NFC North Notes

The division-leading Bears were encouraged with the play of their backup running backs, which might lead to a lesser role for banged-up starter Thomas Jones. The Packers are as young as they have been in a long time, but it was the veterans that let them down in their latest loss. Get news and notes from the Vikings' NFC North rivals.


Cedric Benson and Adrian Peterson didn't play well enough on Sunday to take Thomas Jones' job as the Bears' featured running back. But their combined 137 yards on 20 carries will make it a lot easier for coach Lovie Smith to give his banged-up starter a rest if he needs one next Sunday against the 49ers.

The Bears still aren't saying that Jones has anything more than bruised ribs, but the injury was serious enough to keep him out of the second half Sunday after 11 first-half carries for 40 yards.

"I saw Thomas at halftime, and I could tell he was in pain," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "And then (head athletic trainer) Tim (Bream) came and told me he was out."

Jones had X-rays last week to rule out fractured ribs, and the Bears say they will take the same precaution this week.

"We pretty much know what the situation is," coach Lovie Smith said. "We haven't ruled (cracked ribs) out, but we think that's safe to say."

Still, if the Bears' brain trust determines that Jones would benefit from a week off, the decision will be easier to make knowing the football is in good hands with the rookie Benson and the four-year veteran Peterson, each of whom had a 36-yard run against the Saints. Jones has practiced sparingly for a month, first with a sprained knee and last week with the sore ribs. It might be time to let the understudies take the spotlight and pick up the slack, as they did Sunday.

"Thomas, two weeks (in a row) having the same problem, yeah, we'll probably tend to lean in that direction, since we do have the guys (to back him up)," coach Lovie Smith said. "But Thomas will play if he's ready to go physically, and we'll never put him out there if he's not. We'll rest Thomas if we just don't feel like he's ready to go. Last week we thought he was ready to go. Each game we're going to go with our best team, the best one we feel can help us win."

After a slow start in which he failed to average more than 3.3 yards in any of the first six games, Benson has gained 114 on 17 carries the past two weeks for a 6.7-yard average. Peterson is averaging 7.1 yards on his 12 carries this season, twice as many as he got in all of 2004.

Despite being the fourth overall pick in this year's draft, Benson has been forced to bide his time on the bench. He missed all of training camp while his contract was being negotiated, and Jones has been one of the league's hottest runners, so there was no need for Benson to play much.

"Thomas is having a great year, and Cedric has been a capable backup behind him, waiting for his opportunity," Smith said. "We said all along, and we've let Cedric know it's a long season, and we're going to need all three running backs during the course of the year, and that's how it's panned out. You just have to wait your turn, which he's done. He's been a team player and that's what we expected him to do.

"We're halfway through the season, and Thomas has an injury right now, which is giving Cedric and Adrian a chance to play, and that's how it goes."


  • QB Kyle Orton had his worst outing in the past five games, completing just 12 of 26 passes for 137 yards and throwing two interceptions. He had allowed just one pick in the previous four games.

  • LG Ruben Brown is expected back at practice Wednesday and should be available for Sunday's game for the first time since suffering a partially torn chest muscle on Oct. 9. He should get his starting job back, although the offensive line hasn't missed him.

  • OG Roberto Garza has filled in admirably on the left side the past four games since Ruben Brown (chest) was injured. But Garza could lose the starting job if Brown is able to practice all week as expected.

  • WLB Hunter Hillenmeyer picked off the first pass of his three-year NFL career on Sunday and also got his first sack of the season.


    It would be easy for the Packers to point to the sorry fact that they're down to their fifth featured running back, only two experienced wide receivers and a roster chock full of 24 first- and second-year players for their latest regression.

    Yet, at the root of the Packers' 20-10 loss to visiting Pittsburgh on Sunday, ironically, was their small cast of long-tenured veterans.

    Quarterback Brett Favre held on to the football when he should have made a hasty pass in the face of a blitz, and paid for it by fumbling and allowing safety Troy Polamalu to run untouched 77 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. That fateful play was preceded by back-to-back, false-start penalties, the second on tight end Bubba Franks, that moved the Packers from the Steelers' 2-yard line to the 12.

