Saturday Blitz: Around the North

The Vikings saved their season and their coach last week; the Bears have beaten four bad teams (the lone exception being Green Bay); the Lions have forgotten tight end Tony Scheffler.

Minnesota Vikings (3-5)

The Vikings might have saved their head coach's job last Sunday by rallying from a 14-point deficit with less than 5 minutes left in regulation to beat the Cardinals in overtime.

But for Brad Childress to continue to feel secure, the Vikings are going to need to carry that momentum into Sunday's game. Minnesota (3-5) will be playing at Chicago (5-3), which also has had its issues this season.

The big issue for the Vikings will be getting a feel for where things stand between Childress and his players. Childress fell into disfavor with owner Zygi Wilf when he cut wide receiver Randy Moss without first telling ownership.

But Childress' issues go beyond that and include his relationship with many players in the locker room. Some of it is an extension of things being icy between Childress and quarterback Brett Favre.

In the aftermath of the Vikings' victory over the Cardinals, the players' standard response was that they had won the game for themselves and the team.

Not one player was heard to say he had won the game for his embattled coach.

Childress said the next day he preaches such values to his team, but nonetheless it was interesting that guys didn't rally around their coach or even pretend to do so.


Mr. Popularity
Tom Dahlin/Getty Images
Favre had set the tempo for that approach during his news conference on Nov. 3, when he explained he played for himself or the team. He reiterated that after the game.

Nonetheless, if the Vikings can turn things around in the coming weeks, it's not going to matter how they feel about their coach. Childress will survive as long as Minnesota is playing better football and making a bid for a third consecutive playoff berth.

The danger in all of this would be putting too much stock in the Vikings' victory over Arizona. The reality is Minnesota played uninspired football for three-plus quarters before deciding to turn it on.

The Vikings easily could return to that uninspired form Sunday if the Bears come out and punch them in the mouth.

However, there were elements of the offense and defense that definitely came to life in the fourth quarter, and if that carries over, the Vikings could be in decent shape.

Vikings-Bears: Matchups to watch

— Vikings LT Bryant McKinnie vs. Bears DE Julius Peppers, who has only two sacks this season. McKinnie had his worst performance of last season against Peppers, who was then playing for the Panthers. Peppers had only one sack in a 26-7 Carolina victory last Dec. 20, but he had a tackle for a loss and three quarterback hurries. That performance was enough to get McKinnie benched in a season in which he was selected to the Pro Bowl. Now, McKinnie is going to have to face Peppers twice a season, and this will be meeting No. 1. McKinnie has been playing well enough this year that it would be surprising if he had that much trouble again.

— Vikings LB E.J. Henderson vs. Bears RB Matt Forte. Forte leads the Bears with 401 rushing yards and three touchdowns and has caught a team-leading 29 passes for 315 yards with three touchdowns out of the backfield. Forte could keep Henderson and the rest of the linebackers busy with his versatility out of the backfield. Henderson, Chad Greenway and Ben Leber all will share in the responsibility of keeping Forte in check and not letting him run wild after catching dump passes from Jay Cutler.

Chicago Bears (5-3)

Lovie Smith is absolutely right when he says that, at 5-3, the Bears are in great position to make a playoff run.

Only the 6-2 Falcons and Giants have fewer losses in the NFC than the Bears, who are one of five NFC teams with three losses.

So, yes, the Bears are in the thick of the playoff race at the halfway point. But they'll have to play much better football in the second half of the season if they hope to duplicate their 5-3 mark. Starting Sunday at Soldier Field, the competition gets a lot tougher. The 3-5 Vikings, who are a lot more dangerous than their record would indicate, come to town for a showdown.

The Bears have built their 5-3 record by playing arguably the easiest schedule in the NFL.


Chicago beat Buffalo last week.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Record-wise, the three worst teams in the NFL are the 0-8 Bills, the 1-7 Cowboys and the 1-7 Panthers. The Bears are the only team that has played all three. Even by the end of the season, no other team will have had the good fortune to play all three of those teams — though the Saints play Carolina twice and the Cowboys once. The Giants play the Cowboys twice and the Panthers once.

But the Bears were lucky enough to get all three of the NFL's worst teams in the first eight games. They managed to defeat all three, plus the 2-6 Lions, whom they face again on Dec. 5. So, of the Bears' five victories, four have been against teams with a combined record of 4-28.

