NFC North: Ray Lewis

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Reviewing the Pro Football Hall of Fame's list of middle linebackers is a sobering experience.

The position is well-represented, but almost all of the enshrinees -- Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert and Willie Lanier among them -- are drawn from a long-gone era of NFL defenses. In fact, former Chicago Bears star Mike Singletary is the only current Hall of Fame middle linebacker whose career started in the past 36 years.

The best case to be made for Brian Urlacher's candidacy, now that he has announced his retirement, is that his career reversed the decades-long decline in the value of the position. Along with the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis, Urlacher modernized middle linebacking by adding speed and regular playmaking to the traditional role of helmet-jarring hits and fierce leadership.

Hall of Fame players can't simply be top performers over a period of NFL seasons. In a competitive environment where ballots are limited to five enshrinees per year, candidates must stand out. Some might be the best players in a generation, but if their position is as undervalued as middle linebacker has been over the past few decades, they also would need to have changed or impacted the game in a unique way.

I think Urlacher did that. It helped that he was drafted by a team that soon moved to a scheme that perfectly fit a middle linebacker who could run like a safety. It also helped that in his best years, Urlacher had some stud defensive tackles in front of him who limited free shots from offensive linemen.

Regardless, the Bears' defense in the Lovie Smith era wouldn't have worked without Urlacher covering the deep third of the field while also holding his own at the line of scrimmage. His ability to get 25 yards downfield, in between chasing runners from sideline to sideline, was a new development for the modern-day middle linebacker.

When Urlacher was sidelined, for 15 games in 2009 and four games last season, the Bears' defense dipped noticeably and obviously, especially against the pass. In the games that Urlacher missed over that stretch, opponents' Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) rose from 39.5 to 60.1 (on a scale of 0-100), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

He is one of four players in NFL history with at least 40 sacks and 20 interceptions in his career, as the chart shows, and he is one of seven players to win the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year award. Of the other six, three are in the Hall of Fame and two others aren't yet eligible.

Urlacher's résumé of sustained elite performances, even after his 2009 wrist injury, and his notable impact on how the game is played merit Hall of Fame enshrinement. How long it will take for him to be elected is almost a silly discussion. We don't know what the backlog will be like in 2018, but there is a pretty strong group of players who will be eligible for the first time alongside Urlacher. The group includes Lewis, Steve Hutchinson, Ronde Barber and perhaps Randy Moss.

Timing, of course, is but a detail. I'm sure there will be plenty of discussion between now and then. But you would think Canton has room for Brian Urlacher. Frankly, he made that space for himself.
An NFC North player had a record-breaking season after adorning the "Madden 13" cover. So let's get serious with this year's process, the "Madden 25" cover vote over on SportsNation.

The contest is in the third round of a process that will conclude in three weeks. Two players with NFC North ties have advanced in the "Old School" vs. "New School" format.

Retired Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders is matched against retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis for a trip to the quarterfinals next week. In the other bracket, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is battling New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to advance.

Your votes, through this link, can help Sanders and/or Peterson advance.

Third-round voting closes Wednesday. I'll do my absolute best to keep you updated.

Pro Bowl: Game no longer relevant

January, 26, 2013
1/26/13
3:00
PM ET

This week, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning offered a direct and impassioned plea to those surrounding him in a Hawaii ballroom. According to Jeff Darlington of the NFL Network, Manning asked players to give better effort in Sunday's Pro Bowl to preserve the long history of the game.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsDetroit's Calvin Johnson joins a long list of stars who will not participate in the Pro Bowl this year.
Of course, the audience Manning spoke to included only one of the five other quarterbacks originally elected to play. Both of the NFC's starting receivers, Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall, were missing after opting out of the game. All five of the NFC's original linebackers were missing, as well. One player who was in attendance, Green Bay Packers center Jeff Saturday, had such a poor season that he was benched with two games remaining in the regular season.

The Pro Bowl as currently constituted is beyond repair, even if Manning's plea leads to a short-term dose of intensity. The selection process is flawed, to say the least, and there will never be a long-term motivation to play hard as long as the risks far outweigh the rewards.

There are plenty of ways to bring together the NFL's best players for a week of postseason honors and entertainment. Attempting to stage a typically violent game, with players selected by highly unscientific measures, isn't one of them.

Instead of a game, why not gather players for a tropical week of (safe) skill and physical challenges that benefit the charity? How about mirroring a reality show to appeal to a broad audience? I would watch Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady compete, "Top Chef" style. And I wouldn't mind finding out whether Justin Smith or Ray Lewis would eat, say, more cockroaches for charity.

While they're at it, why not make the rosters of players more legitimate by tweaking the selection process? Including the kind of analytics that all NFL teams now use to evaluate players would seem a logical shift. The NFL might think it is empowering fans, players and coaches by giving them the full vote each year, but the results annually disappoint and anger those same groups in equal proportions.

There is no reason to preserve something that has run its course. The Pro Bowl is worthwhile as an event, but the centerpiece shouldn't be -- and doesn't need to be -- a game.
As you helped me assemble a list of possible candidates for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award, one name stood out as a chief competitor for Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs not only produced the best season of his already-notable career in 2011, but he also elevated his play to coincide with what could have been a devastating injury to middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

Suggs
Allen
The Ravens won all four games Lewis missed due to a toe injury on the way to an AFC North crown and a 12-4 record. Suggs totaled seven of his 14 sacks in those games. So in all honesty, I would have been sorely tempted to vote for Suggs if I had a vote.

And yes, I haven't forgotten that Allen finished the season with 22 sacks, one short of an NFL record. It was an incredible season, especially when you consider how poorly his teammates played in a 3-13 season.

But fair or not, voters at least take into account the context of a players' performance. Given his impact on the Ravens' playoff run, Suggs got 21 of a possible 50 votes for this award from the Associated Press. Allen was next with 14 votes. That's how it goes sometimes.
Last weekend, I suggested locking up leaders from the NFL and NFL Players Association in the Phantom Zone until they reached a new collective bargaining agreement. C.J. of Milwaukee took me up on a request for better ideas. Check it out, and then follow me to Google to find out what "Room 101" is.
How about putting them both in Room 101 (the torture room) from George Orwell's 1984? If you recall, in that room everyone is forced to face their worst fear -- for Winston Smith in the novel, it was having a cage affixed to his face with hungry rats who'd eat his face if he didn't confess.

"For [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell, it would be having a judge rule the NFL has lost its anti-trust exemption, the players being given unlimited free agency, TV contract money being split 80/20, with the 80 going to the players, and owners being forced to pay back their communities for the stadiums bought and built for them.

"For [NFLPA executive director] DeMaurice Smith, it would be a judge ruling that the players are indentured servants, with no free agency until 8 years have passed, the TV money going 80/20 to the owners, an end to signing bonuses, and players have to clean up the stadiums after games.

"These tortures would go on simultaneously, with the judge sitting in a cage affixed to Goodell's and Smith's face. The judges would be Gilbert Gotfried (for Smith) and Larry the Cable Guy (for Goodell)."

Sounds good to me.

What would your Room 101 be?

And don't say you know mine.

It is NOT an NFL season without Brett Favre.

Really, it's not.

No chance.

I'm always lurking in the mailbag, on Twitter and Facebook.

Onward...

Jordan of Madison noted ESPN.com's ranking of the NFL's top 10 defensive players and writes: I think the people who didn't rank Ndamukong Suh from the Detroit Lions in the top ten defenders couldn't have seen him play. When the season's over, where do you think he'll end up ranked? I'm a hardcore Packers fan and even I think he'll be in contention for DPOY.

