NFC North Report Card: Week 9

Despite winning their fifth straight game, the Bears lead in the division didn't grow. For the first time in the history of the NFC North all four teams came up with a victory on the same Sunday.

-- Considering the windy conditions, which included nearly constant gusts of 47 mph, Kyle Orton's numbers weren't as bad they look on paper. His 31-yard completion to TE Desmond Clark was actually a perfectly thrown touch pass, but his end-zone interception was a bad throw on which he admitted he never saw CB Shawntae Spencer.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- Thomas Jones was rested with bruised ribs, so rookie Cedric Benson got his first NFL start and ran for 50 yards on 12 carries before suffering a sprained MCL in his right knee. No. 3 RB Adrian Peterson responded with a career-best game, getting 120 yards on 24 carries.

PASS DEFENSE: B -- Since the 49ers practically refused to throw, it's tough to grade the Bears. But they allowed just one completion on 13 attempts and picked off one pass. But the 47 mph winds and the 49ers' game plan had more to do with their inability to throw the ball than the Bears defense.

RUSH DEFENSE: B -- The 49ers continued to run the ball at all costs, but the Bears continued to stop them on almost every attempt. The Niners picked up 133 yards on the ground, but they needed 46 attempts to do it. The Bears stopped 49ers runners for no gain or negative yardage 17 times.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-plus -- How can their grade be so low when CB Nathan Vasher set an NFL record with a 108-yard return of a missed field goal? Because WR Bobby Wade lost the ball three times on fumbled punt returns, setting the 49ers up for six of their nine points.

-- Heads up by special teams coach Dave Toub to drop Vasher deep on the 49ers' ill-advised 52-yard field-goal attempt. The Bears smartly hesitated in dropping Vasher back, so as not to discourage the 49ers from the attempt, which was virtually impossible with a 47 mph crosswind.

-- Quarterback Joey Harrington played his best game of the season, with an assist from WR Roy Williams, who was available for almost full-time duty after missing the previous four games with a thigh injury. Harrington completed 22 of 32 passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns, all to Williams. It was the first time in Harrington's past four starts he wasn't intercepted, and his 120.7 passer rating was a high-water mark for the season. Williams and TE Marcus Pollard both had good receiving games. WR Charles Rogers played for the first time since sitting out a four-game drug suspension but caught just one ball for 4 yards.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus -- RB Kevin Jones had his best game of the season and was on his way to his first 100-yard game of the season, but coach Steve Mariucci is determined to use the three-back rotation that worked a few years ago in San Francisco. The Lions still managed to get 157 yards rushing (only their third 100-yard rushing game of the season). Jones led the three-man rotation with 81 yards on 14 carries (5.8 yards per carry), followed by Shawn Bryson (44 yards on seven carries) and Artose Pinner (19 on seven). QB Joey Harrington had the remaining 13 yards on four runs.

PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- The Lions played without their three best cornerbacks -- Dre' Bly (wrist), Fernando Bryant (on injured reserve) and Andre Goodman (hamstring) -- and it showed. Cardinals QB Kurt Warner had little trouble completing 29 of 45 passes and racked up 359 yards with a touchdown. And he did that without two injured receivers -- Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson. Had the Cardinals not run out of time and timeouts, Warner might have sent the game into overtime at the end. The Lions had no interceptions and no sacks.

RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus -- The Cardinals came into the game with the 31st-ranked running game in the NFL, and the Lions treated them accordingly, giving up only 38 yards on 16 rushing attempts. FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo had 11 of the yards on one of his three carries, but he also was tackled by DT Dan Wilkinson in the end zone for a safety. RB J.J. Arrington had just 24 yards on eight carries but scored on a 1-yard run.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- A big improvement in special teams over recent performances. The coverages were sound; J.J. Moses averaged just 5.8 yards on five punt returns and Reggie Swinton averaged just 19.4 on five kickoff returns. Eddie Drummond matched his best day of the season, averaging 26.5 yards on four kickoff returns and had one punt return for 13 yards. P Nick Harris was as solid as ever, dropping two of his six punts inside the 20 without a touchback. And K Jason Hanson, who had missed a long field-goal attempt in each of the previous four games, had two gimmes -- a 26-yarder and a 20-yarder.

