NFC North: Michael Turner

For months, the NFC North's surest fantasy football bet was that the Chicago Bears would use tailback Michael Bush instead of Matt Forte in goal-line situations. Sure enough, Bush scored a pair of one-yard touchdowns in last Sunday's 41-21 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Forte, meanwhile, did not get a goal-to-go carry in the game.

A minor stir developed when Forte offered this neutral response to what was a completely expected development: "It's happened my whole career here so I don't know. That's the coordinator's call."

We've hit this issue a number of times over the years, but allow me to hammer it home one more time in case there is any confusion. There is an excellent and fact-based explanation for why Bush is -- and should be -- the Bears' goal-line back. As the charts show, Bush quite simply has been much more successful in those situations over his career.

I checked with Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information for some context on their career numbers. Here's what we can say: Since Forte's career began in 2008, he has gotten more goal-to-go opportunities than all but three NFL running backs. His nine career touchdowns over that stretch is the fewest among all backs with at least 50 such carries, as is his ratio of one touchdown for every 9.6 goal-to-go carries.

(The Atlanta Falcons' Michael Turner leads the NFL over that span with 40 goal-to-go touchdowns.)

That tells us Forte has gotten plenty of opportunities to produce on the goal line and hasn't produced the way other comparable backs have. It's a relatively minor pock on an otherwise sterling résumé, nothing more or less, and probably wouldn't be an issue at all were it not for the fantasy implications.

I don't get the sense that Forte is exactly enraged about the situation, and it wouldn't be justified if he were. He still got 16 carries against the Colts, including one from the 6-yard line that he converted into a touchdown in the third quarter. He also caught three passes for 40 yards and got more than twice as many snaps (56) as Bush (25), according to Pro Football Focus.

Whether you're a fantasy owner or a Bears fan or both, that breakdown should be completely acceptable and understandable on all levels. Forte should be the primary back and Bush should have priority on the goal line.

Have at It: Top RB tandems

June, 25, 2011
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I inadvertently left this week's "Have at It" topic a little vague, but I like where you guys and gals took it. In addressing which NFC North tailback combination would finish the 2011 season with the most combined yards, most of you included receiving production -- a smart move considering the expected disparity in this division's offensive schemes.

Along with you, I'm still getting used to our new conversation software. But my sense is that many of you sized up the situation and decided that the Minnesota Vikings' combination of Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart would lead the pack in 2011 from a statistical point.

Peterson put up 1,639 rushing/receiving yards on his own last season, and with an upcoming quarterback transition, it's safe to assume the Vikings will ride him more than ever in 2011. Peterson's total last year, in fact, wasn't much less on a per-game average than the Chicago Bears' tandem of Matt Forte and Chester Taylor (1,952 yards).

"Assuming that [offensive coordinator Bill] Musgrave will build his offense around Peterson, this is a no-brainer," wrote Nabicus. While Peterson and Gerhart will face defenses stacked against the run, wrote dragonkeeper0209, "they have no other choice but to run the ball."

Wocomule52 noted that the Vikings have "perhaps the best running back in the league" who will be "the focal point of their offense" but wondered if Forte/Taylor might finish with more total yards given their roles in Mike Martz's passing offense as well as the Bears' quarterback advantage.

"The Bears have two great pass-catching running backs," wrote wocomule52, and workdaddy1877 added: "I think Lovie [Smith] understands in order for the Bears to be successful Forte needs to touch the ball quite a bit. If Taylor can improve just slightly then I can see the Bears finishing first in total yards. If Forte receives between 300-315 touches (he was at 288 last year) then it will be really close."

Most of all, noted drew_d2, "there is no easy answer." But I thought drew_d2 offered an interesting argument for the Detroit Lions' duo of Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure -- in essence, the Lions will have the top No. 2 back in the division: "Best isn't the best #1 option, but Leshoure is a very good #2 option and might even be better than Best."

Colin3451 thinks Best and Leshoure "could easily turn out to be the best RB tandem" in the division but has a hard time envisioning them as the most productive: "The Vikings will [be], but they'll also have the lowest YPC average. The Bears will have the same problem in YPC. Detroit won't run the ball enough to have the most yards...."

Finally, the Green Bay Packers have a few questions yet to answer about their presumed grouping of Ryan Grant and James Starks. Will Grant be back to his 1,200-yard form? Will it also include free agents Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn? How will rookies Alex Green and Randall Cobb fit in? And how much will coach/playcaller Mike McCarthy actually utilize his running backs?