Chicago's only victory worth bragging about was a 20-17 win over the NFC North-leading Packers (6-3) on Sept. 27.

Maybe that's why it seems there isn't quite the level of excitement around town that a 5-3 team would normally generate, and even Smith has noticed it.

"We're 5-3 right now," he said, "and a lot of times it seems like we're 2-6 or something like that."

Not even the Las Vegas oddsmakers respect the Bears. They have installed the visiting Vikings as slight favorites. That's harsh.

The team that, five years ago, was defined by the "The Love Boat" incident, is now more closely associated with "Mutiny on the Bounty." But despite the drama swirling around the Vikings and speculation on coach Brad Childress' job security and his hold on the players, the Vikings rose from the dead in the final 5 minutes Sunday and eventually stole a 27-24 overtime victory over the Cardinals. The Vikings know they probably need to sweep their two remaining games with the Bears to get back in the playoff picture.

The other five remaining games for the Bears are all against teams that are .500 or better. They're at Miami against the 4-4 Dolphins and at Green Bay. At home they face the 5-3 Eagles, the 6-2 Patriots and the 6-2 Jets.

That slate will determine if the Bears' record is a true barometer of their talent or a scheduling gift.

"I like our position," Smith said. "November is when that playoff run begins, and we're in pretty good shape. We just want to matter, and I think right now you can say that the Bears really matter about what is going on in our division."

For now, they do matter, but Smith and the Bears have a tough second half to navigate if they want to remain relevant.

Bears-Vikings: Matchups to watch

— Bears OLT Frank Omiyale, who has been inconsistent in his six starts this season, vs. Vikings DRE Jared Allen, who has just 3 1/2 sacks this season but has 75 1/2 since 2004, the most in the NFL during that time.

— Bears LG Chris Williams, who was drafted as a left tackle and has not played very well at his new position, vs. Vikings DTs Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, both of whom should have a considerable strength advantage. The Bears' Williams will get help from C Olin Kreutz, but Kreutz missed Wednesday's practice with a sore hamstring, although he will play Sunday barring any setbacks.

Detroit Lions (2-6)

There was a time, just a few weeks ago, when Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler ranked 1-2 in the NFC for receptions among tight ends.

These days, Scheffler has been almost a forgotten man.

"That's just part of being in a good offense," said Scheffler. "You have to wait your turn and when the ball gets thrown your way, you have to make plays. It's just one of those things that comes with being part of an offense that has a lot of weapons."

A couple things have happened that led to a quieter role from Scheffler. First, wide receiver Nate Burleson got healthy and second, quarterback Matthew Stafford came back — for a couple of games.


Scheffler caught six balls vs. Green Bay.
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
"Tony was carrying a big load for us when Nate Burleson was down," coach Jim Schwartz said. "But Nate had a fantastic game against the Jets and a big game against the Rams and he was playing a lot in that slot position. There are only so many catches to go around."

Scheffler played in the slot after Burleson injured his ankle in Week 2. The results: Scheffler caught 20 passes in the first four games of the season. Burleson had two.

Since Burleson came back against the Rams, Scheffler has caught eight passes in four games. Burleson has caught 24.

In the two-and-a-half games that Stafford played this season, he threw 23 passes to his two tight ends, completing 13. In Hill's five starts he threw 78 passes to either Scheffler or Pettigrew, completing 54. With Hill back under center with Stafford out again because of his shoulder, Scheffler might be back in the action.

"It's a long season; we still have half a season left," Scheffler said. "It's just the up-and-down nature of a season. It just so happens I am not out there as much as I was in the beginning. But I will keep plugging along and when my number is called I have to show up."

The Lions, playing against a Buffalo defense that ranks dead last against the run, will probably try to exploit that early. But if that doesn't work — the Lions rank 30th in run offense — then the Hill-to-Scheffler combination might heat up again.

Lions-Bills: Matchups to watch

— Lions CB Alphonso Smith vs. Bills WR Lee Evans. The Lions aren't going to be overly stressed about the Bills' ability to beat them deep. They will probably allow Smith, who has emerged as their shutdown corner, to play man defense on Evans more than usual to facilitate throwing more bodies and diverse looks at QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.

— Lions DE Kyle Vanden Bosch vs. Bills LT Demetrius Bell. Vanden Bosch and the rest of the defensive line had just one sack last week. They are hungry, and Vanden Bosch, at least on paper, appears to have a mismatch in his favor.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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