NFC North: Steve Breaston
Schilens appeared in 15 games for the New York Jets last season and had the best health résumé of the three candidates. Veteran Laurent Robinson reportedly suffered four concussions last season and wasn't fully recovered until this summer, while teams have been scared away from Steve Breaston because of a knee injury that limited him to 10 games last season with the Kansas City Chiefs.
It's quite possible that Breaston and Robinson will go on to play this season in the NFL, but the best option for what the Lions need at the moment -- a healthy body who is ready to take reps -- was Schilens. Two of the Lions' top three receivers -- Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles -- are coming back from season-ending injuries. Broyles might not be ready to start training camp, and the Lions have been on the lookout for veteran insurance all offseason.
Schilens will join a group that also includes Calvin Johnson, Mike Thomas and Patrick Edwards in addition to Burleson and Broyles.
Good mid-morning. I got fired up and posted early Tuesday morning on the vehement defense that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers once offered for now-disgraced Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, but I'm told there are three other teams in the NFC North that merit daily coverage as well.
So we'll begin (again) today with news that the Detroit Lions are continuing to acknowledge their lack of depth at receiver, a topic we've discussed in several SportsNation chats and in two separate posts last week. Via Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com and others, the Lions have scheduled three veteran receivers for workouts this week: Laurent Robinson, Steve Breaston and Chaz Schilens. Robinson, who apparently has been cleared after suffering multiple concussions last season, worked out Monday for the New York Jets.
Once again, the fact is the Lions are thin at receiver behind Calvin Johnson. Nate Burleson has recovered from a broken leg that ended his 2012 season, but he will turn 32 in August and has played all 16 games of a season only once since 2007. Ryan Broyles is recovering from his second torn ACL in as many years, and Mike Thomas is entering his first full season with the team after arriving last year via trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Lions pursued free agent Darrius Heyward-Bey in free agency and it's clear they recognize this need hasn't gone away. We'll see if they believe it is acute enough to bring in a veteran off the street on the eve of training camp.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Undrafted rookie Steven Miller will get the first chance to win the Lions' return job when training camp opens Friday. More from Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
- Indeed, the Lions made wholesale changes to their special teams this offseason, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
- Justin Rogers of Mlive.com looks at the Lions' competition at cornerback opposite veteran Chris Houston.
- Receiver Randall Cobb is the fourth-most important player on the Packers' roster, according to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
- Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wonders if the Packers' defensive line will be broken up for salary-cap reasons after this season. McGinn: "Big men Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, C.J. Wilson and Johnny Jolly all have contracts expiring at season's end, and pass rusher Mike Neal will become an unrestricted free agent in March as well. Mindful of upheaval ahead, general manager Ted Thompson prepared by selecting defensive ends Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones and Josh Boyd in the first five rounds of the past two drafts. For now, however, it's steady as she goes."
- Jones should give the Packers an added dimension, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Wilde on Rodgers' predicament: "We have all, to varying degrees, had friends let us down. Some of us have been the ones who let their friends down. Such moments can end friendships or, in some cases, lead to relationship growth. It’s all in how those friends handle the aftermath."
- The Minnesota Vikings will report to training camp as a playoff team with much higher expectations than last season, writes Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune.
- Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder will play well enough to eliminate any chance that tailback Adrian Peterson might have of rushing for 2,500 yards this season, according to Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com on the Chicago Bears' defense: "Are there still questions about the defense? Sure. But if the veteran leaders can find a way to keep themselves on the field and if the Bears can locate a consistent pass rush up front to complement Peppers, then new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker should be able to keep the Bears' defense among the NFL's elite."
- Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune doesn't see the Bears making a quick run at re-signing quarterback Jay Cutler during the season. Pompei: "My read is it will take more than four to five games for Cutler to prove he is worthy of being paid like one of the best quarterbacks in the game -- which is likely what it would take to sign him. "
- Former Denver Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist on Cutler and the Bears, via Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times: "It just didn’t seem like under Lovie [Smith] that the emphasis was there to get [Cutler] the things that he needed to succeed. And that's just me and that may not be fair. Maybe they were trying to do everything they could. But at least this year, from the outside looking in, [Cutler] is the focal point. From that perspective, I applaud the Bears because I think that's what you have to do."