Jesse.nile had a smart thought in the Packers' favor: "Starks tore it up towards the end of last season and in the postseason. With the addition of Grant this season I see them tearing off huge runs when teams line up in nickel and dime defenses to deal with all the passing threats the Packers have."

My take? I think we hit on a really interesting theme for the 2011 season, whenever it arrives. Who knows? Maybe we'll have to add a "Stomp and Grind" feature to pair with "Air and Space."

As for the matter at hand, I'm presuming the Vikings are going to start rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. Musgrave has some experience in this situation. Three years ago, Musgrave was the Atlanta Falcons' quarterbacks coach. The Falcons started rookie Matt Ryan in Week 1, and in 16 regular season games, they gave tailback Michael Turner a whopping 376 carries. Backup Jerious Norwood had another 95, and together they combined for 2,567 rushing/receiving yards.

I'm not saying Peterson and Gerhart will approach that title, but my guess is Musgrave will do everything he can along those lines. Forte/Taylor are serious candidates for this mystical title, but I'm thinking Martz will balance out his offense more than Musgrave will be able to.

To be continued on a blog near you on the other side of this lockout ...

The intriguing case of Mark Ingram

March, 11, 2011
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Friday is a wild day here in the NFL, which could be headed toward a player lockout within hours. Or there could be an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Or talks could be extended. It's enough to drive anyone toward some crazy talk.

My version: There is no way that Alabama running back Mark Ingram lands in the NFC North.

Is there?

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesWould one of the NFC North teams be willing to take Mark Ingram if he was available?
A few of you have asked whether, say, the Detroit Lions would consider Ingram with the draft's No. 13 overall pick. And if Ingram takes an unexpected slide amid questions about his speed, could the Chicago Bears resist him at No. 29? What about the Green Bay Packers at No. 32?

I realize this isn't a topic on the tip of any NFC North team's tongue right now, but I find Ingram to be a really intriguing prospect at a position that teams take disparate views on. In a passing league, how important is a running back -- especially one who might not have breakaway speed?

Ingram is no secret to anyone after winning the Heisman Trophy in 2009, but there have been some developments that make him a relevant topic this week. Ingram ran his 40 at the scouting combine in a relatively slow 4.62 seconds, but he improved that time to 4.48 during his pro day this week.

Ingram has never been considered a speed-based runner, but Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders Insider used a speed/weight formula to conclude that he is on the far reaches of the scale for most first-round running backs. (FO research shows that combine times are more reliable and more predictive of future success than pro days, according to Barnwell.)

There will almost certainly be a team or two that devalues Ingram for that reason. On the other hand, speed has never been the first thing that draws you to Ingram. He was one of the toughest runners in college football during his career, drawing comparisons to Michael Turner's style more than, say, Chris Johnson's.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, in fact, Ingram gained 42.7 percent of his yards last season (374 of 875) after first contact. If you're an NFL team predicting short- and long-term success, how much do you allow strength and instincts to compensate for speed in the final analysis?

Here's what ESPN analyst Todd McShay Insider wrote this week in reaffirming Ingram's status as the best running back in the draft: "He is a very tough runner who gets stronger as games wear on. He shows the burst to turn the corner on film, his vision and patience are excellent, and he runs with great balance. Those things are enough to make him worthy of a mid-to-late first-round pick regardless of his 40 time."

Which brings us back to the Lions. Would a combination of Jahvid Best and Ingram be too much of a luxury? I have to admit the combination of Best's speed and Ingram's bullish style sounds pretty good to me, especially when you consider Ingram proved to be a pretty solid receiver in college as well. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ingram caught 53 of the 62 passes he was targeted on over the past two years. Of the nine incompletions, only three were recorded as drops. The Lions like to throw to their running backs, and Ingram would fit right in.

Again, most of this is just fun crazy talk. Scouts Inc. ranks Ingram as the No. 17 overall prospect in the draft. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Insider puts him at No. 12. With that said, I don't think the Minnesota Vikings will consider Ingram at No. 12, not with Adrian Peterson on the roster and a year after trading up in the second round to select Toby Gerhart.

