NFC North News

While the Vikings and Lions square off Sunday, Chicago and Green Bay find themselves in very different places in the playoff race. Chicago fans are ready to see some of rookie QB Rex Grossman and give up on 2003, while Green Bay fans are bracing themselves to play an old playoff foe with new personnel. Get the outlook on the Bears and Packers.

CHICAGO BEARS

A loss Sunday in Denver may not mathematically eliminate the 3-7 Bears from the playoff picture, but it might as well.

What it would do is provide a perfect opportunity to introduce rookie quarterback Rex Grossman to the NFL, since all of the Bears' final five opponents have defense ranked in the bottom half of the league. Four of the five rank in the bottom one-fourth of the league defensively.

In the meantime Grossman is like a kid the week before Christmas. The anticipation is becoming unbearable.

"My first year in Gainesville I redshirted and I didn't play, and then the next three I played most of the time," Grossman said of his Florida career. "That year, my redshirt year, I was just so hungry to get out there, and it's the same feeling now. I want to get out there so bad. It might be close."

Grossman won't get on the field until the Bears are officially out of playoff contention. As anxious as Grossman is to start playing, he's conflicted when it comes to rooting for the opportunity.

"I'd rather us win then me get a chance to get some experience," Grossman said. "They said if I play, we're out of it. So that's not really fun either. It kind of goes both ways. I'd like to get out there, but I don't want us to be out of it. But, if we are (out of it), I'm going to be real excited about the opportunity."

Until then, Grossman will watch and wait, learning what he can from doing mental reps and observing veteran starter Chris Chandler and backup Kordell Stewart. Chandler has been a starter since the rookie year of his 16-year career, but he doesn't advocate that course of action.

"I don't think he's ready to play, but he is definitely more mature now than he was at the start of the season," the 38-year-old Chandler said of the 23-year-old Grossman. "We have a lot of fun in the locker room and on the field, but I also think he's matured a lot."

It's nothing against Grossman; Chandler doesn't think any rookie quarterback is ready to deal with all the aspects of the job.

"I think it's really a difficult thing to do," said Chandler, who started 13 games as a rookie with the Colts in 1988. "I think the guy who did a good job coming out was Troy (Aikman), but he also went through a 1-15 (season), some really rough years, and then it kind of paid off later. I just think it takes a while to, No. 1, learn an offense. But then also there's a lot of things off the field, moving into a new place and getting your life organized — all kinds of things that very first year that go into being professional on and off the field. I think Rex is doing a good job."

Aikman threw 9 TD passes and 18 interceptions as a rookie in 1989 for a passer rating of 55.7. He had 11 TDs and 18 interceptions the next season, when the Cowboys were 7-9. Chandler had 8 TD passes and 12 picks for a 67.2 rating in ‘88. He started 11 games over the next three years before he became a full-time starter again with the Cardinals. Peyton Manning threw 26 TD passes as a rookie in 1998 with the 3-13 Colts, but he was picked off 28 times and had a passer rating of 71.2. Dan Marino threw 20 TDs and 6 interceptions with a rating of 90.6 as a rookie for the 1983 Dolphins, who went 12-4 and lost in Super Bowl XIX. Then there was Cade McNown, who threw 8 TDs and 10 picks as a rookie in 1999 for the 6-10 Bears while compiling a 66.7 passer rating. He never got any better, which is the biggest fear in playing a young quarterback before he's ready. There's also the fear of trivializing the effort of every other player on the team for the sake of giving one player experience.

"There's two schools of thought on that," Chandler said. "There are a lot of guys who are going to go out there and expect to try to win every game and not necessarily do something to help any individual guy for the future. There are a lot of guys on this team, I don't care what the record is, they're going to go out every week and try hard and try to win a football game, and they deserve that opportunity.

"It can help some guys (to play quarterback as a rookie), and it can just absolutely crush some guys. You see Heath Shuler and some of those guys that never ... I don't know what happened to them. But they were can't-miss, and whether it's their confidence that got crushed or whatever, you just never know how a guy's going to react to anything like that."

Still, Grossman is eager to find out.

"It would be nice to get some experience in my first year," he said. "It would probably make me a little more comfortable in my second year. It's just an opportunity for me to get some experience and show what I can do."

For now, though, Grossman continues to learn more about patience than performing.

"It's kind of hard waiting and watching, but that's really what's been best for our team so far," he said. "It's kind of what you go through as a rookie quarterback."

But Christmas is just around the corner.

SERIES HISTORY: 12th meeting. Bears trail Broncos 6-5. Teams have not met since 1996, when Broncos won 17-12 in 1996 in Denver.


NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • In light of the Vikings' four-game losing streak, and with the Packers losing three of their last five games, coach Dick Jauron was asked if he' frustrated by back-to-back 2-point losses. Victories in those games would have the Bears at 5-5 and one game out of first place in the NFC North.

    "I don't know that we could be more frustrated," Jauron said. "The fact is we are where we are and all of the things that people talk about or you want to think about, they don't do you any good. We can think about all those issues, the would'ves, the could'ves, the should'ves, the only-ifs, or we can accept where we are and move forward, and we choose to move forward."

  • Don't expect the Bears to put up much of a fight to keep wide receiver Dez White, an unrestricted free agent after this season. White has seven touchdown catches in four years. David Terrell already has eight in three seasons, even though he missed 11 games with a fractured foot last year. If he gets the same opportunities as White has had, Terrell will put up better numbers, as long he can keep his focus on becoming a superstar instead of acting like one.

  • A year ago general manager Jerry Angelo said Anthony Thomas was "not a special back." But Tuesday night on the WSCR (AM-670) Management Report, Angelo said the Bears aren't looking to replace Thomas and that the team has proven it can win riding the A-Train.

    BY THE NUMBERS: In 46 games with offensive coordinator John Shoop calling the plays, the Bears have scored two touchdowns on their opening possession of the game.

  • The Bears have been outscored 49-9 in the first quarter this season. Since 1995, the Broncos have scored the most first-quarter points in the NFL and have the greatest first-quarter point differential in the NFL, 837-436. This season, the Broncos have outscored their opponents 72-43 in the first quarter.

  • The Bears have lost 12 straight road games and 19 of their last 24 overall.

  • The Bears have lost nine straight coin flips, starting the game on defense each time. But they have kept their opponents off the scoreboard on the opening drive for the past six weeks.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Yeah, I think it would. Absolutely I think it would help." — Bears coach Dick Jauron, who has clung to Chris Chandler as his starting quarterback as if he were Dan Marino, when asked if it would benefit rookie QB Rex Grossman to get on the field this season.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    The Bears signed defensive end Israel Idonije to the practice squad Tuesday.

    The native of Brandon, Manitoba, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Cleveland Browns on May 2, went to training camp with the Browns where he injured his right ankle and was waived injured on Sept. 30. The 6-7, 290-pounder led the Manitoba Bisons with nine sacks and 31 tackles in 2002 and was named the outstanding lineman in Canadian University Football.

    PERSONNEL/INJURY NOTES
  • S Bobby Gray is expected to start in place of Mike Green, who is doubtful with a strained groin that has bothered him for four weeks.

  • RB Anthony Thomas has averaged 98.8 rushing yards in his last six games.

  • CB R.W. McQuarters is third in the NFC with a 12.9-yard punt-return average after scoring on a 60-yard return last week. McQuarters replaced rookie Bobby Wade after the season opener, but he lost his starting job on defense six weeks later, getting demoted to nickel back.

  • SLB Lance Briggs, the Bears' leading tackler over the past four games, practiced Wednesday and was not listed on the injury report, although he missed time last Sunday with back spasms and after getting poked in the eye.

  • MLB Brian Urlacher has not led the Bears in tackles in any of the past three weeks.

    GAME PLAN: With their inept passing game, the Bears can't afford to fall behind the quick-starting Broncos.

    The Bears have been outscored 49-9 in the first quarter this season and 121-72 in the first half. QB Chris Chandler's fourth-quarter passer rating is 43.4 with one touchdown and four interceptions.

    "I just think personally and for the offense, I have to play better early on and be more consistent, as everyone does," Chandler said. "That's really the bottom line. There are all kinds of things that (offensive coordinator John) Shoop can call, but we have to do a better job, I have to do a better job, and that's really what it all boils down to.

    "It's just really mentally being ready to go when that first play comes, and on the road up there, it just makes it a little more difficult."

    Chandler's passer rating in the first half last week was 13.9.



    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    Three weeks ago the Packers went to St. Louis and faced another relatively unheralded quarterback named Marc Bulger.

    When the day was done, Bulger had completed 22 of 34 passes for 247 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in the Rams' 34-24 victory over the Packers.

    Bulger got the job when Kurt Warner was awful in the opener and got hurt.

    Now Tim Rattay, another unknown commodity who is moving up fast, will face his first major test Sunday when the visit Lambeau Field.

