NFL Nation: Marion Barber

Roger Staubach and Drew PearsonAP Photo/Bill Kostroum
Score: Cowboys 17, Vikings 14
Date: Dec. 28, 1975 Site: Metropolitan Stadium

With nearly 40,000 votes cast, Roger Staubach’s Hail Mary pass to Drew Pearson was voted as the most memorable play in Dallas Cowboys' history by the readers.

Troy Aikman’s fourth-quarter pass to Alvin Harper in the 1992 NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers that set in motion the 1990s dynasty finished second. Bob Lilly's sack of Bob Griese in Super Bowl VI was a distant third even if it propelled the Cowboys to their first championship.


Which is the most memorable play in Cowboys' history?


Discuss (Total votes: 38,414)

The voters got this one right. Staubach is the most iconic player in franchise history, and that play is frozen in time. It was one of the most iconic plays in NFL history and introduced “Hail Mary,” into the league’s lexicon. You cannot write the history of the NFL without that play.

To recap the play: With time running out in a 1975 divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, the Cowboys had the ball at midfield and needed a miracle. They had dominated statistically, but the Vikings had a 14-10 lead.

Staubach pumped to his left after taking the shotgun snap, in hopes of moving safety Paul Krause away from the sideline. As he pumped, Staubach said he nearly lost the ball and as a result the pass was underthrown.

Subsequently, Pearson had to pull up and either knocked Nate Wright down (Minnesota's version) or made an excellent adjustment to the ball (Dallas' version) to score the winning touchdown, pinning the ball against his right hip.

Some of you wondered why Tony Dorsett's 99-yard run, Emmitt Smith's carry in which he broke Walter Payton’s rushing record or his stiff-arm of Lawrence Taylor playing with a separated shoulder, Clint Longley's Thanksgiving Day heave against the Redskins or even Leon Lett's miscue in Super Bowl XXVII didn’t make the list.

Two of my personal favorites: Marion Barber’s run out of the end zone against the New England Patriots breaking seven tackles and Tony Romo's first-down scramble vs. the St. Louis Rams after a shotgun snap sailed over his head didn’t make the list either.

There needed to be some historic value to the play. The Hail Mary had that, so did Aikman-to-Harper and Lilly’s sack.

But there’s no question which play had the most value.
IRVING, Texas -- Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:

If you want to read Part 1 of the mailbag, click here.

Away we go:

IRVING, Texas -- While we have discussed the long-term futures of Tyron Smith and Dez Bryant with the Dallas Cowboys this offseason, one player we have not touched on much is DeMarco Murray.

Murray is scheduled to be a free agent after this season. He was named to the Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns, and catching 53 passes for 350 yards and a touchdown. When Murray has played well and been given a chance to carry the ball, the Cowboys have won.

But running backs’ values have dropped dramatically in the past few years. If they aren’t Adrian Peterson, they don’t get paid the mega deals. And the guys that have been paid in recent years, like Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew, have taken a downturn.

In 2008, the Cowboys signed Marion Barber to a seven-year deal worth $45 million that included $16 million in guarantees.

Those days are long gone.

The best free-agent deals for running backs so far have been to Donald Brown and Toby Gerhart, who received three-year, $10.5 million deals from the San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively. Brown has never rushed for more than 645 yards in a season. Gerhart has never rushed for more than 531 yards, though he was playing behind Peterson.

Knowshon Moreno is joining the Miami Dolphins on a one-year, $3 million deal after rushing for 1,038 yards in 2013 for the Denver Broncos. Rashad Jennings received a three-year, $10 million deal from the New York Giants after rushing for 733 yards last season with the Oakland Raiders.

Murray had his best season in 2013, but he missed two games and has yet to play a full season. But his advisors have to see how the market is going for running backs. There wasn’t a running back taken in the first round last year. The top running back chosen in 2012, Trent Richardson (No. 3 overall), was traded to the Indianapolis Colts last season.

Murray will make $1.406 million in 2014 as part of his rookie deal.

The Cowboys could lock him in for another three seasons at a good number and still have plenty in reserve for Smith and Bryant.

Rapid Reaction: Dallas Cowboys

December, 22, 2013

LANDOVER, Md. -- A few thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 24-23 victory over the Washington Redskins:

What it means for the Cowboys: They’re alive. For the third straight year, the Cowboys will play a Week 17 game for the right to win the NFC East and make the playoffs. Somehow.