COACHING: B -- Beating Arizona these days doesn't exactly qualify Steve Mariucci for coach of the year honors. But he put together a solid game plan featuring the return of Williams, and it worked. It still mystifies some why he wants to run a three-man ground rotation instead of letting Jones get some momentum for tough games coming up with Dallas and Atlanta, but the results were satisfactory so he gets a free pass this week. Defensive coordinator Dick Jauron had all he could do to keep 11 bodies on the field, given the rash of injuries to linebackers and defensive backs. The Lions couldn't stop QB Kurt Warner and WR Larry Fitzgerald, but they survived and won.

-- QB Brett Favre made a triumphant return to the city where his distinguished pro career started 14 years ago, albeit only for a season as a backup before Atlanta traded him to Green Bay for a first-round draft pick. Favre put up some of his bigger numbers of the season across the board with 26 completions on 39 attempts for 252 yards. He distributed the football to eight members of his short-handed supporting cast, with an emphasis placed on quicker, shorter throws. Favorite outlet Donald Driver responded with a season-high 10 catches for 114 yards. No other wide receiver, however, had more than two receptions, and Favre's only touchdown was a 1-yard shovel pass to HB Samkon Gado. Favre had a pass intercepted for the seventh game this season, leading to a Falcons touchdown. Although Favre was only 5-of-12 in converting third downs, his biggest play of the game was perhaps avoiding a sack by Rod Coleman and flipping a pass to Driver for an 8-yard completion on third-and-5 late in the fourth quarter. The Packers went on to kick a field goal to gain some breathing room with a 26-17 lead.

RUSHING OFFENSE: A-minus -- It's only one game, but the likable Gado became the feel-good story of an otherwise dour season. The undrafted rookie out of Division I-AA Liberty, signed less than four weeks earlier to the practice squad, powered his way to 103 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 25 carries in his starting debut. On his 23rd birthday, no less. Team personnel couldn't have envisioned such a breakthrough performance, but Gado's relentless straight-ahead running temporarily made observers forget about the season-ending losses of Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport and the indefinite absence of Tony Fisher. Gado, the fifth starter at the halfback position in this injury-marred season, became the first Packer to reach the 100-yard plateau since Davenport did it in late November last season. Primarily running to the left side behind newly inserted guard Scott Wells, Gado had his pick of gaping holes to hit hard. His coming-out party was dampened, though, by two fumbles that teammates recovered.

PASS DEFENSE: B-plus -- The Packers allowed Michael Vick to have a second straight week of throwing the football with proficiency -- 209 yards and two touchdowns on 20-of-30 accuracy for a 108.9 passer rating. That's all Vick could crow about, however, because defensive coordinator Jim Bates with his unorthodox game plan did a number in confounding and harassing the game's most electrifying quarterback. Vick was out of sorts in the face of constant blitzing, compounded by being frequently shadowed by a spying linebacker or defensive back. He was sacked three times and fumbled the football three times, one of which was turned over. The Packers netted three takeaways, all on aggressive open-field strips in passing situations. Middle linebacker Nick Barnett was the big beneficiary with two recoveries, the latter of which he returned 20 yards to set up a 2-yard TD run by Gado to effectively put the game away. The downfall for the defense was the troubling play of cornerback Ahmad Carroll. He committed another pass-interference penalty, which set up a score-tying touchdown by Vick in the second quarter. Carroll also was beat for a TD pass from Vick to Roddy White late in the game. Shortly before that, Carroll soured his well-executed strip of the ball from White by taunting the Falcons sideline as Barnett ran with the football.

RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus -- Check out Vick's ho-hum stat line of seven carries for 24 yards, and enough can be deciphered to know the Packers had the upper hand on the league's top-rated rushing offense. The Falcons mustered only 133 yards on the ground, more than 50 below their season average. Their per-carry average of 4.6 yards also was lower than the season clip of 5.2. Warrick Dunn wasn't much of a factor with 17 carries for 76 yards. Defensive ends Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Aaron Kampman held their ground on the outside and didn't get sucked into the multitude of misdirections spawning from Vick's bootlegs. The bruising T.J. Duckett hurt the defense with a couple of big runs and averaged 7.8 yards but was utilized only four times, which worked in the Packers' favor as they needed only to concentrate on stopping Vick and Dunn.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- First, what went wrong? Yet another breakdown in the kicking game, as B.J. Sander couldn't cover up for a high snap from Rob Davis and get the ball placed on what would have been a 51-yard field-goal attempt by Ryan Longwell in the third quarter. Then, early in the fourth quarter, ex-Packer Allen Rossum rips off a 29-yard punt return deep into Green Bay territory, leading to a field goal that kept the Falcons within striking distance. Other than those two mishaps, everything went unusually right for the facet of the team that's been much maligned this season. Thanks to Longwell connecting on all four of the field-goal kicks he did take, highlighted by boots of 53 and 51 yards in the second half, the snap-and-hold breakdown didn't cost the Packers a victory this time. Longwell also used the controlled climate indoors to his advantage by getting exceptional distance on his kickoffs, allowing cover guys such as Brady Poppinga, Jeremy Thornburg and Marviel Underwood to make big tackles. Atlanta started five possessions following kickoffs at its 20-yard line and deeper.

COACHING: A -- The utter 52-3 annihilation of a New Orleans team that had no business being on the field Oct. 9 notwithstanding, the Packers' second win came with their most complete performance of the season. Coach Mike Sherman, a man of deep religious conviction, made a leap of faith on three pivotal fronts. A week after he benched starting halfback ReShard Lee because of a fumble on his second carry, Sherman stuck with newcomer Gado despite two fumbles, which the Packers recovered. Gado rewarded his coach's trust with three touchdowns and the team's first 100-yard performance on the ground this season. After watching with disgust another faulty field-goal attempt, Sherman went right back to Davis, Sander and Longwell on the next series late in the third quarter for a 53-yard try that went off without a hitch and between the uprights. Finally, Sherman let Bates, his first-year defensive coordinator, roll with an exotic scheme heavy on blitzing that could have backfired had Vick slipped through a few cracks into uncovered territory downfield.

-- QB Brad Johnson threw for only 144 yards but he did not have an interception. He completed four passes on the winning drive, including a key 21-yarder to TE Jermaine Wiggins on second-and-14. Johnson, who was sacked four times, did not make any dumb mistakes, and the Vikings were able to get an ugly victory as a result.

RUSHING OFFENSE: F -- One game after Michael Bennett turned in a 106-yard rushing performance against Detroit, Bennett had 16 yards on a season-high 19 carries against the Giants. That's a brutal 0.8-yard average. This wasn't all Bennett's fault as the run blocking failed to open up much for him. Mewelde Moore returned punts but did not get in on offense because of a sprained right wrist suffered the previous week. Moore might have been the lucky one.

PASS DEFENSE: B -- The Vikings had four interceptions against Giants QB Eli Manning, including three by FS Darren Sharper. Sharper's biggest pick came in the second quarter when he returned an interception 92 yards. CB Brian Williams, starting in place of the injured Fred Smoot, did a solid job and had the other interception. RB Tiki Barber was the Giants' leading receiver with 111 yards on eight catches. Amani Toomer, Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress combined for 14 catches but had only one touchdown.

RUSH DEFENSE: B-minus -- Barber rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, but the biggest run against the Vikings went for only 14 yards, and that was by Manning. The Vikings stuck with a 4-3 base defense, and NT Pat Williams continued to be a force in the middle with six tackles and half a sack.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A -- Yes, Paul Edinger missed two first-quarter field-goal attempts, but he also made the winning kick with 10 seconds left. Then there were the kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns by Koren Robinson and Moore in the third quarter. Week in and week out, this has been the Vikings' strongest area this season.

COACHING: C-plus -- The offense looked so feeble against the Giants that it's difficult to give Mike Tice and his staff too much credit for their game plan, but if the head coach deserves credit for anything, it's making special teams such a focus since day one of training camp. That unit saved the Vikings' bacon on Sunday. Also P Chris Kluwe, picked up just before the season after being let go by Seattle, continues to be one of the Vikings' best finds.

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