 yards the week before, mostly in the second half as the Eagles staged a comeback win. Ultimately, there is no explanation or excuse for eliminating a weapon as dangerous as McCoy from your offense. That’s supposed to be the defense’s job.

The Eagles did a better job against Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson in recent weeks than against the Vikings’ deeper, less star-studded receiving corps. How much more dangerous are the Bears now that Alshon Jeffery has emerged alongside Brandon Marshall? Is Jeffery even better at this point?

Wright: In the past, teams focused most of their game plan on shutting down Marshall. That involved double-teams and shading coverage over to his side. Teams are now finding they can’t do that anymore because if you double Marshall, you put Jeffery in one-on-one matchups that he’s going to win the majority of the time. The Bears say teams are now starting to mix it up against those receivers, which makes it important for Cutler to be able to quickly recognize the coverage and distribute the ball accordingly. I wouldn’t say Jeffery is the better receiver overall at this point, but I will say that he tracks the ball in the air better than anybody else on Chicago’s roster, which has allowed him to make some unbelievable grabs in contested situations. I’d say one player to watch is No. 3 receiver Earl Bennett. With all the focus on Marshall and Jeffery, the Bears have made it a point in recent weeks to involve Bennett more in the offense. Remember, Bennett played college football with Cutler at Vanderbilt, so there’s chemistry. Bennett has hauled in a touchdown in each of the past two games.

How will Philadelphia’s secondary look on Sunday? I know the Eagles are banged up, causing something of a musical-chairs effect in the secondary. At this point, do you know which guys the Eagles will have available to face Marshall, Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett?

Sheridan: We don’t know yet, Michael. The larger problem is that, even when everyone is healthy, the Eagles' secondary isn’t equipped to handle a receiving corps as deep and talented as the Bears’ is. The Eagles have the 31st-ranked pass defense for a reason. During their five-game winning streak, they were able to give yards but minimize points allowed by forcing turnovers and playing well in the red zone. That formula fell apart in Minnesota. As for the injuries, the biggest loss would be nickel corner Brandon Boykin, who leads the team in interceptions and is a very good cover guy. It looks like rookie safety Earl Wolff will be back after missing four games with a knee injury, but it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be after missing that much time. If the Bears go three or four wide, the Eagles will be hard-pressed to match up with all those weapons. Their best hope would be to pressure Cutler, but they have struggled against guys who get the ball out as quickly as he does.

There’s a chance linebacker Lance Briggs returns Sunday night. What impact would that have on Chicago’s defense? Can the Bears clamp down on the Eagles or is this thing destined to be a shootout like their win over Dallas two weeks back?

Wright: I see this one being a shootout. I think Briggs will have an impact on the defense in terms of making sure the calls get in quickly and the defense is lined up correctly. Briggs should also be an upgrade over rookie Khaseem Greene, who has filled in on the weak side over the past seven games. But Briggs has been on the shelf for a month and a half, and there’s no way he’s in football shape yet. So you have to wonder how much he will actually be able to contribute from a physical standpoint. If Briggs plays like the Briggs we all know, then Chicago will have a much better shot at controlling Philadelphia’s rushing attack, but I’m not sure he’ll return as that guy. So let’s count on a shootout. The team with the defense that gets that one or two key stops down the stretch will be the team that comes out on top.

Early in the season, Philadelphia’s frenetic pace seemed to be the next new thing, the revolution. Now that the Eagles have basically an entire season under their belts, how have teams adjusted to their pace on offense? Is it still as big an advantage as it seemed to be early in the season?

Sheridan: It has been an effective tactic at times. The up-tempo approach is one of the reasons Foles replaced Michael Vick as the No. 1 quarterback. Vick is obviously a bigger threat in the read-option, but Foles is more comfortable with the pace Kelly likes. Hard to blame Vick, who had a career’s worth of offensive football to unlearn. But the pace can hurt the Eagles, too. When they have a couple of three-and-outs in a row, as they did against the Vikings, their defense is back on the field way too quickly. And when a team moves the ball as well as the Vikings did, the defense wears down. It was useless by the fourth quarter. The Eagles defense has been on the field for more plays than any team in the NFL. That is partly a side effect of Kelly’s up-tempo offense.

