NFC North Report Card: Week 14

The Vikings picked up a game on the Bears, as Minnesota won their sixth straight game. The Packers finally got a win, but it took playing Detroit at home to end their three-game losing streak.

C -- Muhsin Muhammad had his biggest day as a Bear with eight catches for 91 yards but neither he nor any other receivers made it into the end zone. Rookie QB Kyle Orton had his second-most-productive passing day with 207 yards, but he still completed just 17 of 35 passes. WR Bernard Berrian had a 43-yard reception, and TE Desmond Clark a 27-yard catch, but neither caught another pass.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- Thomas Jones averaged 5.1 yards per carry, but because the Bears trailed throughout and rarely sustained a drive, he had just 14 attempts, and he had half of his 72 yards on a 36-yard carry in the fourth quarter.

PASS DEFENSE: D -- The Bears got killed on screen passes, starting with the Steelers' second play from scrimmage, when Willie Parker picked up 45 yards. WR Hines Ward's 14-yard TD catch was also a screen, as was the 16-yard pass to Verron Haynes that helped set up the Steelers' second touchdown.

RUSH DEFENSE: D -- The Bus (RB Jerome Bettis) rolled over the NFL's No. 1 defense, picking up 101 yards on 17 carries, including 100 in the second half when the Heinz Field turf became sloppy. All told, the Bears allowed a season-worst 190 rushing yards on 46 attempts, limiting the number of passes the Steelers had to throw.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-minus -- PK Robbie Gould missed wide left on an extra point but had a 29-yard field goal. Returns continued to be less than mediocre, and even the usually outstanding coverage teams weren't very special.

COACHING: C-minus -- It's now eight straight weeks in which the Bears haven't scored more than 20 points, yet veteran QB Rex Grossman, the entrenched starter at the beginning of the season, remains on the bench. Coach Lovie Smith accepted an offensive pass interference penalty that gave the Steelers a third-and-13, instead of putting them in fourth-and-1, and the strategy backfired when Pittsburgh picked up 16 yards on a screen pass.

-- WR Roy Williams made an outstanding catch for a touchdown in the end zone but he dropped a slant that might have won the game before it got to overtime. QB Jeff Garcia's numbers were better and he even threw a few deep balls to stretch the field but 112 yards passing isn't going to win many games.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- A 40-yard run by RB Kevin Jones was a big boost for the final numbers (129 yards on 31 carries) but when he suffered a severely hyper-extended right elbow, the Lions lost the efficiency and the big-play ability in the running game. They couldn't move the ball effectively on three penetrations into the red zone and it proved to be costly.

PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- The Lions sacked QB Brett Favre three times and intercepted him once but Favre still was able to complete 21 of 31 pass attempts for 170 yards. DE James Hall and DT Shaun Rogers each sacked Favre and the Lions had a team sack on a play in which Favre fumbled the ball.

RUSH DEFENSE: D -- Packers rookie RB Samkon Gado had one of the best performances in Green Bay history with 171 yards on 29 carries. That included a 64-yard run in which he got outside the Lions' left side and went the distance. Even without the 64-yard run, Gado had a good day and the Lions never completely shut him down.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- The Lions' special teams did a number of things well. DL Jared DeVries blocked a Green Bay field goal attempt, KOR R.W. McQuarters had a return of 73 yards (best for the Lions this season), P Nick Harris dropped two of his six punts inside the 20-yard line and the Lions' coverages were good, and PK Jason Hanson kicked three field goals and an extra point.

COACHING: C-minus -- Interim coach Dick Jauron and his staff made some questionable coaching decisions. Most notably, they came up with nothing particularly innovative -- or successful -- in three of their four visits to the red zone. The decision to run QB Jeff Garcia on a keeper on fourth-and-less-than-a-yard into the middle of the Green Bay defensive line that includes massive Grady Jackson was a bad one that failed and seemed to have a demoralizing affect on the team.

-- Despite his postgame contention that a lacerated right hand didn't have an adverse effect on his performance, QB Brett Favre clearly wasn't his playmaking self. He lost the football out of his throwing hand as he set up on the first pass play of the night, the turnover leading to a Detroit field goal. Favre was painfully short on a couple deep passes to Robert Ferguson, then overshot an open Antonio Chatman deep in Lions territory late in the fourth quarter that may have prevented overtime. Favre, who completed 21 of 31 passes, finished with a season-low 170 passing yards, with his longest pickup just 19 yards. Although he was saddled with his league-leading 22nd interception on a Hail Mary heave to end regulation and didn't have a touchdown pass for the second straight game, Favre coolly engineered his first late-game comeback victory of the season in the first series of overtime. A checkdown to FB William Henderson to convert a long third-down play was the catalyst in the 10-play drive. Henderson also had a key catch-and-run of 15 yards that set up Ryan Longwell's score-tying field goal early in the fourth quarter.