With the No. 13 overall pick, the Lions wouldn't necessarily be reaching, but they would be overlooking multiple other positions of greater need. To be clear: I would have no quibbles if they pulled the surprise. Many people consider running backs to be the proverbial "dime a dozen." To me, the decent running backs might be. The really good ones, however, are more difficult to find.

Most draft observers would be stunned if Ingram is still on the board when the Bears or Packers pick in the first round. Neither has an obvious need at the position, although the Packers found out last year how quickly a backfield can be depleted by injury.

No worries. Just giving you a dose of crazy talk on a crazy day.

Then again...

Return to Atlanta: Disrupting Ryan

January, 13, 2011
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In their Week 12 meeting at the Georgia Dome, the Green Bay Packers held the Atlanta Falcons well below their season averages in points (20), yards (294) and first downs (19). Packed within the game, however, was a revealing strategy that directly impacted the Falcons' victory.

Quarterback Matt Ryan threw only four incompletions in the entire game, the result of a concerted attempt to exploit the Packers' short-range defense. Of his 28 attempts, 21 traveled 10 yards or fewer in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. As the chart shows, Ryan was nearly perfect on those passes.

Add those numbers to a powerful performance from tailback Michael Turner, who ran for 110 yards on 23 carries, and you see the Falcons won with a conservative but highly efficient approach. It paid off particularly on their final drive, when Ryan completed four passes -- for a total of 20 yards -- to get in position for Matt Bryant's game-winning 47-yard field goal.

Packers players have expressed disappointment in their tackling during that game, and this week coach Mike McCarthy said "it was clearly one of our worst" tackling efforts of the season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Turner averaged 5.8 yards per carry even when the Packers dropped eight (or more) defenders into the box.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/John BazemoreMatt Ryan had only four incompletions in Atlanta's Week 12 matchup with Green Bay.
"We didn't tackle very well," McCarthy said. "They ran the ball extremely well with their big people on the field. That's something we need to do a better job of."

You could blame the Packers' tackling in that particular game, but overall that has not been a big issue for them this season. So did the Falcons simply overpower them? You could certainly make that argument, at least in the running game. With Turner churning out yards no matter what defensive alignment he faced, Ryan didn't have to take many risks.

"They won last time and were successful doing it," Packers defensive end Ryan Pickett told reporters in Green Bay this week. "You would think they would do something similar. We're looking forward to it. We'll be much better this time than we were last [time]."

It's unrealistic to believe the Falcons will take that exact game plan into Saturday night's affair. All games stand on their own merits. Regardless, it will be interesting to see what Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers will do to prevent Ryan from settling into another comfort zone.

In Week 12, Capers sent at least five pass-rushers on nearly 40 percent of Ryan's dropbacks. But he completed 10 of 12 passes in those situations, and for the season, Ryan threw 14 touchdown passes and only four interceptions when opponents sent extra pressure against him.

We've spent some time this week discussing the balance of the Packers' offense, the carrot fate has dangled in front of them and their past issues with instant replay at the Georgia Dome. But to me, herein lies the Packers' biggest challenge in Saturday night's game. It's hard to imagine them winning if Ryan coolly deals the way he did in Week 12.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel touched on a topic I've always wondered about: To what extent do NFL quarterbacks worry about losing their voice while shouting signals over crowd noise?

As he prepares for Saturday's game at the Georgia Dome, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers acknowledged that it's "something I do think about" but wouldn't elaborate on how he manages his vocal chords.

