NFC North Notes

The Bears' record might be considered a mirage considering who they have played so far and what lies ahead, while the Lions' starting quarterback may go down to the wire again. Get news and notes from the NFC North.

CHICAGO BEARS

Not to take anything away from the Bears' 6-3 record, but they've done what was expected of any team with postseason hopes - they took advantage of a favorable schedule.

The combined record of their first six victims is 18-36. The remaining schedule will be much more difficult than the first nine games, beginning on Sunday with the NFC South-leading Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field. That should provide a more accurate evaluation of the Bears' postseason prospects.

"It just so happens we have some teams with good records (coming up)," Bears coach Lovie Smith said, "but I think we've beaten some good football teams right now."

Smith is at least half right.

The Bears have not yet defeated a team with even a .500 record. But starting Sunday, they will have plenty of opportunities to prove they can beat a good team. In the next five weeks, the Bears face two 7-2 teams (the Panthers and Steelers) and two 6-3 teams (the Bucs and Falcons). Smith admits the Bears' schedule is about to become more difficult.

"I think just in general it gets tougher later in the year," he said. "You get yourself in position early in the season, but once November and December come around, that's the playoff stretch right there, and that's where we are."

The only two games that might be considered relatively easy games on paper are against the 2-7 Packers, who have beaten the Bears 19 times in the last 22 meetings. Four of the Bears' last six games are on the road, including at Tampa and at Pittsburgh. They finish up at Green Bay on Christmas Day, then play on New Year's Day at Minnesota, where they've lost three straight.

But the Bears won't be thinking about any of that this week as they prepare for the Panthers, the team many consider the class of the NFC. It's a game Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher calls the biggest he's played in since 2001. The Panthers have won six straight, one more than the Bears, and they've done it using some of the same methods.

"They're a physical team," Smith said. "They have the same blueprint as we do, as far as how we put our football team together."

The Panthers defense is No. 2 in rushing yards allowed, while the Bears are No. 8. The Bears defense is No. 1 in points and total yards allowed, while the Panthers are eighth in both categories. Both defenses rely heavily on outstanding linemen.

Carolina doesn't run the ball as well as the Bears, but the Panthers throw it a lot better, thanks to quarterback Jake Delhomme and especially wide receiver Steve Smith, who leads the NFL with 937 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns. Smith is so good the Panthers felt they could afford to cut Muhsin Muhammad in the off-season.

"We still talk almost every week," Muhammad said of his former teammate. "He's excited about trying to break all of my records there."

Muhammad had 93 catches for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns last season with the Panthers.

The Panthers have already defeated every other team in the NFC North, although they only beat the Packers 32-29 at home and the Lions 21-20 at Detroit. But the Panthers have outscored their last three opponents by a combined 102-30, trouncing the Vikings 38-13, the Bucs 34-14 and the Jets 30-3.

Smith hedged when asked if Carolina was the team to beat in the NFC.

"You would have to say they are one of them," he said. "But as far as THE team to beat right now, there are a lot of teams to beat. We're going to say the Chicago Bears are one of the teams to beat."

NOTES

  • Bears players and coaches on Wednesday did their best to shift attention from Fred Miller's broken jaw to Sunday's marquee matchup with the 7-2 Panthers.

    Miller already has lost 15 pounds since he was punched by center Olin Kreutz at an FBI gun range in North Chicago on Nov. 7, and he won't be able to eat solid food for at least another week. But the right tackle returned to practice Wednesday in his customary spot with the starters, and he's listed as questionable for Sunday. Whether Miller's presence at practice was just for show remains to be seen.

    It seems unlikely that he could return so soon with a steel plate in his jaw, and especially in a weakened condition against Panthers Pro Bowl defensive left end Julius Peppers. On Monday, Miller said he'd be out another week. He was asked what changed since then.

    "I wouldn't say anything's changed," said the 10-year veteran. "It's just a matter of going out and seeing what I can do, and if I can go, I can go. If I can't, then I can't."

    If he can't, John St. Clair would start his second straight game at right tackle after holding his own against 49ers standout Bryant Young last week.

    "I always prepare to start whether I'm going to play or not," St. Clair said. "I have the same mentality this week. Fred's a good player and a tough guy, so if he goes out and plays, I'm sure he'll do well. If not, I'll be ready to step up to the plate."

    Bears coach Lovie Smith said Miller's ability to practice bodes well for his availability Sunday, ignoring obvious differences.

    "If you can practice full speed, you can play in the game," Smith said. "Fred had a good day out there. He didn't have any trouble, so we're expecting him to be able to (play)."

    The big difference is that, at practice, Miller can assume that another teammate won't hit him in the jaw. He can't make the same assumption on Sunday.

    "I definitely worry about a head slap," Miller said. "But I worry about that every week."

    The Bears say they can't afford to focus any more attention on the Kreutz-Miller fracas, especially at the expense of their preparation for the NFC South-leading Panthers.

    "No matter what it is in life, you make mistakes and move on," Miller said. "That's the same thing with whatever goes on. It's just the way things go."

    Miller and Kreutz said they will put the episode behind them and it won't affect their play. Kreutz, who reportedly received a 13-stitch cut on the back of his head when Miller struck him with a five-pound weight, did not practice Wednesday. His injury was listed as "elbow." Kreutz has uncustomarily worn a stocking cap since the incident, which might have been fueled by consumption of alcohol at the FBI facility, an allegation that is being investigated.

    "Every day someone is going to bring something up," Kreutz said, "but as far as we're concerned, it's done. I'm not going to comment on the stories. People are going to keep bringing up stories, and some things are made up and some things are true. But we're done with it, and people can keep going with it if they want to."

