NFC North: Marion Barber

NFC North free-agency assessment

March, 30, 2012
AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Chicago Bears

Key additions: Running back Michael Bush, linebacker/special teams Blake Costanzo, quarterback Jason Campbell, receiver Brandon Marshall (trade), receiver Devin Thomas, receiver/returner Eric Weems.

Key losses: Running back Marion Barber (retired), cornerback Zack Bowman, cornerback Corey Graham.

Come on back: Lost in the shuffle of the Marshall trade were the return of three free agents who should play key roles in 2012. Tight end Kellen Davis figures to get an expanded role in offensive coordinator Mike Tice's scheme, especially as a receiver. Cornerback Tim Jennings should retain his starting role opposite Charles Tillman, with D.J. Moore in the nickel. And safety Craig Steltz will provide reliable depth at safety and will be one of the Bears' special teams leaders after the departure of Graham and Bowman.

What's next: There is no urgency yet, but the Bears will need to make peace with tailback Matt Forte at some point before the summer. Forte isn't happy that he's been made the Bears' franchise player and briefly lost his public composure when Bush signed a deal that guaranteed him about the same amount of money as the franchise tag will pay Forte. It's not a big deal if Forte skips the Bears' offseason program or even misses a few days of training camp, but the Bears will want to find a way to eliminate this issue by early August. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be surprising if the Bears address their offensive line during the draft.

Detroit Lions

Key additions: Defensive end Everette Brown, cornerback Jacob Lacey.

Key losses: Cornerback Eric Wright.

All in the family: With the exception of Wright, the Lions were able to retain the core of their 10-6 team. Among those who re-signed: Tackle Jeff Backus, safety Erik Coleman, defensive end Andre Fluellen, quarterback Shaun Hill and linebacker Stephen Tulloch. And don't forget that receiver Calvin Johnson is locked up for perhaps the rest of his career. He signed a new eight-year contract worth $132 million.

What's next: The Lions appear interested in adding competition at safety, having hosted free agent O.J. Atogwe earlier this month. Adding a safety remains a possibility, if not through free agency, then probably through the draft. And while Backus is re-signed for two years, it wouldn't be surprising if the Lions look for a long-term replacement in the draft.

Green Bay Packers

Key additions: Defensive lineman Daniel Muir, center Jeff Saturday, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.

Key losses: Quarterback Matt Flynn, center Scott Wells.

Shocker: The Packers usually do whatever it takes to keep their own players and avoid having to search the free-agent market for other the castoffs of other teams. They started off that way by re-signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract, but when they were unable to sign center Scott Wells, they quickly targeted veteran Jeff Saturday and made him their first starting-caliber free-agent signee in five years. General manager Ted Thompson also authorized the acquisition of Hargrove and the pursuit of Dave Tollefson.

What's next: It's not out of the question that the Packers will add a veteran pass-rusher, whether at defensive end or linebacker. Then they'll get back into their comfort zone and start preparing for the draft, where it's reasonable to think they'll use at least one of their 12 picks on a center while also continuing to pursue pass-rushers.

Minnesota Vikings

Key additions: Cornerback Zack Bowman, tight end John Carlson, running back Jerome Felton and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.

Key losses: Nose tackle Remi Ayodele (release), guards Anthony Herrera (release) and Steve Hutchinson (release), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (retire), running back Jerome Felton.

Methodical methodology: The Vikings made one big-money signing, bringing in Carlson as a new weapon for quarterback Christian Ponder, and otherwise have spent their offseason getting younger and signing complementary players. General manager Rick Spielman wants to end a cycle of seeking blue-chip players via free agency and instead count on the drafts for his difference-makers.

What's next: One way or the other, the Vikings need to find a deep threat for Ponder. The draft would seem the most likely place for that will happen. They are also midway through a rebuild of the secondary that could use at least one more cornerback and perhaps two safeties.
Marion Barber's days with the Chicago Bears were numbered from the moment the team demonstrated interest in free-agent running back Michael Bush. So while Barber's retirement announcement Friday was surprising, we already knew he wouldn't be back with the Bears in 2012.

Bush signed a four-year contract Thursday to back up starter Matt Forte, the role the Bears hoped Barber would play more effectively last season. Barber was due to earn $1.9 million in base salary along with a $100,000 workout bonus, so as Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune points out, the Bears will save $2 million in cap space once Barber's departure is reported to the league.