So the New England Patriots signed quarterback Tom Brady to a far-below market value contract extension Monday, a three-year deal worth $27 million. That annual average of $9 million is less than half what the New Orleans Saints gave Drew Brees in a five-year, $100 million deal last year.
So how will Brady's deal impact negotiations for the three NFC North quarterbacks who will get new deals in the next year or so? My amateur guess: Not much.
Brady's deal is such an outlier, and the motivations are so clear -- a well-paid Hall of Fame quarterback wants to leave salary-cap space available for a final run to the Super Bowl as he approaches his 40th birthday -- that it would be difficult for a team to argue he brought the market down. It's not like the Brees deal vanished as a result. Like it or not, agents will continue to consider it the benchmark for future elite deals.
The guess is that the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford will be the first NFC North quarterback to complete his new contract, given the salary-cap implications. Stafford probably won't reach Brees money, but it won't be because of the Brady deal. Unless proven otherwise, I'll assume the Brady contract will stand on its own in terms of market direction.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- The signs point to the Green Bay Packers keeping tight end Jermichael Finley, writes Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com wonders if the Packers would re-sign defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, who was released Monday by the Philadelphia Eagles.
- It seems likely that the Packers will approach linebacker A.J. Hawk about restructuring his contract, according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- The Minnesota Vikings are hoping that cornerback Antoine Winfield will become a part-time player in 2013, writes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com. Coach Leslie Frazier: "[H]e doesn't need to be playing 60, 70 snaps [a game]. It's not good for him. I don't think it's the best thing for our team. We need him to be able to stay healthy, help us in the classroom, help us on the field. So, we definitely want him back, but we do need to reduce his snaps."
- The Vikings are looking for a different kind of safety, writes Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- Here's some video of the Star Tribune's Dan Wiederer discussing the Vikings after the combine.
- Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "If the Lions can't re-sign Cliff Avril before the start of free agency, they won't have too many enticing options to replace him."
- The Lions had some interest in free-agent receiver Steve Breaston, according to several reporters via Justin Rogers of Mlive.com.
- Former Chicago Bears linebacker Rosevelt Colvin thinks the team should bring back linebacker Brian Urlacher. Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune has more.
- Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times addresses the issue of character and potential Bears draft choices.
I know that one of our many pressing needs this offseason is at wide receiver; to get a true No. 1. I think it is fair to say that the early rounds in the draft should definitely be directed to the O-Line and maybe a DB. Since getting a stud receiver in the draft is a crap shoot, do you think that the Bears may make a move in free agency (assuming the CBA works itself out)?
It's interesting that we're back to a topic we spent much of last offseason on. Do the Bears truly need to add a No. 1 receiver? Or is the sum of their parts adequate, especially when you add tailback Matt Forte and tight end Greg Olsen to the mix?
That list includes Sidney Rice, Braylon Edwards, Malcom Floyd, Santonio Holmes, Steve Breaston, Randy Moss, Santana Moss, Steve Smith (of the New York Giants), Terrell Owens and Mike Sims-Walker.
So if you are the Bears this offseason, are you:
- Satisfied with the status quo?
- Interested only in an ideal addition?
- Determined to add more depth?
If I had to make an educated guess, I would say the Bears will land in category No. 2. I'm guessing they believe that Johnny Knox's 951-yard season was a sign that, with another year in Mike Martz's offense, he will be as close to a No. 1 receiver as they need. I would think they're satisfied with Earl Bennett as a tough possession receiver and know they have Devin Hester as a big-play slot man.
General manager Jerry Angelo has been reluctant in recent years to invest in receivers, and I'm not sure he'll feel compelled to change that tack in 2011.
With that said, I think the Bears should be disappointed if their top four wide receivers combine for 147 receptions next season, as they did in 2010. For comparison, consider that the Green Bay Packers' top four wide receivers combined for 222 receptions in 2010.
The Bears are hoping for internal improvement, first and foremost. If they can target a mid-level receiver that fits Martz's offense, the Bears might consider it. But if you're hoping they break the bank to acquire someone like Edwards or Holmes, you might be disappointed.
Bears coach Lovie Smith will be among those who speak to reporters at this week's scouting combine. We'll of course pass along any updates on the receiver situation as warranted.
Boldin missed a third consecutive day of practice Friday but is listed as questionable on the Cardinals’ injury report. By NFL definition, that means it’s a 50-50 proposition. Boldin has been noted for playing with injuries on multiple occasions in his career, and Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt told reporters a decision won’t be made until Sunday morning.