    Rattay has been razor-sharp with a passer rating of 113.2 against the top-10 defenses of St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Both games were at 3Com Park, where the 49ers are 5-1 compared to 0-4 on the road.

    "It will be interesting to see how Rattay plays on the road," said a defensive coach for one of the 49ers' last two opponents. "I know the Packers have lost three (at home) but it will be a hostile environment and the fans will be loud. Two games is way too early to say he will be a starter and a hell of a player but the guy has been calm back there. He doesn't hold the ball."

    Jeff Garcia, a Pro Bowl selection each of the last three years, posted a rating of 72 in the first eight games and was taking a tremendous beating, some of which was his own doing for running up into the rush.

    "I'd be more apt to want to play against the other guy (Garcia)," a scout for a recent 49ers' foe said. "Garcia is a gunslinger. This kid is more disciplined. He played for Gary Crowton at Louisiana Tech. He's very, very smart. Sees and reacts quickly. Might be a better quarterback than Garcia."

    Rattay scored 27 on the Wonderlic intelligence test in 2000 before being drafted in the seventh round. He has limited mobility and an ordinary arm, which could become a factor because four of the 49ers' next five games are at cold-weather, maybe windy sites.

    "The 49ers are well-coached and play with a lot of emotion," the scout said. "They'll blitz Brett Favre like mad. As long as the Packers run the football they'll move the ball and control the game."

    SERIES HISTORY: The 53rd regular-season meeting. Packers lead, 26-25-1. The Packers have won the last five meetings, counting playoffs, at Lambeau dating to 1990. In all, the Packers are 9-1 in the series since 1990.


    NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • Don't look now, but guess who is the NFL's No. 1-ranked rushing team?

    Amazingly, it's the Packers, a tried and true West Coast team since Mike Holmgren came to town advocating the pass in 1992.

    Last Sunday, the Packers' offensive game plan in Tampa wouldn't have won any awards for originality. It was about as fancy as smash-mouth football can be.

    But clearly it was the way to go and the Packers outlasted the Bucs, 20-13.

    The Packers had 38 runs and 28 passes, a run ratio of 57.6% that was in stark contrast to their run ratio of 30.9% in losing games at Raymond James each of the past five seasons.

    Their dominating offensive line and other assorted blockers turned those runs into 190 yards, or 90 more than a Monte Kiffin-coordinated defense in Tampa Bay had given up on average in 130 previous games, counting playoffs. The Packers had averaged 76 in their defeats at RJS.

    "We managed the game," vice president Mark Hatley said. "We stayed out of third and really long situations where they could really lay back their ears. They're not a real big front and we wore ‘em down, I think."

    Ahman Green led the way with 109 yards in 21 carries, but Najeh Davenport contributed heavily (13-70) and Tony Fisher added 11 in four attempts. For the season, Davenport is averaging 6.4 yards (46-296), Fisher is averaging 5.7 (23-132) and Green is averaging 5.3 (222-1,172).

    "I've never seen anybody in the league ever have three backs all averaging over 5," Hatley said.

    For some reason, the Packers came out with six passes in their first nine plays.

    "We said, ‘Why are we throwing the ball so much?'" center Mike Flanagan said. "It surprised everybody. We thought we were going to stick with the run. But he called a hell of a game."

    After that, offensive coordinator Tom Rossley called 35 runs and 22 passes.

    "I like balance," Rossley said. "We've got great confidence in our run game but it helps us to run when a quarterback's thumb is the way it is."

    The Packers mixed their signature counter plays with more perimeter runs this week.

    "The tosses were effective," Rossley said. "The word is you can't toss on them because they're too fast, but we've got fast guards and a fast center."

    Running backs coach Sylvester Croom, a 17-year NFL coaching veteran who had Barry Sanders for two years in Detroit, said he had never been associated with a better run game than this one.

    "There's the athleticism of our offensive linemen," Croom said. "We've got three pretty good blocking tight ends. We've got two good blocking fullbacks. That's a lot. Then you've got three halfbacks that can run, catch and run screens.

    "We're patient and multiple in what we do. It's not you just go in the game and pound one run. It's pretty tough to defend what we do."

    Hatley was quick to point out that the Packers must throw the ball much better than they have, but their quarterback has played three-plus games with the thumb injury.

    "You can say anything about Brett's thumb but when we had to make a pass he made it," Rossley said. "In our end zone, third down to Robert (Ferguson), he made a great throw. It hurts him to throw the ball."

    The coup de grace came in the form of a 17-play, 98-yard drive that fulfilled every dream of every offensive player and coach on the staff.