Trailing 23-14, the Cowboys rallied on Tony Romo's 10-yard touchdown throw to DeMarco Murray on a fourth-and-goal play with 1:08 to go. The defense was able to come up with a stop, and now the Cowboys welcome the Philadelphia Eagles to AT&T Stadium next week to try to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The Cowboys are 5-0 in the NFC East for the first time since 1998 and snapped a two-game losing streak.

It was not pretty, but it will do. It also continued to show the team’s ability to bounce back from tough losses. The Cowboys did it earlier in the season against the Redskins after their 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos, and they did it after their 31-30 loss to the Detroit Lions when they beat the Minnesota Vikings.

Stock watch: Terrance Williams, rising. On the winning drive, Williams caught two passes for 66 yards, including a 51-yarder that set up Murray’s touchdown catch. Williams finished the day with four catches for 84 yards, which is his second-most in a game this season.

Murray hits mark: It should have happened last week against the Green Bay Packers, but DeMarco Murray went over 1,000 yards on the season with a 43-yard run in the second quarter.

Murray finished with 96 yards on 22 carries and enters the final game of the season with 1,073 yards, which is even more impressive considering he missed two games earlier in the season with a knee injury. He is the first Cowboys running back with 1,000 yards in a season since Julius Jones had 1,084 in 2006. Murray also had his ninth rushing touchdown of the season when he bulled his way in from the 3 on the Cowboys’ first drive. It’s the most rushing touchdowns by a Dallas back since Marion Barber had 10 in 2007.

Oh, by the way, he scored the winning touchdown.

Defense comes up with stops: The offense did the defense no favors by starting out the second half with turnovers on consecutive possessions that led to Washington touchdowns and a 20-14 lead.

The Cowboys were able to overcome a bad penalty by J.J. Wilcox on a third-down play to hold Washington to a field goal, then came up with the only punt of the second half when Orlando Scandrick broke up a Kirk Cousins pass to Pierre Garcon. They also flustered Cousins into poor throws on the final drive.

What’s next: The Cowboys close the regular season at AT&T Stadium against the Eagles. The Cowboys beat Philadelphia 17-3 on Oct. 20 at Lincoln Financial Field with what was their best defensive effort of the season. They kept LeSean McCoy in check (55 yards), limited Nick Foles to 80 yards passing before knocking him out of the game and intercepted Matt Barkley three times in the fourth quarter.
There is no way to know, as we sit here in July of 2012, whether Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is going to be the next Emmitt Smith, the next Julius Jones or where he will eventually fall on the vast spectrum in between. But as Calvin Watkins writes for, what we do know is that the Cowboys seem to trust Murray as their workhorse back in a way that they haven't trusted very many lately:
Jason Garrett doesn't mind running the ball, as long as the offensive line and fullbacks make the necessary holes to get it going.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireThe Cowboys are counting on DeMarco Murray to be a workhorse this season.
The numbers indicate that Garrett trusts Murray. He had five games with 20 or more carries, the most for any running back since Garrett became offensive coordinator in 2007. Murray also became the first back under Garrett to have four consecutive games with 20 or more carries. Felix Jones, Murray's backup, has had just two games with 20 or more carries since he was drafted in 2008. Marion Barber, a former starter, had four 20-carry games in 2008, but he only reached that mark once more before being released.

When I watch Murray run, I see a guy who looks like a workhorse back -- who enjoys contact, who runs hard and who isn't afraid of the workload. Now, a guy like that might not be able to hold up, long-term, in today's NFL. But the Cowboys see in Murray a back who can be their starter in the short-term -- and in a way that fewer and fewer teams are using starting running backs. This is not a time-share situation in Dallas. If Murray is recovered from his ankle injury and fully healthy, he's going to get the carries, and Jones is going to be the backup, as he was last season before Murray got hurt. How long that can last is anyone's guess, but at least for right now, Murray's the back in whom the Cowboys have put their trust.

NFC North free-agency assessment

March, 30, 2012
AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Chicago Bears

Key additions: Running back Michael Bush, linebacker/special teams Blake Costanzo, quarterback Jason Campbell, receiver Brandon Marshall (trade), receiver Devin Thomas, receiver/returner Eric Weems.

Key losses: Running back Marion Barber (retired), cornerback Zack Bowman, cornerback Corey Graham.