RUSHING OFFENSE: A -- Samkon Gado can now be taken seriously as a young running back whose potential is scary good for the Packers. The self-deprecating rookie was the first to acknowledge that he didn't have a perfect game, contrary to what his staggering 171-yard output would suggest. Take away his electric 64-yard touchdown run, and Gado averaged just 3.8 yards in his other 28 carries. The handful of plays on which Gado started between the tackles yielded next to nothing, though the Lions' hefty interior line with Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson played a part in that. The speedy Gado, as he has done more often than not the past few weeks, excelled on runs he was able to bounce to the outside or cut back in, and he exercised more patience in letting the holes develop. The blocking was top-notch for most of the night, particularly when FB Vonta Leach sealed off the inside to spring Gado for a touchdown dash on a stretch play in the second quarter.

PASS DEFENSE: C -- The Packers' unlikely position as the top-ranked pass defense in the league is safe for a second week. Once again, they benefited more from facing a maligned quarterback, Jeff Garcia, than actually shutting down the Lions' once-formidable receiving corps. Garcia threw 24 passes for all of 112 yards, marking the fifth time in the past six games the opposing quarterback hasn't reached the 200-yard plateau. The Packers, though, didn't force the issue as they were left without a sack or an interception. Al Harris' growing reputation as perhaps the best shutdown corner in the league took a big hit. Harris gave up his first touchdown of the season, when Roy Williams got behind him on a short fade pass into the end zone and made an acrobatic grab. Harris also was no match for a leaping Williams on a 40-yard deep strike from Garcia. And, if Williams hadn't dropped a slant pass ahead of nickel back Mike Hawkins in the vacated middle of the field late in the fourth quarter, the Lions probably would have gone on to win the game.

RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus -- An elbow injury sustained by Kevin Jones on the sixth play of the game was arguably the biggest of many breaks of the night that went the Packers' way for a change. Jones had ripped off a 40-yard run two plays earlier, caught his breath for a few seconds and promptly barreled forward for back-to-back gains of 5 and 4 yards down to the Green Bay 1-yard line, where he was felled by the injury. LBs Roy Manning and Paris Lenon stuffed backup Artose Pinner on third down, the first of three gritty goal-line stands by the Packers in which they didn't surrender a touchdown. Blitzing LB Nick Barnett easily dropped Shawn Bryson for a loss on third-and-goal from the 3 on the next series, again forcing the Lions to kick a field goal. The greatest stand came midway through the fourth quarter, as Pinner couldn't break the goal line twice from the 1, and a fourth-down sneak by Garcia behind center was snuffed out by LB Na'il Diggs. The Packers still were hit for 129 yards on the ground, the sixth straight game in which they've yielded at least that many yards.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D-minus -- While it's only two games, first-year P B.J. Sander doesn't seem up to the mighty challenge of kicking in oppressively cold, windy conditions. A week after shanks were an issue on the Chicago lakefront, Sander failed his first December test at frigid Lambeau Field. His first three punts traveled 30, 31 and 25 yards. A 50-yard boot in the fourth quarter built up his final gross average to 34.4 yards, just a fraction better than his season-worst output of 34.3 in Week 2. Sander's net average of 31.8 yards was just as miserable. Meanwhile, with the exception of a 33-yard return by Antonio Chatman at the outset of overtime that ignited the game-winning drive, the kickoff units were downright pathetic. R.W. McQuarters, not to be mistaken for Eddie Drummond, exploited the Packers' shoddy coverage for a 73-yard return late in the first quarter that positioned the Lions for their only touchdown. CB Ahmad Carroll, entrusted with trying to resuscitate Green Bay's lifeless return unit, averaged only 15 yards before succumbing to a hip pointer on his last of three runbacks in the first quarter. Longwell, who connected on three field goals after not having an attempt in the last two games, had a 38-yard try blocked in the second quarter.