    "They got gassed," Rossley said. "You've got to give the fullbacks and tight ends credit. And the wideouts. Unselfish wideouts. They're all involved."

  • If you played name association with the newest Packer, "tough guy" would be the first description for T.J. Slaughter.

    A fiendish delight for contact is what made Slaughter a starter in Jacksonville for almost the equivalent of two full seasons and why the Packers signed him Nov. 11 to a contract through the end of the season. He is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in March.

    "He's a very tough, physical player," director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie said. "I thought he tackled well."

    Although Slaughter started games at both middle linebacker and weak-side linebacker, McKenzie prefers him more in the middle. He would join Torrance Marshall as possibilities at middle linebacker in 2004 if the Packers were to move Nick Barnett from the middle to weak side, where many scouts say he is best suited.

    The problem is that Slaughter, 6-0 1/2 and 239, is on the small side for the middle and is slow for the weak side. He ran the 40 in 4.86 at the combine in 2000 coming out of Southern Mississippi.

    "But he plays much faster than that," said Steve Szabo, the Jaguars' inside linebackers coach from 1995-'02. "His movement skills in space and his ability to hit make him more of a natural (middle), but he is not a big, physical guy. Where he shines is when he's covered up as a (weak). Running to the football, he will catch your eye."

    Szabo described Slaughter's typical approach to ball carriers is "like he's shot out of a cannon."

    "Boy, he brings it," said Szabo. "His most outstanding quality is his toughness. When he gets in a game you'll notice him right away. He'll have some eye-popping hits. I did (Hannibal) Navies coming out and I did (Na'il) Diggs also. I know T.J. will hit so much better than those two guys."

    A common occurrence in Jacksonville was Slaughter going all-out in practice and being reprimanded by coach Tom Coughlin for excessive hitting.

    "I had a lot of faith and confidence in him," Szabo said. "In a clutch situation, if I had to put a guy in who would sell the ranch and give it everything he had, it'd be him."

    Pass coverage isn't one of his strengths. According to Szabo, he lacks patience and bites on too many play fakes.

    At the combine Slaughter scored 15 on the Wonderlic intelligence test, four below the NFL average. However, he owns a degree in business administration, and Szabo said learning was never a problem.

    "As a rookie, we played him in the middle because (Hardy) Nickerson got hurt and he made all the checks," Szabo said. "He picks the football stuff up very easily."

    Slaughter had to sit out the first four games of 2001 for violating the NFL's policy on substance and steroid abuse. The Jaguars waived him two weeks ago after his arrest for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The charge was dropped.

    "The Packers talked to me from day one since I got released," said Slaughter, adding that he had other offers which he wouldn't identify. "I thought it was the best place for me."

  • Tight end Wesley Walls will be 38 in February and has just eight receptions for 100 yards and no touchdowns, but Sherman didn't rule out the possibility of re-signing him. His contract expires after this season.

    "I'm not disappointed in any way, shape or form," Sherman said. "I'm excited to have him on our team and possibly next year as well."

    BY THE NUMBERS: 106 — The number of rushing yards that the Packers gained on first down in 17 carries at Tampa Bay. That's an average of 6.2 yards per carry. The Packers passed on nine first downs, completing four for 16 yards (1.8) and an interception.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Off the charts." — Coach Mike Sherman on Brett Favre's threshold of pain.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    The Packers have made considerable changes in the way they rotate their defensive linemen.

    For the last two weeks the No. 1 front on passing downs is Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Chukie Nwokorie at end and Larry Smith and Cletidus Hunt at tackle. Jamal Reynolds has been inactive for three straight games.

    On base downs, Gilbert Brown remains the starter in name only. He played just 12 snaps each of the last two weeks while newcomer Grady Jackson was playing 37 and 33.

    Aaron Kampman has replaced injured Joe Johnson as the starting power end in base. When he needs a rest, Smith plays outside.

    Elsewhere in the dime, Nick Barnett is the linebacker, Al Harris and Mike McKenzie are the outside corners, Michael Hawthorne and Marques Anderson are the slots and Antuan Edwards and Darren Sharper are the safeties.

    Bhawoh Jue has been benched.

    PERSONNEL/INJURY NOTES
  • CB Derek Combs (ankle) is questionable but practiced Wednesday.

  • Four players were listed as probable: QB Brett Favre (thumb), TE Bubba Franks (quad), CB Al Harris (ankle/foot) and DE Chukie Nwokorie (shoulder). None practiced Wednesday but coach Mike Sherman said all would be available Sunday.

  • RB Ahman Green was given Wednesday off to rest his weary bones.





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