NFC North: Mark Sanchez

video
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You have seen this before from Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and Eddie Lacy.

It's nothing new -- these 341-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception games from the Green Bay Packers quarterback, and the 129-yard and 109-yard receiving games from Cobb and Nelson, respectively, and tackle-breaking touchdown runs by Lacy. Breaking records and reaching milestones has become the norm for Rodgers and his crew of playmakers.

But what you saw from the Packers' defense in Sunday's 53-20 dismantling of the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field might be the new normal. Since their meltdown in the 44-23 loss at New Orleans before the bye, defensive coordinator Dom Capers' unit has turned in a pair of dominant performances in blowout home victories over the Eagles and Chicago Bears.

It has coincided with the new, hybrid role for outside linebacker/inside linebacker Clay Matthews, an idea that was launched during the bye, but it's about much more than that.

"It just shows that we have a very talented defense," said Matthews, who registered a sack for the second straight game. "And it's all about deciding which defense wants to show up."

[+] EnlargeJulius Peppers
AP Photo/Mike RoemerThe Packers' Julius Peppers gets away from Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews for a 52-yard interception return for a touchdown.
If it's the one that foiled Jay Cutler last week and Mark Sanchez on Sunday, then the Packers (7-3) might have the kind of complete team capable of a long playoff run.

Sacks by defensive tackle Letroy Guion on the Eagles' opening series and outside linebacker Mike Neal on the second series set a tone of aggressiveness from the start. Guion beat right guard Matt Tobin on a second-and-6 and dumped Sanchez for a 7-yard loss, which set up a much easier third-and-long situation for the defense and ultimately led to a punt. Neal then dumped Sanchez for a 9-yard loss on third-and-6 to force another punt.

By the time the Eagles got the ball back the next time, they were down 17-0.

"Defensively, you're just seeing a unit that's playing faster," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "The personnel groups that we're getting in and out of, I think it's happening seamlessly. You're getting used to playing together in combinations that we kind of set for the second half. With that, our playmakers are making plays, and we've got a lot of playmakers on defense."

Eagles coach Chip Kelly's fast-paced, high-powered offense looked no different than the Bears offense in their futile performance a week earlier. For the second straight week, the game was over by halftime. This time, the Packers led 30-6 at the break, and even though they gave up 429 yards, it was empty yardage in the end.

"Against an offense like that, to do what they did tonight, that was very impressive," Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "They're the reason ... yeah, we scored points in the first half, but they kept it to six points. That was huge."

What followed the early sacks was this: a pair of fumble recoveries, one by Nick Perry and another by Casey Hayward, who returned it 49 yards for a touchdown. Then two interceptions, one by Tramon Williams and another by Julius Peppers, who returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.

This against a team that, though it was missing starting quarterback Nick Foles, brought the NFL's fifth ranked offense to town.

The Packers' run defense that was so awful the first half of the season -- it ranked dead last and gave up 155 yards per game -- all of a sudden is more than respectable. They have nearly cut that number in half the past two games and allowed an average of just 82 yards rushing per game.

"We’ve been going out saying that we’re going to get off of the field," Williams said. "[The] offense has been moving the ball unbelievable, and if we can continue doing that throughout the year, then we're going to be where we want to be."

Lookback: Preseason Week 1

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
1:15
PM ET
Three takeaways from Week 1 of the preseason:

Offensive lines are in major flux:

Chicago Bears right tackle J'Marcus Webb played so poorly Friday night at the Carolina Panthers that he was working with the second team when practice resumed Sunday. For the moment, the Bears have rookies at both right-side positions: Kyle Long (right guard) and Jordan Mills (right tackle). Each played 84 percent of the Bears' snaps Friday night.

Coach Marc Trestman told reporters he had always planned to give Webb work as a backup left tackle, necessitating Mills' ascension. But I think we all know that if Webb had performed better Friday night and throughout camp, there would be no reason to remove him from two days of first-team work in practice. With three weeks remaining until the start of the season, we can only assume Mills has a chance to win the job.

Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers actually appear in better shape at left tackle -- where rookie David Bakhtiari has replaced injured starter Bryan Bulaga -- than at right tackle. Marshall Newhouse received the first chance at winning that position, but as colleague Rob Demovsky wrote, Don Barclay outperformed him Friday night against the Arizona Cardinals and might be the front-runner for the job.

Finally, the Detroit Lions are continuing their wide-open competition at right guard and right tackle. Rookie Larry Warford did not start but got a team-high 53 snaps at right guard Friday night against the New York Jets, part of a process to get him up to speed as quickly as possible. At right tackle, Corey Hilliard started and got 26 snaps while Jason Fox got the second turn and played 25 snaps.

The Minnesota Vikings are the only NFC North team to return its line intact. As a result, their starters played only two snaps Friday night against the Houston Texans. The clock is ticking for the other three teams.

Some interesting new playmakers emerged

Sure, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez should have grounded a screen pass that he ultimately threw into the hands of Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah, who intercepted it and dashed 14 yards for a touchdown. But let's not minimize the athleticism Ansah displayed, nor the early indication that he will be in the right place at the right time. That's half the battle of being a playmaker.