Kevin Seifert: Thanks for the question, Jordan. It was my turn this week to write the global Power Rankings post, so I didn't get a chance to address the NFC North angle as much as I would have liked.

Suh appeared on five of the eight ballots, including mine, and finished No. 11 overall and only two points out of the top 10. I thought Suh deserved to be on the list after seeing him play this season. But even if you didn't see him play, you should remember he was one of two first-team All-Pros at his position in the entire league.

I was able to get Suh comfortably on my list because I made a point of valuing pass rushers over pass defenders. For that reason, cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Charles Woodson didn't make my cut, nor did safety Ed Reed. Based on this value system, at least, I can't think of a better alternative than an interior disruptor like Suh who has the skills to finish off plays and end a season with 10-plus sacks.

I imagine the only hesitation among my fellow voters was that Suh has only one year's experience. There is no reason to think his performance will fall off, but some people like to see elite-level production for more than one year. Regardless, I doubt we're having this conversation next year. Suh's skills, and the continuing growth of the Lions' defensive line, makes that a pretty safe bet.


Dave of Minneapolis writes: What is your take on Mayor Coleman's stadium plan? I understand it is not liked by anybody really except St. Paul, but I think it addresses the needs of all of the current stadium issues in the Twin Cities. It seems like the most sensible approach (he sure did put St. Paul in front of everybody else though). The St. Paul Saints need a new facility the most.

Kevin Seifert: It might make sense in theory, but the reality is it's merely political cover and not something that would ever be accepted in the territorial political system of Minnesota. That's why I didn't write much on it this week.

It's true. St. Paul residents would be on the hook for a disproportionate amount of the tax increase that would help pay for the Minnesota Vikings' new stadium. But they would get no direct benefit, considering the stadium would be located 10 miles away in suburban Arden Hills. Coleman figures to face some backlash on that issue, so he had to come up with some kind of response that would demonstrate he was looking out for his constituents.

And to me, that's the main thrust of Coleman's proposal. It shifts the tax burden off St. Paul for the Vikings stadium, instead calling for a state-wide two-cent booze tax. Connecting alcohol and football is funny and perhaps darkly appropriate, but it's totally random from a political sense. Why should someone having a glass of wine be singled out to pay for a football stadium?

More good news if you live in St. Paul: It would create an entertainment monopoly for St. Paul's Xcel Center by shuttering Minneapolis' Target Center. It would also squeeze $27 million money to build a new baseball stadium for the independent St. Paul Saints.

So yes, ending the competition between the Target Center and Xcel Center makes some sense. And there's nothing wrong with building a small baseball stadium for the Saints. But Coleman has to know there is no reality inherent in this proposal.

The biggest problem of the Minneapolis-St. Paul sports market is that it has been developed with total disregard for the big picture and global vision. Coleman's plan is no less territorial, even if it is disguised as a global vision. Similar proposals help explain why the Twin Cities market, which includes the University of Minnesota, has two football stadiums, five basketball/hockey arenas and two outdoor ballparks for baseball. Enough already.


Eric of Minneapolis writes: Has the NFLPA (or leaders of the former NFLPA) told the players to shut up yet? Between Adrian Peterson's "slavery" comments and Ray Lewis' crime spree suggestions, the players are looking like idiots. Granted, they do this a lot, but when they speak to the lockout like this, they rarely help their cause.

Kevin Seifert: I'm pretty sure owners weaved the anticipation of such statements into their lockout strategy. Whenever you have people speaking out of their expertise, which is what football players talking about social issues qualifies as, you're bound to see some outlandish rhetoric revealed.

But I will say I haven't noticed much lasting impact from these incidents. The public isn't turning on players because a few of them have spoken out. Players don't appear to be splintering because a few of them have said embarrassing things. The real focus is on whether the players can stay unified in the face of lost game checks. If players start speaking out on that issue, then they've got trouble.


Via Twitter, @tonymission notes our recent Have at It discussion and wonders why I didn't account for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a debate about which receiver, the Packers' Randall Cobb or the Detroit Lions' Titus Young, would have a more productive rookie season: The Lions aren't exactly an offensive juggernaut. playing W/#12 cant hurt

Kevin Seifert: Limited by 140 characters, my initial response was that there is still only one ball. Whether the Packers are quarterbacked by Rodgers or backup Matt Flynn, Cobb will still be competing with Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and perhaps James Jones for opportunities.

And you might not realize it, but the Lions actually threw 92 more passes than the Packers last season. Typically you throw more when you're losing, but the Lions definitely have a pass-first offense.

There's no doubt the quality of a quarterback impacts the production of a receiver, but the Lions are more proficient and ambitious than you're suggesting.


Earlier this week, we discussed the Chicago Bears as a possible landing spot for soon-to-be-freed receiver Plaxico Burress. In a comment, stan994 wrote: "Though the Bears could use someone of such size to help out their receiving corps, it will never happen. The Bears ownership does not like off-field incidents and Burress has too much of that. They got rid of Tank Johnson due to off-field reasons. They got rid of Cedric Benson for off-field reasons. It is very clear that ownership will not tolerate certain behavior and Burress certainly has crossed those lines."

Kevin Seifert: There are perhaps a half-dozen reasons why Burress to the Bears seems unlikely, and this is one of them. Another is the Bears' seemingly cemented philosophy of avoiding big-name receivers after the failure of free agent acquisition Muhsin Muhammad and the departure of Bernard Berrian.

I'm quite sure the Bears will be tossed into in the public discussion next week when Burress is released. But I agree with stan994. It's hard to envision a scenario where it happens.
Thanks to Matt of Boulder for providing an NFC North angle to the utterly self-absorbed comments that Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis recently made to ESPN's Sal Paolantonio. In case you missed it, Lewis predicted that U.S. crime will rise this autumn if the NFL season is canceled because of a lockout.
Lewis: "Do this research if we don't have a season -- watch how much evil, which we call crime, watch how much crime picks up, if you take away our game ... There's too many people that live through us, people live through us. Yeah, walk in the streets, the way I walk the streets, and I'm not talking about the people you see all the time."

It's true. Crime rates across the country typically decrease in September, which coincides with the start of the NFL season. But according to the FBI, the trend is related to the end of summer weather and school vacations.

[+] EnlargeRay Lewis
Frank Victores/US PresswireRavens linebacker Ray Lewis says crime rates will rise nationally if labor issues cause NFL games to be canceled next season.
Sorry, Ray. There is no doubt the NFL casts a wide net, no matter how you walk the streets, but we're going to need some actual evidence to suggest its absence would unleash evil across the land. Otherwise, you're sadly exaggerating the social importance of the game.

As Matt reminded me, one of the few statistical connections researchers have made between the NFL and crime is that domestic violence rates increase on some NFL Sundays. Specifically, they have been found to spike in the home state of teams that lose either in an upset or in an exceptionally emotional game. As long as we're talking crime, Ray, should we wonder if those incidents would diminish or be eradicated altogether if the NFL season were canceled.

Ray Fisman of Slate.com summarized the findings of a National Bureau of Economic Research study on fan behavior after football games. Between 1995-2006, losses by favored teams on NFL Sundays led to an 8 percent increase in reported incidents of domestic violence. According to the study, the rate is nearly twice as high after games between rivals, and it specifically mentioned annual games between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.