W2W4: Eagles at Vikings

December, 14, 2013
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- We've got a few items to pass along at the end of the week, as we get you ready for the Minnesota Vikings' game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday afternoon. Here we go:

Cole will be tested: Audie Cole has played well in his first three games at middle linebacker, but Sunday will likely bring the biggest challenge he's faced so far. He'll have to coordinate the Vikings' defense against the Eagles' fast-paced offense. He'll have to cover tight end Brent Celek, and like the rest of the Minnesota defense, he'll have his hands full with running back LeSean McCoy, who leads the league in both rushing and all-purpose yards. Cole gave up two catches on the Baltimore Ravens' game-winning touchdown drive last week, including Marlon Brown's touchdown with four seconds left. But defensive coordinator Alan Williams said this week that Cole only needed to make a small adjustment to be in position to make a play. "[On] two plays Audie was close, but not close enough," Williams said. "I think that comes from experience knowing that, hey, if they catch it in front of you, no big deal, don’t give up one over the top.”

Gerhart has Kelly's respect: If Adrian Peterson is out on Sunday with a sprained right foot and Toby Gerhart can return from a strained right hamstring to be the Vikings' main running back against the Eagles, he'll face an old foe in Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly, who saw plenty of the former Stanford running back when he was the coach at Oregon. "He played against us when I was at Oregon and he had a 39carry game for, I think, 2,085 yards it seemed like to me," Kelly said this week. "I think Toby is one of the really, really good backs in this league. He just isn't on the field that much because of who Adrian Peterson is. I don't think it changes that much [about the Vikings' scheme], to be honest with you."

Secondary injuries come at a bad time: The Vikings almost certainly will have a handful of players in unfamiliar positions in the secondary on Sunday, and against a spread offense like Philadelphia's, they'll have to hope they can survive without at least two -- and possibly three -- of their top three corners. They had been playing more man coverage, with some success, in recent weeks, but they might have to get away from that plan on Sunday with Xavier Rhodes doubtful because of a sprained ankle. Chris Cook is questionable because of a knee injury, and if the oft-injured cornerback can play, he'll likely draw the unenviable matchup of shadowing the explosive DeSean Jackson, who has 65 catches for 1,080 yards.

Much expected of Cassel: With Peterson's status in doubt at the beginning of the week, it seemed like a strong possibility the Vikings would go back to Matt Cassel at quarterback, partially because they haven't been as willing to lean on the passing game as much with Christian Ponder as they have with Cassel. He has connected on 10 of his 19 throws that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information, whereas Ponder has hit just 12 of 31 throws that went at least 20 yards in the air. Cassel also is the only Vikings quarterback to throw for at least 240 yards in a game this season, and he's attempted at least 30 passes in three of the four games where he's started or played extensively. Those are fairly modest benchmarks for most teams, but in a game where the Vikings might need to keep up with the Eagles, and might not have Peterson, starting Cassel made sense.

Vikings honoring All-MOA Field team: At halftime on Sunday, the Vikings will recognize the 28-man All-Mall of America Field team, as voted on by fans throughout the season. The team is heavy on players from coach Dennis Green's teams in the 1990s -- Green is the coach of the team, and 16 of the 27 players on the team played at least one season for him. The Vikings said 20 of the 28 members of the team are expected to be at the game on Sunday. We're particularly interested to see if Randy Moss shows up (which we doubt), or if the Vikings invited back Antoine Winfield after they cut the cornerback in the spring, leading to a bit of a rift between the three-time Pro Bowler and the team. And if Green is there? That's always got the potential to be interesting.
LeSean McCoy, Matt CasselAP PhotoLeSean McCoy and the explosive Eagles offense visit Matt Cassel and the struggling Vikings.
The Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles couldn't be in much different places than they were a year ago.

In 2012, the Vikings made a seven-game improvement, winning their final four games and riding Adrian Peterson's 2,097-yard season to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. The Eagles, meanwhile, lost nine of their final 10 games, finished 4-12 and fired longtime coach Andy Reid. This season, it's Philadelphia that's racing toward the playoffs, with a new quarterback (Nick Foles), one of the most exciting offenses in football and an 8-5 record. The Vikings haven't been able to settle on a quarterback, have blown five leads in the last minute of games and might be preparing to part with coach Leslie Frazier after starting the season 3-8-1.

To get you ready for the game, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discuss the matchup and the rapidly changing directions of both teams:

Ben Goessling: Phil, it's been surprising to see how much better the Eagles' offense has worked under Nick Foles than Michael Vick, considering how well Chip Kelly's system seemed to suit Vick. What is Foles doing to make it work so well, and just how bad of a matchup is this for the Vikings' defense?