    Late in the same quarter, kicker Ryan Longwell, who earlier became the first player in Green Bay's illustrious history to attain 1,000 career points, misfired on a 31-yard field-goal attempt at the end of a lengthy drive.

    Early in the fourth quarter, center Mike Flanagan sent a shotgun snap past Favre that solidified a three-and-out series near midfield with the Packers down only 13-10.

    On the next Packers possession, with the score unchanged, receiver Donald Driver deflected a pass from Favre into the awaiting hands of a Steelers defender, leading to a clinching touchdown.

    Have what's left of Green Bay's old, winning guard given up at the midway point of a 1-7 season?

    "I don't think anybody's losing interest," head coach Mike Sherman gathered. "There's absolutely no concern of mine on that; I would say that is not an issue. I think they fought hard, but we made mistakes in the ballgame, and in the position we're in, every mistake is a pivotal one.

    "Because of where we are, it's very difficult to overcome negative plays. We've had a hard time with that. Maybe in the past, something could happen like that, and we could overcome it. We haven't overcome it this year very well."

    Favre, the elder statesman of the team in his 14th season, is the first to recognize things aren't proceeding in the generally smooth fashion they once were. He's never had a losing season in Green Bay, yet a sub-.500 record is all but a foregone conclusion. In fact, it could be etched in stone by the end of the month.

    Favre, along with fellow vets Driver, Franks, Flanagan, fullback William Henderson and tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, is dealing with the reality that a once-formidable offense is in shambles. The unit has been rocked by season-ending injuries to top running backs Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport and top receiver Javon Walker, not to mention a knee injury that has kept starting receiver Robert Ferguson out the last two games and a broken rib that will sideline starting replacement back Tony Fisher indefinitely.

    In true Favre fashion, though, he's not about to mail in the second half of the season, even if he has no choice but to hand the football off to Samkon Gado or throw it to Andrae Thurman.

    "The one thing I won't do is make excuses. In fact, I feel like it's a bigger challenge," Favre said. "I would love to have Javon back and Fergie and Ahman and Najeh, and would we be better? I assume so. But, when you're scoring 30 points with those guys, then everyone expects you to.

    "To me, with the team we have now and the young guys we have and the musical chairs with these skill positions, I take it as a huge challenge and look forward to it. It is what it is, and that's what we have to accept. And, I can't and won't bring myself to make excuses that, ‘Those guys are not in there, and because of that, we're just going to sputter on offense and we're going to have opportunities and come close but not capitalize.' I'm not going to do that."


  • WR Robert Ferguson did some running Saturday, but the medical staff wasn't convinced he was ready to return to the field. Ferguson has been out since suffering a torn lateral-collateral ligament in his left knee Oct. 23.

    Ferguson was slated to do more running with the strength coaches the next couple days. A determination on his status for the game Sunday will be made later in the week.

    Antonio Chatman has started the last two games in place of Ferguson.

  • TE David Martin's availability for Sunday is up in the air because of a strained groin that has sidelined him the last two games. The backup has yet to resume running.

  • DT Corey Williams suffered a strained right calf in the third quarter of Sunday's game and didn't return. Williams was on crutches afterward, but Sherman said Monday he would list the backup as questionable on the initial injury report Wednesday.

    Williams was to have had the calf scanned Monday to determine the severity of the injury.

  • CB Mike Hawkins banged his head during the game Sunday and was taken to a Green Bay hospital afterward for tests, which were negative. Sherman said the nickel back should be OK.

  • LT Chad Clifton aggravated an ankle injury he sustained earlier in the season and played through it for the entire game Sunday.

  • OC Mike Flanagan played from start to finish, despite dealing with lingering pain in his groin area after he underwent Oct. 5 surgery for a sports hernia.

  • OLB Na'il Diggs, who's been out since suffering a torn medial-collateral ligament in his right knee Oct. 3, is on track to return to game action Sunday.

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