A 2010 case got a little more attention than it probably deserved, but I think most of us remember it: A Wisconsin man arrested for domestic abuse in January 2010 said he was "ornery" as a result of the Packers' 51-45 playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

I don't want this to turn into a "[Insert team name here]'s fans are thugs" discussion. The study took a cross-section of the entire league. As I've noted on some other issues that have cropped up this offseason, it just bugs me when sports celebrities capitalize on their status to promulgate ideas and assertions for which they have no facts to support. Relevant crime data relating to the NFL indicates that, if anything, one particular form of crime rises in connection to games.

I realize it's impossible to have measured the social impact of a lost NFL season. We have no way of knowing how many crimes don't get committed because people were occupied with a full Sunday slate of games. But Lewis' explanation for why crime would increase was, uh, incomplete. "There's nothing else to do," he told Paolantonio. Really? The default weekend activity of unoccupied football fans is to commit crimes?

I was happy to see, in a very unscientific Twitter poll, that few of you bought Lewis' theory. Yes, @VikingsFanPage wrote that "idle hands are the devils workshop" and @seth_stauber joked: "I stole a pack of gum due to the lack of OTAs, he could be on to something."

But @visch12 noted that "we find stuff to do without NFL for 7 months of the season, crime is not one of them," and most of you were aligned with @tgeorge78, who wrote: "I respect him but he's way off. Missing games won't cause people to commit crime, maybe cause them to dislike the NFL." @custymcnoob theorized that "less booze consumed & less gambling = less crime."

Some suggested that, if anything, the players themselves will find their way onto the police blotter with higher frequency. Wrote @DanaLitman: "You thought the players got in trouble with only 1 day off? Wait & see what happens when [they're] not working at all!"

Your two cents? Can't wait to read it.

Fear of the 'Madden Curse'

March, 28, 2011
3/28/11
5:50
PM ET
I've always been the first to admit that I've never paid much attention to "Madden" or any other video game, but I've been surprised at how passionate many of you are about NOT wanting Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers or Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson to win ESPN.com's bracket-style competition for the cover of "Madden 12." Both players have advanced to the second round of the event.

"The Curse" is in your head.

Nevertheless, wrote @TeeJayV via Twitter, "Just no reason to chance it. Keep @AaronRodgers12 off of it!"

Rodgers, for his part, tweeted last week that it is "hard not to want" the Madden cover.

I suppose this will become a bigger issue for us if Rodgers and/or Peterson advance to the finals next month. But courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, via NFC South colleague Pat Yasinskas, here are the basics of the so-called "Madden Curse."
  • Madden 11: Drew Brees: Threw for 4,620 yards but also set a career high with 22 interceptions. Started 16 games despite persistent reports of a knee injury.
  • Madden 10: Troy Polamalu/Larry Fitzgerald: Polamalu only played five games because of knee injuries, Steelers missed playoffs; Fitzgerald wasn’t affected much (97 receptions, 1,092 yards, 13 TDs, Pro Bowl).
  • Madden 9: Brett Favre: Feuded with Packers, traded to Jets, horrible down the stretch (lost 4 of last 5).
  • Madden 8: Vince Young: Missed 1 game with quad injury; led Titans to first playoff appearance in four years.
  • Madden 7: Shaun Alexander: Fractured foot, missed six games; fewer yards and TDs in '06 AND '07 than in '04 OR '05.
  • Madden 6: Donovan McNabb: Sports hernia in first game, missed seven games; feuded with Terrell Owens all year; had been to five straight Pro Bowls, hasn't been since.
  • Madden 5: Ray Lewis: Broke wrist, missed one game; first season without interception; missed 10 games next year with thigh injury.
  • Madden 4: Michael Vick: Fractured fibula one day after video game was released, missed 11 games; Pro Bowl next 2 seasons; obvious issues since then.
  • Madden 3: Marshall Faulk: Ankle injury, missed two games, never rushed for 1,000 yards.
  • Madden 2: Daunte Culpepper: 4-7 record before season-ending knee injury.
  • Madden 2001: Eddie George: Career season, but fumbled in playoffs as top-seeded Titans lost first game to Ravens.
  • Madden 2000: Barry Sanders: Retired one week before training camp.
DALLAS -- He had three sacks after one game, six after two and by the end of Week 5, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews led the NFL with 8.5 sacks. That white-hot start positioned him as the early favorite for defensive player of the year, and we’ll find out later Monday if that momentum was enough to catapult him to the award.

Hamstring and shin injuries contributed to a midseason slowdown, and Matthews finished the season trailing three other players in total sacks. But first impressions are powerful and, in what might be a preview of this year’s voting, The Sporting News last week awarded him its version of the award.

The NFL and Associated Press will announce the official award sometime after 7 p.m. ET on the NFL Network. If The Sporting News voting (right) is any indication, Matthews is competing with two players the Packers will face Sunday in Super Bowl XLV, and if you’re a voting analyst, you might suggest that Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison could take votes away from each other.

Miami Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake will get some attention, as will Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers and Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware -- who actually led the league with 15.5 sacks. But Matthews played at an elite level for most of the season, helping the Packers' defense rank No. 5 overall in the NFL. And although the voting took place before the playoffs began, Matthews’ most recent tear -- he has 3.5 sacks in the playoffs – validates the suggestion that since-healed injuries played a role in his fall-off during the second half of the season.

I don’t think anyone could protest if Polamalu or even Harrison wins the award, but anecdotal evidence suggests Matthews is the front-runner. It would be the second consecutive year a Packers player has won the award; cornerback Charles Woodson received it in 2009. For those who have asked, a team has produced at least two consecutive DPOY award on three other occasions -- most recently the Baltimore Ravens in 2003 (linebacker Ray Lewis) and 2004 (safety Ed Reed).

We’ll keep you updated.

Earlier: ESPN.com columnist Rick Reilly offers a much more, uh, pleasant profile of Matthews than he did of the last NFC North player he wrote about.
Wow. If nothing else, this week's "Have at It" produced a preview of the, er, heightened tensions we could face in two weeks if the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears meet in the NFC Championship Game. We started by discussing options for the Bears' divisional playoff matchup, but 650-plus comments later, you were cyber-bashing each other over the heads with 2-by-4s.

Based on this weekend's results, the Bears will host either the Philadelphia Eagles, the New Orleans Saints or the Seattle Seahawks. Erhancoc quipped: "This is like asking if I'd rather fight Brian Urlacher, Ray Lewis, or Dustin Diamond."

(Be careful, erhancoc. Didn't you see Screech beat the living daylights out of Horshack in Celebrity Boxing a few years ago?)

Anyhoo....

I was surprised at how many of you preferred a matchup with the Saints. (Maybe you were just sabotaging Packers fans in disguise. I don't know.) It's true that the Saints have lost their past three games at Soldier Field, having last won there in 2000, but they still are the defending Super Bowl champion and finished this season with seven victories in their final nine games.

But MIBearfan1 was among many who suggested that Soldier Field's grass playing surface -- the "cow pasture," as TDBuddah put it -- would neutralize the Saints' speed-based team.

"They are a dome team," wrote MIBearfan1. "And they don't do well outside in December."

Wrote kevin_gilmartin: "The Sean Payton Saints have never won at Soldier Field and it would be great to have a reminder of the 2006 season, when the Bears beat the Saints in the NFC championship game."

