Mid-term grades are in, and if the Bears' report card looks as impressive at the end of the season as it does now, they'll be playing in the postseason for only the second time in 11 years.
At the semester, the Bears are 5-3 and hold a two-game lead in the disappointing NFC North, with a 3-0 record within the division. Critics will argue that the Bears have benefited from an easy schedule, since they have yet to defeat a team with as much as a .500 record. The combined record of the five teams they've beaten is 13-28.
There will be much tougher tests in the second semester, including the Panthers, Steelers and Falcons, who are each 6-2, and the Bucs, who are 5-3.
But the Bears host the 2-6 49ers Sunday at noon, and they have two games remaining with the 1-7 Packers.
"It's good to be in this position at the halfway point," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We've just finished talking at halftime, and we're getting ready to come out after the half as we play San Fran."
Despite the successful start, Smith believes his team can play better in many areas in the second half.
"We've set a bar," he said. "We like what we're doing right now running the football. We know our passing game needs to improve, and it will. Defensively we like the way we play, stopping the run, getting takeaways, but we still see areas to improve, and we know that we can take it another step."
The area that has the most room for improvement is the passing game, where the Bears are No. 29 in yards and average gain, a big reason why they're also 29th in third-down efficiency and 23rd in scoring.
Rookie Mark Bradley gave a strong indication in Game Seven that he was the complement Muhsin Muhammad needed to divert double-team attention away from him. But Bradley suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee while catching five passes for 88 yards before halftime.
Now Justin Gage has to prove he's better than he was as a starter in the first three games of the season, when he caught two passes. He caught four last week, including his first TD in 23 months, but he totaled just 28 yards.
Rookie quarterback Kyle Orton has yet to develop a consistent rapport with anyone other than Muhammad and Bradley. Tight end Desmond Clark caught four passes in back-to-back games, but he's caught a total of two passes in the past two games.
Speedy but little-used wideout Bernard Berrian would have had increased opportunities because of Bradley's injury, but he suffered torn ligaments in his thumb a week before the rookie was hurt. Following surgery, Berrian is out at least another 5-6 weeks.
Bobby Wade, who tied for the team lead among wideouts last season with 42 catches, has just two receptions for 12 yards in the past five games. Bears running backs have caught 21 passes for a weak 4.0-yard average.
Finally, the Lions got a little good news regarding their receiving corps.
Charles Rogers practiced Wednesday, and he practiced well. At full speed. Running routes properly.
That's not all. Roy Williams also practiced. He took approximately half the snaps but probably had the best work he's had since suffering a quadriceps injury nearly a month ago.
For a team going through the turmoil the Lions have experienced with their receivers in recent weeks, it's no small matter when they can get two underachieving — but still extremely important — first-round receivers back on the field.
Of course, not all of the news concerning the Lions receivers was good.
Their third first-round receiver — rookie Mike Williams — is wearing a boot on his right leg to support a sprained right ankle. He can barely stand, let alone practice.
Scottie Vines, a free-agent signee who has picked up the slack with 19 receptions in the past three games, was waiting for the results of an MRI on his knee and didn't practice.
Troy Edwards, a veteran signed Oct. 25 after the rash of injuries left the Lions dangerously thin at receiver, has a sore ankle and was able to practice only part-time.
Not an ideal situation for coach Steve Mariucci, but encouraging considering the situation in which he has become embroiled in recent days.
"What we're going to do is go through the week ... and at the end of the week we'll have to see who's available, who's ready physically and practice-wise, and we'll make a decision," Mariucci said.
The Lions' biggest concerns have been with Rogers and Williams, who came into the season with high expectations but have provided minimal help for a team that is struggling to avoid a fifth consecutive sub-.500 season.
Rogers, the second player taken in the 2003 draft, caught just five passes for 77 yards before sitting out a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. He was eligible to return last week but practiced so poorly, Mariucci didn't even take him on the trip to Minnesota.
Williams was the Lions' leading receiver with 19 catches for 187 yards and a touchdown before suffering the Grade 3 quad strain Oct. 9 against Baltimore. He missed three games entirely and played only three plays in the game Sunday at Minnesota, stirring up another controversy.
Mariucci declined to discuss the apparent misunderstanding between himself and Williams regarding Williams' ability to participate in the Vikings game, but indicated it is not a problem.
Williams said his quad has improved significantly and he expects to play Sunday against the Cardinals.
"Hopefully, I'm playing," he said. "It looks like I'm playing. Hopefully, I'll play; hopefully, I'll play more than three plays."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Close won't cut it anymore. Just ask coach Mike Sherman's wife, Karen.
As the losses keep piling up at an alarming rate for a franchise that last had a sub-.500 season in 1991, she has openly questioned whether there's any value to an abundance of narrow moral victories.
"She said, ‘Wouldn't it be easier if the games weren't so close all the time?'" Mike related of a conversation he had with his wife upon returning home last Sunday night after a 20-10 loss to Pittsburgh.
The husband's response was, "Maybe initially. Maybe the disappointment wouldn't be so dramatic. But, because they are close, because guys are battling and haven't given up, we have hope that we can become a good football team."
Hope, much like time, is fading fast for a team foundering with a 1-7 record. The Packers will kick off the second half of the season Sunday at NFC South co-leader Atlanta, where they will have their work cut out to just stay, uh, close on the scoreboard, never mind try to finagle a rare victory.
The injury epidemic hasn't let up any, forcing Sherman to call on undrafted rookie Samkon Gado to be his fifth starting running back of the season. He's also not sure if he'll have more than just a couple capable receivers, since starter Robert Ferguson is iffy with a knee injury.
Amazingly, in the process of losing playmakers Javon Walker, Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport to season-ending injuries in just the first six games, the Packers have outperformed the opposition from a statistical standpoint on a nearly consistent basis.
They have won the total-yardage battle in six of the eight games. For the season, they have the edge in total-yards average (323 to 296.4), first downs (156 to 145) and time-of-possession average (30:19-29:41).
They're even ahead in points differential, 168 to 159, the only 1-7 team in NFL history to lay claim to that.
Nevertheless, other than a 52-3 thrashing of New Orleans on Oct. 9, the mistake-prone Packers have been left to kick themselves after all of those agonizingly close defeats. Five of them have been decided by a touchdown or less, adding up to a total of 16 points.
"I think the difference is, because I've been on some good football teams, is that you believe, not in the first quarter, but you believe in the rest of the game that you can get it done - that regardless of circumstances or any adversity that you face, you will overcome it," quarterback Brett Favre said. "I don't know if we believe that collectively as a team, especially offensively. Right now, there's some doubt, and when there's doubt, you lose by a point or you lose by a last-second field goal."
While there's a good number of Packers backers quietly rooting for the slide to continue with hopes of nabbing the No. 1 overall pick in the draft next spring, they won't be hearing the guys on the inside uttering any mention of giving up on the season.
Sherman, for one, claims he's unaware that his team is only four games behind front-runner Chicago in the NFC North.
"I have not looked at the standings, actually, since maybe Week 1 or Week 2," he said. "We just have to take care of our business week by week and hope at the end. And, that's what we've done in the past - a helluva lot better than we're doing right now. But, we take it one week at a time, and we'll see what happens.
"This is the second half of the season. We've been a pretty damn good second-half team. Hopefully, our history will prove itself to be true in the present. But, there's no guarantee to that."
The only guarantee is that what shapes up to be a mismatch Sunday could turn out to be another familiar nail-biter.
NFC North Notes
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