Here’s how Boldin put it, courtesy Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: “If I can go, I’ll be out there. I’m doing everything within my power to make sure I’m on the field Sunday. If I’m not able to go -- trust me, it won’t be nothing that I didn’t do. I have doctors at my house at night, poking and prodding, acupuncture -- everything that’s possible. I’m trying to make sure that I’m on the field.”
Cardinals beat writer Darren Urban, writing on the team’s Web site, notes that Boldin’s status “wouldn’t even be a question” if this were a regular season game. Indeed, if Boldin plays, it will be an exceptional effort by a big-time player in a sudden death game.
Without Boldin, the Cardinals would rely more heavily on receivers Steve Breaston and Early Doucet.
The Cardinals also listed safety Antrel Rolle (thigh) and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (toe/knee) as questionable. But both players practiced Thursday and Friday and are expected to play.
Meanwhile, only one Packers player could miss Sunday’s game because of injury. Safety Derrick Martin (ankle), primarily a special teams player, is listed as doubtful. Nose tackle Ryan Pickett (hamstring), who has missed three of the past four games, is probable.
1. It might be tempting this time of year, but the Packers won’t spend the week in Arizona. Instead, they were scheduled to make the three-hour flight back to Green Bay on Sunday night and then return to Phoenix the day before the re-match. Speaking on the possibility last week, McCarthy said routine is more important than convenience and drew a distinction between the distance between Green Bay and Arizona and, say, the West Coast and the East Coast.
“I think routine is a big part of human regularity,” McCarthy said. “And to change because you're playing in Arizona two weeks in a row? It's a three-hour trip.”
2. The Packers’ chief matchup concern should be their nickel defense against Arizona’s three-receiver sets. You didn’t see much of that Sunday because Cardinals starters didn’t play much, and also because receiver Anquan Boldin left with knee and ankle injuries. But if Boldin plays next weekend, the math doesn’t add up well for the Packers. There is a big dropoff between No. 2 cornerback Tramon Williams and nickelback Jarrett Bush. Unless Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers comes up with something unique, Bush is going to have match up against Boldin, All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald or the dangerous Steve Breaston. That dynamic will be a central focus of conversation this week.
3. You can attach as much significance as you want, but the Packers have manhandled the Cardinals twice this season. Sunday’s score was 33-7, and they had a 38-10 lead at halftime of an Aug. 28 preseason game in which starters played into the third quarter. In those two games, the Packers defense forced seven turnovers. The Packers should return to Arizona with all the confidence in the world, when you combine those two games with the fact that they have won seven of their past eight games.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:
The Giants are struggling and decimated by injuries, but you don’t have to look any further than last Monday to recognize that no team is a lock to roll over. Few anticipated the Vikings having trouble at Soldier Field against the Bears, who had lost seven of their past eight games. The Giants have lost three of their past five, but they have played well at the Metrodome throughout this decade. They have won three of their past four in the building, and the Vikings needed a 50-yard field goal on the game’s final play to beat the Giants’ reserves in last year’s regular-season finale. The Vikings’ slow starts in the past four weeks have given underdog teams confidence they could win; in those games, the Vikings have a total of seven first-quarter points.
No matter how few implications the Green Bay-Arizona game ultimately carries, I’ll be watching to see how the Packers match up with Cardinals receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers might be tempted to play some mind games if a playoff rematch looms, but at some point the Packers are going to have to address the seeming mismatch between the Cardinals’ three-receiver set and the Packers’ nickel defense. Specifically, Packers nickelback Jarrett Bush is going to have to match up against one member of that receiver trio unless the Packers sit exclusively in a nickel zone.
Will Sunday be Lovie Smith’s last day as Chicago’s coach? The odds are against the Bears paying him an $11 million buyout. But it was curious, if nothing else, that no member of the team’s front office stepped forward this week to confirm his return. It’s hard to imagine that Sunday’s game against Detroit will determine Smith’s future. What is left to know about Smith that the Bears don’t already know? But if nothing else, the team’s silence suggests a change is under consideration. Either that, or the Bears simply haven’t begun the internal discussion. I lean toward the latter, but stranger things have happened.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz said earlier this week that a Week 17 victory wouldn’t spur a surge of momentum into the offseason. And it’s true: The difference is slim between 3-13 and 2-14. The Lions have a long way to go in either case. A victory Sunday would also end Detroit’s chances at securing the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But beating the Bears would be the Lions’ first NFC North victory since winning at Soldier Field on Oct. 28, 2007. It would add a tangible measure of progress to the first year of this building process.