Most of you presumed the 7-9 Seahawks have no realistic chance of beating the Saints, even though the game will be played at Qwest Field. (Interestingly, the Saints are 6-2 on the road this season.)

The Seahawks would be "obviously the best match-up" for the Bears, wrote xpaul12001, one of many who doubt the Seahawks could win at Soldier Field for the second time this year. "I doubt the Seahawks advance," wrote natesweet72. "Not really much point in hoping for them."

Tearloch wasn't so sure: "I think the SeaChickens may actually give NO a run this weekend. The west coast games are always tough for east coast teams. Qwest is a pretty loud stadium, and the SeaChickens may get overlooked."

That brings us to the Eagles, whom the Bears defeated 31-26 in Week 12. NuttBoxer watched the Eagles' sputtering finish to the regular season and wrote: "I became Philly's biggest fan when they lost to the Vikings, and that will continue. I'd MUCH rather take our chances with Andy Reid and the Eagles than face the defending SB champs."

(As an aside, I'm always amused by discussions about Reid and his teams' playoff performances. Since 1999, the Eagles are 10-7 in the playoffs.)

The Eagles would have to defeat the Packers to play next week at Soldier Field, a formula that was good enough for tmonson78: "Bring on the Eagles."

Vikes_Mike suggested that the Bears' long-term interests are best served by the Eagles eliminating the Packers: "If I'm a Bears fan, I really don't want to face the Packers in the playoffs if I can help it. (I'm sure many Bears fans would disagree, but few teams are going to be built for the cold of Soldier Field like the Packers, and they've already seen you twice this season, so they will have a very good idea of your capabilities.)"

My take? I have a strange feeling about that Seahawks-Saints game. I'm no expert on the situation in Seattle, but my NFC West colleague Mike Sando is. And if you've read his blog this week, you saw more than a few indications the stars are aligning for an upset.

Still, I see the core of this argument revolving around the Packers-Eagles game.

Do the Bears have a better chance to get to the Super Bowl with this path: Eagles-Falcons/Saints/Seahawks?

Or Seahawks/Saints-Packers/Falcons?

That's a tough one.

The Eagles didn't finish particularly strong, but a win over the Packers would suggest they are back on track. So if I'm the Bears, I prefer to see the Eagles eliminated and take my chances against either the Seahawks or a Saints team that wouldn't have proved much by winning in Seattle. (Like how I have it both ways there?)

I would know full well that the Packers are capable of winning in Atlanta -- they nearly did so in the regular season -- but would more than welcome the tradeoff of playing them in the NFC Championship Game if it meant staying at Soldier Field another week. And if the Packers beat the Eagles and then lose to the Falcons, sending the title game to the Georgia Dome? I think the Bears have a better chance of beating the Seahawks or Saints than a presumably rejuvenated Eagles team. It won't matter who or where they might play the NFC Championship Game if they don't get out of the division round. Thanks for playing this week.

NFC North Hall of Fame debate

July, 5, 2010
7/05/10
12:00
PM ET
A weeklong look at current or former players or coaches with Hall of Fame potential in the division.

Chicago Bears: Brian Urlacher, middle linebacker

Claim to fame: Since joining the Bears in 2000, Urlacher has made six Pro Bowl teams and been named an All-Pro four times. He was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2005.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher
Tom Fluegge/US PresswireExtraordinarily athletic for a linebacker, Brian Urlacher has recorded 17 interceptions and 37.5 sacks in his career.
Case for enshrinement: Urlacher was the best player on a defense that dominated the league during the middle years of this decade, one that overcame the Bears’ offensive woes and led them to the Super Bowl in 2006. As a middle linebacker in the Tampa 2 scheme, Urlacher carried as much responsibility as any defensive player in the game -- calling defensive signals, chasing down ball carriers and covering the deep middle of the field during pass plays.

In that role, Urlacher has been an athletic playmaker unmatched in his prime, notching 17 interceptions and 37.5 sacks, while getting downfield faster than any linebacker in the game.

Case against enshrinement: Injuries have slowed Urlacher in the past three seasons and he might not have compiled enough Canton-caliber seasons before that point. Detractors also could suggest he benefited disproportionately from the play of defensive tackles Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson, who kept blockers away from Urlacher more often than not. Hall Of Fame voters haven’t been kind to even the best of Bears defenders. Mike Singletary and Dan Hampton are the only Chicago defensive stars from the 1985 Super Bowl team in Canton. Their teammate Richard Dent is now a six-time finalist for Hall of Fame induction but still is waiting for his official invite.

Parting shot: As we noted last fall, Urlacher might not stand as the best linebacker of his era. Ray Lewis, Junior Seau and Derrick Brooks might have something to say about that.

Detroit Lions: Billy Sims, running back

Claim to fame: He was a dominant runner during the early 1980s. Sims became the Lions’ all-time leading rusher even though a knee injury ended his career after 4 1/2 years. (Barry Sanders later overtook him.) Sims was a three-time Pro Bowl player, still ranks as the Lions’ No. 2 rusher, and has the second-most rushing touchdowns in team history.

Case for enshrinement: It’s obviously a long shot, but it’s important to remember how brightly Sims’ star shined during his brief career. He rushed for 153 yards in his first NFL game, led the league with 16 touchdowns as a rookie and finished his career with 5,106 yards in 60 career games.

His career ended midway through the 1984 season, at a time when he was averaging a career-high 5.3 yards per rush. There is precedent for acknowledging Hall-worthy careers cut short by injuries. Did you know that Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, forced to retire at age 28, gained fewer career rushing yards (4,956) than Sims in more games (68)?

Case against enshrinement: Sayers was a special case who was also a dangerous return man. In reality, it’s difficult for voters to consider a running back who ranks No. 106 on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. But Sims was one of the NFL’s top players during the time he spent in the game.

Parting shot: Sims’ impact on the team also should be considered. The Lions were 2-14 the year before he was drafted. In 1980, they improved to 9-7. By 1983, they were division champions.

Green Bay Packers: Jerry Kramer, guard

[+] EnlargeKramer
David Boss/US PresswireThe Packers won three NFL Championships and two Super Bowls during Jerry Kramer's career.
Claim to fame: During an 11-season career from 1958-68, Kramer was a five-time All-Pro. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s and was the only guard selected for the NFL’s 50th Anniversary team. Every other player on that team has been enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Case for enshrinement: As with most successful offensive linemen, most of Kramer’s contributions came in a team context.

During his tenure, the Packers rushed for 21,637 yards -- the second-highest total among all NFL teams over that period. Kramer’s blocking was one of the reasons fullback Jim Taylor posted five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Over that stretch, Taylor rushed for more yards than anyone but Cleveland’s Jim Brown. Overall, the Packers made the playoffs eight times in Kramer’s career and won three NFL Championships and two Super Bowls.

Case against enshrinement: Guard isn't usually a highly valued position. In the history of the game, only 11 players who were primarily guards have made the Hall of Fame.

Voters could also be split on the source of the Packers’ running success, from Vince Lombardi’s coaching to the individual talents of Taylor and running back Paul Hornung.

Parting shot: Kramer made one of the most famous blocks in history, clearing the way for Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak to win the 1967 “Ice Bowl” game.

Minnesota Vikings: Jim Marshall, defensive end

Claim to fame: Marshall set a then-NFL record by playing in 282 consecutive games, of which he started 270. He played in two Pro Bowls, four Super Bowls and recovered an NFL-record 29 fumbles.