Bears rookie middle linebacker Jon Bostic made an athletic interception, stepping in front of a ball intended for a receiver he wasn't covering, before reversing field and dashing 51 yards for a score. I know we're used to seeing speedy middle linebacker play from the Bears, but hopefully it still stood out to you. It's also worth noting that the Bears thought enough of receiver Marquess Wilson's debut -- four catches for 82 yards, including a 58-yard play -- to elevate him to second-team work in practice Monday.

And let's not overlook Packers receiver Tyrone Walker, whose five-catch performance Friday night suggests he has a genuine chance to make the roster. As Demovsky noted, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has mentioned Walker often in camp interviews.

"Kickalicious" is a national story

Just when his viral video story was nearing the saturation point, Lions place-kicker Havard Rugland advanced his cause with a genuinely impressive football debut. Converting 49-and 50-yard field goals in a preseason game would have drawn attention for any kicker, let alone someone with Rugland's story.

Peter King led his "Monday Morning Quarterback" column with some thoughts on Rugland, and there is a undeniable positive for this development. The Lions, and the rest of the NFL, will get a chance to see how he reacts to increased scrutiny, higher expectations and perhaps even pressure -- as all NFL kickers deal with.
Does Christian Ponder have the kind of team around him to succeed the way Mark Sanchez did with the Jets in his rookie year?

That was the question proposed to me. First off, I will define the "success" that Sanchez had during his rookie season as how far the Jets went into the playoffs, rather than how well the rookie signal-caller performed on the field -- which didn’t impress me.

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Chuck Cook/US PresswireCan rookie quarterback Christian Ponder lead the Vikings to early success?
So, by those standards, I think the answer here is no. Of course, like every team in the NFL, free agency will have a major effect on the Vikings. They could lose exceptional players such as Ray Edwards and/or Sidney Rice. And they obviously will add some new faces during the process as well.

But still, I find it hard to believe that Minnesota ends up as a playoff team in 2011. I love Adrian Peterson. And if Rice is re-signed, the Vikings' skill position players could be very strong with a starting unit of Peterson, Rice, Percy Harvin (another player I love), Visanthe Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph as the base personnel. You could do a lot worse than surrounding a first-round rookie quarterback with those five.

And, I am very high on Ponder and see him as the most pro-ready quarterback in the 2011 draft class. He is smart, athletic and comes from a more advanced offensive system than many of his fellow high draft pick quarterbacks. I expect Ponder to adjust quite quickly to the NFL, all things considered.

But where the argument in the Vikings' favor falls short is along the offensive line, on defense and with their divisional foes. Of those three factors at work, the defense is the thing that I feel best about for Minnesota to make a deep playoff run. But in reality, outside of Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, Chad Greenway, E.J. Henderson and Edwards (if he returns), I don’t see enough quality players or depth on this side of the ball for Minnesota to end up among the top half of the league defensively.

Minnesota’s offensive line, particularly the run blocking, is a huge worry for me. And that isn’t a good recipe for a rookie quarterback. I also think this line is going to prove to be very difficult to fix during just one free-agent period before the season starts. There isn’t one starter with whom I am really comfortable -- and that includes Steve Hutchinson -- nor is there much position versatility among the top linemen on this club.

But maybe the biggest hurdle for the Vikings in 2011 will be their divisional opponents. I don’t think I am alone in saying that Packers are the strongest team in all of football. The Bears, of course, were a final four team last season. Could the Bears take a step backwards? Sure. But I still think they have more going for them than Minnesota right now. And Detroit is building an amazing young nucleus of talent that looks ready to burst out.

So, as it stands during the first week of July, I see the Vikes as the fourth-place team in the NFC North.
Accepting that pre-draft mocks and post-draft grades are all in good fun makes both easier to digest. With that caveat, let's sift through Mel Kiper's grades Insider and then take a Sunday breather. I think it will be good for us to have some quiet time here for a bit.

Chicago Bears
Mel's grade:
B
Seifert comment: The Bears filled needs with their first two picks, Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi and Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea, without reaching. I agree with Kiper that Paea doesn't resemble the classic penetrating "three-technique" tackle as much as he does a space-filling nose tackle, but the Bears had needs for both. You could argue that a team with five picks and an established starting quarterback didn't need to take on a developmental quarterback like Idaho's Nathan Enderle. But that decision speaks to the underrated power offensive coordinator Mike Martz now wields in the organization. He wanted a project and got one.

Detroit Lions
Mel's grade:
A-
Seifert comment: Most everyone is viewing the fall of Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley as a gift the Lions smartly capitalized on. I can't argue. Nor, as I wrote over the weekend, can I suggest that receiver Titus Young and running back Mikel Leshoure will be anything other than enhancements to the offense. Kiper and I are on the same page with the one caveat to this draft, and he put it more succinctly than me: "[T]he question is whether the Lions did enough to help the talent level in a way that can further conceal weaknesses." The Lions can answer that with an aggressive run through free agency and/or the trade market.