(Even more sure than I was of a victory Sunday at Pittsburgh. Ha.)
The question for us as a blog community is not whether the Packers will earn a wild-card berth. Given their remaining schedule and the squalid state of the NFC, it’s a near-lock. No, the real issue for the Packers is whether they’re equipped to win a playoff game. In my book, at least, missing the playoffs is only marginally less satisfying than a first-round defeat.
The events of Week 15 suggest the Packers will be a playoff team, but one that is not yet capable of winning a postseason game on the road -- as they will have to do when and if they clinch. Their opportunity to suggest otherwise came late in the fourth quarter Sunday, and quite frankly, they fell short.
Ahead by six points with 2:06 remaining, the Packers allowed Pittsburgh to drive 86 yards -- converting three third-down plays and one on fourth down -- and win on the final play of the game.
Mike Wallace’s 19-yard touchdown reception capped a career day for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for a team-record 503 yards against the NFL’s second-ranked defense.
Put bluntly, none of what you read in the preceding paragraph should happen to a playoff team.
“You have these types of games in the playoffs and you go home,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “We had what we wanted out there, but we didn’t make the plays that we needed.”
I wasn’t sure what I would encounter when I reached the Packers’ postgame locker room. Would there be stunned silence? Anger? Uncontrolled sobbing? (I’ve never seen the latter in a pro locker room, but I had to establish the full spectrum.)
More than anything, I encountered realism. The Packers lost on an exceptional effort on the final plays of a wild game. But they are still 9-5 this season and, based on the NFC standings, one victory away from clinching a playoff berth. Seattle’s pending arrival at Lambeau Field next weekend provides what should be an easy foil, a dynamic the Packers appear fully aware of.
“Right now our mindset is that we have to get ready for Seattle,” receiver Donald Driver said. “We take care of business at home and we’re 10-5 and that may get us in.”
With the rest of the NFC field at least 1.5 games behind the Packers and Dallas in the wild-card race, that scenario appears highly likely. But I thought Sunday’s game provided a good allegory for the Packers’ postseason aptitude: They’re on the brink, but not there yet.
To be clear, the Packers made an exceptional comeback to take the lead in the fourth quarter. I thought it would have been a seminal victory for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 383 yards and led the Packers to three fourth-quarter touchdowns.
But a playoff-winning defense would have forced a turnover during the Steelers’ final drive. Instead, the Packers mishandled two opportunities -- one apiece by Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson -- and had a third overturned by penalty. A playoff-winning defense shouldn’t allow a 32-yard pass on fourth-and-7, but that’s what happened when Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes wide open with 1:14 remaining.
And frankly, a playoff-winning defense wouldn’t have felt compelled to retreat into a dime defense -- which included two relative newcomers to the lineup whom the Steelers repeatedly targeted -- on the final drive. But that’s where defensive coordinator Dom Capers landed on the final play. Roethlisberger found Wallace matched up with dime back Josh Bell, whom the Packers signed last month and were using only because Brandon Underwood was sidelined with a hip injury.
Capers has had the Packers on the attack for most of their recent five-game winning streak, but Sunday he chose to emphasize coverage over pass rush.
“They went to four wide receivers,” Capers sad. “Down the stretch there, we felt we would have been better off matching up defensive backs on receivers.”
Perhaps, but I would argue the Packers would have been better off flooding Roethlisberger's passing lanes rather than giving him time to slide in the pocket. Starting with the opening play of the game, Roethlisberger identified and targeted both Bell and nickel back Jarrett Bush. With Woodson playing mostly against the slot receiver, the Steelers had exceptional matchups with Holmes and Wallace on the outside.
“That’s Roethlisberger,” Bush said. “We gave him some time to slide in the pocket and let guys get open. And we didn’t get it done on the back end. You can’t take it away from them. They made some plays. … We all know that’s not going to happen every week.”
Oooooooh, I’m not entirely sure of that final assertion, Jarrett. What we saw Sunday was the first Packers opponent to really capitalize on cornerback Al Harris’ season-ending knee injury. The domino effect of that injury, which moved Bush up to nickel back and Underwood/Bell up to dime, finally caught up to them.