Come on back: Lost in the shuffle of the Marshall trade were the return of three free agents who should play key roles in 2012. Tight end Kellen Davis figures to get an expanded role in offensive coordinator Mike Tice's scheme, especially as a receiver. Cornerback Tim Jennings should retain his starting role opposite Charles Tillman, with D.J. Moore in the nickel. And safety Craig Steltz will provide reliable depth at safety and will be one of the Bears' special teams leaders after the departure of Graham and Bowman.

What's next: There is no urgency yet, but the Bears will need to make peace with tailback Matt Forte at some point before the summer. Forte isn't happy that he's been made the Bears' franchise player and briefly lost his public composure when Bush signed a deal that guaranteed him about the same amount of money as the franchise tag will pay Forte. It's not a big deal if Forte skips the Bears' offseason program or even misses a few days of training camp, but the Bears will want to find a way to eliminate this issue by early August. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be surprising if the Bears address their offensive line during the draft.

Detroit Lions

Key additions: Defensive end Everette Brown, cornerback Jacob Lacey.

Key losses: Cornerback Eric Wright.

All in the family: With the exception of Wright, the Lions were able to retain the core of their 10-6 team. Among those who re-signed: Tackle Jeff Backus, safety Erik Coleman, defensive end Andre Fluellen, quarterback Shaun Hill and linebacker Stephen Tulloch. And don't forget that receiver Calvin Johnson is locked up for perhaps the rest of his career. He signed a new eight-year contract worth $132 million.

What's next: The Lions appear interested in adding competition at safety, having hosted free agent O.J. Atogwe earlier this month. Adding a safety remains a possibility, if not through free agency, then probably through the draft. And while Backus is re-signed for two years, it wouldn't be surprising if the Lions look for a long-term replacement in the draft.

Green Bay Packers

Key additions: Defensive lineman Daniel Muir, center Jeff Saturday, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.

Key losses: Quarterback Matt Flynn, center Scott Wells.

Shocker: The Packers usually do whatever it takes to keep their own players and avoid having to search the free-agent market for other the castoffs of other teams. They started off that way by re-signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract, but when they were unable to sign center Scott Wells, they quickly targeted veteran Jeff Saturday and made him their first starting-caliber free-agent signee in five years. General manager Ted Thompson also authorized the acquisition of Hargrove and the pursuit of Dave Tollefson.

What's next: It's not out of the question that the Packers will add a veteran pass-rusher, whether at defensive end or linebacker. Then they'll get back into their comfort zone and start preparing for the draft, where it's reasonable to think they'll use at least one of their 12 picks on a center while also continuing to pursue pass-rushers.

Minnesota Vikings

Key additions: Cornerback Zack Bowman, tight end John Carlson, running back Jerome Felton and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.

Key losses: Nose tackle Remi Ayodele (release), guards Anthony Herrera (release) and Steve Hutchinson (release), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (retire), running back Jerome Felton.

Methodical methodology: The Vikings made one big-money signing, bringing in Carlson as a new weapon for quarterback Christian Ponder, and otherwise have spent their offseason getting younger and signing complementary players. General manager Rick Spielman wants to end a cycle of seeking blue-chip players via free agency and instead count on the drafts for his difference-makers.

What's next: One way or the other, the Vikings need to find a deep threat for Ponder. The draft would seem the most likely place for that will happen. They are also midway through a rebuild of the secondary that could use at least one more cornerback and perhaps two safeties.
It appears that former Chicago Bears tight end Greg Olsen gave us some pretty accurate insight into the mind-set of current Bears tailback Matt Forte.

It seems clear, via Twitter, that Forte didn't take it well Thursday when the Bears signed tailback Michael Bush to a four-year contract worth $14 million, including $7 million guaranteed. Forte, who was named the Bears' franchise player this month in lieu of a long-term deal, dropped the dreaded "d" word.

Forte: "There's only so many times a man that has done everything he's been asked to do can be disrespected! Guess the GOOD GUYS do finish last...."

*UPDATE: Forte's agent, Adisa Bakari, offered some context to the tweet in a statement to's Michael C. Wright. Bakari: "Since drafting Matt in 2008, the Bears have signed Kevin Jones, Chester Taylor and Marion Barber, all ostensibly to serve as Matt's backup. To sign yet another running back, prior to completing a contract with Matt suggests disregard for Matt and his contributions to the Bears."