Green Bay Packers
Mel's grade:
B+
Seifert comment: Kiper's only concern was a failure to address the pass rush in a meaningful way. But I think the Packers have confidence in some of the players they drafted last year, defensive ends Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson. And Saturday, defensive coordinator Dom Capers expressed faith in linebacker Frank Zombo. Otherwise, the Packers added two more weapons to their offense (Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb and Hawaii running back Alex Green) and fortified their transition plan at offensive tackle with Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod.

Minnesota Vikings
Mel's grade: C+
Seifert comment: Like many commentators, Kiper thinks the No. 12 spot was too high for Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder. To Kiper and others, the fact that TCU quarterback Andy Dalton lasted another 23 spots provides evidence that the Vikings could have traded down, or traded up from the second round, and still drafted Ponder. I don't think we can say that. How do we know that a team passing on Dalton wouldn't have taken Ponder? Regardless, quarterback is one position where value is less critical. There aren't many legitimate quarterback prospects in any draft, and if you have an opportunity to draft one that you think can be a long-term starter, who cares if he is taken at No. 12 or No. 25? (Especially with a rookie wage scale on the horizon.) Do you think anyone cares now that the New York Jets traded a bounty in 2009 to move up to the No. 5 overall spot and "reach" for quarterback Mark Sanchez?

NFC North weekend mailbag

April, 16, 2011
4/16/11
12:00
PM ET
No fanfare.

No quotes.

No song lyrics.

(We had our fun a few hours ago.)

Just some hardcore mailbagging.

Access is granted via the mailbag, Facebook and Twitter.

Zac of Sidelionreport.com writes: Interesting factoid I realized today that I don't remember coming up: Matthew Stafford is about the same age as current draft prospects Ryan Mallett, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton. Hard to argue that his first two years in the NFL have been wastes considering he will go through next season as just a 23-year-old.

Kevin Seifert: Indeed, as Zac noted in his accompanying blog post, Stafford turned 23 on Feb. 7. He's 15 months older than Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, four months older than Arkansas' Mallett, 18 days older than Florida State's Ponder and is actually younger than TCU's Dalton and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick.

Stafford didn't redshirt at Georgia and left after his junior year, making him barely 21 when the Lions drafted him April 2009. His first two seasons have been most notable for the number of injuries he's suffered, but it's comforting to know that his early entrance to the NFL has paid at least one dividend. He's two years ahead in exposure to the NFL game and way of life than he would have been had had spent the maximum five years at Georgia instead of three.

On the other side of the spectrum -- and yes, leave it to me to find a pocket of cynicism -- Stafford is behind some of the quarterbacks he entered the league with as well as some that came after him. If for no other reason than their health, Mark Sanchez (New York Jets), Josh Freeman (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Sam Bradford (St. Louis Rams) have made more of their NFL careers thus far.


Craig of Braintree notes our coverage of the NFL's potential rookie wage scale and writes: I'm for allowing teams to lock rookies in for five years but the pay should be flexible each year. A judge should decide between a team's offer and the player's offer like baseball.

Kevin Seifert: Craig is proposing arbitration for the NFL. Generally speaking, players with at least three accrued seasons (and fewer than six) can file for arbitration by proposing their salary for the following season. The team also proposes a salary. An arbitrator listens to arguments and chooses a "winner" if the sides can't compromise first.

According to the NFL's proposal, only rookies drafted in the first round would be locked in for five years. The league has circulated information suggesting the average career span of a first-round pick is 9.3 years.

But I think Craig's point is a valid one. Traditionally, a player's most lucrative contract is his second. It comes when he still has the projected physical capacity to perform at a high level for several years to come, and generally it comes no later than the fourth year of his career. Locking players in to five years of a rookie deal could diminish the value of their second contracts.

Ultimately, I hope that five-year number is negotiable. I'd prefer to see it lower rather than go to an arbitration system. In baseball, arbitration is an awkward and confrontational process dreaded by both sides.


Daniel of New Mexico notes my request for suggestions should Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson be matched up in the finals of ESPN.com's tournament to determine the cover of 'Madden 12.' Daniel writes: "The "Epicenter of Inanity" has a better ring to it."

Kevin Seifert: NOTHING is inane in a lockout. See for yourself.


Via Twitter, Jdub300C asks if a completely canceled season would push back the expiration of the Vikings' lease at the Metrodome.

Kevin Seifert: The last time I checked on this issue, I was flatly told no. The lease is set to expire on Feb. 1, 2012, whether or not the Vikings play their full slate of games this season. I suppose that an enterprising government attorney could go back and scour the lease for loopholes, but as of now none has been found.


Roy of Hampton, Va., writes: Kevin, as a Packer fan I have been seeing Danny Watkins and Brooks Reed pop up on the radar. The odd thing is that I am seeing them in round 1 and round 2 mocks. Some have them going as high as 25 and as low as 64 for the Pack. Do you see these prospects as round 1 picks or will the be available in round 2.Theve projected all over and I need the official word!