Even if teams use a silent count at the line of scrimmage, quarterbacks still need to call plays in the huddle and communicate verbally at other points. Rodgers has a 108.1 career passer rating in domes, and so whatever methods he employs seem to have worked.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Rodgers hasn't made a secret of the fact that he likes to play in domes, notes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • The Packers know that Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner is difficult to tackle, writes Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times: "Unless the Seattle Seahawks can figure out a way to bring Qwest Field and its 70,000-plus crowd to Chicago, their chances for a second consecutive colossal playoff upset are infinitesimal." With that said, Mulligan provides a blueprint for how the Seahawks could beat the Bears.
  • Of Bears tailback Chester Taylor, Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune writes: "If there was ever a time for Taylor to regain his swagger, it would be now as the Bears prepare for Sunday's divisional playoff game at Soldier Field."
  • The Tribune's Dan Pompei: "Let's assume the Seahawks don't upset Lovie Smith's Bears on Sunday. Let's assume Pete Carroll and his staff don't outcoach Smith and his. And let's assume the Bears become one of football's final four. How, then, could the Bears not try to sign Smith to a contract extension in the offseason? It would be in the best short term and long term interests of the organization to sign Smith before he went into the final year of his deal."
  • Minnesota Vikings receivers coach George Stewart is drawing interest from the college ranks, according to Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune.
  • Although he is a third alternate this year for the Pro Bowl, Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie thought he had a better season in 2010 than 2009. Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has more.
  • Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "The Lions made 23 changes to their 53-man roster after final cuts this year, but none had more impact than claiming return specialist Stefan Logan off waivers from the Steelers."
Aaron RodgersAP Photo/Rich AddicksAaron Rodgers and the Packers have suffered four losses in the final moments of regulation or in OT.
ATLANTA -- There was a long line for the press box elevator Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome, so a few of us found the nearest stairwell and started our descent toward the Green Bay Packers' locker room. Around and around we went. More than once, I stopped and peered over the railing. When would it stop? When would we find the door?

I'm guessing the Packers were having similar thoughts, for different reasons, after their 20-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Each of their four losses this season has come by three points, twice in overtime and twice on field goals in the final 10 seconds of regulation. Through 12 weeks of the NFL season, the Packers have been a good team that can't find the door that would take them where they want to go.

(For those interested: Yes, I eventually made it to the locker room. And no, I have no plans to grasp for additional metaphors on this fine day.)

"Atlanta made one more play than we did," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We need to do a better job of making one more play than the other team in those close games."

The "one-more-play" explanation is a tired cliché in the NFL, but on this day it applied perfectly to the Packers, who fell to 7-4 and are now a full game behind the Chicago Bears (8-3) in the NFC North. You can put together a nice winning season by overpowering the weaker teams you face. But if your goals extend beyond that, if you want to be a great team that makes a Super Bowl push, you must win the tough games as well. You must accept that one or two poorly-timed mistakes is all it takes to lose a game like this.

Everyone sees things their own way. But for me, this game boiled down to a pair of plays -- two plays between really good teams that have the capacity to win the Super Bowl. There was a goal-line fumble by an otherwise brilliant Aaron Rodgers, and a face-mask penalty against coverage specialist Matt Wilhelm that set up Matt Bryant's winning 47-yard field goal.

I'm sure you could point to other key points in the game, including Michael Turner's fourth-down touchdown run in the fourth quarter and the failure of the Packers to challenge an apparent fourth-down drop by Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez in the second quarter. But wherever your eyes ultimately gaze, the conclusion is the same.

The Packers at times have played as well as anyone in the NFL, most notably during their recent four-game winning streak. But the difference between having the best record in the NFC and the second-best record in NFC North has come down to a total of 12 points.

"The Falcons are a good fundamental team that does the right thing all the time," Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "They're going to try to make the other team make mistakes. They did that and then they also made some big plays on their own."

The game was tied at 3 midway through the second quarter when Rodgers led the Packers from their 15-yard line to a first-and-goal at the Falcons' 2. His first-down pass to fullback Quinn Johnson was high, and on second down, Rodgers audibled into a quarterback draw. But during the process of the ensuing tackle, he took a "funny bone" hit to the elbow.

Rodgers said the elbow was fine, but the hit was impactful enough that the Packers' medical staff examined him on the sideline a few minutes later. Regardless, we all know what that needle sensation feels like, and it's fair to wonder if Rodgers was at full capacity on the next play -- a called quarterback sneak.

Rodgers was holding the ball in his left arm when the ball popped loose. Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton "hit right on the ball," Rodgers said of his first fumble this season. "Inexcusable on my part."

Would Rodgers have maintained possession if he had the ball in his right arm as usual? We'll never know, but these are the kind of micro-questions we have to ask in a close and mostly well-played game between two really good teams.

The same is true for Wilhelm's face mask penalty. The Packers had just tied the game on an epic 90-yard drive, culminating with Rodgers' 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson on fourth down with 56 seconds remaining.

Falcons returner Eric Weems probably should have taken a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, which Mason Crosby drilled four yards into the end zone. Weems took off anyway on a 40-yard return and might have had more had Wilhelm not desperately stuck out his left hand to stop him. The hand landed on Weems' face mask, and Wilhelm instinctively yanked him to the ground.