Case for enshrinement: If “answering the bell” is one of the main prerequisites for NFL players, then Jim Marshall is one of the greatest of all time. Although some of the stories have been embellished a bit over time, suffice it to say that Marshall battled through enormous pain and legitimate injuries to play for so long and at such a high level.

A punter (Jeff Feagles) and a quarterback (Brett Favre) have since surpassed his record, but it’s doubtful a defensive lineman ever will approach it. It would take 17 seasons of starting 16 games to do it. (Or 15 years if the NFL moves to an 18-game season.)

The longevity mark sometimes overshadows Marshall’s skills as a pass-rusher. Although sacks weren’t an official statistic then, the Vikings credit him with 127 -- only three fewer than teammate and Hall of Fame tackle Alan Page and 13 more than newly elected tackle John Randle.

Case against enshrinement: Like it or not, one of those 29 fumble recoveries always will haunt Marshall’s candidacy. In 1964, he picked up a fumble against San Francisco and ran 66 yards in the wrong direction for what was ruled a safety.

Parting shot: Another factor that might not be fair but is worth considering: Two members of the Purple People Eaters, Page and Eller, are already in the Hall of Fame. Would voters agree that 75 percent of one defensive line should be enshrined?

More Rewind'09: Weekend mailbag

January, 9, 2010
1/09/10
10:00
AM ET
Wow. We just wrapped up one of the busiest weeks in the NFC North in some time. I felt like I was writing all day, every day. We had two teams headed to the playoffs, a third planning to swap out two coordinators and a fourth making some news late in the week.

It all happened while we were trying to put a bow on some of our central themes of the season, including Brett Favre’s impact on Minnesota, the changing face of NFC North offenses and the development of young tight ends within the division. Let’s continue that wrap-up, using questions from the mailbag and Facebook. (You can also send questions and thoughts to me via Twitter.)

Let’s get to it:

Kyle of West Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Early in the preseason, there was a discussion between you and the AFC North blogger about which division would come out on top between the two. I was wondering if you could revisit that discussion!

Kevin Seifert: Great idea Kyle! I presume you’re talking about this post from July. I offered seven points on the AFC North–NFC North matchup.

First, we should count up the record and realize the 16 games between the four teams were split down the middle. Each division went 8-8 against the other. Let’s look at the breakdown, naturally from an NFC North perspective:

Minnesota (3-1): Beat Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati. Lost to Pittsburgh.
Green Bay (2-2): Beat Baltimore and Cleveland. Lost to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Chicago (2-2): Beat Pittsburgh, Cleveland. Lost to Cincinnati, Baltimore.
Detroit (1-3): Beat Cleveland. Lost to Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Now, let’s look at the seven points I made at the time and reconcile them with the facts.

I wrote then: Detroit was 0-16 last season, but its new coach went 4-0 against the AFC North in his previous job. As the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, Jim Schwartz helped the Titans defeat Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Included in that run was a 31-14 late-December shellacking of the Steelers. Schwartz's new team is in a much different place than the Titans were last season, but it's a rare advantage to have seen all four interconference opponents the previous season. The Lions can use every edge they can find.

I see now: The Lions won only one of the four, but it’s worth noting they were relatively close against the Steelers (28-20) and Bengals (23-13) before getting crushed by the Ravens (48-3).


I wrote then: Who will have the last laugh between Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson (Oct. 18)? As you might recall, Peterson said at the Pro Bowl that he wanted to gain 12 pounds during the offseason. "I don't think too many guys would be excited to see me at 230 two times a year," Peterson said. But his father told USA Today last month that a group of veterans -- including Lewis -- "set up" his son, hoping to convince him to make a change that ultimately would slow him down. Let's see if Peterson, who by all accounts will remain close to his playing weight of 217 pounds, returns the favor.

I see now: Peterson ran for 143 yards on 22 carries in the Vikings' 33-31 victory. Case closed.


I wrote then: The AFC North boasts two of the game's best pass-rushing linebackers in Pittsburgh's James Harrison (16 sacks in 2008) and Baltimore's Terrell Suggs (eight). You never know exactly where outside linebackers will line up in a 3-4 defense, but I'm guessing they'll find their way toward the NFC North's host of young right tackles. Chicago (Chris Williams), Minnesota (Phil Loadholt) and Green Bay (Allen Barbre or T.J. Lang) are all expected to have new starters at the position -- and Detroit's Gosder Cherilus is entering his first full season as a starter. Defensive coordinators would be remiss not to test all four spots.

I see now: I don’t have the breakdown of where he was lined up, but I can tell you that Harrison had five of his 10 sacks this season against NFC North opponents. Three came against the Lions and two against the Vikings. Suggs, limited by injuries this season, did not have a sack against the NFC North.


I wrote then: This season will be a referendum on whether Orlando Pace can still play left tackle in the NFL. During the free-agent period, Baltimore heavily courted Pace but wanted him to move to right tackle so that youngster Jared Gaither could continue his development on the left side. Pace, however, wanted to maintain his traditional position and ultimately signed with Chicago. The Ravens have installed rookie Michael Oher as their new right tackle and suddenly have a raw set of tackles. We'll soon find out if Pace can give the Bears a full year at left tackle, or whether the Ravens were right to hold firm on youth.

I see now: The Ravens won on this decision. Pace was ineffective for most of the season before being sidelined by a leg injury. Even after he returned to health, the Bears respectfully left him on the bench. Oher, meanwhile, was one of the NFL’s best rookies this season.


I wrote then: To the extent that practicing against a 3-4 defense helps in game preparation, Green Bay should have a clear advantage over its NFC North rivals. The Packers' offense spent all spring practicing against its 3-4 scheme and won't face that choppy in-season transition when preparing for the Steelers, Ravens and Browns. This is becoming less of an issue every year as more NFL teams return to the 3-4 -- the total is expected to be 13 in 2009 -- but familiarity can only help the Packers in this vein.

I see now: The Packers finished 2-1 against AFC North teams that run a 3-4, beating the Ravens and Browns while losing to the Steelers.


I wrote then: The Bears, Packers and Lions all are working hard to improve their weak pass rush. Two AFC North teams -- Cincinnati and Pittsburgh -- are hoping to shore up their pass protection. Which teams can make quicker enhancements? You might know that the Bengals gave up the NFL's third-most sacks last season (51). But it might have escaped you that the Steelers were right behind them with 49 sacks allowed. It almost goes without saying that the best way to stop the Bengals' Carson Palmer and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is to keep them from throwing the ball.

I see now: The Bears had no sacks against the Bengals and two against the Steelers. The Packers had two and five, respectively. The Lions had two and three.


I wrote then: AFC North teams like to think of themselves the same way we do here in the Black and Blue, as hard-nosed, bad-weather running teams. Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are two of the best run-stoppers in the game, and there's a little stretch of the season where they would be particularly missed should their NFL suspensions kick in. (Such a scenario would require a prolonged but ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge to their NFL discipline.) The Vikings play Baltimore and Pittsburgh in consecutive October weeks (Oct. 18 against the Ravens and Oct. 25 at Pittsburgh). That makes for two old-fashioned football matchups -- if the Williams Wall is on the field.

I see now: With both members of the Williams Wall on the field, the Vikings gave up 81 rushing yards to the Ravens and 107 to the Steelers. Neither total figured in the outcome of either game.