Kevin Seifert: Watkins is a guard from Baylor, while Reed is a defensive end/linebacker from Arizona. For what it's worth, Scouts Inc. has given each player a grade of 89, which by definition is a late first-round grade. Slides occur every year, but if the Packers want to draft either player, they'll need to take him at No. 32 or trade up in the second round. It would seem unlikely either Watkins or Reed would be available at No. 64.


Via Twitter, Packers linebacker Nick Barnett notes the mini-story that emerged when Chicago Bears tight end Greg Olsen said he was kicked off a high school practice field this week. Writes Barnett: Whats big deal about Greg olsen getting Locked out of a school If that was my kids school I would want the same Don't want no grown man dere.

Kevin Seifert: Yikes. We could go in plenty of directions after that one. But let's just agree that, indeed, this story wasn't that big of a deal.

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

December, 27, 2010
12/27/10
12:00
PM ET
After the Chicago Bears' 38-34 victory over the New York Jets, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertThe NFC North champs take their turn in the exam room.

  1. Here is some context for how unusual Sunday's offensive output was: This season, the Jets had won every game in which they had scored at least 10 points. In other words, that's all their defense has needed to lock down opponents. But against the Bears, not even 34 points was enough. You have to assume the Bears will advance in the playoffs as far as their defense and special teams can take them. But it's now comforting to know their offense has progressed to the point where it can compete in, and win, a shoot-out.
  2. Quarterback Jay Cutler is getting all kinds of praise for his three-touchdown performance, and rightfully so. The Jets had allowed only two passing touchdowns all season that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, and Cutler had three of them Sunday. I give some credit to Cutler for identifying single coverage in each instance, but for me the more impressive play came from the receivers. Johnny Knox (twice) and Devin Hester weren't necessarily open but made exceptional adjustments on the ball in the end zone. The plays were a combination of a quarterback's growing confidence and the receivers' growing skill level.
  3. Rashied Davis did what any smart and experienced special-teams player would do Sunday: He took a double-take as soon as he noticed Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez hadn't left the field on a fourth-down situation from the Jets' 40-yard line early in the third quarter. Davis immediately recognized the fake and made sure to cover receiver Brad Smith and break up the play. I don't blame the Jets for trying a fake rather than punting to Hester, but come on. A fake with your quarterback as the upback? That's not going to surprise a well-coached special-teams group like the Bears'.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
What's gotten in to Chris Harris? The Bears' veteran safety collected a season-high 11 tackles and made another key interception, this time ending the Jets' final possession and sealing the victory. Over his past eight games, Harris has five interceptions. I'm sure Pro Bowl voters had already started making their minds up before the final month of the season, but Harris sure has put on a nice run. Initially, it was assumed that Harris' return to the Bears was a stopgap measure. But Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune pointed out in April that Harris could play his way into a nice extension, and now it appears he will.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 24, 2010
12/24/10
4:00
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

[+] EnlargeGreg Jennings
Andrew Weber/US PresswireGreg Jennings and the Packers may be best served going to the spread offense against the Giants.
Crunch time: This is it for the Green Bay Packers, who entered the season as preseason favorites to win the NFC North and have fought through an avalanche of injuries to put themselves in this position: Win Sunday against the New York Giants and next week against the Chicago Bears to guarantee themselves a playoff spot. If they lose Sunday, they're eliminated from contention. That scenario has made for a playoff-type week at Packers practices, where quarterback Aaron Rodgers has returned from a concussion and linebacker Clay Matthews (shin) was cleared to practice in pads for the first time in nearly two months. It's all-or-nothing time for the Packers.

Tempting: The Packers' run game looked better than ever in last Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium, and it's natural to suggest they try to control this game in a similar manner -- especially considering the Giants' fearsome pass rush. But here's a thought: With Rodgers now back in the lineup, why not return to the spread scheme they used with great success earlier this season? We'll define the spread as using four or more wide receivers at the same time. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Giants have seen that alignment on only 13 plays this season. The Packers have used it 134 times, third most in the NFL, and averaged 6.2 yards per play in it. The danger is leaving the Giants' pass-rushers in mostly one-on-one situations. But if Rodgers can release the ball quickly enough, he can neutralize that rush and have another option for controlling the clock on a wintry day at Lambeau Field.

Matchups at Soldier Field: Based on the way the Chicago Bears' defense has played against every quarterback except presumptive MVP Tom Brady, chances are it will hold its own against the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez. That's assuming Sanchez plays with a shoulder injury that limited him in practice this week. Sanchez has thrown five touchdowns and nine interceptions against defenses that keep seven or more players in coverage, a scheme the Bears play better than anyone in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Jets' defense plays so well against the short passing game -- opponents are completing an NFL-low 58.9 percent of passes thrown 10 yards or fewer -- that Bears quarterback Jay Cutler might be tempted to look more downfield. He probably has some confidence after last Monday's 67-yard touchdown pass to receiver Johnny Knox, but generally speaking, the smart play is not to challenge the Jets' defense.