Had Wilhelm simply made the tackle, or had the Packers covered better, the Falcons would have taken over at their 36-yard line or worse with one timeout remaining. Instead, they gained possession on the Packers' 49-yard line and needed only about 20 yards to get in Bryant's range.

"He had a head full of steam running down the middle of our kickoff coverage," Wilhelm said. "My mind frame is: By any means necessary, get him to the ground. Was it my intention to get him by his face mask? It never is. It happened and you could see just my hand reached out to grab him. ... It just happened."

Look, I'm not blaming Wilhelm or Rodgers for this loss. But to me, those two plays can't happen when you're trying to find that proverbial door. Due in part to Rodgers' fumble, the Packers netted only 17 points on four trips to the red zone. And in a tied game with less than a minute left, Wilhelm significantly reduced the Falcons' level of difficulty.

Usually against really good teams, that's all it takes. Four similar losses in an 11-game span is enough to suggest something is missing here.

"We're into December football now," McCarthy said. "There are no redos and no, 'Hey, we'll get them next weeks.' You have to play big in adversity downs in the game."

The Packers had a couple slipups Sunday and that was all the Falcons needed. The door is out there somewhere for the Packers, but to this point, they're stuck in the stairwell.

Third and one: Bears

October, 19, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

After Chicago’s 21-14 loss at Atlanta, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:
  1. We might never see what linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa could have done in a full season with the Bears. Tinoisamoa re-injured his right knee Sunday night and his availability for the rest of the season could be in doubt, according to ESPN Chicago’s Jeff Dickerson. Normally you would just call for the next man up, but I was pretty impressed with what I saw Sunday night and thought Tinoisamoa could have been a difference-maker this year. Anyone who stands up Atlanta tailback Michael Turner the way Tinoisamoa did in the second quarter deserves serious credit. The Bears can’t be thrilled with their linebacker depth at this point. They now have to hope that Hunter Hillenmeyer (ribs) can return to the lineup quickly so that Nick Roach can move back to his more natural strongside position to replace Tinoisamoa. Although he wasn’t the first NFL middle linebacker to fall for it, Roach got turned around big-time on Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez’s touchdown reception.
  2. Quarterback Jay Cutler played much better against added pressure than he did against Atlanta’s base defense. According to video analysis performed by ESPN Stats & Information, Cutler completed 11 of 14 passes against the Falcons’ blitz for 147 yards and both of his touchdowns. That means both interceptions came against four pass-rushers; overall he completed 16 of 29 passes for 153 yards in those situations. Opposing defensive coordinators, take that paradox for what it’s worth. The best conclusion you can draw is that both interceptions were unforced errors, as they like to say in tennis.
  3. I think you got a pretty good explanation for why the Bears have struggled to get tight end Greg Olsen more involved. There are always multiple defenders around him, whether he’s running a 6-yard drag route or sprinting downfield through the seam. His 41-yard reception in the fourth-quarter was simply an exceptional catch in traffic. No one is going to give Olsen the usual defense against tight ends until one of the Bears’ receivers demands a double team. Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and Johnny Knox have all produced this season, but there’s a big difference between production and requiring extra coverage. Until that point, Olsen is going to be minimized in the downfield game. If you take away his longest two receptions this season (41 and 29 yards), you find that Olsen is averaging 6.2 yards on 85 percent of his catches.

And here is one question I’m still asking:
Why isn’t Matt Forte getting more yardage when defenses are working harder to stop the pass? Chicago’s once-reliable tailback has rushed for 294 yards this season, 121 of which came two weeks ago against Detroit. That means Forte is average 43.2 yards per game against opponents who are not the Lions. With defenses focusing on Cutler, it’s hard to understand why Forte and the Bears aren’t more consistent on the ground. There is definitely an offensive line component to this problem, but Forte hasn’t gotten much yardage on his own, either. Back-to-back fumbles Sunday night suggest he’s starting to press a bit. Unfortunately, the Bears didn’t acquire an every-down alternative following the preseason loss of Kevin Jones.

Getting Forte some help

February, 6, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

There was one other interesting nugget from Larry Mayer's interview with Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner over on ChicagoBears.com. Turner was upfront in acknowledging that he needs to do a better job of spreading the ball among Bears running backs in 2009.

