NFL Nation: Charley Hennigan

Final Word: NFC North

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

Oasis in desert? The Chicago Bears have lost five of their past six games and probably need to win their final two in order to reach the playoffs. Otherwise, they will become the second team since 1990 -- and the fourth since 1978, according to Cold Hard Football Facts -- to miss the postseason after starting 7-1. Also, the Bears have not missed the playoffs after a 7-1 start since 1948. There appears to be widespread national opinion that the Cardinals won't provide the Bears much resistance; the Bears are 5.5-point favorites on the road and all 14 ESPN experts picked them to win. But you wonder if that sense is based more on the way the teams played earlier this season. The Cardinals are coming off a 38-10 victory over the Detroit Lions, showing how they can overcome a punchless offense by causing turnovers. And despite a 5-9 record, the Cardinals have a legitimately tough defense. Check out the next nugget for details.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Michael DeHoog/Getty ImagesJay Cutler, who has struggled when opponents send extra pass-rushers, faces a blitz-happy Arizona defense Sunday.
Passing issues: The Bears would be well-advised to avoid passing downs by whatever means necessary. The Cardinals have one of the NFL's most frequent and effective blitz defenses, and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has struggled against extra pass-rushers all season. Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton has called for at least five rushers on 41.5 percent of opposing dropbacks this season, the NFL's second-highest rate. Opposing quarterbacks have the league's second-lowest Total Quarterback Rating against the Cardinals' blitz (23.8), taking 22 sacks, throwing nine interceptions and completing only 47 percent of their passes against it. Cutler, meanwhile, has a 15.8 QBR against extra pass-rushers. He has completed only 50 percent of his passes while throwing five interceptions and taking 12 sacks. Given the state of the Bears' offensive line, it's reasonable to envision the Cardinals swarming Cutler whenever they're in passing situations.

Tough trip: The Minnesota Vikings want to keep their playoff hopes in gear by defeating a Houston Texans team that will be playing to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Vikings are 0-5 on the road this season against teams that currently have winning records. Quarterback Christian Ponder has struggled in those games, with a combined 18.7 QBR. Tailback Adrian Peterson's pursuit of Eric Dickerson's record for rushing yards in a season will continue, and we should never underestimate the power of external factors in a player's performance. Peterson spends his offseasons in Houston and said this week he will have more than 100 family members and friends as part of his entourage at Reliant Stadium.

Brrr: More than a foot of snow fell this week on Lambeau Field, and temperatures for Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans are expected to remain under 30 degrees. The Packers clinched the NFC North last week at Soldier Field but have plenty left to play for, including a first-round bye and potentially home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Although the Packers have struggled at home in recent playoff games, it's worth noting that quarterback Aaron Rodgers' career QBR is better when the temperature is below freezing (75.6) than it is when it's above (71.5). The Titans' pass defense has allowed 26 touchdown passes, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL.

Pursuing history: Last spring, a nationally televised Week 16 game against the Atlanta Falcons seemed destined for huge implications. But in the Detroit Lions' lost season, there are now only two issues of note: receiver Calvin Johnson's pursuit of the NFL record for receiving yards in a season, and where the Lions will pick in the 2013 draft. As we've noted, Johnson needs 182 yards to break Jerry Rice's record of 1,812 yards and 329 to eclipse Charley Hennigan's record for average receiving yards per game in a season. As of this moment, the Lions stand at No. 5 in draft positioning but are within striking distance of a top-three pick. The Falcons have won four of their past five games and could clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a victory. As for Johnson's chances, the Falcons' pass defense ranks No. 17 in the NFL and is allowing 229.5 yards per game. It also has 18 interceptions, the league's fourth-best total.

(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)

Peterson, Johnson and 14-game seasons

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
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As Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson and Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson pursue single-season yardage records for their respective positions, one matter of historical importance hasn't gotten much attention: The NFL's shift to a 16-game season in 1978 gave players two extra games to set season records.

Peterson is 294 yards away from breaking Eric Dickerson's record of 2,105 rushing yards in a season. Johnson needs 182 receiving yards to eclipse Jerry Rice's record of 1,848 yards. Both Dickerson and Rice set their marks in 16-game seasons. So I thought it was worth looking at a rarely-used but perhaps more appropriate apples-to-apples comparison: Average yards per game.

The bottom line: Peterson isn't likely to hit that NFL record, but Johnson has an intriguing chance to exceed it.

O.J. Simpson averaged 143.1 rushing yards per game during his 2,003-yard season in 1973. Peterson would need 478 yards in two games, leaving him with 2,290 rushing yards on the season, to break Simpson's record. (Full list here, courtesy of pro-football-reference.com.)