Bad history: There are many reasons to question whether the Minnesota Vikings have a chance to win Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles. One is Michael Vick. Another is Joe Webb. And there is also the pesky little issue of the Vikings, over an extended period of time, being unable to overcome tough weather conditions when pushed outside of the Metrodome. You saw an inkling of that tendency last Monday at TCF Bank Stadium, and here is the updated statistic, according to ESPN Stats & Information: Over the past 20 years, the Vikings have won exactly one prime-time game when the temperature at kickoff was below 40 degrees. That came in a 2005 Monday night game at Lambeau Field. Otherwise, they are 1-6 in those games over that span.

More history: Can the Detroit Lions win consecutive road games for the first time since 2004? It's not as crazy as it might sound. When they travel to Sun Life Stadium this weekend, the Lions will face a Miami Dolphins team that is 1-6 at home this season. The Lions played it coy this week about the identity of their starting quarterback. It could be Drew Stanton for the fourth consecutive game, or it could be Shaun Hill. But no matter who is behind center, the Lions are hoping to continue their late-season momentum and escape the cellar of the NFC North for the first time since 2007.

BBAO: Another beauty from Gunther

December, 24, 2010
12/24/10
8:15
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

During a discussion Thursday about the Miami Dolphins' Wildcat offense, Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham threw down the proverbial gauntlet. As transcribed on the Lions' website, Cunningham said:
"All I can say to Ricky Williams -- I want him to know this -- if he hits one of our DBs in the back on a crack block, then I'm coming on the field. I mean, he's had a couple of knock outs, but they've been not legal. I'll just put it as that."

What exactly is Cunningham talking about? Here's how the NFL rule book defines a crackback block: "At the snap, an offensive player who is aligned in a position more than two yards laterally outside an offensive tackle, or a player who is in a backfield position at the snap and then moves to a position more than two yards laterally outside a tackle, may not clip an opponent anywhere, nor may he contact an opponent below the waist if the blocker is moving toward the position where the ball was snapped from, and the contact occurs within an area five yards on either side of the line of scrimmage."

In the Dolphins' Wildcat, Williams often lines up outside of the tackle if he isn't the running back to take the snap. Cunningham can be a colorful character, and so most of what he said Thursday should be considered in the context of fun rather than a literal threat. But it never hurts to publicize the potential for a penalty against an opponent, even if it's delivered in an over-the-top manner.

Continuing around the NFC North here on Christmas Eve morning:

How I See It: NFC North Stock Watch

November, 3, 2010
11/03/10
10:00
AM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Accountability in Minnesota: Nearly 48 hours after deciding to waive receiver Randy Moss, the Minnesota Vikings have yet to produce any sort of explanation. Coach Brad Childress released a statement Monday night saying the move was in the best short- and long-term interests of the team but offered no reasons and no acknowledgment of the third-round draft pick wasted in this debacle. Childress is scheduled to speak to reporters Wednesday at about 12:30 p.m. ET, so perhaps he will shed some light then. During a Tuesday radio interview, however, Childress said that discussion should remain "in-house." I'm always amused by professional sports teams who consider themselves public trusts when they want hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for new stadiums -- but a private business when it comes to discussing the football decisions their fans care deeply about. Playing your financiers for fools is never good business.

[+] EnlargeKreutz
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesOlin Kreutz is the only Bears offensive lineman in the same position he was when camp broke.
2. Job security along the Chicago Bears' offensive line: When they return Sunday from their bye week, the Bears are expected to have their fifth different combination of linemen since the season started. Some of the changes have come because of injury, but some have come as the result of lineup tinkering that is probably best suited for training camp. Against the Buffalo Bills, the Bears are expected to have Chris Williams and Roberto Garza at guards, with Frank Omiyale and J'Marcus Webb at tackles. Only center Olin Kreutz will be in the same position he was when camp broke. Barring injury, don't the Bears have to stick with this group for sanity's sake?

3. Attendance at Ford Field: The Detroit Lions had some 23,000 empty seats Sunday at Ford Field for Sunday's 37-23 victory over the Washington Redskins, their first non-sellout of the season. I'm not one to make a value judgment on whether people should pay hundreds of dollars to attend a three-hour football game. But I will say it should now be obvious the Lions have their most interesting team in recent memory, one that continues to lead the NFC in average points per game and has already won two of its first three home games of the year. I'll be interested to see whether the general optimism around the Lions translates into better ticket sales as the holiday season approaches.

RISING

1. Defensive intelligence in Green Bay: Credit is due many areas of the Green Bay Packers' operation for Sunday's 9-0 victory at the New York Jets, but it would be hard for anyone to surpass the praise due defensive coordinator Dom Capers. With a mishmash of personnel in each position group, Capers found a way to notch the NFL's first shutout in 2010 and the Packers' first road shutout since 1991. Among many areas, Capers proved willing to utilize every bit of new nose tackle Howard Green's 360 pounds to close the gaps in his run defense. Green didn't join the Packers until late last week, but Capers immediately had a realistic package for him ready to go.

2. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions quarterback: Stafford bounced back from an early interception to throw four touchdown passes Sunday. We made a big deal about his interception total last season, so it's only fair that we point out he has thrown only one in his first 60 passes of the 2010 season. More importantly, Stafford displayed the gumption you want out of any rising quarterback, calmly throwing a go-ahead touchdown pass to receiver Calvin Johnson on fourth down in the fourth quarter. It will be fun to see how he matches up Sunday against another young gun of the 2009 draft, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.