In all, Barber and 2009 backup Chester Taylor cost the Bears nearly $10 million over the past two seasons for minimal return. The guess is that Bush will eclipse their production significantly in 2012.
It appears that former Chicago Bears tight end Greg Olsen gave us some pretty accurate insight into the mind-set of current Bears tailback Matt Forte.

It seems clear, via Twitter, that Forte didn't take it well Thursday when the Bears signed tailback Michael Bush to a four-year contract worth $14 million, including $7 million guaranteed. Forte, who was named the Bears' franchise player this month in lieu of a long-term deal, dropped the dreaded "d" word.

Forte: "There's only so many times a man that has done everything he's been asked to do can be disrespected! Guess the GOOD GUYS do finish last...."

*UPDATE: Forte's agent, Adisa Bakari, offered some context to the tweet in a statement to's Michael C. Wright. Bakari: "Since drafting Matt in 2008, the Bears have signed Kevin Jones, Chester Taylor and Marion Barber, all ostensibly to serve as Matt's backup. To sign yet another running back, prior to completing a contract with Matt suggests disregard for Matt and his contributions to the Bears."

Unfortunately, we don't have the full set of facts to render our own judgment. We know the Bears guaranteed Bush ($7 million) roughly the same amount as Forte would be paid ($7.74 million) as a franchise player this year. We also know the Bears have now issued multi-year deals to veteran backups in each of the past three years.

What we don't know, and it's a rather big piece of the puzzle, is what Forte has turned down. Negotiations have taken place on and off for more than a year. If the Bears were somehow offering Forte less, or about the same, as they have given Chester Taylor, Marion Barber and Bush, then Forte would have a legitimate argument.

But if Forte is upset because the Bears haven't offered him an elite contract that approaches, say, $25-$30 million in guarantees, then the Bush signing should have nothing to do with his angst. He might be upset with the Bears for not valuing him as an elite back, and could perhaps make an argument that he deserves that payday. But a market-level deal for a backup is a separate issue altogether.

As we all know, reason and rational thought don't always rule contract negotiations. What's important is that Forte is among the Bears' best players, one they have built their offense around in recent years, and he's not happy. That's a problem for the Bears, regardless of whether Forte's anger is well-grounded or unfounded.

In our previous post, we discussed the potential impact of Michael Bush's arrival in Chicago on the Bears' negotiations with tailback Matt Forte. I wasn't ready to consider it a legitimate affront to Forte, who reportedly has turned down a more lucrative offer than what Bush received, but it's worth adding a player's perspective.

Via Twitter, former Bears tight end Greg Olsen made clear that Forte would be well within his rights to be upset. Bush is the third backup running back to receive a multiyear contract from the Bears in as many years, following Marion Barber and Chester Taylor. Olsen:

When a follower asked if Olsen was bitter because the Bears weren't willing to offer him a multiyear deal and eventually traded him, Olsen responded: "wrong [couldn't] be happier in Carolina. Just pointing out how its viewed around league."

You can agree or disagree with Olsen's reasoning, especially as it relates to having a reliable backup running back at one of the most physical positions in the game. But a number of Bears players stepped forward last season on the topic, and I think Olsen gives us a fair glimpse of how an NFL player views the standoff between the Bears and Forte. And let's just say it won't endear the team's position to any of them.