Bush made an inexplicable adjustment on Roethlisberger’s first pass of the game, allowing Wallace further separation on a 60-yard touchdown play. Bell didn’t have terrible coverage on the final play, but my guess is a savvier player would have initiated more contact and perhaps given officials a tougher call to make.
But if I’m Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston -- the keys to an Arizona passing attack that could be the Packers’ first-round playoff opponent -- I’m licking my chops. If the Packers want to play a nickel or dime defense in the playoffs, a team like the Cardinals will be a particularly tough matchup.
“We all expected to win this game,” Woodson said. “I think we all thought we pretty much had it in the bag. But that’s the way it works. We’ve got another opportunity next week to try to get on the right track. That’s what we’ll try to do.”
To make the playoffs, yes. To win a game or two when they get there? I’m not so sure. Not yet.
CHICAGO -- Here’s some important news from Soldier Field: The Bears won’t face Arizona receiver Anquan Boldin after all.
We all watched Boldin during early warm-ups and nothing seemed amiss. But ultimately, the Cardinals decided that his sprained ankle wasn’t healthy enough for him to play.
I wouldn’t relax too much. The Cardinals still have two talented receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston. But Boldin’s absence was the best pregame news the Bears could have hoped for.
Meanwhile, one pregame note from Tampa Bay: Green Bay has announced that Mark Tauscher will start at right tackle, as expected. When the Packers signed Tauscher last month, you knew it was only a matter of time before he replaced Allen Barbre as the starter.
|Who has a better chance of being 2009 NFL Rookie of the Year: the Vikings' Percy Harvin or the Cardinals' Chris Wells? The bloggers debate.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando and Kevin Seifert
Nothing gets the football juices flowing in April like drafting an exciting skill position player.
Fans in Minnesota are already envisioning receiver Percy Harvin dashing through the secondary on the way to a long touchdown. In Arizona, they're wondering how many defenders tailback Beanie Wells is going to run over on the way to a 1,000-yard season.
Who will be the NFL's 2009 Rookie of the Year? It's a little early to crown a winner, but Harvin and Wells are two strong candidates. Our NFC West and NFC North bloggers take an early stance:
|AP Photo/Star Tribune, Carlos Gonzalez|
|Minnesota first-round draft pick Percy Harvin will get a chance to put up big numbers for the Vikings.|
Early on, I think the Vikings will ease him in as a punt and kickoff returner -- with selected packages for him on offense. But it might not take much. Harvin is the kind of playmaker who could have a pretty high ratio of touchdowns to touches.
There are veterans who likely will start ahead of him, but when Harvin gets in the game he'll be quick to make things happen. Think of him as the receiving version of New Orleans tailback Reggie Bush. He can make people miss once the ball gets in his hands.
Mike Sando: Once the ball gets in his hands? That's the hard part in Minnesota.
There's a reason Jeff George keeps saying he should be the Vikings' quarterback at age 41. There's a reason T.J. Houshmandzadeh decided to sign with the Seahawks about four seconds into his free-agent visit to Minnesota.
There's a reason no one on the Vikings caught more than 53 passes last season. Five rookies caught at least as many passes (Eddie Royal 91, Matt Forte 63, DeSean Jackson 62, John Carlson 55, Davone Bess 54 and Donnie Avery 53) in 2008.
I'm just not sure the Vikings can get the ball in Harvin's hands consistently enough.
Kevin Seifert: I'm not sure there is enough WD-40 in North America for Jeff George to do it, either, but that's for another debate.
Seriously, in some ways it doesn't matter whom the Vikings have at quarterback as long as he can throw a screen pass and a shallow cross. Harvin is at his best after the catch. Check out some of his highlights at Florida against some pretty fast SEC defenses. Trust me, the Vikings have plenty of three-yard pass plays in their playbook. The key will be finding simple ways to get the ball in Harvin's hands. Then let him do the rest.
In reality, the quarterback issue might be a bigger deal for Arizona. Nothing I saw last year leads me to believe Wells will get enough opportunities to put up Rookie of the Year numbers. Are you telling me Kurt Warner is going to hand the ball off all season and Larry Fitzgerald is going to become a downfield blocking specialist?
|Chris Morrison/US Presswire|
|Minnesota quarterback Tarvaris Jackson played like the MVP candidate Sunday instead of Arizona's Kurt Warner in the Vikings' 35-14 win over the Cardinals.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- I walked out of Minnesota's locker room Sunday with one overwhelming thought: The Vikings are thinking big.