3. Steel prices in Minnesota: There shouldn't be much supply remaining after quarterback Brett Favre seemingly bought it all up and used it for armor in the Vikings' 28-18 loss to the New England Patriots. Favre's performance has largely been overshadowed by the Moss mess, but I thought he played his best game of the year despite two fractures in his left foot. And I still can't believe how lucid he was during a postgame news conference, about an hour after he appeared nearly unconscious following a fourth-quarter chin shot. He's the Bionic Man, although with inflation the cost has gone from $6 million to $16 million.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

In an interview with ESPNMilwaukee.com's Jason Wilde, Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley revealed he had emergency surgery last week to address an infection in his surgically-repaired knee. He will receive an IV through a central line in his chest three times a day for the next six weeks or so.
Finley: "I had a second surgery. Nobody knows about it. I had caught a real small infection in my knee, so I had to go in about a week ago, had to go back under and get the infection out. I was in the hospital for two days. I'm surprised nobody knew about it. I had to get all these antibiotics in me, get blood drawn four or five times a day. It's terrible. Right now, I've got this IV in my chest, a central line.

"Nobody knew about the surgery. Some guys over at the facility had it, and it's floating around the locker room. I had to go in, it was emergency surgery. I had a 105 fever, I called Doc [team physician Pat McKenzie] and said, 'I'm not feeling too good,' and we had to rush in and clean out the infection. I don't know what it's called. I guess you could call it a staph infection, but I don't think that's what it was. But I had to rush in and they put a central line in my chest. I won't get this taken out for another month and a half. Three times a day I have to get antibiotics put through it. Courtney, she's my doctor right now."

Wow. I could be wrong, but this is the first I've heard of an infection that's "floating around the locker room" in Green Bay. Given the number of injuries and surgeries there this season, it's something to keep an eye on.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver is battling two different quadriceps injuries and doesn't believe he'll be able to play Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys, according to WTMJ radio in Milwaukee. Driver has missed only two games since the start of the 2002 season.
  • Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel examines the Packers' run defense.
  • The Packers released defensive end Mike Montgomery, possibly to open a roster spot for one of their players on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, notes Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • The Chicago Bears' weekly depth chart shows that Todd Collins has returned to No. 2 backup quarterback status, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune: "The Bears have lost three games this year because of a number of offensive problems. The offensive line has been completely ineffectual in long spots. Jay Cutler has performed here and there with an absence of thought. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz has short-circuited at times. The wide receivers, however, have not been the problem -- despite popular opinion."
  • Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times: "Ranking 15th is the magical threshold in the [Jerry] Angelo era, the apex of offensive play since the general manager joined the team before the 2001 season."
  • Tim Twentyman of the Detroit News looks at the pending matchup between 2009 No. 1 draft choices: the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford and the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez.
  • Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press: "The Lions' defensive line got plenty of credit after producing six of the team's seven sacks Sunday in a 37-25 victory over Washington. But the secondary was an integral part in providing the coverage that allowed the linemen enough time to get to Redskins quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Rex Grossman."
  • Lions tailback Kevin Smith has made some adjustments, notes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
  • Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress wouldn't discuss the departure of receiver Randy Moss during a Tuesday radio interview, notes Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.
  • The Moss debacle has left the Vikings with a serious public relations issue, writes Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

NFC North Week 8 decisive moment

November, 2, 2010
11/02/10
1:00
PM ET
NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The clock was winding down Sunday in the fourth quarter at New Meadowlands Stadium as the Green Bay Packers' defense ferociously protected the slimmest of leads. One bad step or unfortunate bounce could have erased a 6-0 advantage.

Cornerback Charles Woodson ended one drive with an interception and linebacker Clay Matthews set back another with a sack. But no defensive player contributed more than a reserve safety who might not start another game this season.

Charlie Peprah could give way to Atari Bigby as early as this week, but on Sunday he created two of what I consider the most decisive moments of the Packers' 9-0 victory. Peprah broke up a pair passes to Jets receiver Jerricho Cotchery, providing a textbook display of how a safety can play pass defense.

The first came with 4 minutes, 18 seconds remaining. On fourth down from the Packers' 45-yard line, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez fired downfield. Peprah went high with Cotchery and broke up the pass at the Packers' 12-yard line.

The Jets got the ball back less than a minute later, and from his 28-yard line, Sanchez again looked downfield for Cotchery. This time, the ball hit Cotchery in the hands and was milliseconds away from being ruled a catch before Peprah's hit dislodged it at the Packers' 45-yard line.

On this blog, at least, decisive plays call for Decisive Moments.