Unfortunately, we don't have the full set of facts to render our own judgment. We know the Bears guaranteed Bush ($7 million) roughly the same amount as Forte would be paid ($7.74 million) as a franchise player this year. We also know the Bears have now issued multi-year deals to veteran backups in each of the past three years.

What we don't know, and it's a rather big piece of the puzzle, is what Forte has turned down. Negotiations have taken place on and off for more than a year. If the Bears were somehow offering Forte less, or about the same, as they have given Chester Taylor, Marion Barber and Bush, then Forte would have a legitimate argument.

But if Forte is upset because the Bears haven't offered him an elite contract that approaches, say, $25-$30 million in guarantees, then the Bush signing should have nothing to do with his angst. He might be upset with the Bears for not valuing him as an elite back, and could perhaps make an argument that he deserves that payday. But a market-level deal for a backup is a separate issue altogether.

As we all know, reason and rational thought don't always rule contract negotiations. What's important is that Forte is among the Bears' best players, one they have built their offense around in recent years, and he's not happy. That's a problem for the Bears, regardless of whether Forte's anger is well-grounded or unfounded.

In our previous post, we discussed the potential impact of Michael Bush's arrival in Chicago on the Bears' negotiations with tailback Matt Forte. I wasn't ready to consider it a legitimate affront to Forte, who reportedly has turned down a more lucrative offer than what Bush received, but it's worth adding a player's perspective.

Via Twitter, former Bears tight end Greg Olsen made clear that Forte would be well within his rights to be upset. Bush is the third backup running back to receive a multiyear contract from the Bears in as many years, following Marion Barber and Chester Taylor. Olsen:

When a follower asked if Olsen was bitter because the Bears weren't willing to offer him a multiyear deal and eventually traded him, Olsen responded: "wrong [couldn't] be happier in Carolina. Just pointing out how its viewed around league."

You can agree or disagree with Olsen's reasoning, especially as it relates to having a reliable backup running back at one of the most physical positions in the game. But a number of Bears players stepped forward last season on the topic, and I think Olsen gives us a fair glimpse of how an NFL player views the standoff between the Bears and Forte. And let's just say it won't endear the team's position to any of them.

A number of wild theories began circulating in the moments after the Chicago Bears announced a four-year contract agreement with running back Michael Bush. So let's do our best to sift through what the deal does -- and, just as importantly, doesn't -- mean.
  • Bush is the Bears' best attempt yet at finding a reliable backup to starter Matt Forte, one whose skills offer the team more complete coverage from the position. We've noted several times that Forte doesn't perform well in short-yardage and goal-to-go situations. Last season, Bush scored seven touchdowns for the Oakland Raiders on goal-to-go downs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Chester Taylor failed as Forte's backup in 2010, and Marion Barber (2011) figures to follow him out the door shortly.
  • Bush got a nice contract that could top out at $14 million and includes $7 million guaranteed. That's better than backup money, but Bush is better than your standard backup. He started 19 games in four seasons with the Raiders.
  • That money suggests the Bears felt they needed protection against a possible holdout from Forte, who hasn't agreed to a long-term deal and hasn't signed his franchise tender. We're a long way from that point, but midsummer is not the time to start scrambling for insurance. The best options are available now.
  • Some of you might think Forte would be annoyed to see a third consecutive veteran walk through the door with a multiyear contract while he awaits one himself. It's true that Taylor ($7 million) earned more than him in 2010, as did Barber ($2.5m) in 2011. This year, Bush's $7 million guarantee is close to the $7.74 million franchise tag that Forte will play under if he doesn't agree to a longer deal. But I think the Bears are willing to pay Forte more than his backup. Whether they are willing to pay him what he wants is another question.
  • Regardless, I don't think Bush's arrival will make Forte any more or less likely to hold out. He has a number he wants the Bears to get to. Will it make the Bears less likely to meet that number because they have Bush? They might want Forte to think so, but ultimately they know they need Forte in their lineup.
  • When you hear the name "Michael Bush," many of you think of the terrible broken leg he suffered in 2006 as a senior at Louisville. The injury required the insertion of a steel rod and essentially cost him two years of football. But since returning to the field in 2008, he has played in 61 out of a possible 64 games.
  • The Brandon Marshall trade will define the Bears' offseason, but no less impressive has been their determination to beef up depth with highly paid veterans. Bush is the most notable example, but it's worth pointing out that backup quarterback Jason Campbell will earn $3.4 million, while kick returner Eric Weems got a $1.5 million signing bonus on top of a $700,000 base salary.

