Northern Exposure

Northern Exposure

We turn to our NFC North experts to give you the scoop on what's happening around the division.

Chicago Bears

LAST WEEK: The Bears ran their record to 3-3 after a convincing win against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. Most of the issues that have plagued Chicago throughout the season -- lack of a run game, protecting Jay Cutler, giving up big plays on defense -- seem to have been remedied, for one week at least. Cutler had time in the pocket and was sacked just once. He finished with a 115.9 passer rating. Matt Forte had his usual solid game, racking up 123 total yards. The defense did an outstanding job holding Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson in check, allowing him just 39 rushing yards on 12 carries. Yet it was Devin Hester who once again stole the show. Not only did he lead all receivers with five catches for 91 yards and a touchdown, but he also returned a third-quarter kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, the 17th return TD of his career.

LOOKING FORWARD:The Bears head to London this week to take on the 4-2 Buccaneers. Tampa Bay boasts one of the best young quarterbacks in the game in Josh Freeman and a talented, aggressive defense. In many ways, the Bucs are a mirror image of the Bears, relying on a ball-control offense and solid defense to win games. The two teams last met in 2008, when Tampa erased a 10-point fourth quarter deficit and rallied to beat Chicago in overtime. Field conditions have always been an issue in London's wet climate, so expect a low-scoring contest that will come down to ball control and field position.

FUN STAT: The Buccaneers are allowing 8.2 yards per carry when opposing teams run to the left side of their defensive line. Bears running back Matt Forte has gained 291 running to his right (the defense's left), which is 77 yards ahead of the next person in that category. Expect the Bears to run early and often behind RG Chris Spencer and RT Lance Louis, especially if field conditions are less than ideal.

Detroit Lions

LAST WEEK: Every flaw that might have been concealed in Detroit's previously undefeated start was exposed by the 49ers on Sunday. Matthew Stafford and the team's offense once again got off to a slow start; receiver Calvin Johnson was largely held in check; the defense allowed Frank Gore to run wild, and yet a few inches still separated the Lions from its first loss and remaining unbeaten. Perhaps the most disappointing part of the team's loss, other than the fact that it occurred at home, was that it was a rather abysmal performance from every facet of the team. Even kicker Jason Hanson missed an otherwise automatic field goal (52-yards) in the first half and helped swing the tide in San Francisco's direction. While the 49ers' defensive game plan was terrific (they recorded 5 sacks, disrupting any rhythm between Stafford and his receivers), the Lions -- by all accounts -- had every opportunity to win the game, even winning the turnover battle (+2). That might also explain -- although not excuse -- coach Jim Schwartz and his post-game behavior, as the coach's reputation now borders on 'embarrassing.'

LOOKING FORWARD:Two questions should be asked of Detroit and its 5-1 record: how many times can you really say, 'They haven't played their best football yet' before surrendering that it doesn't exist?; and did the Lions need a loss to help curb some of the maybe undeserved hype that followed them? The Lions were never a team that was going to go undefeated, so a loss was inevitable -- the slow starts and general poor play ultimately catching up to them against a quality foe. Only the team is capable of answering the aforementioned questions, and responding the only way a quality, legitimate post-season contender knows how: emasculating the next opponent. Detroit wins virtually every categorical matchup with the Falcons. They cannot afford to lose two consecutive home games, yet the 49ers gave Atlanta a blueprint for success. Can the Lions adjust? Can they (finally) play their best football? They don't have much of a choice, as that undefeated start can quickly become as distant as the team's previous reputation.

FUN STAT: The Lions might have lost to San Fran, but the fans made life difficult for the 49ers. San Fran committed 5 false start penalties due to the Ford Field noise; combined with 9 from Chicago last Monday, the 14 opponent false start penalties tie for the most in back-to-back games in a venue since 1991 .... Stafford might be struggling but his first six games is the best start for any QB in franchise history. Stafford has tossed for 15 touchdowns, 1,729 yards and just four interceptions .... Detroit's 5-1 record is impressive, but the team is uncomfortably close to its ill-fated 2007 campaign, when Rod Marinelli's squad started 6-2 before finishing 7-9.