A number of wild theories began circulating in the moments after the Chicago Bears announced a four-year contract agreement with running back Michael Bush. So let's do our best to sift through what the deal does -- and, just as importantly, doesn't -- mean.
  • Bush is the Bears' best attempt yet at finding a reliable backup to starter Matt Forte, one whose skills offer the team more complete coverage from the position. We've noted several times that Forte doesn't perform well in short-yardage and goal-to-go situations. Last season, Bush scored seven touchdowns for the Oakland Raiders on goal-to-go downs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Chester Taylor failed as Forte's backup in 2010, and Marion Barber (2011) figures to follow him out the door shortly.
  • Bush got a nice contract that could top out at $14 million and includes $7 million guaranteed. That's better than backup money, but Bush is better than your standard backup. He started 19 games in four seasons with the Raiders.
  • That money suggests the Bears felt they needed protection against a possible holdout from Forte, who hasn't agreed to a long-term deal and hasn't signed his franchise tender. We're a long way from that point, but midsummer is not the time to start scrambling for insurance. The best options are available now.
  • Some of you might think Forte would be annoyed to see a third consecutive veteran walk through the door with a multiyear contract while he awaits one himself. It's true that Taylor ($7 million) earned more than him in 2010, as did Barber ($2.5m) in 2011. This year, Bush's $7 million guarantee is close to the $7.74 million franchise tag that Forte will play under if he doesn't agree to a longer deal. But I think the Bears are willing to pay Forte more than his backup. Whether they are willing to pay him what he wants is another question.
  • Regardless, I don't think Bush's arrival will make Forte any more or less likely to hold out. He has a number he wants the Bears to get to. Will it make the Bears less likely to meet that number because they have Bush? They might want Forte to think so, but ultimately they know they need Forte in their lineup.
  • When you hear the name "Michael Bush," many of you think of the terrible broken leg he suffered in 2006 as a senior at Louisville. The injury required the insertion of a steel rod and essentially cost him two years of football. But since returning to the field in 2008, he has played in 61 out of a possible 64 games.
  • The Brandon Marshall trade will define the Bears' offseason, but no less impressive has been their determination to beef up depth with highly paid veterans. Bush is the most notable example, but it's worth pointing out that backup quarterback Jason Campbell will earn $3.4 million, while kick returner Eric Weems got a $1.5 million signing bonus on top of a $700,000 base salary.

NFC North Quick Hits: Wednesday

March, 14, 2012
As usual, I don't know if I'm done for the day or if we're just starting. But for now, let's run through some NFC North tidbits from the second day of NFL free agency.

Item: Minnesota Vikings tight end John Carlson said the surgically-repaired torn labrum in his left shoulder has healed, and that a scary concussion he suffered in the 2010 playoffs "looked worse than it was."
Comment: There is no doubt Carlson is an above-average pass-catcher as a tight end. You hate to commit significant money to a player who has suffered two significant injuries in the past year, but the Vikings' medical staff gave him full clearance to resume all football activities after a physical Wednesday.

Item: Vikings general manager Rick Spielman asked for patience from rabid fans who wanted their team more involved in the opening round of free agency.
Comment: I agreed with the way Spielman put it in a conference call Wednesday. Spielman: "I don't think we're a player or two way to go out and spend the money that's being spent on all the players who got the contracts early. I think what we're trying to do is find players who can help us win ball games and be able to continue to build with the draft and keep our roster intact."

Item: The Chicago Bears hosted running back Michael Bush on a visit Wednesday.
Comment: Bush has always been a good backup for the Oakland Raiders, and he doesn't have the mileage that current backup Marion Barber has on him. It's probably safe to assume that Barber won't be with the Bears in 2012.

Item: The three-year contract the Vikings gave defensive tackle Letroy Guion is worth $9 million and includes $2.5 million in guarantees, according to Adam Caplan.
Comment: That's not an insignificant amount of money. I can only assume the Vikings plan for Guion to have an expanded role in 2012.

Item: The numbers are in on former Detroit Lions cornerback Eric Wright's contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The deal is worth $37.5 million over five years, including $15.5 million in guarantees.
Comment: I don't blame the Lions one bit for passing on Wright if that was going to be the price tag.

Item: The Vikings' stadium bill got its first committee hearing Wednesday at the Minnesota State legislature, but questions about the project prevented a vote.
Comment: The bill has been held for further discussion, which is better than outright rejection, right?

NFC North Quick Hits: Monday

March, 12, 2012
I have no idea if this is our last post of the day or if we'll have five more before we call it a night. That's how crazy the NFL news cycle is at the moment. But we've had a collection of newsbits hit the wire in the past few hours, so let's bring them all together while we have a moment — in quick-hitting fashion, of course.

Item: The NFL has taken $36 million in salary cap space from the Washington Redskins and $10 million from the Dallas Cowboys for two-year-old contract violations.
Comment: Each NFC North team will receive $1.6 million in additional cap space as a result. Yee-haw!

Item: The Detroit Lions released tight end Will Heller.
Comment: Heller was due a roster bonus of $200,000 and would have received a base salary of just under $1 million in 2012. As cold as it sounds, you don't need to pay your third tight end that kind of money.

