NFC North: Third and one17

Third and one: Packers

January, 4, 2010
1/04/10
12:00
PM ET
After Green Bay’s 33-7 victory at Arizona, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:

  1. Sunday’s game put a capper on what is now an undeniable conclusion: Coach Mike McCarthy’s decision to shift to a 3-4 defense was a success. There were some growing pains and a few low points, but ultimately the Packers finished with the second-ranked defense in the NFL. After intercepting Cardinals quarterbacks three times Sunday, the Packers finished the season with an NFL-leading 40 takeaways. The trend continued even after season-ending injuries to linebacker Aaron Kampman and cornerback Al Harris. The defense faces a tough task against Arizona’s three-receiver set next weekend, but it played a big role in the Packers finishing the season with seven victories in eight games.
  2. I have no problem with McCarthy’s decision to play his starters into the second half Sunday. Barring unusual environmental circumstances -- bad weather, poor field conditions -- there is no more risk to using a player in the third quarter of Week 17 as there is in the first quarter of a playoff game. I certainly appreciated McCarthy’s approach more than that of Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt, who benched some starters early but left others -- including All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald -- on the field surrounded by backups. McCarthy left no doubt about his intentions.
  3. In his second season as the Packers' starter, quarterback Aaron Rodgers finished with the NFL’s fourth-best passer rating (103.2) and the sixth-most yardage (4,434). He also tied four players, including Minnesota’s Brett Favre, for the second-fewest interceptions (seven) among qualified quarterbacks. Most importantly, Rodgers brought his career record as a starter to 17-15. His fourth-quarter performance last month at Pittsburgh would have been legendary had the Steelers not scored on the game’s final play. It’s this simple: The Packers enter the playoffs led by one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks this season.
And here is one question I’m still asking:

There’s little doubt that cornerback Charles Woodson will start this Sunday. But will he be limited by the shoulder injury he seemed to aggravate against the Cardinals? Woodson will be a critical component of the Packers’ scheme to stop Arizona’s dynamic passing game. He’ll need all of his faculties. Woodson told reporters that the injury won’t be an issue, but you never like to see your best player wincing on the sideline a week before the playoffs begin.

Third and one: Lions

January, 4, 2010
1/04/10
11:40
AM ET
After Detroit’s 37-23 loss to Chicago, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:
  1. The Lions hired two well-respected defensive minds last winter in head coach Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. But in the end, opponents gashed them at nearly the same rate as they did last season. After the Bears put up 418 total yards Sunday, the Lions once again finished last in the NFL in yards allowed (392.1) and points (30.9) per game. Their run defense actually improved slightly, moving up from No. 32 to No. 25, but their pass defense plummeted to No. 32. Opposing quarterbacks had an incredible 107 passer rating. Of all the players directly involved in pass defense this season, only one stood out as a long-term keeper: Rookie safety Louis Delmas. The Lions have a long way to go on that side of the ball.
  2. The most positive aspect of the Lions’ season was the emergence of multiple members of their draft class, with Delmas at the top of the list. Delmas, linebacker DeAndre Levy, quarterback Matthew Stafford and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill all figure as starters in 2010. The same goes for tight end Brandon Pettigrew when he returns from knee surgery. But the Lions’ talent pool is so thin that it will take several years of similar drafts to pull its roster to NFL standards.
  3. Backup tailback Maurice Morris rushed for 228 yards in three starts after Kevin Smith was lost for the season, including 65 yards Sunday against the Bears. That represented an uptick from Smith’s 13-game production, but it’s still hard to avoid the conclusion that the Lions must address their offensive line more seriously in future offseasons. Their decision to mostly stand pat last winter was not rewarded. Perhaps this is the year they find a replacement for left tackle Jeff Backus, who could then move to left guard.

And here is one question I’m still asking:
What kind of season would the Lions have had if they didn’t finish the year with 17 players on injured reserve? That list includes significant contributors like Stafford, Pettigrew, Smith, right guard Stephen Peterman and cornerback Eric King. Linebacker Ernie Sims, receiver Calvin Johnson and cornerback Phillip Buchanon were also limited by injuries for much of the season. From the first day of training camp, the Lions were the most hobbled team in the NFC North. I imagine the Lions will spend a good part of their offseason evaluating their training, strength and conditioning practices.