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

November, 1, 2010
11/01/10
1:15
PM ET
After the Green Bay Packers' 9-0 victory Sunday at the New York Jets, here are three issues that merit further examination:

    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertFollowing their win against the Jets, the Packers take their turn in the examination room.
  1. Unaesthetic as it might have been, you could make an argument that Sunday's victory was the most impressive of the Mike McCarthy era. You know all of the individual challenges. They had substitute starters at left defensive end, two linebacker positions and at strong safety. They were facing the NFL's second-best rushing offense, and overall one of its best teams. Weather conditions were tough, with winds at kickoff up to 22 miles per hour. And you know how they responded: A turnover-free, if unexplosive, offense. A defense that forced three turnovers. And even McCarthy made a nice call to challenge the spot of the Jets' first-quarter fake punt. Who cares what the final score looked like? You put it all together and have a pure team victory. Speaking Monday, McCarthy called the victory "significant." I can't disagree.
  2. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed only 15 of his 34 passes for a career-low 44.1 completion percentage. I'm sure Rodgers wouldn't make excuses for those numbers, but it should be noted that the wind wreaked havoc on both quarterbacks. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 11 of Rodgers' 19 incompletions were overthrown. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez had nine overthrows. ESPN also credited Packers receivers with four drops, including what would have been a long touchdown by James Jones.
  3. Sunday marked a coming of age for punter Tim Masthay, who dropped five punts inside the 20-yard line and averaged a net of 41.5 overall. Jets returners called for three fair catches and didn't net any return yardage. In a defensive struggle on the road, I don't think you can underestimate the value of field position. The Jets started five of their drives inside the 20 yard line and only two of their possessions started on the plus side of their 30. The Packers trounced the Jets in the field-position battle, and Masthay played the biggest role in that. Monday, McCarthy called it "the finest punting performance" he has ever been involved in.
And here is one issue I don't get:
I'm not sure how much consternation we should apply to the performance of the Packers offense. It's a fact that it managed only 237 yards and 13 first downs. McCarthy was critical from a fundamental standpoint, saying "we felt we just weren't very sharp" and that "we need to get back to playing football the right way." But don't we also have to give the Jets some credit for being an excellent defense? I agree that the Packers will need to play better on offense this season, but you almost want to give them a pass Sunday considering the circumstances. And it should be noted that their biggest play of the game, a 30-yard pass to receiver Greg Jennings, set up one of their field goals.

How the Packers shut out the Jets

November, 1, 2010
11/01/10
11:00
AM ET
The Green Bay Packers shut out the New York Jets on Sunday with a defense missing six players who have made starts this season. A seventh, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, was limited to situational usage by a calf injury.

How did the Packers do it? First, their reserve defenders outmuscled the Jets' offensive front, liming them to 99 rushing yards -- about 60 percent of their typical output. Most notably, newcomer Howard Green proved a difficult anchor to root out.

In turn, that rendered the Jets' play-action passes largely ineffective. The chart shows how Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez fared in that category relative to his first seven games of the season, courtesy ESPN Stats & Information.

Touchdowns and interceptions (and more)

December, 11, 2009
12/11/09
11:50
AM ET
As an addendum to Thursday’s Air and Space post, we should probably point out a stark quarterback dichotomy in the NFC North.

We already know that we have the NFL’s two most proficient quarterbacks in terms of touchdown-interception discrepancy through 12 games. Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers are the only quarterbacks with 25 or more touchdowns and seven or less interceptions this season.

We also have the NFL’s two most interception-prone quarterbacks. Chicago’s Jay Cutler and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford are tied for the league lead with 20. Here is that dubious ranking:

1. Jay Cutler (20 in 12 games)
1. Matthew Stafford (20 in 10 games)
3. Jake Delhomme (18 in 11 games)
4. Mark Sanchez (17 in 12 games)

Feel free to put this post in the “It Only Matters to the Blogger” file. But I’m the blogger in question, and I thought it was interesting. So there.

'Coveting' this story

September, 29, 2009
9/29/09
2:30
PM ET
Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
Brett Favre and the Vikings play host to the Packers on "Monday Night Football."

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert


THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE -- This is the type of exchange that fuels drama and intrigue and conspiracy theories, producing the kind of subtext that has pushed our little division into the national spotlight.

Speaking to reporters Monday afternoon, Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy innocently noted that Brett Favre “had a desire to play in Minnesota” as far back as 13 months ago, a time when he was still on the Packers’ roster.

About an hour later, I asked Vikings coach Brad Childress if there was ever a point last year that he thought he could sign Favre. Childress smiled and asked me to repeat the question, a strategy employed by spelling-bee participants when they need more time to think.

“You mean, did I covet him?” Childress asked. “The good Lord tells us not to covet people’s goods.”

“There are some sins in the NFL,” I said.

“I didn’t covet him because he was property of the Packers,” Childress responded, carefully walking the line between the truth and tampering.