Yes, there were the requisite rounds of "one week at a time" quotes and most everyone pointed out they have yet to clinch a playoff spot, let alone the NFC North title. But after dismantling Arizona by three touchdowns in a 35-14 victory, at least one player was looking deep down the line.
"Let me ask you a question," the player said after a group interview dissipated. "What do we have to do to get the second seed?"
For a moment, I was totally vacant. (OK, perhaps that's my default position. But anyway....)
This franchise has made two playoff appearances during this decade and hasn't won a division title since 2000. And yet this year's collection of highly-paid veterans isn't going to be happy with a simple playoff appearance. They expect to make a postseason run as well. And after such a convincing victory over the NFC West champions, some Minnesota players are mentally calculating the odds of a best-case scenario for their season.
"As a whole, this is the best we've played," receiver Bobby Wade said. "This sets a standard for us. Coach [Brad Childress] is going to hold us to this high standard, and he should. There were mistakes that we made and nothing is ever perfect. But all in all, it's really exciting to win in the fashion that we did."
Indeed, the Vikings jumped to their biggest halftime lead in five seasons, a 28-0 advantage that could have been larger were it not for a red-zone fumble by tailback Chester Taylor. They made big plays -- including an 82-yard punt return from Bernard Berrian and two touchdown passes of more than 40 yards from Tarvaris Jackson -- and harassed Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner into an uncharacteristically hesitant performance.
The Vikings have now won four games in a row, the best active streak in the NFC, and overall they have victories in nine of their past 12 games. And since you asked, yes, they left the locker room Sunday knowing they could overtake Carolina for the No. 2 playoff seed in the conference if a series of outcomes fall in their favor. (More on those scenarios later this week, including one that would allow them to beat out the N.Y. Giants for the No. 2 seed should Carolina jump to No. 1.)
More immediately, however, the Vikings can clinch the NFC North as early as Sunday with a home victory over Atlanta. Even if the Falcons win that game, the Vikings would clinch with a Bears loss Monday night against Green Bay.
"We've got some good momentum," defensive end Jared Allen said. "Winning four straight, you like that. Obviously the goal right now is to get into the tournament. I'll say we're peaking at the right time when we get into the tournament and then deep into it in January and February. We've got a goal, and we're in a position where if we win, we'll meet those goals. We don't have to worry about any of this happening or that happening. We're in control."
PHOENIX -- It's a crisp 50 degrees on Sunday morning in the desert, and we're not expecting the mercury to top the 60-degree mark. I know that comes as a huge disappointment for those hanging on through ice storms and blizzards around the country, but I'm just giving you a glimpse of the elements Minnesota and Arizona will play in later Sunday.
After I zip up my windbreaker, I'll be in the University of Phoenix press box -- along with ESPN.com colleagues John Clayton and Mike Sando -- to chronicle a game with all kinds of playoff implications. The Cardinals are looking at it as a battle for the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoff picture, while the Vikings know they need a win to maintain their one-game in the NFC North.
If all goes well, we'll check in before the game on the final results in Indianapolis (where Detroit is visiting) and Jacksonville (which is hosting Green Bay).
Until then, let's take a spin around the NFC North:
- Does the Vikings' moderately improved pass defense stand a chance against Arizona receivers Larry Fitzgerald Jr., Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston? Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune examines that and other (mis)matches.
- Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press looks at the steps that Vikings coach Brad Childress took to get his team into playoff position.
- Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel gets a head start on the overwhelming question in Green Bay: How much did the departure of Brett Favre affect the Packers this season?
- The Packers' porous run defense might catch a break in Jacksonville, notes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Colts quarterback Peyton Manning could put on a "clinic" against the Lions defense, predicts the Detroit Free Press.
- Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday. Does that mean the Lions will take him No. 1 overall in the 2009 draft? A few mock draft scenarios are already emerging.
- Chicago is already preparing for its rematch with the Packers, writes Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald.
- Nick Hut of the Northwest Herald points out the recent emergence of Devin Hester at receiver and Danieal Manning as a kickoff returner.