NFC North Tour: Slumping Bears

Franchise quarterback Jay Cutler has 11 interceptions in three night games for Chicago; the Lions are happy with Matthew Stafford, even with his uneven production; the Vikings are getting more explosive as Brett Favre gets more comfortable.

Chicago Bears

The good news is that there is still a lot of football left.

That's also the bad news for a Bears team that seems to alternate offensive meltdowns with defensive disasters, has lost four of its last five games and has defeated one team with a winning record.

All of that greatly overshadowed Thursday night's excellent defensive effort, which was about all Lovie Smith's 4-5 team could cling to after its third interception-filled loss in prime time. In those three night-time losses to the Packers, Falcons and 49ers, Jay Cutler, their "franchise quarterback," has thrown 11 interceptions. So knowing the defense did its job in Thursday night's 10-6 loss was of little comfort.

"We lost the game, so it doesn't matter," said defensive end Alex Brown. "We lost, and that's what counts. We lost. I don't know what you want me to say. We lost the game, so that's it."

Brown didn't mean to say, "that's it for the season," but he wouldn't have been challenged if he did.

Of the Bears' seven remaining games, only two are against teams with losing records, like themselves. They also have two games remaining with the 7-1 Vikings, they face the 5-3 Eagles next Sunday and have the 4-4 Packers at home and the 4-4 Ravens in Baltimore.

Brown said what everyone knows when he was asked how much room for error is left for the mistake-prone Bears.

"None at all," he said. "We have seven more games that we've got to win. But we can't win seven before we win one. We've got to win the first one."

That will be difficult enough for a team whose confidence is in question after a five-game stretch in which the only victory came against a 1-7 Cleveland Browns team.

That confidence seems especially fragile on offense. In just nine games, Cutler has already thrown more interceptions (17) than all but two quarterbacks in the league threw all of last season, and he was one of them.

Only twice all season has the ground game produced more than 86 yards, and those were against the Browns and the Lions, who are also 1-7. Even more disappointing for the offense is that there doesn't seem to be a consensus on what's wrong.

"I don't really have an answer," said tight end Greg Olsen, who caught seven passes for 75 yards Thursday night. "We're going to have to see what happened. Everyone wants to say the picks are always on the quarterback, but they're not. There are a lot of things that the receivers have to do better, just the entire offense in general to take some of the pressure off that position and we all have to do a better job."

Three-point stance

— General manager Jerry Angelo expressed confidence in the team's maligned offensive line, which he says has struggled in recent blowout losses because the Bears fell behind early and were forced to abandon the run and become one-dimensional.

"I thought we've done a pretty good job as of late in protection and some good things in the running game too," Angelo said, despite eight sacks of quarterback Jay Cutler in the two games before facing the Niners. "Offensive lines take a little longer to evolve, but I feel like right now we're playing pretty good football with our line. Two of the last three games, with what the score was, we pretty much became one-dimensional. We put a lot of pressure on them, when defenses know that you're not running the ball.

"For the most part I think we've done a pretty good job. I like what they did last week (against the Cardinals). I think we're getting better, and I feel like that's going to continue to get better each and every week."

That was not the case Thursday night, though. The line didn't allow Cutler to be sacked, but he was pressured constantly and hit frequently. And again, the line was unable to create any running room for Matt Forte, who managed just 41 yards on 20 carries against the 49ers.

— Angelo believes inconsistent defensive tackle Tommie Harris can be an impact player in the second half of the season, but he won't be convinced of it until he sees it.

"Everything that he needs to do from a physical standpoint, we've seen him do, on the practice field, and in games," Angelo said shortly before Thursday night's prime-time clash with the 49ers. "But he has to do it for four quarters, and he has to start stacking games up, playing at that Pro Bowl level. I'm confident that he has the ability to do it, but he (still) has to do it."

— QB Jay Cutler's five interceptions were a career-high and gave him the league lead with 17.

Detroit Lions


Matthew Stafford
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Before the Lions drafted Matthew Stafford first overall in April, Detroit fans worried he would be like their last high-pick quarterback.

Joey Harrington, the No. 3 pick in 2002, didn't click with his teammates and went 18-37 as a starter. He has said he was handed the starting job too quickly and lost his confidence in the negative Detroit environment.

But the Lions drafted Stafford and started him immediately partly because they liked his makeup, and they feel he has validated that so far.

"It's a tough business, and you have to be physically and mentally tough to play quarterback in this league," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "There's a lot of attention at the position, and the physical nature of the position is demanding.