Green Bay Packers

LAST WEEK: Fortunately, the NFL decides its champion on the playing field and doesn't use voters, because Sunday's victory over the winless St. Louis Rams certainly lacked style points. Then again, as coach Mike McCarthy said after the 24-3 victory, there's no reason to apologize for a 21-point victory. The Packers scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives in the second quarter — all on passes by Aaron Rodgers — to take a 24-0 lead. Human nature appeared to kick in from there, though, and the offense came out of the locker room for the second half without the focus it had played with in the first five-and-a-half games. Bizarrely, the Rams beat the Packers in yards, first downs and plays. Green Bay's defense is a miserable bunch by the NFL's official measuring stick — yards — but the scoreboard is what counts. So, while the Packers rank 23rd in total defense and 30th against the pass, they're tied for seventh in points. They haven't allowed a touchdown in more than six quarters.

LOOKING FORWARD: The talk of 16-0 has started already — though certainly not by the players themselves. All McCarthy cares about is finishing the "second quarter" of the season undefeated. For the Packers, who have a Week 8 bye, the "second quarter" of the season ends on Sunday at Minnesota. The Vikings look like a miserable bunch and the Packers should have no trouble getting to 7-0 at the bye week. On paper, anyway. The Packers' secondary makes every quarterback look good, and Jared Allen will be going up against Marshall Newhouse. Newhouse has played very well in his game-and-a-half in place of Pro Bowl left tackle Chad Clifton, but facing Allen in the Metrodome is going to be a huge test for the second-year lineman. Should the Packers win? Yes. Will it be easy? Probably not.

FUN STAT: Before this season, no quarterback in NFL history had started a season with more than four consecutive games with passer ratings of 110-plus. Rodgers has now done it in six consecutive games. Of his three interceptions, two are off deflections by his own receivers.

Minnesota Vikings

LAST WEEK: Despite Donovan McNabb posting his best numbers of the season against the Chicago Bears, the Vikings were in total first-half disarray. Once again, McNabb's accuracy was an issue, despite completing 19 of 24 passes for 177 yards. Several potential big plays were limited to small gains because receivers were forced to leave their feet to catch the ball, taking away yards after the catch. McNabb wasn't helped by his receivers early, either, as Visanthe Shiancoe dropped a catchable third-down pass on the first series and Bernard Berrian dropped a perfect third-down throw on the second series. But offense wasn't the only issue Sunday. Ever phase melted down. The Vikings run defense collapsed, the pass defense struggled to get pressure, and the physicality of the offensive and defensive lines were called out by Leslie Frazier. On special teams, Devin Hester roasted the Vikings for a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Ryan Longwell missed a 38-yard field goal, and Chris Kluwe struggled with his punting. It was failures at every phase as the Vikings fell to 1-5.

LOOKING FORWARD: Players aren't ready to look ahead to 2012. Defensive end Brian Robison said it best: "We're still in 2011; we've got Green Bay next week. If you're looking forward to 2012, then I say you leave this locker room, you come back in 2012." Even a move to rookie quarterback Christian Ponder – a real possibility for Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers – wouldn't be waving the white flag on 2011 as much as it would be an indictment that McNabb just hasn't been effective. With Green Bay coming to town, the Vikings will have to tighten up their pass coverage dramatically and find a way to get a big game out of Adrian Peterson, despite injuries on the offensive line that could take out two starters. Center John Sullivan suffered a concussion and right tackle Phil Loadholt has inflammation in his knee. Adding injury to insult is a pretty appropriate encapsulation of the Vikings' season so far.

FUN STAT: Jared Allen tied a franchise record held by Jim Marshall (1969) and Carl Eller (1975-76) with a sack in eight consecutive games. Allen, who is the NFL's leader in sacks with 9.5 this season, will break the franchise record if he can get to the quick-releasing Aaron Rodgers, who has been sacked only 12 times this season.


Jeremy Stoltz is publisher of Bear Report, Nate Caminata is publisher of Roar Report, Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and Tim Yotter is publisher of Vikings Update.

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