NFC North: Soldier Field
I'll be heading up the New Jersey Turnpike soon but first wanted to pass along a link to this photo of Soldier Field from ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson. As you can see, the middle of the field has been re-sodded following last week's Prep Bowl at the stadium.
We haven't heard much about the condition of Soldier Field since their annual Family Night scrimmage was canceled in August, and that's a good thing. The Bears said they would take on a more active role in managing the turf. So we'll see if this latest blip will cause any issues or if it will continue to be relatively smooth sailing.
Speaking on his weekly ESPN 540 radio show, Rodgers said: "I think it was the best the field's been [but] that's not saying a whole lot."
The Bears and the Chicago Park District re-sodded the field last week, but Sunday's rain left it soggy for pregame warm-ups. Officials stopped the game once because of a "dangerous situation" that appeared to be an exposed sprinkler head, and Rodgers did say there were times when he felt like he was standing on "uneven ground."
"A couple of times in the shotgun," Rodgers said, "I'm trying to get my feet set, and my feet, it felt like I was on uneven ground. I had to kind of dig my feet in, kind of wiggle them out like you were almost in the sand on a golf shot, just to kind of get your feet set. It was a weird feeling.
"That being said, I expected it to be a lot worse. The guys went out [in pregame], they said the tarps have been out there, the grass is super long, it's like your local park you're playing on. ... But it wasn't bad at all. I thought it was in really good condition for Chicago."
More than anything, Rodgers' comments confirm once again that the field conditions in Chicago are, at the very least, an actively discussed issue among opponents. It hasn't worked to the Bears' advantage recently against the Packers, who have won consecutive games at Soldier Field, but I'm sure it impacts players with less experience there.
As we've noted before, there has been an ongoing discussion about the stadium's annual transition from grass at the beginning of the season to frozen dirt by the end. Causes include rough Chicago falls and multiple uses of the field. This was an issue long before 2010, but new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's precision scheme would seem to add urgency to establishing some stable footing on the field.
The issue could be resolved by replacing the grass with artificial turf, but the Bears' reluctance stems from the possibility of a safety drop-off.
I think most of us would choose to play football on grass rather than turf. But that's not the question in Chicago. The real question is this: Do you prefer to play half of a season on grass and half on dirt, or an entire season on turf? In other words, what are the safety issues of playing on dirt?
We can't rule out this issue being one of business as well. The Chicago Park District runs Soldier Field and pays for multiple re-soddings during the year. In the long run, it would be cheaper for them to install artificial turf once. The Bears don't have an economic incentive to make the transition.
That's what I have to say about this and I'm sticking to it.
The forgotten man on Minnesota's quarterback depth chart remains convinced he will get a fair competition with incumbent Tarvaris Jackson. Sage Rosenfels, acquired last month from Houston, told Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune that the battle will make both players better.
Rosenfels: "He's going to push me, I'm going to push him. At the end of the day it's going to make the Minnesota Vikings better. But he and I, I think, have gotten along pretty well and I'm sure I'll learn some things from him and I'm sure he'll probably learn a few things from me as well."
Rosenfels and most of his teammates began working in the Vikings' offseason strength and conditioning program Monday. Other than learning the offense and working out, Rosenfels has been negotiating with receiver Sidney Rice to obtain his traditional No. 18 jersey.
I'm going to be fascinated to see how this plays out. I remain convinced that Jackson holds a distinct advantage as the incumbent. But Rosenfels has been in the league for eight seasons and knows this likely is the best opportunity he'll ever get to win a starting job. He won't make the decision easy.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press talks with second-year center John Sullivan, who is expected to take over for the departed Matt Birk. Sullivan: "Nobody has the starting job until you're actually out there on opening day. I just know there's a lot of hard work that comes first."
- The Vikings are hosting about 30 draft-eligible players at their practice facility this week. Among them is Oklahoma offensive lineman Phil Loadholt, according to Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- Lambeau Field and Soldier Field are two of 70 potential sites for the World Cup if the event returns to the United State in 2018 or 2022, according to this Associated Press story.
- So is Ford Field, according to Scott Bell of the Detroit Free Press.
- Detroit defensive linemen are pigging out at the team's cafeteria and loving every minute of it, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News. Coach Jim Schwartz is encouraging defensive linemen to get as big and as strong as they can this offseason.
- New Chicago left tackle Orlando Pace is hoping his career can be revitalized in a new environment, writes Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times.
The most well-liked playing surface in the NFC North is at Detroit's Ford Field, according to a series of voting results released Thursday by the NFL Players Association. The least favorite? Minnesota's multi-use FieldTurf.