Tailback Matt Forte took 80 percent of the carries Chicago gave to its running backs last season, and his 316 rushes ranked No. 4 in the NFL. When you add in his 63 receptions, Forte actually touched the ball 379 times -- more than all but two players in the league: Minnesota's Adrian Peterson (384) and Atlanta's Michael Turner (382).

Turner specifically said he would like to get Garrett Wolfe more involved in the offense. Here's his full answer when asked if the team will spread the ball out more next season:

"Yes, we will. It's something that we've talked about since the season's been over. Matt Forte is so good that it's hard to take him off the field. But we also know we have to. We want to get him in the neighborhood of 20-25 touches a game. That still leaves plenty of opportunities to get somebody else in there. We definitely know we need to incorporate other people. Garrett Wolfe is a guy we want to do that with. We wanted to do it a little more this past year than what we did. A lot of it has to do with Adrian Peterson. We've got so much confidence in 'AP.' When we take Matt out and put 'AP' in, whether it's a third-down situation, a blitz pickup or all the different things, we know he's going to be in the right place to do the right thing. We just need to develop the same kind of confidence in Garrett and whoever else is in there."

Turner gives himself a little bit of breathing room here, but not too much. Forte's 379 touches last season breaks down to 23.8 per game. That means Turner can shift about three touches per game -- or, 48 over a 16-game season -- and still achieve the goal of getting the ball into Forte's hands at least 20 times per game.

For those who are worried, Forte didn't come close to the vaunted "Curse of 370" statistic popularized by our friends at Football Outsiders. That theory points out that running backs who get 370 or more carries in a season tend to have noticeable production declines in ensuing seasons. But it only counts for carries, not total touches, on the premise that a running play is likely to be more punishing than a pass reception.

Peterson fourth? Really?

January, 2, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson won the NFL rushing title and played on a division-winning team. Nevertheless, I couldn't possibly make an argument for Peterson winning the league MVP award over Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning.

 
 Leon Halip/US Presswire
 Adrian Peterson led the NFL in rushing with 1,760 yards.

Manning plays the more important position of the two, and he was the Colts player most responsible for the team ending the season on a nine-game winning streak.

But Peterson didn't finish second, either. He tied for fourth in the MVP voting. Were there really three players who deserved the award more than he did?

I'm sure some voters looked at the Vikings' season and wondered whether backup quarterback Gus Frerotte had a bigger impact on the team's division title than Peterson. (Frerotte started eight of the Vikings' 10 victories). It's clear that at least a few voters thought Atlanta tailback Michael Turner (four votes) and Miami quarterback Chad Pennington (four) played a bigger role in their teams' success than Peterson.

You can make that argument in choosing Manning over Peterson. Otherwise, it seems Peterson's consistent performance had a mind-numbing effect on voters. Peterson, after all, led the league with 10 100-yard games. He also had 20 runs of at least 20 yards, five more than the next-best performer. Is that type of production simply assumed for him?

Again, I can't advocate Peterson as the MVP. But it's a little surprising to see him finish behind three other players and tied with a fourth (Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison) in the voting.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

ESPN.com is planning a season wrap-up feature for later Monday, so we'll avoid duplication and bag the full complement of our "Three answers" feature. But it probably makes sense to offer an expanded version for playoff-bound Minnesota, which gives us a chance to tie up some loose ends from Sunday's wild events. So without further ado:

After the Vikings' 20-19 victory over the New York Giants, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:

1. Celebrations are for Sunday night and second-guessing is for Monday morning. So it's only fair to point out a pair of end-game facts. (A) At least five Giants starters were on the sideline as the Vikings scored the final 10 points of the game. (B) Placekicker Ryan Longwell bailed out the Vikings from an inexcusable stretch of indecision. Almost 20 seconds ticked off the clock between the time tailback Adrian Peterson was tackled at the 32-yard line and quarterback Tarvaris Jackson finally called a timeout. The Vikings should have called an immediate timeout or let the clock dwindle to 5 seconds or less. Instead, the timeout came at 9 seconds. Longwell jogged onto the field. The Giants called a timeout to ice him. Only then did the Vikings decide to run another play, ensuring that the forthcoming kick would be the game's last play. That move ultimately allowed the Giants to ice Longwell again. Longwell is largely unflappable, but forcing him to sit through three timeouts was unnecessary. The Vikings sideline was in chaos at the time. Coaches were yelling at one another and several players seemed agitated by the turn of events. And for all the Vikings knew, the NFC North was on the line. (In reality, Chicago was losing at Houston). Let this be a lesson for dealing with pressure: Take the simplest path possible. And, for good measure, don't compound the original mistake by trying to run more time off the clock with another play. (Don't forget, the Vikings were out of timeouts. A fumbled snap on the time-decreasing play would have ended the game).