Phil Sheridan: At the moment, I'd have to say the Eagles' offense is a tough matchup for any defense. Their past two opponents, Arizona and Detroit, came in as well-regarded defenses. The Eagles scored 24 points on the Cardinals by early in the third quarter and then exploded for 34 second-half points in the snow Sunday against the Lions. The Eagles are able to run or pass at a high level right now, which makes them just plain tough to defend.

As for Foles and Vick, it does seem counterintuitive that a running threat wasn't as effective as the relatively slow-moving Foles in Kelly's offense. But Foles is good at several key facets of what Kelly wants done. He's become adept at keeping the tempo up in the no-huddle. He's been accurate in the passing game. And he's made good decisions when Kelly's play call presents him with an option.

Kelly gave a hearty endorsement of Toby Gerhart, whom he faced while he was at Oregon and Gerhart played at Stanford. Kelly said he thought Gerhart could be an impact player who just happens to be stuck behind one of the great backs of all time. What's the deal? Can Gerhart replace Peterson and keep the Vikings' offense going?

Goessling: It depends on his health. He's dealing with a hamstring issue of his own, so if Peterson does indeed miss the game because of his sprained foot, Gerhart might not be able to handle the same kind of workload as Peterson. He's only got two games of 20-plus carries in the NFL, but then again, as Kelly said, he's certainly built to take a pounding. He's a stout, physical back who runs well between the tackles and does a solid job picking up blitzes. Plus, he's not exactly afraid to embrace the idea that he's auditioning for other teams before he hits free agency in March. He certainly isn't going to be a featured back in Minnesota behind Peterson, and while I'm sure the Vikings would like to keep him, he might find better opportunities elsewhere.

What's the key to solving the Eagles' defense? The Vikings probably won't be at full strength this week, given their running back situation and the fact they've been shuffling through quarterbacks all year. What do they need to do to move the ball and avoid the turnovers the Eagles have been creating lately?

Sheridan: It is still possible to move the ball on the Eagles. They give up a lot of yardage and are vulnerable to runs after the catch in the short- and intermediate-passing game. I was fascinated to see if they could handle Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush on Sunday. But the weather limited Johnson and Bush didn't play at all, so that riddle remains unsolved. Teams have been able to move the ball but have bogged down or turned it over in the red zone. If the Vikings can find ways to score from inside the 20, they can stay in the game.

One key for opponents is not falling behind. Green Bay, Washington and Arizona did, and that allowed the Eagles' defense to concede rushing yards and go hard after quarterbacks. That has led to turnovers as much as anything.

Not so long ago, it was intimidating for opposing offenses to come into the Metrodome and deal with Jared Allen coming off the edge with all that crowd noise behind him. Is Allen still that kind of force, and has the atmosphere changed with the team struggling this season?

Goessling: Allen hasn't been the same guy this season. He'll still play hard, and he's as relentless in his pursuit of a quarterback outside the pocket as anybody you'll find in the league, but he just looks like he's lost a step. He isn't as quick around the edge as he used to be, and he's gotten lost when he's been double-teamed. The guy who has brought more of the Vikings' pass rush this season is right end Brian Robison, who got a contract extension from the team during the season. He's not quite as quick off the edge as Allen was in his prime, but he might be a better edge rusher now, and he's good at knowing when to disengage from his blocker, step back and deflect a pass.

The Metrodome has lost a little of its edge in recent weeks with the Vikings struggling, but I wouldn't sleep on the fans there: If the game is close Sunday, they'll still get loud. They've only got two more games to crank up the volume in that old Teflon-coated warehouse before it's torn down, so I'd expect the noise level to be there, if partly for nostalgic reasons.

From afar, it would seem like the Eagles have every reason to be confident heading into the final stretch of the season. How far do you think they're capable of going in the playoffs?

Sheridan: That's a heck of a question, because the whole idea of the playoffs seemed so remote just a few weeks ago. Gradually, as the Eagles got within striking distance of the Cowboys in the NFC East, it seemed like a good first season for Kelly if the Eagles could get a taste of the postseason.

Now? After five wins in a row, they are in sole possession of first place in the division. Foles and LeSean McCoy are putting up epic numbers. The defense hasn't allowed more than 21 points in nine games. That sounds to me like a team that can win a home playoff game. Can they go to Seattle or New Orleans and win? That seems like a stretch, but the Eagles keep raising their own ceiling.

Leslie Frazier's first NFL coaching job was here in Philadelphia as an assistant on Andy Reid's staff. He seems to be in a tough spot there, with the kind of quarterback issues that undermine even good coaches. Is the feeling that Frazier is to blame for this season, and what kind of job security does he have?

Goessling: I certainly wouldn't put it all on Frazier -- the quarterback situation has been a mess, and the Vikings have also paid dearly for GM Rick Spielman's decision to cut Antoine Winfield and go almost completely with young defensive backs. That's had as much to do with the Vikings' defensive issues as anything else, and when you've got problems at quarterback and in the secondary, you're going to have a really hard time in today's NFL. Players are still playing hard for Frazier, but the Vikings have blown five leads in the last minute, and coaching issues seem to have contributed to at least a couple of those breakdowns. What's more, Frazier didn't get a contract extension after the Vikings' surprise playoff berth last year, so to come back, he'd either have to coach into the final year of his deal or get an extension. Neither one of those seem as likely as him paying the price for the Vikings' many issues this year.

It took three quarters, but Philadelphia finally began going to its zone-read rushes in the fourth quarter on Sunday during the Eagles’ 34-20 win against Detroit.

And it changed the game.

Perhaps no play shifted things more than LeSean McCoy's 57-yard run in the fourth quarter, a touchdown where Detroit’s once-stout run defense fell completely apart, part of a fourth quarter when the Lions couldn’t stop anything or any rusher the Eagles used.

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Michael PerezLeSean McCoy ran past Detroit's Louis Delmas, 26, on his way to a 57-yard TD in the fourth quarter.
It was the second big touchdown rush of the game for Philadelphia, and was the last time the Lions had the lead Sunday.

Everything Detroit tried to do on the play essentially failed.

The Eagles lined up in shotgun with 13:24 left in the fourth quarter and the Lions up, 20-14. They had McCoy to the right of quarterback Nick Foles and three receivers to the left side, the side McCoy would eventually try to run to.

Detroit had its nickel package on the field, including two defensive backs playing within two yards of the line of scrimmage. Foles snapped the ball and used a zone-read to eventually give the ball to McCoy moving forward behind the left side of his offensive line.

At the time the ball was snapped, the Eagles' offensive line also had a good jump on the Detroit defensive front. Nick Fairley was blocked wide to open the hole for McCoy, and he was also blocked into linebacker DeAndre Levy, essentially taking him out of the play as well.

This was only the start of Detroit’s issues on the play.

“It was just a missed run fit, somebody was in the wrong gap and they split us,” Levy said.

This opened up a hole for McCoy, who was already at the second level and almost the third level of the defense. This was what he did much more effectively in the fourth quarter -- he essentially made one cut and then accelerated forward.

Meanwhile, the Lions were struggling with assignments and tackles.

“They lost gap integrity a couple times,” Philadelphia center Jason Kelce said. “That’s when you saw Shady (McCoy) get those big runs.”

Once McCoy got past the initial line, Stephen Tulloch was slow on his read of the run, taking him out of the play. Ndamukong Suh appeared to be held early on the play as well, but he likely wasn’t going to be able to get there fast enough to make the play at the line.

What turned this particular run into a touchdown was receiver Jason Avant. The veteran was downfield and had Detroit nickel back Bill Bentley blocked well. What sealed the touchdown was the angle safety Louis Delmas took to the ball.

It appeared Delmas was heading the opposite direction of McCoy anyway, but then Avant blocked Bentley into Delmas, knocking him off track as well. Delmas then tried to catch McCoy, as did Willie Young from the back side of the run on the line, but neither could catch him.

“Missed tackles, missed tackles,” Delmas said. “You’ve got to find a way to get the ball on the ground. You’ve got to grab cloth or pick up a snowball and hit him in the back of the head with it.

“But you’ve got to find a way and we didn’t.”

Young actually ended up being the closest player to McCoy when he reached the end zone. Delmas dove for him after the mistake and missed, and Rashean Mathis couldn’t catch up with him, either.

It was just part of what Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said were 180 yards after missed tackles Sunday. And part of what was a record-setting day from McCoy.

“The guys up front gave me opportunities one-on-one by blowing those guys off the ball,” McCoy said about his running game in general. “I think everybody was so intimidated and scared up front, but I thought the big guys on my team took the challenge and stepped up.

“The whole week they talked about just running the ball and giving me different matchups one-on-one. Not only myself, but with the backs that we have, I think in one-on-one opportunities, we’re going to win. (Sunday), that’s what happened.”
PHILADELPHIA -- Four hot issues from the Detroit Lions' 34-20 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Fourth-quarter follies: This is Detroit’s third straight loss in which it had a lead in the fourth quarter, and while Sunday could be viewed as more of an aberration due to the weather conditions, the way the Lions have lost these games is certainly a cause for concern. Two of those losses -- at Pittsburgh and at Philadelphia -- ended up being by double digits. Against Pittsburgh, three of the Steelers’ last four drives ended in points -- a field goal in the third quarter and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

On Sunday in Philadelphia, the Eagles scored touchdowns on five of their final six drives and could have scored on the game’s final drive except they chose to run the clock out instead. Considering how close most playoff games are and how little room for mistakes Detroit has to even make the playoffs, this is a big concern.

[+] EnlargeMychal Kendricks and Matthew Stafford
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Lions lost three fumbles and the turnover battle to the Eagles, 3-1.
Turnovers: Again, this game is probably an anomaly for judging statistics, but with three turnovers Sunday -- all of them fumbles -- the Lions now have three or more turnovers in four straight games and five of their past six. It isn’t a coincidence Detroit has struggled in these games, now losing three of their last four. The Lions haven’t won the turnover margin -- a statistic that most consider a good barometer of team success -- since Week 6 against Cleveland.

Jeremy Ross: The Lions made some good free-agent signings during the offseason, including starting running back Reggie Bush and starting cornerback Rashean Mathis. Returner Jeremy Ross is making Detroit look very good again as an in-season signing. The Lions picked him up after division rival Green Bay discarded him, and he has been an impact special teams player. He had two returns for touchdowns Sunday (one kick, one punt) but has consistently been giving the Lions good field position since he won the job from Micheal Spurlock. The job is his for the immediate future, too, since Detroit released Spurlock on Saturday to make room for cornerback Chris Greenwood.

Run defense issues: There is a bit of a skewed look here because of the weather, but LeSean McCoy shredded Detroit in the second half and that he was able to do it in a game in which few players were able to get any true footing is a concern. The best the Lions can do, especially defensively, is wash away this game because they can’t let this loss linger from a run-defense perspective. Detroit has been good against the run all season, particularly with how the defensive line has played to open up lanes for linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch, but they need to remember how they played for the past two months instead of just on Sunday.

Rapid Reaction: Detroit Lions

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
4:13
PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions34-20 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

What it means: What a complete collapse by the Lions. They held Philadelphia to essentially nothing in the first half: no points and fewer than 100 yards in a mess of a snowstorm. But then the snow subsided, and so did the Lions' control of the game. Philadelphia scored 34 points in the second half and ended up with 299 yards rushing for the game -- literally running right past Detroit in the second half. The Lions, who had one of the top run defenses in the league entering the game, allowed 6.5 yards per carry after giving up fewer than 2 yards a carry in each of their past four games. They hadn’t allowed a rushing touchdown since September and only five the entire season. They gave up four Sunday.

It was yet another second-half mess, the third time in four games Detroit has surrendered a lead in the fourth quarter. Now it has three games to try to hold on to the NFC North lead and a playoff berth.

Stock watch: Rising: Jeremy Ross. The returner had a career day with 172 kick-return yards and 71 punt-return yards, two touchdowns and more total yards -- 243 -- than the Lions' offense did. Falling: Detroit’s run defense. The Lions had been stout up the middle and contained running back after running back. Not Sunday. LeSean McCoy had a career-high 217 yards and rushed for two touchdowns, completely embarrassing the Lions. Meanwhile, fumbles. The Lions had seven of them and lost three -- two from Joique Bell, who scored Detroit’s only offensive touchdown, and one from Matthew Stafford.

Ross has a career day: Two weeks ago, Ross started to claim the punt- and kick-returner gig as his own. He might not let go of it for a while now. Ross returned a punt 58 yards for a touchdown and a kick 98 yards for a touchdown -- the first time a kick and punt return for a touchdown happened in the same game for the Lions since Dec. 17, 1977, when Eddie Payton, the brother of Walter Payton, accomplished the feat.

What’s next: The Lions have two straight home games -- two critical home games -- first on Dec. 16 against the Baltimore Ravens, then against the New York Giants the next week.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The plays look fairly similar, but the innovation in Chip Kelly’s offense with Philadelphia comes not necessarily through what those plays are designed to do, but through two other things.

The difference is the pacing and tempo, the speed at which the Eagles run their plays compared to most of the other teams in the NFL.

This is where Kelly is hoping to have that advantage in Philadelphia, why his Eagles are 7-5 and in a tight NFC East race with Dallas. It’s not the plays, see, it’s everything that happens once the ball is actually snapped.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Harry How/Getty ImagesNdamukong Suh and the Lions' defensive line is preparing to play at a faster pace against the Philadelphia Eagles' up-tempo attack.
“We don’t do anything different than anybody else in the NFL,” Kelly said. “Everybody else runs open sets with three receivers on one side and one on the other, and one back sets. That’s kind of what everybody else in the league is doing, and what everybody at every level is doing.

“It’s nothing revolutionary.”

No, it isn’t, although not every team in the NFL runs sets and packages like Philadelphia and Kelly.

But the Lions, who will see the Eagles on Sunday, understand the main difference in all of it. It is that speed and how Philadelphia will try to spread out the Lions.

“They spread you out, obviously,” safety Glover Quin said. “So when you’re spread out, you have to do a good job in space. You got to do a good job in tackling. You’ve got to do a good job covering 1-on-1’s, things like that.

“It’s going to be a bunch of space, and they are going to spread you out and they have a bunch of options on every play, and so everybody is going to be on top of their game.”

To prep for Philadelphia, Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said he went back and watched some film of Oregon along with tape of the Eagles. Kelly, though, said his offense is different now than what he did in college.

There are elements, sure, but his offense is more of a combination of what he ran at Oregon and New Hampshire, along with some of what Pat Shurmur did in Cleveland. There are both elements of college and NFL offenses in the Philadelphia offense, much of which causes them to look a little different.

And one thing Detroit is going to be paying attention to is what happens when the Eagles fake handing the ball off to running back LeSean McCoy.

“The primary thing is they fake the run and throw what we call a bubble screen to (DeSean Jackson), who is sitting right behind the offensive tackle,” Cunningham said. “So he’s doing a lot of things like that. [The] issue for the defensive coaches is the work, the preparation work for the game and to let your players know to stay patient, let’s do what we do and let’s get the ball back for the offense. That’s the approach I think teams need to take.”

Prepping for Philadelphia is two-fold. First is McCoy. The Eagles' lead back already has 1,088 yards and five touchdowns this season, but has only rushed for more than 100 yards in a game once in the second half of the season -- a 155-yard game against Green Bay in Week 10. In 12 games this season, Philadelphia has run the ball more than it has passed it seven times, passed more four times, and had perfect balance between run and pass once -- last week against Arizona.

Having McCoy able to run the ball has opened things up for quarterback Nick Foles, who has 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions this season. Foles has been the key for a more balanced attack in Philadelphia during its four-game winning streak.

“Our whole offense is based on what the defense can give us,” Kelly said. “I’ll throw it a thousand times a game, I’ll run it a thousand times a game. Depends on what the situation is.”

Considering Detroit’s run defense this season, perhaps expect more pass. The Lions have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season. Over the past month, they have not allowed a team to average more than two yards a carry.

Scoring on the ground? Forget it. Detroit hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown since September.

Much of that has to do with Detroit’s front four, the group that could be most affected by the pace Philadelphia plays with. So the mantra this week for the Lions has been simple, even as they deal with the Eagles' offense.

Three-and-outs would mean a less tired Detroit defense.

“The quicker they run the plays, the quicker we can get them off the field,” Quin said. “The quicker they run, the quicker we get them off the field and get the ball to our offense.”
Scott Tolzien and Mathias KiwanukaGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesNew Packers quarterback Scott Tolzien will face Mathias Kiwanuka and an improved Giants pass rush.
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The New York Giants will be looking for their fourth win in a row following an 0-6 start. The Green Bay Packers will be trying to snap their first two-game losing streak since 2010. The two teams square off Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson (filling in for Packers reporter Rob Demovsky) break down the matchup for you.

Dan Graziano: Hey, Matt. Thanks for filling in while Rob’s on the inactive list this week. The big question the Giants have this week is: Who is Scott Tolzien and what can we expect to see from him? So let’s start with that one.

Matt Williamson: Well, Dan, that's a good question! I don’t think we really know the answer, but he did move the team well and was generally a smart distributor of the football. And we know Green Bay has weapons to get the ball to. We obviously don’t have a lot of tape to evaluate, but I think the Packers are better off with Tolzien over Seneca Wallace.

While we are talking quarterbacks, what on Earth is going on with Eli Manning? Despite this winning streak, he really has not played well at all.

Graziano: Matt, my theory on Eli is that the protection issues at the beginning of the season were so egregious that he just fell into this zone of discomfort from which he's been unable to extricate himself. He just doesn't look right back there, and while the protection issues have improved some, they're still present. They've had no blocking help from the tight-end position at all. They're very vulnerable in the middle of the line, and I'm not sold on either tackle, to be honest. They haven't had reliable blitz pickup help from the running backs. Downfield, Hakeem Nicks isn't playing wide receiver the way he used to play it. A lot has gone on around Manning to make him far less comfortable with his surroundings, and I'm not sure what it's going to take before he starts playing with that old Eli confidence again. Great quarterbacks make the best of bad situations, and Manning has not done that this year. As the Giants' situation improves, they will need him to play much better if they're really going to make this miracle run they still believe they can make.

Now, they get another break this week with Aaron Rodgers out and Tolzien in, but they are already talking about that improved Packers running game. What do you see from Eddie Lacy & Co. and how do you think they'll attack the Giants, who have generally been pretty good against opposing running backs this season?

Williamson: This Packers’ running game is terrific and should continue to excel even with less of a passing threat with Rodgers sidelined. The left side of the Packers’ offensive line is playing great, but -- as with the rest of the team -- isn’t healthy on the right side and has had to do a lot of shuffling of personnel there. Still, Green Bay’s rushing attack isn’t easy to prepare for as they can run a wide variety of plays out of a wide variety of personnel groupings and formations. Lacy is quick to get downhill and is a punishing runner who can wear a defense down, and he also excels at reading his blocks and showing patience with the ball in his hands -- rare traits for a rookie running back. The Packers’ ability to run the ball will probably be the most crucial component of this football game.

Along those lines, I feel like the Giants might actually have a respectable rushing attack of their own now with Andre Brown carrying the rock. Do you agree?

Graziano: Yeah, the 30 carries and 115 yards for Brown on Sunday in his first game back off a twice-broken leg were eye-opening. I think the workload they gave him showed that the Giants knew just how much they were missing this season at running back. David Wilson never got going and then got hurt, and they patched it together with Brandon Jacobs and Peyton Hillis. But watching Brown run with vision and power and gain yards after contact Sunday, it was obvious that he's the Giants' best option going forward and the best they've had all season. The injury risk has to be considered, given Brown's history, but at this point the Giants need to win pretty much every game, and they're going to have to lean hard on Brown to do it. Even if he can't be as productive every week as he was against the Raiders, the legitimate threat he poses on film should open up the play-action passing game as a way for Manning to combat those protection issues.

So the Giants feel they can offer a balanced offensive attack against a Packers defense that couldn't get the ball back from the Eagles in the final 9:32 of Sunday's game. Was that a LeSean McCoy issue, or are the Packers really struggling on defense right now?

Williamson: The Packers are struggling on defense and allowing too many big plays. I expected last week’s return from injury by Clay Matthews to pay off much more than it did. However, we know that Matthews is a truly great player, and maybe he just needed a week to get back into the swing of things. I still expect Matthews to torment the Giants’ tackles this week. On the inside of their defensive line, the Packers have a lot of sheer mass and power with guys like B.J. Raji, Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett. I also expect the Giants' interior offensive line to have a difficult time moving this group in the running game. This could be a bounce-back week for Green Bay on this side of the ball.

The Packers’ run defense had a very difficult time when the Eagles stacked both of their offensive tackles on the same side of the formation. While I expect the Giants could use some personnel groupings with six offensive linemen, I don’t see them duplicating what Philadelphia did to make room for McCoy.

Watching the Giants game from last week, I noticed they had a difficult time getting the Raiders’ Pat Sims blocked. Sims is a big-bodied and powerful defensive tackle in much the same mold as the Packers’ group. I think that bodes well for Green Bay this week.

And expect the Giants to have a difficult time blocking little-known Mike Daniels in the passing game. Daniels has taken over the Cullen Jenkins role in this defense -- a spot Green Bay drafted Datone Jones for in the first round -- as an interior pass-rusher, and he has excelled in that role.

The Giants' defense is based entirely on great defensive line play. This is a deep group with a ton of important resources tied up in it, but it hasn’t been an elite group. It is improving, however. Where do you see this unit right now and this week against the Packers?

Graziano: Well, the sack numbers have come up. The Giants had only six sacks in their first seven games, but then got eight in their past two games. So they’ve moved from last in the league in sacks, where they spent most of the season, to a tie for 30th in that category. Odd thing is, of the eight sacks in their past two games, only four have come from defensive linemen. Safety Antrel Rolle has as many sacks (two) in the Giants’ past two games as defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has in their past 16. Pierre-Paul did get one against the Raiders, and he says he’s on the verge of a breakout. And the line has been very good, as I mentioned, against the run this year. But over the first seven games of the season, opposing quarterbacks did a good job of unloading the ball before the Giants’ pass-rushers could stop them from doing so. Not sure they get the full test this week against Tolzien, but at some point we’re going to find out whether the front four really has improved, or whether it’s just been feasting on lesser competition.

Thanks again, Matt. Catch you online in one of our game chats soon, I’m sure.

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When do NFL coaches use a challenge for purposes other than overturning a call? When they're looking to channel their inner James Naismith, of course.

We've written on this topic before, but it merits reinforcement because you don't see it often. When Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz challenged an incomplete pass Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, he did so as much to give his tired defense a breather -- "one of those basketball-type challenges," Schwartz said -- as to seek reversal.

Let's set up the decision.

[+] EnlargeJim Schwartz
AP Photo/Mel EvansJim Schwartz bought his defense three minutes to regroup with a challenge during an Eagles trip into the red zone.
The Lions were trailing 10-6 with four minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter. The Philadelphia Eagles had a first-and-goal at the 3-yard line, and the Lions defense had already been on the field for about 25 of the game's first 40 minutes. A touchdown would have given the Eagles a two-score lead against a Lions offense that was struggling to get moving.

On first down, quarterback Michael Vick threw a hurried pass to running back LeSean McCoy in the left flat. The ball arrived before McCoy turned around, and it bounced off his back. As the whistle blew, Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch grabbed the ball off the ground in the event the play was ruled a backward pass and therefore a fumble.

Referee Bill Vinovich ruled the pass incomplete, and replays made clear the ball traveled nearly two yards forward -- from almost the 12-yard line, where Vick threw it, to inside the 11, where it hit McCoy.

So why did Schwartz use one of his two challenges, and risk one of his three timeouts, to seek reversal? As Schwartz explained afterward, his defense needed a physical and mental regrouping -- much like a basketball team that has withstood an extended run of points from its opponent. Schwartz also noted how important a red zone turnover would have been at that point if officials saw something different in a further examination of the replay.

Here's how Schwartz explained his thought process:

"It was at least a little bit close. We had clear recovery and they had made a good drive to that point, and I was talking to the guys upstairs and I said 'Do you have a replay?' And they didn't. And I said 'Well, what did it look like?' and they said 'Well, it's close.' And I said 'If it's close, I'm going to throw it.' Because ... the reward is so great, if we're able to get a turnover.

"Imagine if it had been the other way and it had been slightly backwards and we didn't get a replay and we didn't challenge it and we were sick to our stomachs after the game saying, 'Jeez, we could have gotten a turnover in the red zone, taken points off the board and everything else.'

"And literally part of the thought process there was 'Hey, look, we could use a timeout now anyway,' and a challenge is always a long time out. You know, they go under the hood and give everybody a chance to regroup and things like that. You can sort of, you know, catch your breath and think about your next call and things like that. So, more of looking at it as an extended timeout. Might not have done it if that was our last challenge but it was our first challenge, we still had another one that we could handle it."

I went back and timed the break the Lions' defense got as a result. Nearly three minutes elapsed from the moment the play was over until the Eagles broke the huddle for their next play. The Lions ended up making a stand, benefiting from an offensive pass-interference call on tight end Brent Celek's apparent touchdown and also getting a sack from defensive end Cliff Avril on third down. An ensuing field goal left the Lions with a more manageable 13-6 deficit, and we know what happened after that.

From time to time, I'll provide updates on how NFC North coaches are faring with their challenges. Below is a six-week glimpse.

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