COACHING: B -- Whether he's easily influenced by those know-it-all armchair quarterbacks, head coach/offensive play caller Mike Sherman finally did something about reining in mistake-prone Favre. There was an unmitigated commitment to the run, as evidenced by Favre not having to throw the ball 58 times as he did the week before and the season-high numbers of 35 carries for 181 yards. Even the U-71 package for power runs, featuring lineman Kevin Barry as an extra blocker, was brought back into circulation with frequency. Given the long-awaited success of the running game, spearheaded by Gado, it was puzzling that Sherman went with the pass on three straight plays in a three-and-out series to start the second half. A rare victory provides some dose of relief and satisfaction for a beleaguered team playing out the string. Yet, the Packers were lucky to beat one of the few teams in the league more inferior than they are, and they have referee Mike Carey's crew to thank for not upholding the go-ahead safety in the fourth quarter for the Lions that clearly should have been since RT Mark Tauscher was guilty of holding in the end zone. The inexcusable troubles for the special teams units persist, while Sherman will be mulling another change on the offensive line after rookie RG Will Whitticker drew the ire of Favre with two false-start penalties in the fourth quarter.

-- Brad Johnson's 146 yards passing was the Vikings' third-lowest total this season and a step backward after he put up 242 yards a week earlier in Detroit. Marcus Robinson's 49 yards were the most among any receiver, and all of that came on one play. The Rams did surprise the Vikings by bringing frequent blitzes after blitzing only four times in their previous game against Washington. Johnson did not throw a touchdown pass for the third time in six starts, but he also continued to stay away from mistakes by not throwing an interception. The Vikings, though, finished the game with eight three-and-outs.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus -- With No. 1 RB Mewelde Moore held to only one carry because of injury, Michael Bennett got the start and gained 70 yards on 18 carries with one touchdown. All three Minnesota touchdowns came on the ground, including a 1-yard run by rookie Ciatrick Fason and a pitch play to Koren Robinson that the receiver took 13 yards. That play was put in by the Minnesota staff last week in practice and featured an empty backfield, two-tight end set that led the Rams to think pass. The Vikings accounted for 113 yards of offense on the ground behind an athletic offensive line that finally appears to be coming together.

PASS DEFENSE: B-plus -- The Minnesota secondary had a season-high five interceptions against St. Louis rookie QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, including two by CB Brian Williams. CBs Antoine Winfield and Fred Smoot (in his first game back from injury) and FS Darren Sharper also had picks. The Vikings offense turned those interceptions 10 points. Torry Holt did finish with 10 catches for 95 yards, but St. Louis did not get a touchdown through the air, and the Vikings were sharp in the back end. Winfield led the Vikings with nine tackles, and Williams had six tackles, a forced fumble and a team-leading three pass breakups to go with his two picks. Look for Smoot to remain playing as the nickel back as long as Williams continues to produce as a starter.

RUSH DEFENSE: B -- The Rams rushed for 108 yards, including 67 by Steven Jackson on 19 attempts (3.5 average), but the Vikings did a good job of limiting St. Louis' gains. Fitzpatrick's 14-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was the Rams' longest run of the day. Minnesota also came up with a key stop in the second quarter. St. Louis, facing fourth-and-2 at the Vikings 8-yard line, decided to go for it. Jackson ran up the middle, and Vikings lineman Darrion Scott stopped him for no gain.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus -- After a couple of rough games, these units looked better against St. Louis. Receiver Koren Robinson continues to produce big plays on kick returns. His 61-yard return in the second quarter set up Paul Edinger's 37-yard field goal to give Minnesota a 10-3 lead. Edinger made both of his field-goal attempts. The Vikings also did not give up any big returns on punts or kickoffs for the first time in three games. The one poor spot was punting, where veteran Darren Bennett struggled in his first game back with team. Taking the place of the injured Chris Kluwe, Bennett averaged 37.5 gross yards and 34.4 net on eight punts. Bennett got off to a bad start as his first punt went 36 yards and his second only 26.

COACHING: B -- For the second consecutive week, the Vikings drew up an offensive play that surprised an opponent. The previous week it was the 80-yard touchdown pass from Brad Johnson to Koren Robinson on the Vikings' first offensive play. This time it was the pitch to Robinson that went for a 13-yard touchdown run. The Vikings appeared to be almost too loose at times last week as they prepared for the Rams, but that did not prove to be a problem on Sunday as coach Mike Tice's team appeared focused in winning its sixth in a row.

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