NFC North Quick Hits: Monday

March, 12, 2012
I have no idea if this is our last post of the day or if we'll have five more before we call it a night. That's how crazy the NFL news cycle is at the moment. But we've had a collection of newsbits hit the wire in the past few hours, so let's bring them all together while we have a moment — in quick-hitting fashion, of course.

Item: The NFL has taken $36 million in salary cap space from the Washington Redskins and $10 million from the Dallas Cowboys for two-year-old contract violations.
Comment: Each NFC North team will receive $1.6 million in additional cap space as a result. Yee-haw!

Item: The Detroit Lions released tight end Will Heller.
Comment: Heller was due a roster bonus of $200,000 and would have received a base salary of just under $1 million in 2012. As cold as it sounds, you don't need to pay your third tight end that kind of money.

Item: The Chicago Bears issued a low tender of $1.26 million to running back Kahlil Bell, a restricted free agent.
Comment: The Bears have the right to match any contract offer Bell might receive, but they would get no compensation if he departs. At this moment, he appears in line to be Matt Forte's primary backup in 2012. Marion Barber isn't expected back.

Item: The Vikings aren't expected to tender linebacker/special teams ace Kenny Onatolu, according to Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Comment: The fate of the Vikings' other restricted free agent, running back Lorenzo Booker, has yet to be learned.

Item: The Green Bay Packers are entering into their final hours of exclusive negotiating with center Scott Wells, a pending free agent.
Comment: The Packers have a history of last-minute agreements, but Wells might feel compelled to test his market value before being satisfied with what the Packers have offered.

Item: I can't count how many people have asked for updates on the status of Packers left tackle Chad Clifton and receiver Donald Driver.
Comment: If either player has restructured his contract and/or been informed of his release, it hasn't been made public. That's all I can tell you at this moment.

NFC North Stock Watch

December, 27, 2011
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


1. Secondary play in Chicago and Minnesota: Between the two of them, the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings have maybe one or two defensive backs who should be considered 2012 starters heading into the offseason. Bears cornerback Charles Tillman qualifies, and perhaps Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield will as well if he returns healthy from a fractured collarbone. Otherwise, the Bears and Vikings need a serious overhaul to their defensive backfields. Both teams tried season-long rotations at safety, neither of which led to any personnel conclusions, and cornerback play outside of Tillman has been atrocious for both teams. It will probably be a multiyear process for these franchises to rebuild these positions. With Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler in this division, they better hurry.

2. Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: We all remember ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer's harsh criticism of Ponder shortly after the draft. In brief, Dilfer said Ponder looks the part of an NFL quarterback but quickly falls from his comfort zone and loses accuracy under pressure. Dilfer softened some of that analysis after Ponder's relatively strong debut, but we should note that Ponder has been one of the NFL's worst quarterbacks against extra pass-rushers this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he is completing about 39 percent of his passes when opponents send five or more pass-rushers. The only player with less success against the blitz? Denver Broncos quarterback/running back Tim Tebow. It's not necessarily a warning sign if a rookie doesn't perform well under pressure, but to this point Ponder's performance hasn't veered much from Dilfer's original analysis.

3. Marion Barber, Bears running back: Barber's mental errors in a loss earlier this month to the Broncos, and his inability to keep his troublesome calf healthy, would seem to spell the end of his short tenure with the Bears. Kahlil Bell's hard-charging 123-yard performance Sunday night offers the Bears a much younger option for the role of backing up starter Matt Forte. It was a nice run, as they say.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Pettigrew
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesBrandon Pettigrew has been a productive weapon for the Lions this season.

1. Home-field advantage: The Packers have a quirky history when it comes to playing at home in the playoffs. In the big picture, the state of Wisconsin has provided one of the best home-field advantages in professional sports. The Packers are 15-3 all-time at home in the playoffs, including games played in Milwaukee. But those three losses have come in their past five playoff games at home: In 2003 to the Atlanta Falcons, in 2004 to the Vikings and 2007 to the New York Giants. One of the two victories, meanwhile, came in overtime to the Seattle Seahawks. Recently, at least, opponents haven't been intimidated by playing at Lambeau Field.

