NFC North game scout

With the Vikings game moved to Monday night, there are a couple of NFC North games to watch Sunday. The Packers and Bears could knock the Vikings out of the playoffs today, making their games important to the Vikings as well.


Green Bay Packers (8-4) at Detroit Lions (2-10)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: FieldTurf
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Tim Ryan

KEYS TO THE GAME


The Packers have won 10 straight against Detroit, a team QB Aaron Rodgers has a 105.3 passer rating against in five career meetings. Rookie RB James Starks (18 carries for 73 yards) had the best debut by a Packers rookie back since 1960 last week and will be part of the backfield mix. Detroit must get a big effort out of DLs Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril (15 combined sacks) to protect a fractured secondary. The Lions want QB Drew Stanton to make quick decisions with OLB Clay Matthews (11.5 sacks) having a favorable matchup. And RB Jahvid Best (toe) appears to be regaining his big-play burst.

FAST FACTS

WR Calvin Johnson is the first Lion with 12 touchdowns through 12 games since Barry Sanders in 1991. ... Rodgers has 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in last four meetings.

PACKERS

Head coach Mike McCarthy is optimistic about injured left tackle Chad Clifton's availability for the impending game against the Detroit Lions.

"I don't foresee him having an issue to be ready for Sunday," McCarthy said Thursday.

McCarthy, though, wasn't as forthcoming — and positive — about injured cornerback Charles Woodson's prospects for playing against the Lions at Ford Field.

Whereas Clifton was cleared to do some padded work Thursday after suffering a concussion in the previous game, Woodson was held out from the team and individual drills a day after suffering a sprained ankle in practice.

Woodson did move around some in the jog-through segment at the start of practice, but McCarthy couldn't say what kind of progression, if any, the veteran starter had made after 24 hours elapsed since the injury.

"Not as far as information that I can stand here and tell you where he is," McCarthy said.

Woodson had some rehab work away from practice.

When asked whether he's concerned about Woodson's status, McCarthy recited the company line, saying, "I'll find out more tomorrow. Tomorrow will answer that question for us."

Woodson has missed only two games in his five seasons with the Packers, none since the end of the 2007 season.

Yet, there is a precedent for McCarthy to sit Woodson because of a significant foot injury when the Packers play on an artificial surface. Woodson incidentally hurt a toe — an injury that still bothers the 34-year-old — in the Packers' win at Detroit in 2007, and he didn't play the following week in a big late-season game at the Dallas Cowboys, which the Packers lost.

Woodson, who won the Heisman Trophy in college at Michigan, has played well in Green Bay's recent visits to nearby Detroit. He had two interceptions and returned one for a touchdown in each of the Packers' wins over the Lions in 2008 and '09.

LIONS

The Lions are trying to stay on point and focus on the task at hand, which is a game against the NFC North rival Packers Sunday, but there are more than a few distractions.

Defensive captain, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (neck) and starting cornerback Alphonso Smith (shoulder) had surgery this week and are out for the rest of the season. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was fined $15,000 for a questionable hit on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. News came down Thursday that defensive Cliff Avril, who had a career-high three sacks Sunday, was also fined $15,000 for a hit on Cutler that drew a personal foul penalty for roughing the passer.

As you might imagine, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is beside himself.

"I would like to tell you what I'm thinking but then I'll get fined," he said Thursday.

Cunningham is hardly ever at a loss for words, but he truly didn't seem to know how to react to all of this.

"It's like the week before (against New England), when the interference (penalty) happened on DeAndre Levy," Cunningham said, "I asked the line judge, 'What do you want me to tell him? Explain it to me because I coach it by the rules.' Honestly, I don't know what to say."

Here's the only thing he said to Suh: "I love him. He's a football player. I hope he never changes. He's going to play hard every play and the league is going to do what it has to do. If I say more they are going to take my money and I don't have enough to give them."

What Cunningham and others within the organization can't quite get their minds around is how Suh and Avril draw penalties and fines while their defensive captain Vanden Bosch was taken down and sent to surgery by a chop block that was neither flagged nor fined.

"You are talking about the crack-back block," Cunningham said, dripping with sarcasm. "The reason he's getting surgery?"

Vanden Bosch was hit from behind by Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski while he was engaged with another offensive lineman.

"It's ridiculous what that guy did," Cunningham said. "We had it happen when I was in Kansas City. A tight end from San Diego and we warned him: 'Do it again and we're going to hit you from our side.' You talk about a defenseless player, now. If you look at that play on tape ... I better stop. I have some real deep feelings about that."

The difference, of course, is that Cutler is a quarterback and Vanden Bosch a defensive lineman. Even referee Ed Hochuli said after the game that "quarterbacks do receive more protection."

Coach Jim Schwartz described it like this:

"The league has defined defenseless play in a lot of different ways - quarterback in the pocket, receiver in the process of making a catch, runner on the sideline, and then a runner being held up by contact; those are all defenseless players," he said. "I'm sure it's something that they look at every year and say how can you best protect players, but that (the Vanden Bosch play) hasn't been categorized as a defenseless player.

"It's sort of fair game to do that."


New England Patriots (10-2) at Chicago Bears (9-3)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET

GAMEDATE: 12/12/10
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS, Phil Simms, Jim Nantz

KEYS TO THE GAME


A lot will depend on how much pressure Chicago can apply on Patriots QB Tom Brady with its front four. He was excellent in deciphering the Jets' blitz packages Monday night, but he's also intimately familiar with that defense and the Bears possess a true elite pass rusher in DE Julius Peppers. The Bears will focus on keeping receivers in front of them out of the Cover-2, and the key will be how many yards the Patriots' possession receivers rip off after the catch.