Item: The Chicago Bears issued a low tender of $1.26 million to running back Kahlil Bell, a restricted free agent.
Comment: The Bears have the right to match any contract offer Bell might receive, but they would get no compensation if he departs. At this moment, he appears in line to be Matt Forte's primary backup in 2012. Marion Barber isn't expected back.

Item: The Vikings aren't expected to tender linebacker/special teams ace Kenny Onatolu, according to Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Comment: The fate of the Vikings' other restricted free agent, running back Lorenzo Booker, has yet to be learned.

Item: The Green Bay Packers are entering into their final hours of exclusive negotiating with center Scott Wells, a pending free agent.
Comment: The Packers have a history of last-minute agreements, but Wells might feel compelled to test his market value before being satisfied with what the Packers have offered.

Item: I can't count how many people have asked for updates on the status of Packers left tackle Chad Clifton and receiver Donald Driver.
Comment: If either player has restructured his contract and/or been informed of his release, it hasn't been made public. That's all I can tell you at this moment.

NFC North Friday personnel report

December, 30, 2011
In lieu of an otherwise meaningless Friday injury report, let's update the NFC North's top personnel issues for Sunday's games:
  • Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said his initial plan was to play all three quarterbacks Sunday against the Detroit Lions. But on Friday, he stopped short of saying that Aaron Rodgers would start. It stands to reason that backup Matt Flynn will take his place, and get the majority of snaps even if Rodgers makes a token appearance, and that presumptive 2012 backup Graham Harrell will also get some work.
  • McCarthy did confirm that several prominent players have been ruled out for the game: Receiver Greg Jennings (knee), running back James Starks (knee/ankle) and receiver Randall Cobb (groin). Right tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) is doubtful and unlikely to play. Cornerback Charles Woodson (knee) and linebacker Clay Matthews (ankle) are both questionable, paving the way for them to rest Sunday as well. Left tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring/back), tight end Jermichael Finley (knee) and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett (concussion) will all be available.
  • The Detroit Lions practiced outdoors Friday in preparation for playing at Lambeau Field, where they haven't won since 1991.
  • The Lions got safety Louis Delmas (knee) back to practice for the first time in more than a month. He is doubtful for Sunday's game but it was a good sign for his playoff availability. Cornerback Aaron Berry (shoulder) is also doubtful. Cornerback Chris Houston, who had a cast on his hand earlier this week, is questionable.
  • The Chicago Bears listed running back Marion Barber (calf) as doubtful for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings and linebacker Brian Urlacher (knee) as questionable. Barber didn't practice all week and is unlikely to play. Urlacher probably will play.
  • Vikings coach Leslie Frazier confirmed that tailback Adrian Peterson had surgery Friday on his injured left knee and was "resting comfortably."

NFC North at night

December, 28, 2011
Sifting through Wednesday's newsbits in the NFC North:

Chicago Bears: Running back Marion Barber (calf), tight end Kellen Davis (illness), defensive end Julius Peppers (not injury related) and linebacker Brian Urlacher (knee) did not practice. Barber doesn't seem likely to play Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. Meanwhile, coach Lovie Smith was angered by questions about the future of offensive coordinator Mike Martz and wouldn't answer. Martz's contract expires after this season.

Detroit Lions: Cornerback Chris Houston was wearing a cast on his left hand but told reporters he injured his pinky finger and does not have a fracture. Hmmmm. Coach Jim Schwartz said it wasn't a long-term injury. Houston, safety Louis Delmas (knee), receiver Calvin Johnson (Achilles), defensive tackle Corey Williams (hip) and defensive end Willie Young (ankle) did not practice.

Green Bay Packers: Tight end Jermichael Finley reported knee soreness Wednesday and did not participate in practice. Neither did offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga (knee), receiver Randall Cobb (groin) nor running back James Starks (knee/ankle). Receiver Greg Jennings ran on the side during practice but was declared out for Sunday's game against the Lions. Offensive lineman Chad Clifton (hamstring/back) practiced. So did defensive lineman Ryan Pickett, who has been cleared after suffering a concussion earlier this month.

Minnesota Vikings: Quarterback Christian Ponder (concussion) was cleared to practice after and will start Sunday against the Bears, according to coach Leslie Frazier. Left guard Steve Hutchinson, who was placed on injured reserve this week because of a concussion, will "have some decisions he'll have to make after this season is over," according to coach Leslie Frazier. That suggests retirement could be an option.

NFC North Stock Watch

December, 27, 2011
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


1. Secondary play in Chicago and Minnesota: Between the two of them, the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings have maybe one or two defensive backs who should be considered 2012 starters heading into the offseason. Bears cornerback Charles Tillman qualifies, and perhaps Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield will as well if he returns healthy from a fractured collarbone. Otherwise, the Bears and Vikings need a serious overhaul to their defensive backfields. Both teams tried season-long rotations at safety, neither of which led to any personnel conclusions, and cornerback play outside of Tillman has been atrocious for both teams. It will probably be a multiyear process for these franchises to rebuild these positions. With Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler in this division, they better hurry.

2. Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: We all remember ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer's harsh criticism of Ponder shortly after the draft. In brief, Dilfer said Ponder looks the part of an NFL quarterback but quickly falls from his comfort zone and loses accuracy under pressure. Dilfer softened some of that analysis after Ponder's relatively strong debut, but we should note that Ponder has been one of the NFL's worst quarterbacks against extra pass-rushers this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he is completing about 39 percent of his passes when opponents send five or more pass-rushers. The only player with less success against the blitz? Denver Broncos quarterback/running back Tim Tebow. It's not necessarily a warning sign if a rookie doesn't perform well under pressure, but to this point Ponder's performance hasn't veered much from Dilfer's original analysis.

3. Marion Barber, Bears running back: Barber's mental errors in a loss earlier this month to the Broncos, and his inability to keep his troublesome calf healthy, would seem to spell the end of his short tenure with the Bears. Kahlil Bell's hard-charging 123-yard performance Sunday night offers the Bears a much younger option for the role of backing up starter Matt Forte. It was a nice run, as they say.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Pettigrew
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesBrandon Pettigrew has been a productive weapon for the Lions this season.

1. Home-field advantage: The Packers have a quirky history when it comes to playing at home in the playoffs. In the big picture, the state of Wisconsin has provided one of the best home-field advantages in professional sports. The Packers are 15-3 all-time at home in the playoffs, including games played in Milwaukee. But those three losses have come in their past five playoff games at home: In 2003 to the Atlanta Falcons, in 2004 to the Vikings and 2007 to the New York Giants. One of the two victories, meanwhile, came in overtime to the Seattle Seahawks. Recently, at least, opponents haven't been intimidated by playing at Lambeau Field.

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions tight end: A significant debate erupted in 2009 when the Lions used the No. 20 overall pick to draft Pettigrew, passing up offensive lineman Michael Oher and receiver Percy Harvin, among others. But the Lions insisted that a multi-faceted tight end was critical to their offense, and they have followed through by utilizing Pettigrew as much as any team in the NFL. The Lions have used him as an extension of their running game, and although he is averaging a modest 8.7 yards per reception, his total of 76 catches ranks third among tight ends. By all accounts, Pettigrew is an excellent blocker as well. The Lions have gotten by this far with Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus as their tackles, minimizing the need for Oher. And while Harvin would have been a nice addition, the Lions have found value by signing veteran Nate Burleson and using a second-round pick to draft Titus Young.

3. T.J. Lang, Green Bay Packers offensive lineman: When the season began, how many people would have chosen Lang as the Packers' most valuable offensive lineman? Not me. Lang had been an inconsistent starter and player who couldn't find a position and was behind a rookie on the depth chart when the season began. But Lang outplayed first-round pick Derek Sherrod in camp to win the left guard job and has provided a seamless transition from departed starter Daryn Colledge. And when the Packers needed someone to jump over to right tackle after injuries to Bryan Bulaga and Sherrod, Lang successfully made the move. On Sunday night, at least, he held his own against Bears pass-rushers Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije. Center Scott Wells might be the Packers' best offensive lineman this season, but not many left guards could jump out to right tackle as well as Lang appeared to do Sunday night.

Devin Hester active for Bears

December, 25, 2011
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Chicago Bears will play their top rivals Sunday night without their top two running backs and appear to be bracing for limited duty from receiver/kick returner Devin Hester.

Hester is active but the Bears also have receiver Max Komar in uniform for the first time all season.