On the other hand, as the chart shows, Johnson is 329 receiving yards away from exceeding Charley Hennigan's record of 124.7 receiving yards per game, set in 1961.

My calculator tells me that 329 yards over two games is an average of 164.5 yards per game. That sounds like a lot, and it is. But it's worth noting Johnson has seven career games of more than 160 receiving yards, including three this season.

We'll monitor both possibilities, but I'm most intrigued by Johnson's chances. And oh, you can see for yourself if Johnson will have a chance by watching Saturday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons on ESPN.

MegatronWatch: 182 yards to go

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
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Calvin Johnson's pursuit of the NFL record for receiving yards in a season is turning into a rout.

Johnson added another 121 yards on 10 receptions Sunday in the Detroit Lions' 38-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, leaving him 182 yards short of breaking Jerry Rice's record. Johnson has two home games, against the Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears, to make up the difference. At his current pace, he'll finish with more than 1,900 receiving yards.

The Lions are giving Johnson every opportunity they can to break the record. Sunday, they targeted him on 17 passes to bring his season total to 172 targets.

In the meantime, Johnson has already put his name in the history book. His seventh consecutive 100-yard game tied the NFL record set by Michael Irvin (1995) and Charley Hennigan (1961), and he is the first receiver in league history to register back-to-back 1,600-yard seasons. As amazing as Johnson's 2011 season was, he has almost matched his 16-game total for yardage (1,681) in 14 games this season.

Final Word: AFC South

November, 30, 2012
11/30/12
1:30
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

Big-play potential: The Colts' game in Detroit features the NFL’s top two players in receiving yards. The Lions' Calvin Johnson (1,257) and Indianapolis’ Reggie Wayne (1,105) are the primary guys in their respective offenses. Since Johnson entered the league in 2007, they are also both in the top three in the NFL in receiving yards, with Wayne second and Johnson third behind No. 1 Roddy White. We can expect both receivers to get chances downfield. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Andrew Luck has thrown 125 passes this season that have traveled at least 15 yards downfield, the most in the league. Matthew Stafford is second with 106 such attempts. Pass defense will be an issue on both sides at Ford Field. Neither team features cornerbacks of the caliber of those receivers, which means quality pass-rushing will be extra important.

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
AP Photo/David J. PhillipHouston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will match wits against Tennessee's Dowell Loggains, who will be calling plays for the first time.
Rematch: The Texans defeated the Titans 38-14 in Week 4. Houston is seeking a season sweep of the Titans for the second time in its history and first time since 2004. Jake Locker suffered a shoulder injury early in that game when an unblocked, blitzing Glover Quin drove Locker's nonthrowing shoulder into the ground. The big story is the coordinator matchup when the Titans have the ball. Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is one of the best in the business, and he will be trying to outfox Dowell Loggains, the Titans' new offensive coordinator who will be calling his first game. The Texans have allowed more than 30 points in back-to-back games after allowing that many just once in their first nine games.

Streaking with Henne? The Jaguars seek back-to-back wins for the first time since Weeks 13 and 14 of the 2010 season. In the past two games with Chad Henne doing most of the quarterbacking, the Jaguars have jumped from 14.1 points per game to 30.5, and from 263.6 yards per game to 389.5. Rookie receiver Justin Blackmon has been a big part of that, with more receiving yards in Weeks 11 and 12 (298) than he had in the first 10 games (250). But Blackmon and the team’s other top receiver, Cecil Shorts, didn’t practice Thursday because of leg injuries; their status for Sunday’s game in Buffalo is in doubt.

Heading for 1,000: Chris Johnson needs 58 rushing yards for his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard season to start his career. He would become the eighth player in NFL history to accomplish that, joining Curtis Martin and Barry Sanders (who did it for 10 consecutive seasons). The others were LaDainian Tomlinson (eight), Eric Dickerson (seven), Corey Dillon (six), Tony Dorsett and Eddie George (five each). In Johnson’s past six games, he has averaged 6.2 yards per carry and broken off 17 10-yard runs.

Also: Andre Johnson's 461 receiving yards in his past two games are the most in consecutive games in league history, per Elias Sports Bureau. With a 152-yard day, he would post the best three-game stretch ever, passing Charley Hennigan’s 612 yards for the Oilers in 1961. Johnson has been the Texans’ targeted receiver on 40.7 percent of the team’s play-action passes the past two games. Before that, he was the target on just 22.4 percent. … The Bills have been outscored by 72 points in the second half. … With a victory, Luck would become the first rookie quarterback selected No. 1 overall in the common draft era to win eight games. … The Titans rank 31st in points allowed (30.5 per game) and the Texans rank second in scoring (29.7). … Arian Foster has six consecutive 100-yard games on the road. He has scored a touchdown in every game but one.

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