I wrote then: Who benefits most? In some ways, this schedule ensures that each NFC North team will be playing 10 divisional games this season. There are many similarities between the general styles of the Black and Blue and AFC North. Minnesota's defense should match the intensity of the physical offenses of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Green Bay's offense shouldn't be surprised by the 3-4 defense, but its own defense won't have the advantage of surprise, either. It's too early to make specific predictions, but it's safe to say that whoever has the divisional advantage in the NFC North will also fare best against the AFC North.

I see then: The Vikings won the NFC North and also had the best record against the AFC North. Ding-ding-ding!


Robert of Oostburg Wis., writes: Hello. Dom Capers was not the first choice for defensive coordinator for the Packers last offseason. Could you compare the job he got done this year with the few others that got away. I think the Packers got the steal of the year.

Kevin Seifert: You’re right. The Packers interviewed several candidates who ultimately went elsewhere, including Mike Nolan (Denver) and Gregg Williams (New Orleans). The Broncos defense finished the season ranked No. 7 in the NFL. The Saints finished No. 27, but Williams scheme did create the second-most turnovers in the NFL and played a big role in the Saints’ hot start.

That said, I don’t think there’s any doubt Capers’ defense had the best season of that group. Capers is well known for making an immediate impact, and that’s exactly what the Packers got this season.


Keith writes: Is there a more natural way to make Week 17 more competitive than to seed teams based on overall record? Arizona surely would've showed up last week.

Kevin Seifert: I wish there were, Keith. To date, I haven’t heard or thought of any that make sense.

Awarding teams draft picks to continue playing their starters seems counterintuitive. Would a sixth- or seventh-round pick be enough to risk the health of a key player? I don’t think so. And what would it say about the league that it must reward teams for competing?

Penalizing teams for sitting starters is also problematic. The decision can have too much gray area. How long would the player have to be on the field? What would prevent him from leaving because of “tightness?” or some other nebulous injury?

Weighing playoff seedings disproportionally based on late-season record doesn’t fly with me, either. Shouldn’t every game count the same?

Ultimately, I think the NFL should be patient and see what happens to Indianapolis, especially, this postseason. It’s a copycat league. If the Colts are bounced early from the playoffs, you can bet future coaches in the same position would think twice about benching starters.


Jonathan writes via Facebook: So....when do we find out that Woodson won DPOY?

Kevin Seifert: The Associated Press will announce the Defensive Player of the Year Award next Wednesday, Jan. 13. That’s when we’ll find out if Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson won it.

Third and one: Vikings

October, 19, 2009
10/19/09
10:40
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

After Minnesota’s 33-31 victory Sunday over Baltimore, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:
  1. In trying to convey the chance nature of this victory, I glossed over the career-changing performance of receiver Sidney Rice. His 58-yard reception in the fourth quarter not only set up the eventual game-winning field goal, but it also gave him the first 100-yard receiving game of his career. Rice has developed an indisputable connection with quarterback Brett Favre; on the 58-yard reception, he adjusted a 12-yard comeback route into a straight go route. Favre followed Rice’s thinking and was rewarded for giving him a chance to make the catch in traffic. With a 6-foot-4 frame and a near 50-inch vertical leap, Rice makes it extraordinarily difficult for cornerbacks to beat him to the ball. Once pigeon-holed as a red zone specialist, Rice has now emerged as an all-field threat.
  2. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe has 12 touchdowns since the start of the 2008 season, second only to Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez (13) over that span. But if Minnesota had its way, his 1-yard scoring reception Sunday would never have happened. The Vikings had the wrong personnel on the field for the formation, according to Favre, and coach Brad Childress tried to call a timeout. Fullback Naufahu Tahi, for one, had never been used in the play before. But Favre pushed on and ran the play anyway. “I knew by [Tahi’s] look that he had no clue,” Favre said. “He hadn’t run that play. You just have to be able to adapt sometimes. I thought we did a good job at it. … I feel real confident with our guys that we can do things like that.”
  3. Runs of 26 and 58 yards helped tailback Adrian Peterson to his first 100-yard game since opening weekend, an especially impressive statistic considering the opponent. Yes, the Ravens had allowed 127 yards to Cincinnati’s Cedric Benson a week before. But Peterson’s 143 yards Sunday were an 11-year high against a Ray Lewis defense, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Lewis has missed some games over his career, but the last time he played in a game in which an opposing runner had a better day was in 1998, when Chicago’s James Allen rushed for 163 yards.

And here’s one question I’m still asking:
What’s the prognosis for cornerback Antoine Winfield? The Vikings’ top cornerback left Sunday’s game in the first half and did not return. The injury was first reported to be a turf toe, but Winfield said afterward it was an injury “to the top of my foot.” He lobbied to return to the game, but the Vikings considered it significant enough to keep him on the sideline even with Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco on his way to a 244-yard second half. The Ravens often targeted Winfield’s replacement, Karl Paymah, as the Vikings decided to keep Benny Sapp in the nickel position. Few teams have a suitable replacement for a No. 1 cornerback, but I think you got a pretty good picture of how important Winfield is to the Vikings’ pass defense after he departed.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert


I appreciated the (mostly) civil discussion we had this week in discussing whether Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher has put together the framework of a Hall of Fame career. We’ve had a period here of heightened emotion, so I’m glad we could all come together and play nice.
Kevin Hoffman/US Presswire
Brian Urlacher needs a few more productive seasons to bolster his case for the Hall of Fame.

Short of tallying all of your 220-plus responses, my sense was that more people fell into the “maybe” and “no” category than those who answered with a straight “yes.”

ShimmitySham has Urlacher in his “hall of really good.” Tazhawkeye, who identifies himself as a Bears fan, writes: “Not yet.” He continued:
“Did Urlacher change the position? Yes, he was fast and changed the middle linebacker from a pure hitter to an all around defender. Did Urlacher dominate? Yes, for a few seasons. Are there players in his generation who did the same thing and dominate longer? Yes, Ray Lewis. Urlacher will need to make the Pro Bowl one more time and have 2 [more] healthy years in the NFL. Two more years will bring his total to 170 games played. One more Pro Bowl will bring his total to 7. By being able to come back, he will be able to say his career was sidetracked by injuries, but he was good enough to dominate ‘till the end. Right now, he is competing with Ray Lewis.”

Many of you brought up the Lewis comparison, noting he has played at a higher level for a longer period of time. (In particular: 10 Pro Bowl selections, six All-Pro teams, two NFL Defensive POY awards and one Super Bowl ring.) So if one criteria is dominating an era, wouldn’t Lewis overshadow Urlacher? Here’s what kyleuofcummings wrote: “When you ask a random football fan the most feared presence in the middle in the recent era it is sure to be Ray Lewis,”

Some of you believe Urlacher was well on his way to enshrinement before his play began to slip recently. Mohktal wrote: “In his first six years, I'd say he was definitely on his way to Canton. Especially his 2006 year. He was an absolute force that year. He was everywhere on the field, and when he tackled, you could tell the other guy woke up a little more. The past 3 seasons (plus his washout 2009) he hasn't even been the best LB on his team, let alone one of the top in the league.”

Of the loyalist arguments, I thought Andrew Sturtevant made the most detailed presentation. He pointed to three “shining examples” to define Urlacher’s body of work:
  1. The Bears’ 2006 game at Arizona.
  2. His performances in 2001 and 2005, when “he led a team to those great regular seasons without the help of a quarterback.” Andrew noted the Bears were among the top two defenses in the league those seasons.
  3. The 2006 NFC Championship Game against New Orleans: “I single out that game because after Reggie Bush did his flip in the end zone, the defense did not allow another score the rest of the game. Again Brian Urlacher was the face of that defense.”
My take? We should be careful to avoid speaking of Urlacher’s career in the past tense. There’s every reason to believe he’ll be back in 2010, and there’s no reason why he can’t string together several more successful years. Whether or not he returns, however, I’m not sure if his run from 2000 to 2006 is going to be enough to get him to Canton.