Matt Forte (knee) and Marion Barber (calf) are inactive, as expected. Kahlil Bell is expected to get his second NFL start.

The Bears also deactivated rookie quarterback Nathan Enderle, meaning that deposed starter Caleb Hanie is the only quarterback available to play in relief of new starter Josh McCown.

The Green Bay Packers will have linebacker Desmond Bishop (calf) in uniform for the first time since Thanksgiving Day. Meanwhile, defensive end Mike Neal (shoulder) is in uniform, but the Packers announced that Howard Green will start for Ryan Pickett at left defensive end and that C.J. Wilson will start at right defensive end.

The team also confirmed that T.J. Lang will start at right tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith will start at left guard.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 23, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 16:

Busted rivalry: When the NFL released its schedule this spring, many of us had high expectations for a late-December matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. Instead, an injury-devastated Bears team will limp north as a (deserved) 13-point underdog. It's possible the Packers will have clinched home-field advantage even before taking the field Sunday night, if the San Francisco 49ers lose Saturday at the Seattle Seahawks. If not, the Packers will attempt to secure it against a team playing without quarterback Jay Cutler, running backs Matt Forte and Marion Barber, and receiver Johnny Knox. Third-string running back Kahlil Bell is expected to start, pairing with third-string quarterback Josh McCown -- who has a history of helping the Packers' playoff positioning. (See: Noooooooooooooooo!) One other interesting bit of history: The Packers are one of five teams in NFL history to open a season 13-0 and then lose in their 14th game. All four of the other teams lost their 15th game, too. That list includes the 2009 and 2005 Indianapolis Colts, the 2009 New Orleans Saints and the 1998 Denver Broncos.

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireGreen Bay's James Starks is expected to play Sunday against the Bears.
Packers' run game: For several reasons, Sunday night's game would be an obvious target for the Packers to try to enhance their running game. James Starks (ankle) and Brandon Saine (concussion) are expected to return. The Packers will start a makeshift offensive line that likely will include T.J. Lang at right tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith at left guard; the best way for offensive linemen to get comfortable is via run blocking. And it's also worth repeating that the Bears historically have done a good job limiting Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' downfield opportunities. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers has completed only five of 26 attempts on throws against the Bears that traveled in the air 21 yards or more. He's thrown for one touchdown, a game-winner to receiver Greg Jennings in 2009, and two interceptions on those passes.

Detroit's challenge: The Detroit Lions will clinch a playoff spot Saturday if they beat the San Diego Chargers in what will likely be a raucous atmosphere at Ford Field. (There are also several scenarios to clinch this weekend even if they lose. They're noted in this post.) Hopefully everyone knows the Chargers are on one of their annual December rolls. They've won three consecutive games after a six-game losing streak. Since Norv Turner took the head coaching job in 2007, the Chargers are 20-2 in December. This will be no cakewalk.

Big targets: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers struggled earlier this season, but he has been the NFL's most efficient quarterback over the past three weeks based on Total Quarterback Rating. Rivers has hit a groove with a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers that will pose significant matchup problems for the Lions. Malcom Floyd has 11 receptions for 233 yards and two touchdowns over the past two games, while Vincent Jackson has caught 12 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown. Jackson has been sidelined in practice this week by a groin injury. Lions cornerback Chris Houston (knee) clearly wasn't 100 percent last week against the Oakland Raiders, and the team re-signed Brandon McDonald this week for extra depth. Safety Louis Delmas (knee) also remains sidelined, and backup Chris Harris was cleared Thursday to practice following a concussion.

Make it stop: If you're a big-picture observer, you see ample motivation for the Minnesota Vikings to lose Sunday at the Washington Redskins. One more victory by the Indianapolis Colts, in conjunction with two more Vikings defeats, would give the Vikings an excellent chance to secure the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft. A loss to the Redskins would extend the Vikings' losing streak to seven games, tying a franchise record set in their expansion season of 1961. But I'm not sure what would be worse: tying that record or extending their NFL record of games without an interception, which stands at nine. Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman has thrown at least one interception in his past 10 starts, and he is tied for the second-most interceptions in the NFL (18) despite missing three games this season. Something's got to give.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Thanks to everyone who participated in Thursday's late-night Twitter discussion on the draft ramifications of the Indianapolis Colts' last-second upset of the Houston Texans. From an NFC North perspective, here's what I can tell you: If you're hoping the Minnesota Vikings will parlay the result into the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, you need to root for another Colts victory.