2. Peterson held off Atlanta tailback Michael Turner to win the NFL rushing title, gaining 67 yards on one play and 36 yards on his other 20 carries. Peterson deserves some credit for breaking a 67-yard run at the end of a season in which he carried 363 times. But even a casual observer could notice a hitch in his gait during that run, and there is no doubt he is worn down to some extent. Also worth noting: New York's defense is modeled after the scheme Philadelphia will bring to the Metrodome this weekend. One fact you can rest assured of: Peterson will continue giving maximum effort. That's half the battle.

3. Vikings fans might be a little nervous about the way Jackson played Sunday. He was late with a throw to Bernard Berrian in the end zone, resulting in an interception. He completed deep throws to Berrian and Bobby Wade, but in both cases they were forced to slow down their routes to make the catch. (Wade might have had a touchdown had he caught the ball in stride). Jackson also played a role in the endgame indecision, and overall didn't look as sharp as he has in recent weeks. Some of that can be attributed to the Giants' exotic pass rush package, one that left free blitzers coming at him for much of the game. Jackson better adjust quickly, however, as the Eagles use the same scheme.

And here is one question I'm still asking:

How many NFC teams can you say are flat-out better than the Vikings? I guess this is a roundabout way of asking how far Minnesota might push into the playoffs. The fact is the Vikings defeated the top two seeds (New York and Carolina) and the No. 4 seed (Arizona) during the regular season. No. 5 seed Atlanta beat them, 24-17, on the strength of four takeaways, and the Vikings will get a chance to match up with the sixth-seeded Eagles on Sunday. Playoff games are truly about which team plays better on that given day. But you wonder if the Vikings don't have the capacity to play better than all five of the other NFC seeds.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

We've mostly left the Aaron Rodgers shoulder drama alone this week after the Green Bay quarterback made it through last Sunday's game against Atlanta -- and later said there was no doubt he would start Sunday at Seattle.

Still, it's worth noting that his condition is significant enough to prevent him from throwing during practice Wednesday or Thursday. According to Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Rodgers was sore enough after a rehabilitation session that the team's medical staff decided to delay a plan to have him throw Thursday.

It's possible Rodgers will throw Friday and/or Saturday during practice and his status is not in question for Sunday. But it's significant whenever a starting quarterback is too sore to throw during practice, and Rodgers is wrapping up his second week in that condition. The Packers' bye week is Oct. 26, and it probably couldn't come soon enough.

Continuing through the NFC North on this Friday morning:

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Minnesota linebacker E.J. Henderson's left foot is so swollen that the team's medical staff hasn't been able to fully assess his condition, which includes two dislocated toes. That situation suggested a long-term absence from the lineup, and Saturday the Star Tribune reported Henderson will miss at least a month.

The absence is a huge blow for the Vikings, who consider Henderson a Pro-Bowl caliber linebacker and named him a defensive captain prior to the season. He'll be replaced by second-year player David Herron, but defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said Friday that strong-side linebacker Ben Leber will take most of the playcalls from the sideline.

Surgery is an option for Henderson once the swelling subsides, according to the Star Tribune's Judd Zulgad. In his previous five seasons, Henderson played in 79 of a possible 82 games.

Elsewhere around the NFC North on this fall Saturday:

  • Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, writing in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, says the team "is going to have [its] chances to make plays" Monday night at New Orleans.
  • After observing the week of practice in Green Bay, veteran Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter Pete Dougherty writes: "Aaron Rodgers' chances of playing Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons look shaky at best heading into the weekend because of his injured throwing shoulder." Officially, Rodgers is considered a game-time decision but it appears Matt Flynn will be the first rookie to start at quarterback for the Packers since Don Majkowski in 1987.
  • The Packers expect Atlanta to force-feed the ball to tailback Michael Turner, especially if linebacker A.J. Hawk (groin) is unable to play. Hawk's status is questionable at best, according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and he likely will miss the first game of his NFL career.
  • There have been some rumors that Detroit will trade receiver Roy Williams prior to the Oct. 14 trading deadline, but Williams said Friday he might not fetch the ransom some people think he would. "I don't even know if I'm worth a first-round pick, to be honest," Williams told John Niyo of the Detroit News. "That's what the fans don't understand. I might be a second- or third-round pick."
  • The Lions have moved cornerback Leigh Bodden to the left side, while Brian Kelly and Travis Fisher will hold down the right side. Dave Birkett of the Oakland Press puts the move in perspective.
  • The Chicago Sun-Times gauged reaction to the one-game suspension of defensive tackle Tommie Harris. Most players were not alarmed because they know coach Lovie Smith doesn't have a quick disciplinary trigger. "I don't think anyone's above the law here, no matter who you are," said cornerback Charles Tillman. "[Smith] treats everybody the same, which is a good thing."
  • Brad Biggs of the Sun-Times predicts Tillman (shoulder) will play Sunday at Detroit. Fellow cornerback Nate Vasher, who like Tillman is also listed as questionable, is hopeful he will play.

Lions shake things up

September, 10, 2008
9/10/08
5:10
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The Detroit Lions aren't sitting pat after their embarrassing 34-21 loss Sunday at Atlanta. Several Detroit-area media outlets are reporting that cornerback Travis Fisher and safety Gerald Alexander have been benched for Sunday's game against Green Bay. Leigh Bodden and Daniel Bullocks will replace them, respectively.

The Lions also will use Brandon Middleton as their kickoff returner and insert Manny Ramirez (no relation) at right guard, replacing Stephen Peterman.

As Dave Birkett of the Oakland Press points out, Fisher and Alexander were two of the many Lions defenders who struggled Sunday. Falcons receiver Michael Jenkins beat Fisher for a 62-yard touchdown reception; both Fisher and Alexander missed chances to tackle running back Michael Turner on a 66-yard touchdown run.

There are two ways to go on this one. You can give the Lions coaching staff credit for reacting decisively and demanding accountability. Or you can question Detroit's convictions after pressing the panic button on two summer-long decisions after just one game. We lean toward the former route but will respect those who take the latter one.

Breakdown: NFC North

September, 8, 2008
9/08/08
1:52
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
  • Atlanta 34, Detroit 21

We arrived in lovely Appleton, Wis., in time this afternoon to watch all of the Detroit Lions' opener at a local establishment -- Diet Cokes only.

The Lions were hoping to improve their run defense after ranking No. 23 in the NFL last season. More than likely, they'll finish Week 1 of 2008 ranked last.

If anything, the Lions' run defense looked worse than ever in an embarrassing 34-21 loss at Atlanta. Detroit gave up an astounding 318 yards on the ground, including 220 to tailback Michael Turner. Their linebackers got pushed around and, eventually, sent off the field; Ernie Sims and Paris Lenon both left with injuries at different points of the game.

Worse, Turner and backup Falcons tailback Jerious Norwood (93 yards) looked like they were running much harder than the Lions were hitting. Tackling in the Lions secondary was, shall we say, subpar.

Conventional wisdom suggested the Lions would sell out against the run, forcing rookie quarterback Matt Ryan to beat them. Instead, Turner ran for 117 yards in the first quarter alone and Ryan only had to attempt 13 passes.

An early 21-0 deficit, meanwhile, took the Lions out of their plan to re-focus the offense around their running game. Tailbacks Kevin Smith and Rudi Johnson weren't much of a factor, combining for 62 yards on 19 carries.

You don't want to put too much stock in the season opener, but this performance hardly reflected a team on the cusp. The Lions are trying to be a tougher team this season, and run defense is perhaps the best test of progress in that area. Based on Sunday's performance, you know where the Lions stand.

  • Chicago 29 , Indianapolis 13

Some naysayers questioned whether the Chicago Bears' defense could turn the switch when the regular season began after a pretty unimpressive preseason. The Bears showed they could in Sunday night's victory over Indianapolis, holding the Colts under 300 total yards and scoring nine points on its own.

Lance Briggs' fumble return for a touchdown and Adewale Ogunleye's safety harkened back to the best of the Bears' defense during the 2006 Super Bowl season. This is the way the Bears must win in 2008 as well -- combining big plays and strong leadership from its defense with competent play from the offense.

Kyle Orton and the Bears' offense did not commit a turnover, providing more than enough support for a defensive group that got its act together in a hurry.

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