That's the upshot from the union's annual poll of players conducted during the season. The NFLPA broke out the results into four categories: Best artificial surfaces, worst artificial surfaces, best grass fields and worst grass fields. In each case, the voting between best and worst wasn't necessarily in reverse order. I presume that discrepancy can be attributed to each stadium evoking opposing but passionate responses from different players.
(Try it sometime. Rank the NFL's starting quarterbacks from best to worst. Then -- without looking -- rank them from worst to best. I bet the lists aren't reversible.)
After agonizing for hours -- or, well, a few minutes -- I decided on the following is the easiest way to present the data:
BEST ARTIFICIAL (13 total)
WORST ARTIFICIAL (13 total)
11. Detroit (tied with Seattle)
BEST GRASS (18 total)
7. Green Bay
WORST GRASS (18 total)
5. Green Bay
A couple thoughts on these rankings:
- Detroit and Minnesota have the same FieldTurf surfaces, and they were installed in the same year (2002). But baseball's Minnesota Twins play 81 games a year in the Metrodome, which also hosts University of Minnesota football and baseball, along with high school football playoffs. The Metrodome surface gets manipulated often and is pretty flat compared to Ford Field.
- I hear fewer complaints about the grass mix at Lambeau Field than I do about the 100 percent grass surface at Soldier Field. Two years ago, Packers officials stitched some synthetic fibers into the surface for stability. In Chicago, the field is typically soft and the grass long early in the season. By the end of the season, the grass is basically dead. The voting fell accordingly, although it was surprising to see Lambeau ranked as the 7th-best but also the fifth-worst. Basically, that means there are significantly differing opinions on Lambeau Field.
You kind of figured things would go the Bears' way Sunday when Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard threw his first pass into a crowd of four defenders. The ball hit nickel back Danieal Manning in the chest, and the play ultimately led to Chicago building a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the game.
The Jaguars did not put up much of a fight at Soldier Field, but give the Bears credit for bouncing back from their disappointing loss at Minnesota last week. Most notably, quarterback Kyle Orton produced an encouraging bad-weather performance, completing 62.5 percent of his passes and throwing two touchdowns on a chilly and windy day.
The Bears will need similar outings in their next two games, also at Soldier Field, against New Orleans and Green Bay. Those matchups are two winnable, prime-time games that give the Bears a real chance to pull even with the Vikings in the NFC North.
It could happen as early as this week, with the Bears facing the Saints at home while the Vikings must protect their division lead at Arizona.
Hold on for a wild ride.
Cue the dramatic music.
One playoff spot.
(Or so we presume based on the current NFC standings, in which eight teams have a better record than the NFC North co-leaders.)
By NFL rule, someone from the log-jammed Black and Blue must win the division and advance to the playoffs. And as Chicago coach Lovie Smith pointed out, after 11 weeks of football, "we're starting over again."
The Bears are tied with Minnesota and Green Bay atop the division. All three teams have a 5-5 record, separated only slightly by their performance in division games. (The Bears and Packers are 3-1 against NFC North opponents, while the Vikings are 2-2 -- a distinction that could play a tiebreaking role at the end of the regular season.)
"It will be a race to the finish," Vikings coach Brad Childress said.
"It's really a six-game season," observed Packers coach Mike McCarthy.
So let's reset ourselves. If this is Week 1, Part II, who is the favorite to win the division title? Other than the Vikings' tiebreaker deficit, the field is wide open. Or is it? Let's examine the possibilities:
- Remaining strength of schedule: .400 (24-36)
- Head coach's career record in final six games of season: .500 (12-12)
- Ascending or descending: Two consecutive losses
- You're only as good as your last game: 37-3 loss at Green Bay
How they could win it: The Bears have the friendliest remaining schedule. They must face three 5-5 teams (Minnesota, Green Bay and New Orleans), but two of those contests will be at Soldier Field; they have no remaining opponents with a winning record. Quarterback Kyle Orton is back on the field, his sprained ankle presumably improving. Orton now has a full complement of receivers with the return of Brandon Lloyd. Two of the Bears' six remaining games are indoors, where the passing game will be unaffected by weather. If Smith and defensive coordinator Bob Babich make a few schematic adjustments, the Bears could level off their defensive freefall. And you have to figure that Devin Hester will pop one sometime, don't you?
How they could lose it: It's difficult to move past the kind of pent-up frustration many Bears players are expressing. It's pretty clear they are dissatisfied with the defensive scheme and aren't certain they're being put in the best position to succeed. Such feelings usually take weeks, not days, to get over. And as long as some Bears are fixated on those issues, it's hard to imagine a unified run at the playoffs. Opponents have exposed their defensive weaknesses for all to see. In response, coaches have been shuffling defensive personnel all season -- but the result has been a visible lack of continuity that might be hard to re-establish.