Based on research from ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings would lose the tiebreaker with the Colts if they both finish 2-14. The St. Louis Rams would likely have the No. 3 pick in that scenario if they are also 2-14.

Ties are broken in reverse order of strength of schedule (SOS), and the Indianapolis Star has an easy-to-read projection of each team's SOS through 16 games. The Rams currently have a lower SOS than the Vikings, but those figures could swap when you consider the Rams finish the season against the 10-4 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 11-3 San Francisco 49ers. The Vikings' final two games are against the 5-9 Washington Redskins and 7-7 Chicago Bears.

I know it's complicated and more than you're probably willing to think about on the morning of December 23. But in terms of the No. 1 overall pick, the Vikings' best-case scenario is for the Colts to win next weekend against the Jacksonville Jaguars. (Combined with two more losses by the Vikings, of course.) That would leave the Colts 3-13 and the Vikings sweating out the SOS tiebreaker with the potentially 2-14 Rams, which they have a good chance of winning based on Week 16 and 17 matchups.

Continuing around the NFC North:

NFC North at night

December, 22, 2011
Checking in on Thursday's newsbits in the NFC North:

Chicago Bears: Tight end Kellen Davis (back) and defensive end Julius Peppers (not injury related) returned to practice Thursday. Still missing were linebacker Lance Briggs (ankle), running back Marion Barber (calf) and kick returner/receiver Devin Hester (ankle). None have been ruled out for Sunday's game at Lambeau Field.

Detroit Lions: Cornerback Don Carey (concussion), safety Louis Delmas (knee), defensive tackle Nick Fairley (foot), defensive tackle Corey Williams (hip) and defensive end Willie Young (ankle) all missed practice. The Lions re-signed cornerback Brandon McDonald to bolster their depth as Carey's concussion lingers.

Green Bay Packers: Running backs James Starks (ankle) and Brandon Saine (concussion) participated fully in practice and should be ready to play Sunday night. Linebacker Desmond Bishop (calf) and offensive lineman Chad Clifton (hamstring/back) made it through their second consecutive day of practice. Defensive lineman Howard Green (foot) was limited in practice. Defensive end Ryan Pickett (concussion) has still not been cleared.

Minnesota Vikings: The decision by USC quarterback Matt Barkley to return to school could have an indirect impact on the Vikings. If the Vikings ultimately want to trade down from their perch atop the first round, it would have helped to have another blue-chip quarterback to increase the value of their pick. Meanwhile, cornerback Asher Allen and guard Steve Hutchinson (concussion) missed practice for the second consecutive day.

NFC North at night

December, 21, 2011
Taking a look at Wednesday's newsbits in the NFC North:

Chicago Bears: A high number of prominent players didn't practice Wednesday. The list included running back Marion Barber (calf), linebacker Lance Briggs (ankle), tight end Kellen Davis (back), receiver Devin Hester (ankle), defensive tackle Henry Melton (shin) and defensive end Julius Peppers (not injury related). Melton doesn't appear to have a great chance to play Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers.

Detroit Lions: Safety Louis Delmas (knee), defensive tackle Corey Williams (hip), right tackle Gosder Cherilus and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (neck) didn't practice. It doesn't appear that Delmas will be ready for Saturday's game against the San Diego Chargers.

Green Bay Packers: Left tackle Chad Clifton finally returned to practice Wednesday but it's almost impossible to imagine him playing Sunday against the Bears. Instead, T.J. Lang is likely to start at right tackle with Evan Dietrich-Smith at Lang's left guard spot. The healthy backups will be Ray Dominguez and newcomer Herb Taylor. Running back James Starks practice an could be on track to play Sunday. Running back Brandon Saine (concussion) also practiced, as did linebacker Desmond Bishop (calf). Defensive end Ryan Pickett (concussion) did not.

Minnesota Vikings: Cornerback Asher Allen and guard Steve Hutchinson both sat out practice Wednesday because of concussions. Joe Berger would start for Hutchinson if he can't play Saturday against the Washington Redskins.




Sunday, 9/21
Monday, 9/22