The Bears have allowed 45 sacks this season, which is a primary reason why offensive coordinator Mike Martz has become far more balanced in his play-calling. But if the Patriots are playing pinball on the scoreboard, don't look for Martz to stay conservative for long. New England has a modest 21 sacks on the season and plenty of youth in CBs Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty.

FAST FACTS

The Patriots clinch a playoff spot with a victory. ... The Bears have a five-game winning streak. ... New England has won 20 of its past 21 regular-season games against the NFC. ... The Patriots won the last meeting, 17-13, at home in 2006 with CB Asante Samuel intercepting three passes.

PATRIOTS

When preparing to face an opponent you haven't seen in four years, you don't wait until the week of the game to begin digging for clues — not unless you're trying to put your team in a position to lose.

For the New England Patriots, their groundwork on Sunday's opponent, the Chicago Bears, began long before they ever stepped onto the field.

"I think the process starts in the offseason," head coach Bill Belichick said. "You get the schedule and you see that you're going to be playing Chicago in a short week. You see you're going to be playing Detroit on a short week, so you try to do your offseason preparations on them and get a feel for what they were like the year before.

"With both these teams, it's difficult because the Lions had some new players coming onto to their roster and of course with Mike (Martz) coming in (with Chicago), he brings a new offense — some of the same players, but then how he uses them in the system is different than what you're going to see from the '09 season. You kind of prepare for that the best you can, but, ultimately, you end up in a short week and you have to try and get a jump on them during the long week, during the Monday night week."

The Patriots faced a similar challenge when they played the Lions on Thanksgiving — a shorter week than the one they're dealing with now. Perhaps the saving grace was that Detroit just isn't a good football team, as evident by their second-half collapse.

The Bears are much tougher. At 9-3, they have the second-best record in the NFC and one of the league's top-ranked defenses (third overall). There are more factors — and weapons — to consider as the Patriots prepare to make their trip to Chicago.

"What you hope for is that when you come back in here on Thursday, is that you are pretty close to being on schedule for a normal Thursday," Belichick said. "If you can do that, then I think you can stay on track for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"It's a challenge and one of the main things we emphasize to the players is how important everything is with paying attention and the walk-throughs and the films and the game plans and getting on it and being on top of it, even though we haven't had a chance to do as much preparation on Tuesday as we normally would with the Monday game."

BEARS

The chess match between Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz and Patriots defensive guru Bill Belichick is the game within the game that could determine the outcome in Sunday's clash.

Their most memorable matchup came in Super Bowl XXXVI, when Belichick's Patriots edged Martz's Rams 20-17, even though the losers outgained the winners 427-267, including 365 passing yards by Martz's triggerman, Kurt Warner.

"We moved the ball exceptionally well," Martz recalled. "(But) we turned the ball over three times. We had a protection error, we had a wide receiver slip and fall on a slant, and we fumbled right before the half. They got 17 points off those three turnovers. They were a great team, obviously. I'm not taking anything away from that. It was more about turning the ball over like we did that gave them those great opportunities that affected the outcome more than anything else."

The gamesmanship for the latest rematch began early in the week, with both coaches singing the praises of his opponent.

"He will study everything that you've done," Martz said. "He'll take it apart piece by piece. He'll identify what your strengths are and he'll try to eliminate your strengths. He will make you adjust. There is no question about it."

The Patriots have compiled an AFC-best 10-2 record this season despite a turnover in personnel that has several previously untested young players plugged into key roles. The defense has struggled, especially against the pass, but there have been signs of improvement.

Martz's offense also struggled early but has shown consistent improvement as players get a better grasp on Martz's scheme.

"It seems like they've gotten more comfortable with coach Martz's offense and the execution of it as the season's gone along," Belichick said. "And they've been very productive running the ball in recent weeks, (converting) third downs, red zone and all the situational things."

If Martz is forced to make adjustments based on what Belichick's defense tries to take away, he's capable of adapting according to the Patriots' coach who is only the second in NFL history to lead a team to 10 straight winning seasons.

"We always have trouble against Mike," Belichick said. "He does a great job with the formations, the personnel groupings; and his passing concepts are very difficult to defend. If you stop one, then that opens up something else. They complement each other well."

One of the factors Martz has cited in the overall improvement of the offense is improved discipline and a more precise attention to detail, which is of paramount importance in his scheme.

According to Martz, Belichick has an advantage there. In 11 years as the head coach in New England he has built a rigid system that demands discipline.

"This is something that we try to do on offense," Martz said. "He's been there for so long that there is an aura of discipline that he demands out of those guys. That's what we're trying to get to. I say 'limit mistakes, get better every week.'" They're that way now every week because it's ingrained in them.

"When they bring somebody in, they have to buy into that. You never see them out of position. They adjust extremely well. That's the best compliment you can give the guy, I think, they're just very, very tuned in to what they're doing. They just don't make errors."

Over the past four games, Martz's offense has averaged 322 total yards per game, which still pales in comparison to the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf. But it's a noticeable improvement over the previous five games, when growing pains and inconsistencies limited the Bears to an average of just 254 yards per game. The offense has benefited from its ability to utilize several different players in key roles from week to week.

"He's a hard guy to defend," Belichick said. "His schemes are always very creative, and they give you a lot of things to worry about. Their plays complement each other so, if you're stopping one thing, you're probably not going to be able to stop the play that he has that goes with it. You never feel safe when you're playing Mike's offense; they're one play away from a big, explosive play."


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