The key player: Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. Outside linebacker Lance Briggs has performed at a high level all season, but obviously it hasn't been enough. The Bears' defense centers on the middle linebacker. Urlacher hasn't produced the big plays that made him a perennial Pro Bowler, but his position and status make him the best candidate to energize the defense. That is, if he can. If Urlacher can't raise his game down the stretch, it's hard to imagine the Bears' defense making the necessary improvements.
The key game: Dec. 22 vs. Green Bay. "Monday Night Football." Soldier Field. If the Bears have any pride, they'll be building to that rematch. Ultimately, this Week 16 game could decide the division.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
- Remaining strength of schedule: .417 (25-35)
- Head coach's career record in final six games of season: .667 (8-4)
- Ascending or descending: Lost two of past three
- You're only as good as your last game: 37-3 win over Chicago
How they could win it: The Packers' offensive line dominated against the Bears after an uneven performance this season. If it proves to be a turning point, the Packers should be able to capitalize on their array of skill players to keep defenses off balance. Meanwhile, an unintended consequence of linebacker Nick Barnett's season-ending injury could be an improved run defense. At this point, replacement A.J. Hawk might be better suited to stop the run than Barnett. As for the schedule, Green Bay will get its toughest remaining opponent -- the 8-2 Carolina Panthers -- at Lambeau Field.
How they could lose it: One of the Packers' top weapons is pass defense, but you could only consider two of their remaining opponents -- New Orleans and Houston -- to be pass-first teams. That scenario could mitigate a top attribute. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has proved his toughnes
s this season, but if anything were to happen to him, it's hard to imagine a positive outcome with rookie Matt Flynn running the offense.
Key player: Running back Ryan Grant. Last season, Grant rushed for 563 yards and seven touchdowns as the Packers won four of their final six games. Green Bay has four potentially difficult weather games remaining: Three home games and the Dec. 22 matchup at Chicago. But even in perfect conditions, it's obvious how an effective running game enhances this offense.
Key game: Nov. 24 at New Orleans. True, this is not a division game. But conference record plays a role in tiebreakers too. More important, it will be instructive to find out whether the Packers merely caught the Bears at the right time, or if they have made a permanent turn north. A victory over an explosive but flawed Saints team -- and not just a competitive performance -- would provide ample proof that the Packers are up to the challenge of winning this division.
- Remaining strength of schedule: .517 (31-29)
- Head coach's career record in final six games of season: .500 (6-6)
- Ascending or descending: Won two of past three
- You're only as good as your last game: 19-13 loss at Tampa Bay
How they could win it: When Adrian Peterson is in the backfield, anything is possible. We saw how Peterson can will his team to victory Nov. 9 against Green Bay. The emergence of receiver Bernard Berrian ensures the Vikings will have a viable alternative should opponents gang up on Peterson. Gus Frerotte is the most experienced -- but not the most careful -- quarterback in the division and isn't fazed by big-game pressure. Although Minnesota's remaining schedule is difficult, it does not include a bad-weather venue. In fact, the Vikings will play at least four and possibly five games indoors if Arizona closes the roof Dec. 14.
How they could lose it: It's hard to imagine the Vikings winning more than half of their games without defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, and that is a kind assessment. (Let's not even discuss the possibility of a Jared Allen suspension.) Because of their tiebreaker disadvantage, the Vikings might need a 5-1 finish to ensure the division title. That's a difficult task considering they finish against Arizona (7-3), Atlanta (6-4) and the New York Giants (9-1). Finally, do you trust their special teams to go mistake-free for six games?
Key player: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whose decision on the defensive line will make or break the Vikings' season. Simply put, they have a chance with both Williamses and Allen. Without them, it would be nearly hopeless.
Key game: Nov. 30 vs. Chicago, Sunday night football. The Vikings almost certainly need to sweep their remaining division games, starting with this matchup at the Metrodome. A loss would eliminate the Vikings in any head-to-head tiebreaker with the Bears as well as give them a near-crippling 2-3 division record. Even a four-game winning streak to end the season might not be enough.
So how do I see this division finishing up? I was asked that very question Tuesday afternoon in a SportsNation chat. I didn't set out to pick a winner, but I'm thinking the Packers have perhaps the most realistic road to the division title in a flawed division.
Here's how I put it in Tuesday's chat:
BJ (Des Moines): Packers, Bears and Vikings continue to look hot and cold from week to week. How do you see the remaining six games playing out?
SportsNation Kevin Seifert: I played out some scenarios on the blog today. The Vikings have the most difficult schedule and the Bears have the most obstacles in terms of their internal problems. That leaves the Packers as the pseudo-favorites.