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions tight end: A significant debate erupted in 2009 when the Lions used the No. 20 overall pick to draft Pettigrew, passing up offensive lineman Michael Oher and receiver Percy Harvin, among others. But the Lions insisted that a multi-faceted tight end was critical to their offense, and they have followed through by utilizing Pettigrew as much as any team in the NFL. The Lions have used him as an extension of their running game, and although he is averaging a modest 8.7 yards per reception, his total of 76 catches ranks third among tight ends. By all accounts, Pettigrew is an excellent blocker as well. The Lions have gotten by this far with Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus as their tackles, minimizing the need for Oher. And while Harvin would have been a nice addition, the Lions have found value by signing veteran Nate Burleson and using a second-round pick to draft Titus Young.

3. T.J. Lang, Green Bay Packers offensive lineman: When the season began, how many people would have chosen Lang as the Packers' most valuable offensive lineman? Not me. Lang had been an inconsistent starter and player who couldn't find a position and was behind a rookie on the depth chart when the season began. But Lang outplayed first-round pick Derek Sherrod in camp to win the left guard job and has provided a seamless transition from departed starter Daryn Colledge. And when the Packers needed someone to jump over to right tackle after injuries to Bryan Bulaga and Sherrod, Lang successfully made the move. On Sunday night, at least, he held his own against Bears pass-rushers Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije. Center Scott Wells might be the Packers' best offensive lineman this season, but not many left guards could jump out to right tackle as well as Lang appeared to do Sunday night.

Devin Hester active for Bears

December, 25, 2011
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Chicago Bears will play their top rivals Sunday night without their top two running backs and appear to be bracing for limited duty from receiver/kick returner Devin Hester.

Hester is active but the Bears also have receiver Max Komar in uniform for the first time all season.

Matt Forte (knee) and Marion Barber (calf) are inactive, as expected. Kahlil Bell is expected to get his second NFL start.

The Bears also deactivated rookie quarterback Nathan Enderle, meaning that deposed starter Caleb Hanie is the only quarterback available to play in relief of new starter Josh McCown.

The Green Bay Packers will have linebacker Desmond Bishop (calf) in uniform for the first time since Thanksgiving Day. Meanwhile, defensive end Mike Neal (shoulder) is in uniform, but the Packers announced that Howard Green will start for Ryan Pickett at left defensive end and that C.J. Wilson will start at right defensive end.

The team also confirmed that T.J. Lang will start at right tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith will start at left guard.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 23, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 16:

Busted rivalry: When the NFL released its schedule this spring, most of us had high expectations for a late-December matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. Instead, an injury-devastated Bears team will limp north as (deserved) 13-point underdogs. It's possible the Packers will have clinched home-field advantage even before taking the field Sunday night, if the San Francisco 49ers lose Saturday at the Seattle Seahawks. If not, the Packers will attempt to secure it against a team playing without quarterback Jay Cutler, running backs Matt Forte and Marion Barber, and receiver Johnny Knox. Third-string running back Kahlil Bell is expected to start, pairing with third-string quarterback Josh McCown -- who has a history of helping the Packers' playoff positioning. (See: Noooooooooooooooo!) One other interesting bit of history: The Packers are one of five teams in NFL history to open a season 13-0 and then lose in their 14th game. All four of the other teams lost their 15th game, too. That list includes the 2009 and 2005 Indianapolis Colts, the 2009 New Orleans Saints and the 1998 Denver Broncos.

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireGreen Bay's James Starks is expected to play Sunday against the Bears.
Packers run game: For several reasons, Sunday night's game would be an obvious target for the Packers to rely on and enhance their running game. James Starks (ankle) and Brandon Saine (concussion) are expected to return. The Packers will start a makeshift offensive line that likely will include T.J. Lang at right tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith at left guard; the best way for offensive linemen to get comfortable is via run blocking. And it's also worth repeating that the Bears historically have done a good job limiting Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' downfield opportunities. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers has completed only five of 26 attempts on throws against the Bears that traveled in the air 21 yards or more. He's thrown one touchdown, a game-winner to receiver Greg Jennings in 2009, and two interceptions on those passes.

Detroit's challenge: The Detroit Lions will clinch a playoff spot Saturday if they beat the San Diego Chargers in what will likely be a raucous atmosphere at Ford Field. (There are also several scenarios to clinch this weekend even if they lose. They're noted in this post.) Hopefully everyone knows the Chargers are on one of their annual December rolls. They've won three consecutive games after a six-game losing streak. Since Norv Turner took the head coaching job in 2007, the Chargers are 20-2 in December. This will be no cakewalk.