Third and one: Bears

January, 4, 2010
1/04/10
11:20
AM ET
After Chicago’s 37-23 victory over Detroit, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:

  1. Stranger things have happened, but I would be surprised if the Bears fire coach Lovie Smith. There’s no doubt they would prefer not to pay him $11 million to walk away, as his contract would require. But if they were looking for an excuse to do nothing, consecutive victories to end the season probably provided it. I think Smith and the front office should face serious questions for why the Bears lost seven of eight games during a crucial part of the season. But more than anything, I want to know who is in charge. Who makes the final decision on Smith? Is it the McCaskey family? Team president Ted Phillips? General manager Jerry Angelo? Will Smith stay because no there is no credible person authorized to fire him? Call me crazy, but I want to know who is pulling the strings these days at Halas Hall.
  2. Assuming it happens, part of Smith’s deal to return should be to hire a legitimate defensive coordinator. This season was a referendum on Smith’s ability to personally improve the defense; he took over as the primary playcaller and left quasi-coordinator Bob Babich to coach the linebackers. The defense had its struggles last season, but it fell off a cliff in 2009. The final numbers are in the books, and the Bears ranked No. 21 in the NFL in points allowed per game (23.4), and were No. 27 in third-down conversion percentage (41). Smith needs to devote someone else full time to the role of resurrecting this scheme.
  3. Quarterback Jay Cutler gave us plenty to consider as we head into the offseason. It appears that offensive coordinator Ron Turner is on his way out the door, but whoever calls the Bears offense next season should make a point to let Cutler out of the pocket as much as possible. There’s absolutely no doubt he feels more comfortable in that setting. Allowed to break free much more frequently over the past two games, Cutler threw eight touchdown passes and one interception. Three of those scores went to receiver Devin Aromashodu, whose late-season emergence provided Cutler another level of credibility within the organization. Cutler lobbied for his presence all season and finally got his wish in Week 14. From that point, Aromashodu caught 22 passes for 282 yards and four touchdowns.
And here is one question I’m still asking:

Will the Bears blow up their defensive personnel this offseason or maintain the current nucleus? It’s already pretty likely that defensive end Adewale Ogunleye won’t be back. What will happen to defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who finished the season with a career-low 2.5 sacks? What about the secondary? Was Zack Bowman’s six interceptions enough to guarantee him a starting job opposite Charles Tillman? Does any safety on this roster deserve to return?

Third and one: Vikings

January, 4, 2010
1/04/10
11:00
AM ET
After Minnesota’s 44-7 victory over the New York Giants, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:

  1. I thought tailback Adrian Peterson handled himself well after splitting carries with Chester Taylor against the Giants and finishing the season with about 50 less rushes than last season. Peterson said he would have no complaints as long as the Vikings are winning, and noted fairly that much of quarterback Brett Favre’s success can be traced to the respect opposing defenses showed Peterson and the running game. Peterson estimated that defenses put at least one extra man in the box “98 percent” of the time this season. If that number is accurate, it’s a wonder Peterson finished with nearly 1,400 yards. It’s also important to note Peterson contributed in other ways. He more than doubled his career high with 43 receptions and led the NFL with 18 touchdowns.
  2. I was a proponent of the “quantity over quality” theory in the running game, but in the end the Vikings got themselves in trouble when they tried to “exert their will” and force the run late this season. It wasn’t until they shifted back to the passing game that their offense caught fire again. Here’s my amateur interpretation: The Vikings did a decent job of filling two spots on their offensive line with young players, John Sullivan at center and Phil Loadholt at right tackle, but ultimately they weren’t strong enough to force the run when the blocking numbers weren’t there for them. On the flip side, their receivers and tight ends were left in single coverage too often to ignore. That’s part of the reason receiver Sidney Rice finished fourth in the NFL this season with 1,312 receiving yards. It’s why Percy Harvin tied for first among rookies with 60 catches, and it’s why Visanthe Shiancoe finished second among tight ends with 11 touchdown receptions.
  3. Defensive end Jared Allen was animated Sunday in the postgame locker room, claiming the Vikings defense had re-established its dominance by shutting down the Giants. I think Allen should be careful with such claims. The Vikings played well against an opponent that shut it down several weeks ago. It doesn’t make up for giving up 36 points to Chicago last Monday -- or 26 points to Carolina two weeks ago or 30 to Arizona a month ago. There is much left to be determined about this group. Allen? He managed only two sacks over the Vikings’ final five games (and four over their final eight), but still finished the season ranked second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks overall.
And here is one question I’m still asking:

I couldn’t have been the only one who noticed the Vikings held a 41-0 lead at one point in the third quarter Sunday, could I? That was the Giants’ winning score in the 2000 NFC Championship Game, one immortalized by receiver Randy Moss’ “41-donut” catchphrase. Redemption arrived a mere 10 years later!

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