Brian Urlacher
#54 LB
Chicago Bears

CAREER STATS
TACK SOLO SACK FF INT
1,058 804 37.5 8 17

You can’t evaluate Hall of Fame prospects in a vacuum. You always have to consider qualifications relative to other players in similar positions in his era. So Urlacher will be compared not only to Lewis, but also to Derrick Brooks and Junior Seau, among others.

Certainly, that group played different positions in different schemes. But when you look at the list of 19 linebackers in the Hall of Fame, you realize only a handful have been enshrined from each generation. From the 1980s, you see Mike Singletary, Lawrence Taylor and Andre Tippett. From the 1990’s, you see Derrick Thomas (so far).

Personally, I think Lewis is the lock of this generation. (I’m not touching his past legal situation here.) That leaves Urlacher “competing” with Brooks and Seau. It’s not out of the question, but I’d say that dynamic is one of the reasons Urlacher is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Division matchups rightly carry pre-eminent importance in every team's schedule. But never underestimate the importance of the interconference schedule -- those four common AFC opponents each NFC North team finds on its schedule every season.

Interconference Matchups
A rundown of seven observations on each division's interconference games:

Tuesday: AFC North vs. NFC North
Wednesday: AFC East vs. NFC South
Thursday: AFC West vs. NFC East

Friday: AFC South vs. NFC West

Last year, Chicago would have earned a playoff spot had it won its final game against the AFC South. Instead, the Bears lost 31-24 to Houston and fell short in the wild-card race. In 2007, Green Bay's division-winning 13-3 record included a 4-0 record against the AFC West. (Second-place Minnesota finished 2-2.)

The Black and Blue has a tough task ahead in 2009, taking on the division that housed two of the NFL's best teams last season in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. So let's take an early look at some of the themes that should develop this season against the (supposedly) rough-and-tumble AFC North and how they might impact the division race in these parts.

1. Detroit was 0-16 last season, but its new coach went 4-0 against the AFC North in his previous job. As the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, Jim Schwartz helped the Titans defeat Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Included in that run was a 31-14 late-December shellacking of the Steelers. Schwartz's new team is in a much different place than the Titans were last season, but it's a rare advantage to have seen all four interconference opponents the previous season. The Lions can use every edge they can find.

 
  Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMI
  Minnesota's Adrian Peterson will have a bone to pick with Baltimore's Ray Lewis when they meet on Oct. 18.
2. Who will have the last laugh between Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson (Oct. 18)? As you might recall, Peterson said at the Pro Bowl that he wanted to gain 12 pounds during the offseason. "I don't think too many guys would be excited to see me at 230 two times a year," Peterson said. But his father told USA Today last month that a group of veterans -- including Lewis -- "set up" his son, hoping to convince him to make a change that ultimately would slow him down. Let's see if Peterson, who by all accounts will remain close to his playing weight of 217 pounds, returns the favor.

3. The AFC North boasts two of the game's best pass-rushing linebackers in Pittsburgh's James Harrison (16 sacks in 2008) and Baltimore's Terrell Suggs (eight). You never know exactly where outside linebackers will line up in a 3-4 defense, but I'm guessing they'll find their way toward the NFC North's host of young right tackles. Chicago (Chris Williams), Minnesota (Phil Loadholt) and Green Bay (Allen Barbre or T.J. Lang) are all expected to have new starters at the position -- and Detroit's Gosder Cherilus is entering his first full season as a starter. Defensive coordinators would be remiss not to test all four spots.

4. This season will be a referendum on whether Orlando Pace can still play left tackle in the NFL. During the free-agent period, Baltimore heavily courted Pace but wanted him to move to right tackle so that youngster Jared Gaither could continue his development on the left side. Pace, however, wanted to maintain his traditional position and ultimately signed with Chicago. The Ravens have installed rookie Michael Oher as their new right tackle and suddenly have a raw set of tackles. We'll soon find out if Pace can give the Bears a full year at left tackle, or whether the Ravens were right to hold firm on youth.

5. To the extent that practicing against a 3-4 defense helps in game preparation, Green Bay should have a clear advantage over its NFC North rivals. The Packers' offense spent all spring practicing against its 3-4 scheme and won't face that choppy in-season transition when preparing for the Steelers, Ravens and Browns. This is becoming less of an issue every year as more NFL teams return to the 3-4 -- the total is expected to be 13 in 2009 -- but familiarity can only help the Packers in this vein.

2009 team schedules: NFC North
Chicago Bears
Detroit Lions
Green Bay Packers
Minnesota Vikings
6. The Bears, Packers and Lions all are working hard to improve their weak pass rush. Two AFC North teams -- Cincinnati and Pittsburgh -- are hoping to shore up their pass protection. Which teams can make quicker enhancements? You might know that the Bengals gave up the NFL's third-most sacks last season (51). But it might have escaped you that the Steelers were right behind them with 49 sacks allowed. It almost goes without saying that the best way to stop the Bengals' Carson Palmer and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is to keep them from throwing the ball.

7. AFC North teams like to think of themselves the same way we do here in the Black and Blue, as hard-nosed, bad-weather running teams. Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are two of the best run-stoppers in the game, and there's a little stretch of the season where they would be particularly missed should their NFL suspensions kick in. (Such a scenario would require a prolonged but ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge to their NFL discipline.) The Vikings play Baltimore and Pittsburgh in consecutive October weeks (Oct. 18 against the Ravens and Oct. 25 at Pittsburgh). That makes for two old-fashioned football matchups -- if the Williams Wall is on the field.

Who benefits most?
In some ways, this schedule ensures that each NFC North team will be playing 10 divisional games this season. There are many similarities between the general styles of the Black and Blue and AFC North. Minnesota's defense should match the intensity of the physical offenses of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Green Bay's offense shouldn't be surprised by the 3-4 defense, but its own defense won't have the advantage of surprise, either. It's too early to make specific predictions, but it's safe to say that whoever has the divisional advantage in the NFC North will also fare best against the AFC North.

Weekend mailbag, Part I

March, 14, 2009
3/14/09
12:00
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

For your peace of mind, I've separated this week's mailbag into two categories. You'll see "Objections to the Matthew Stafford/ESPN Research post" on Sunday. Today is "All Others."

Jessie of Sacramento writes: I'm a lions fan who has the opinion that we should draft matthew stafford. however, many of my fellow lions fans believe aaron curry should be the pick. now while i know he's going to be a stud in the NFL, his contract may be too large to be drafted at number 1. if he gets number 1 money, he will be instantly the highest paid LB in the league. how could anyone possibly justify picking him at 1 then? what kind of a contract would you expect him to demand at #1?

Kevin Seifert: That's an interesting angle to take. The NFL's rookie pay scale is so out of whack that the No. 1 pick almost always becomes one of the league's highest-paid players at his position. If Curry goes No. 1, he would be in line for a contract that includes about $30 million in guaranteed money. That's more than twice what Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis got in his latest contract. As it stands now, the league's highest-paid linebacker is Bart Scott of the New York Jets, who got $22 million guaranteed in his new contract.