Big targets: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers struggled earlier this season, but he has been the NFL's most efficient quarterback over the past three weeks based on Total Quarterback Rating. Rivers has hit a groove with a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers that will pose significant matchup problems for the Lions. Malcom Floyd has 11 receptions for 233 yards and two touchdowns over the past two games, while Vincent Jackson has caught 12 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown. Jackson has been sidelined in practice this week by a groin injury. Lions cornerback Chris Houston (knee) clearly wasn't 100 percent last week against the Oakland Raiders, and the team re-signed Brandon McDonald this week for extra depth. Safety Louis Delmas (knee) also remains sidelined, and backup Chris Harris was cleared Thursday to practice following a concussion.

Make it stop: If you're a big-picture observer, you see ample motivation for the Minnesota Vikings to lose Sunday at the Washington Redskins. One more victory by the Indianapolis Colts, in conjunction with two more Vikings defeats, would give the Vikings an excellent chance to secure the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft. A loss to the Redskins would extend the Vikings' losing streak to seven games, tying a franchise record set in their original expansion season of 1961. But I'm not sure what would be worse: tying that record or extending their NFL record of games without an interception, which currently stands at nine. Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman has thrown at least one interception in his past 10 starts, and he is tied for the second-most interceptions in the NFL (18) despite missing three games this season. Something's got to give.

NFC North at night

December, 22, 2011
Checking in on Thursday's newsbits in the NFC North:

Chicago Bears: Tight end Kellen Davis (back) and defensive end Julius Peppers (not injury related) returned to practice Thursday. Still missing were linebacker Lance Briggs (ankle), running back Marion Barber (calf) and kick returner/receiver Devin Hester (ankle). None have been ruled out for Sunday's game at Lambeau Field.

Detroit Lions: Cornerback Don Carey (concussion), safety Louis Delmas (knee), defensive tackle Nick Fairley (foot), defensive tackle Corey Williams (hip) and defensive end Willie Young (ankle) all missed practice. The Lions re-signed cornerback Brandon McDonald to bolster their depth as Carey's concussion lingers.

Green Bay Packers: Running backs James Starks (ankle) and Brandon Saine (concussion) participated fully in practice and should be ready to play Sunday night. Linebacker Desmond Bishop (calf) and offensive lineman Chad Clifton (hamstring/back) made it through their second consecutive day of practice. Defensive lineman Howard Green (foot) was limited in practice. Defensive end Ryan Pickett (concussion) has still not been cleared.

Minnesota Vikings: The decision by USC quarterback Matt Barkley to return to school could have an indirect impact on the Vikings. If the Vikings ultimately want to trade down from their perch atop the first round, it would have helped to have another blue-chip quarterback to increase the value of their pick. Meanwhile, cornerback Asher Allen and guard Steve Hutchinson (concussion) missed practice for the second consecutive day.

NFC North at night

December, 15, 2011
Sifting through Thursday's news bits:

Chicago Bears: There were two big news stories Thursday at Halas Hall. We've covered the arrest of receiver Sam Hurd. We should also note that running back Marion Barber conducted an interview with two reporters Thursday. Via the Chicago Sun-Times, this is what Barber had to say about his late-game mistakes last Sunday in Denver: "My thoughts on it is getting to this next week and just preparing as much as I can to be ready for this game of course."

Detroit Lions: It's going to be tough for safety Louis Delmas (knee), cornerback Aaron Berry (shoulder), linebacker Justin Durant (hamstring) and defensive lineman Nick Fairley (foot) to play Sunday at the Oakland Raiders. All missed practice Thursday for the second consecutive day. Cornerback Eric Wright (hamstring) also missed practice. Cornerback Chris Houston (knee) was again a limited participant, and running back Kevin Smith (ankle) also got some practice work in.

Green Bay Packers: The Packers had no changes in their injury report. Running back James Starks (ankle), defensive lineman Ryan Pickett (concussion) and running back Brandon Saine (concussion) all sat out practice. Guard Josh Sitton was a limited participant for a second consecutive day.

Minnesota Vikings: Things continue to look good for tailback Adrian Peterson (ankle) to return after a three-game absence. Peterson told reporters Thursday that he will play Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. Receiver Greg Camarillo (concussion) returned to practice Thursday, and it appears the Vikings will have all players available for Sunday's game.