The devil is in the details, and often they are unspoken. The looming showdown between Favre and his former team carries regional drama for the obvious reasons. But its mass appeal, the one that could put it among the most-watched football games in recent history, is rooted in supposition and speculation -- the sense that a football game will break out amid the cloak and dagger shenanigans that might (or might not) have occurred during Favre’s yearlong journey to this week.
Most-Viewed 'MNF' Games on ESPN (2006-Present)
Rank Date Teams Viewers+ Households+
1 09/15/2008 Philadelphia-Dallas* 18,608 12,953
2 12/03/2007 New England-Baltimore 17,522 12,529
3 10/23/2006 N.Y. Giants-Dallas 16,028 11,807
4 09/25/2006 Atlanta-New Orleans 14,999 10,850
5 09/21/2009 Indianapolis-Miami 14,710 10,849
*All-time cable television viewership record
+Numbers in 000s.
Highest-rated game in 'MNF' history (On ABC)
Rank Date Teams Rating Share
1 12/02/85 Chicago-Miami 29.6 46
Source: ESPN

“This is the type of thing that makes football,” Packers linebacker Nick Barnett said. “It’s this type of game. It’s going to be a big circus and it’s going to be fun.”

How could it not? We have the raw emotion generated by Favre’s new home, combined with a subtext of inter-franchise warfare normally reserved for the Yankees and Red Sox.

Yes, the shock value of Favre’s purple jersey might have passed. It’s true, you could make a rational argument that it makes perfect sense -- and is hardly conspiratorial -- for a well-stocked team to seek a veteran quarterback. And from a football perspective, it’s hard to argue Favre’s desire to join a roster as talented as the Vikings to make one final run at the Super Bowl.
Brett Davis/US Presswire
Only Brad Childress and Brett Favre know when they started talking about joining forces in Minnesota.

So why are we anticipating such hubbub? Because, I think, Americans love conspiracy theories and reality television and conflict. This story crosses the lines of football and has leaked into areas normally reserved for celebrity gossip.

Consider what McCarthy said Monday. According to him, Favre said during a private meeting at Lambeau Field that he wanted to play for the Vikings. If that’s true, you can reasonably theorize that Favre had some knowledge the feeling was mutual.

That’s one of the primary reasons Green Bay filed tampering charges against Minnesota last summer, believing Favre had spoken to Childress and other Vikings officials about playing for them in 2008. Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell have since admitted to speaking with him during that time period, but the NFL found no evidence they tried to recruit him away or otherwise attempt to affect his relationship with the Packers.

It’s quite possible Childress and Bevell served as nothing more than sounding boards as Favre wrestled with his future. But Childress’ sly tone Monday, coupled with his use of Scripture as coverage for whatever actually happened, was another illustration of the tantalizing hints we’ve gotten that there is much more than meets the eye to this story.

The monster of all conspiracy theories, of course, goes something like this: Favre decides to end his retirement last summer. The Packers tell him they’ve moved on, and he asks to be released. The Packers deny his request, believing he’s got a deal worked out to sign with the Vikings.

Favre accepts a trade to the New York Jets, hatching a plan to spend a year of penance in the AFC before fulfilling his goal of signing with the Vikings. He plays for the Jets, announces his retirement after the season and waits quietly until the Jets draft Mark Sanchez as his replacement.

A day later, Favre seeks and receives his release from the Jets, allowing him to be a free agent in the off-chance he one day decides to play again. Less than a week later, word leaks that he’s discussing his options with the Vikings. On Aug. 18, he finally signs with the Vikings 12 months after he admitted his intentions to McCarthy.

Did it happen that way? Had the Vikings been planning for Favre’s arrival a year before it happened? We’ll never know unless Favre admits to it someday. But even the reasonable hint of that arrangement is enough to give this matchup cross-country appeal.

“You guys will have plenty of storylines,” Packers linebacker Aaron Kampman said to a group of reporters Sunday. “Your job will be easier this week.”
"Obviously he played a lot of years in Green Bay. Obviously, Minnesota is our fans' No. 1 rival besides the Bears. It's hard to adjust to it. You can't blame them. They were in love with Brett Favre, and he dumped them and went with another chick. They're a little heartbroken."

-- Packers LB Nick Barnett


Ah, indeed it is. Of course, this is not to make light of the more serious feelings of betrayal some Packers fans feel. You didn’t have to look too hard to find that on display at Lambeau Field earlier this month, where fans wore Favre’s No. 4 jersey with the number and/or name covered in duct tape. And I bet this bar in Eau Claire, Wis., isn’t going to be the only place burning Favre paraphernalia this week.

“Obviously he played a lot of years in Green Bay,” Barnett said. “Obviously, Minnesota is our fans’ No. 1 rival besides the Bears. It’s hard to adjust to it. You can’t blame them. They were in love with Brett Favre, and he dumped them and went with another chick. They’re a little heartbroken.”

Canvassing the Packers’ locker room Sunday in St. Louis, I didn’t get the sense there are many players who share the same feelings and/or are angry with Favre. This drama is mostly for us -- fans and media. Receiver Donald Driver, in fact, said: “I still love him and that’s all that matters.”

Of course, I say “mostly.” If there are any lingering hard feelings about last summer, I imagine they reside in the Packers’ front office. The decision to trade Favre, rather than take him back last season, will define not only McCarthy’s career but also that of general manager Ted Thompson.

“No doubt about it,” McCarthy said when asked if he is motivated to beat Favre. “We want to beat the Vikings. We want to beat everybody on the Vikings, Brett Favre included. There is no doubt about that.”

You might say he covets a victory. We’ll all be watching to see who gets it.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD