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Audibles: NFC North Week 3 preview

9/19/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-1) at Chicago Bears (1-1), 1 p.m. ET
If the Bears are going to contend for a playoff position this season, this is the kind of game they need to win. It's never too early to start thinking of games against NFC opponents as potential wild-card tiebreakers.

The Bears must enter this game assuming they won't have the services of their best scoring weapon. Receiver/kick returner Devin Hester has torn cartilage in his rib cage and was having trouble breathing earlier this week. Even if he makes a miracle recovery and is medically cleared to take the field, it's hard to imagine he would remotely resemble his usual self.

That puts more pressure than ever on the Bears defense to control the Tampa Bay offense and put its own offense in favorable scoring position. If you're interested in such things, the Bears are 3-0 all-time in home openers against the Buccaneers.

Detroit Lions (0-2) at San Francisco 49ers (1-1), 4:05 p.m. ET

It's only fitting that two Lions castoffs have a chance to usher their former team to an 0-3 start. Deposed offensive coordinator Mike Martz has installed J.T. O'Sullivan as his starting quarterback in San Francisco and would like nothing more than to run up a 40-point shellacking against the Lions' porous defense.

Since the 1970 merger, only three NFL teams have given up more points in their first two games than the Lions. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry said during the week that his group has been "insanely inconsistent." One of those words is appropriate.

It will be interesting to see if the Lions can gain any traction in their transition to a ball-control offense. At this point, the best thing they can do for the defense is keep it off the field. So far, however, the Lions' offense has held the ball for an average of 27 minutes, 42 seconds per game. That mark, the fourth-worst in the NFL, has put far too much pressure on a defense that isn't ready to handle it.

Dallas Cowboys (2-0) at Green Bay Packers (2-0), 8:15 p.m. ET

Everyone's expecting a track meet in a game that features two of the NFL's top 6 offenses, and we can't disagree. Several Packers players have hinted a surprise defensive game plan is in place; if true, it's an admission they probably wouldn't slow down the Cowboys out of their base set.

What type of alignment could Green Bay employ? A base nickel? More aggressive blitzing? Anything they do will be with at least one backup safety already in the game. Atari Bigby is expected to sit out because of a hamstring injury; Aaron Rouse is his likely replacement.

If you were the Packers, would you try to match the Cowboys score-for-score? Or would you slow down your own offense and try to keep them off the field? That issue no doubt surfaced in the Packers' offices this week. There is also the possibility they'll face a fatigued opponent after the Cowboys' wild Monday Night Football game against Philadelphia.

In the end, however, the Packers will to need all the points they can get. Start your engines.

Carolina Panthers (2-0) at Minnesota Vikings (0-2), 1 p.m. ET

Congratulations. The Vikings have the NFC North's first must-win game of the season. An 0-3 start, followed by road games at Tennessee and New Orleans, could scuttle their season before they knew what hit them.

The best thing the Vikings have going for them Sunday is the strength of their team -- run defense -- should be able to neutralize one of the Panthers' strengths. Carolina tailbacks DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will have to work for every yard.

But, as always, the question comes down to whether the Vikings offense can put up enough points to support the defense. This week, there are a number of moving parts.

The Vikings are hoping for a spark from new quarterback Gus Frerotte, but in reality he had a heavy week of adjustment after learning late Tuesday night he would replace starter Tarvaris Jackson. Tailback Adrian Peterson, meanwhile, was limited all week because of a tight hamstring. At the very least, the Vikings probably won't hand it to him 29 times for the second consecutive week.