"And it's not just on the field, what you see on Sunday. It's practice and getting through things like that and going out and practicing on a Wednesday and a Thursday after an experience like this.

"I think he's shown a lot of signs that he can deal with this."

While playing through a right knee injury, Stafford was harassed, hurried and hit the whole game Sunday at Minnesota. But he escaped some potential sacks, taking only three, and avoided interceptions, after throwing five last week at Seattle.

"Thank goodness he did, because it would have looked a lot worse," Schwartz said. "Matt did a really good job of getting away from some of those situations. He did take care of the ball.

"But it's hard to be proud of somebody when that happens. Did he show resilience? Yeah, he did. He's a tough player. He battled like crazy in that game, as did the whole team. Battling is not enough. It's about production. It's about the score on the scoreboard. I don't want to give any gold stars for somebody playing tough."

Three-point stance

— Cornerback Jack Williams lasted only one defensive snap for the Lions after they claimed him off waivers from Denver last week. When the second half began Sunday, cornerback Phillip Buchanon took extra time to deal with a knee problem because the Lions had the ball. But running back Kevin Smith fumbled on the first offensive play, so Williams, who had played only on special teams in the first half, had to make his debut on defense. The Vikings' Adrian Peterson promptly rumbled for a 27-yard gain, leaving Williams in his wake with a bad knee injury. "It's going to end his season, and we'll make a roster move pretty quick on that one," coach Jim Schwartz said.

— Wide receiver Bryant Johnson dropped what would have been a touchdown pass right before halftime Sunday. The Lions settled for a field goal, and they needed every point they could get in what turned out to be a 27-10 loss. But there is only so much Schwartz can do, even though he has benched several players this season for poor performances.

"If we benched every guy for a drop, we might not have anybody left because everybody, including Calvin Johnson, has dropped balls this year," Schwartz said. "That's a play that we need to finish. There's definitely accountability there, but Bryant has been extremely sound assignment-wise, in blocking, all the other things."

— RG Stephen Peterman might miss significant time with an ankle injury he suffered Sunday. The Lions were waiting on test results Monday, but they were preparing to replace him, possibly with someone outside the current roster.

Minnesota Vikings


Brett Favre
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
How far has the Vikings' offense come with Brett Favre at quarterback? The team's two victories over Detroit this season pretty much spell it out.

In a 27-13 victory in Week 2 at Ford Field, Favre threw for 155 yards (23-of-27) with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Vikings did not have an explosive play, which the team measures as a run of 12 or more yards and a pass of 16 or more.

On Sunday, the Vikings beat the Lions by a similar score, 27-10, at the Metrodome. Only this time, Favre completed 20-of-29 passes for 344 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. The offense turned out 11 explosive plays, including seven through the air.

Favre hit Sidney Rice on two 43-yard passes and one that went for 56. Percy Harvin also had a short catch that turned into a 40-yard reception.

"I think it's just continuing to evolve," coach Brad Childress said of his offense. "I think everybody, every play, there are things that stick with you. ... I just think that we can continue to hammer out some better execution. We were better in the three-and-out phase then we had been."

Entering Monday, the Vikings were ranked seventh in the NFL in total offense with an average of 369.1 yards per game. Minnesota was 10th in rushing and 12th in passing.

The balance is a vast improvement on how things were before Favre arrived. Last year, for instance, the Vikings were fifth in rushing but 25th in passing.

Three-point stance

— LB Chad Greenway on if he thought the Vikings' tackling improved Sunday against Detroit after it was an area of focus coming out of the bye: "I thought we did and especially when (the Lions) got their big weapons the ball. You really take away the big play if you tackle well and it's always something that you need to work on. But I feel like we really honed that up and if we continue to work on it like I'm sure we will we'll continue to get better as we push through the second half here."

— Coach Brad Childress said he wasn't concerned about his players being too loose going into Sunday's game against the Lions, who are now 1-8 on the season.

"I thought our guys were loose but I learned a long time ago they don't have to be sitting there rocking in the chair to play good football," he said. "They were loose, they were fresh. The question is would you say we were too loose? We were too loose with the football I know that. (The Vikings lost two fumbles.) But certainly we played decently on the defensive side. There are just some things we have to tighten up. Improving is the key. You want to continue to ascend."

— CB Antoine Winfield missed his third consecutive game Sunday against Detroit because of an injury to his right foot but expects to return this weekend against Seattle.


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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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