Steve of Burlington, Ontario, writes: Do you anticipate the Lions releasing their new logo and colors prior to the draft to boost new jersey sales... hopefully Curry jerseys...they seem to be treating it like a bride on her wedding day and us long suffering fans are the groom. Give us something. We've been waiting for over a decade.

Kevin Seifert: The whole situation has been curious. Teams often acknowledge that they are planning a change to help build anticipation toward an unveiling, but the Lions have just been pretty quiet on the topic. There has been a lot of circumstantial evidence -- a big sale on 2008 merchandise and an apparent slip of the tongue by newcomer Grady Jackson -- but nothing definitive. The Lions will want to have this resolved one way or the other before the draft. Here's one cynical suggestion: Keep the old uniforms for one more year, forcing those who want to root for the No. 1 overall pick to buy an old one in 2009 and a new one in 2010.


Josh of Tuscaloosa writes: Kevin, I am a student at the University of Alabama and a Packer fan! My insight from a student stand point is that Andre Smith let his team down in their biggest moment. He is not the most loved guy on campus, or in the state for that matter. However, I can say that before he went somewhat off the deep end, he as far as we know was a model citizen here. Nick Saban has cracked down hard on players who don't tow the line but Andre was never one of those until January. I think he is young and dumb to be honest. His work ethic IS a problem. He is blessed with tremendous skill, I have watched him destroy opponents, but maybe he never took that skill to the weight room. My second part of this is as a Packer fan. As much as I want Andre to succeed, I DO NOT WANT HIM TO BE A PACKER. If you did not know, Ted Thompson was here right across the street from me. I know that he was here for Andre. Andre is not the answer to Cheeseheads' prayers Kevin. Thank you for your wonderful work. Have a good day!

Kevin Seifert: You're right, Josh. Ted Thompson himself was at the Alabama pro day, and I would imagine he wasn't happy to see Smith so out of shape. This will be a classic risk-reward decision. There seems to be little doubt that Smith can play the game. And offensive linemen don't necessarily have to be in Olympic shape to play at a high level. But what Thompson will have to determine is whether Smith's lack of conditioning is a result of laziness, bad advice or the need for a change of scenery. I just think what Smith has shown on tape is enough to merit a long look at him with the No. 9 overall pick.


Mike of Sacramento writes: Thanks for the breakdown on Andre "You Gonna Eat That?" Smith's chances of falling to the Packers at pick 9. I think we'd be better off going with defense on the first pick, then trying to get Beatty out of UConn. On that note, the ol' married couple of Kiper/McShay amazingly have formed a consensus in their latest mock that Tyson Jackson out of LSU is the best DE prospect in this year's draft for a 3-4 defense (they both have him going to Denver at 12). With Cullen Jenkins having injury problems and Johnny Jolly's interactions with Texas law enforcement, would it be considered a reach for the Packers to take Jackson at the 9 slot? Keep up the great work.

Kevin Seifert: Actually, Kiper likes Texas' Brian Orakpo as an end and McShay is high on Penn State's Aaron Maybin. I won't pretend to try to break down the pluses and minuses of Jackson, Maybin and Orakpo other than to say I think the Packers should draft the best pass-rusher and not necessarily the one they believe fits best into a 3-4 alignment. Get the player, then design a scheme around him.


Steve of Rochester writes: Kevin, I find the speculation that Jay Cutler might be available to the Vikings via trade very intriguing since I've had a private theory that in the 2006 draft Vikings coach Brad Childress was hoping to draft Cutler. Many thought Cutler was the best prospect but was predicted (correctly) to be the 3rd QB taken that year. In 2006 the Vikings had the 17th pick. Should be good enough to get the 3rd QB selected, right? After all in 2005 the 2nd QB (Rogers) was not drafted until the 24 selection and no team from the 11-16 picks should be looking to draft a QB in the first round. But the smarter Shanahan traded up from the 15th pick to the 11th to ensure that he would get Cutler. There goes Childress' franchise QB that he was going to brilliantly pick up in his first draft as an NFL head coach. So the Vikings, in a panic, have to trade up to take Jackson in round 2. Childress can't say he blew it with missing Cutler so he tells everyone (and himself) that he can mold Jackson into a starting QB. Your thoughts?

Kevin Seifert: Sounds like a good theory to me, although I've never had anyone tell me that in so many words. I think the Vikings were genuinely interested in Cutler back then, but they also put in a lot of work on Tarvaris Jackson. I believe they thought there was a pretty good chance they wouldn't get Cutler -- and/or wouldn't be willing to trade up to get him -- and would have to look elsewhere for a quarterback. That all said, I continue to think the Vikings would be silly not to explore every possibility if Cutler becomes available.


Alex of Kenosha, Wis., writes: Kevin: Huge Minnesota fan. Are the Vikings going to throw any money around this offseason? I know they were going for TJ, and lost out on Nate Washington. Harrison and Garcia are still out there, any chance they will give either of these guys a look? Thanks. Alex.

Kevin Seifert: After trading for Sage Rosenfels, I'd be shocked if they pursued Jeff Garcia. As for receiver, I'm guessing they're going to look at the draft. That could change if Torry Holt is released as expected, but at this point I'm not sensing any desire on their part to spend money just for the sake of spending.


Niraj of Chicago writes: Hi Kevin, I've been extremely disappointed that my beloved Chicago Bears have done next-to-nothing in the free agency market. Do you have any indication why this has been the case? Thanks, Niraj.

Kevin Seifert: What, you didn't like the Josh Bullocks signing? My only guess is that the Bears have committed themselves to getting better with their own players, especially the ones they signed to lucrative extensions last summer. That includes Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Devin Hester and Tommie Harris. They chose to put their money into those players, and very few teams spend lavishly on their own players while also acquiring big-name talent on the free-agent market as well.


Brad of Collinsville writes: Kevin, what is your view about Chicago's Quarterback situation. Do you think their sitting around and letting good prospects escape them or do you think they might be thinking about Michael Vick, since he might have 4 or 5 years good playing time left in him and that he is very athletic in the way he can run out of the pocket.

Kevin Seifert: No, I think they are committed to giving Kyle Orton one more year to prove himself. If he falters in 2009, you'll see a more aggressive search for a new quarterback. I assume.


Holgate writes: What are the chances of the Lions passing on a Qb with the first pick, and possibly landing Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez with the 20th pick they have in the first round?

Kevin Seifert: These things change every day, but as of now I'd say it's pretty unlikely either guy would be available at No. 20.


Tom of Midland writes: Kevin, read the blog daily and love it. Thanks! Here's a question. Why don't the Lions have an all out 2009 defensive draft. I'm talking no QB's, no OL's, just defense. We scored a decent number of points last year and even with switching quarterbacks every week. Look at the Ravens. They get pretty far with a lot of defense and a little O. That would shore up our D for years to come!

Kevin Seifert: Interesting. The only flaw is I think the Lions do need some work on the offensive line. They're not in shambles there, but the strength of the offensive tackles class means they should really take advantage to shore up that position. Otherwise, I agree the Lions have many more needs on defense than they do on offense.


John of Winston-Salem writes: With Cassel going for the #34, and Cutler upset in Denver. Is it even a reasonable speculation that Detroit could trade for Cutler by swapping their #1 for Denver's #12 and #48?

Kevin Seifert: So, basically, the Lions would get Cutler and a second-round pick in exchange for moving down 12 spots in the first round. I think it's going to take more than that. Cutler has more of a pedigree than Cassel at this point.

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