    Insinuations that there might be more to the altercation than has been revealed leave Smith perplexed.

    "I can't understand that," he said. "The story's come out. I think everyone knows what it is. If you find out more, I'm sure that will come out and we'll go from there. I think what everyone should go with is what's been said right now. I think everyone has tried to come clean with what's happened."

    Now they're trying to get past it, which they say isn't nearly as difficult for those in the locker room as it is for onlookers.

    "It hasn't been a distraction at all," St. Clair said. "I didn't know anything about it. In the meeting rooms, it's like normal. We're all together; we're a cohesive group. Everybody gets along, that's all it is, not a big deal. Everybody's friends. We all go out to eat. Nothing's changed."

    That's the story, anyway.

  • In light of the Kreutz-Miller brawl, Smith was asked if he needed to address players' off-day conduct.

    "We address that always," Smith said. "There's a standard that we have always. If you look at our record, I think our guys have done a pretty good job with most things. On their off days, most of them are in the community doing something in a positive sense. We'll look more toward that."

  • Nate Vasher's jersey and the football he toted 108 yards for the longest return of any kind in NFL history are being sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

    Vasher also leads the Bears with four interceptions.

    "We call him ‘The Interceptor,'" Smith said. "(If) you look back at his history at the University of Texas, he's a great punt returner. It seems like every time he gets his hands on the ball right now, he knows what to do with it. It was a great play."


    DETROIT LIONS

    Coach Steve Mariucci's decision on the Lions' starting quarterback - Joey Harrington or Jeff Garcia - for the game Sunday at Dallas might be another down-to-the-wire event.

    Although Garcia is still not 100 percent physically, he and Harrington shared the reps with the Lions first offense in practice Wednesday, raising the possibility he could play against the Cowboys.

    "They're both playing and practicing," Mariucci said. "We'll see where it takes us. I think Jeff's a little better, healthier than he was a week ago. Just how much remains to be seen."

    Asked how long he would wait to make a decision, the Lions coach responded: "A day or two, I suppose, unless we want to just drag it out until Saturday."

    The Lions quarterback situation has become more and more curious as the season has progressed with Harrington and Garcia moving in and out of the starting job.

    Harrington played the first five games while Garcia recovered from a broken left fibula and sprained left ankle suffered in the final preseason game.

    With the Lions struggling - and Mariucci seemingly looking for an opportunity to move his former 49ers Pro Bowler into the lineup - Garcia was rushed back from his injury and started two games - Oct. 23 against Cleveland and the following Sunday against Chicago.

    Garcia was the hero of the first game - scoring on a 1-yard run - and the goat of the second - throwing the overtime interception that cost the Lions the game. And he got such a going-over at the hands of the Bears, he hasn't played since.

    Harrington, thrust back into the starting job, was intercepted twice in a loss at Minnesota and threw three touchdown passes to beat Arizona.

    That is where it stands now, with Mariucci eager to get Garcia back into the lineup - if and when he is healthy enough to play his scrambling, gambling style of quarterback.

    Garcia says he still feels pain in his left leg but was encouraged by the improvement in his condition over the past two days.

    "I feel better than I did last week," Garcia said. "But it's still one of those things where I'm taking some steps forward, starting to feel I'm getting closer to being healthy but I'm still not without some discomfort. Hopefully, tomorrow will be a new day and a better day, and that's all I can ask of myself.

    "If it was just dealing with pain but still being able to go full speed, that would be one thing. But when you're dealing with not being able to get to full speed, that's another thing. That's what I'm dealing with right now."

    NOTES

  • What looked like a pretty dismal linebacker situation just two days earlier still isn't ideal but it apparently is not nearly as bad as it could be.

    Middle linebacker Earl Holmes, one of the Lions' best defenders all season, does not have a torn MCL in his right knee, and strong-side linebacker Boss Bailey's sprained right ankle isn't nearly as sore as it was after the game Sunday against Arizona.

    Neither player practiced Wednesday, but neither has been ruled out for the game Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.

    "It's day to day," Bailey said. "It's just a sprain so it's nothing major. It's possible I'll be out there. I'm hoping I could be out there on Sunday."

    Even if he doesn't get onto the practice field until Friday, Bailey feels he would be able to play at Dallas. "I go out and stand in practice, get mental reps," he said. "I should be fine."

    Holmes is hopeful but probably not that close to getting back into uniform.

    "It's just sore," Holmes said. "I've got to get the soreness out of there. There was no tear, no rip. It was just stretched real bad."

  • Wide receiver Roy Williams, who grew up in Odessa, Texas, and played at the University of Texas, missed the Lions game at Dallas a year ago because of an ankle injury, so he is looking forward to playing in Texas Stadium on Sunday.

    Williams said he expects 35 or 40 family members and friends to attend the game, many of them coming in from Austin.

    "You know, in Austin, I went to college there for four years," he said. "The fans are great.

    "And now I get to go to Dallas. That's America's Team, and everybody's Cowboys fans. And everybody from Odessa is a Detroit Lions fans until we play the Cowboys. Then, they're strictly Roy Williams fans."

    Williams is coming off a left quadriceps injury that kept him sidelined for three full games and all except three plays of another. He returned to duty with a three-touchdown performance against Arizona as his warm-up for Dallas.

  • The Lions rookies had their usual post-midseason meeting with coach Steve Mariucci on Wednesday, prior to the 10th game of the season.

    "He was just warning us to make sure our bodies were prepared for the rest of the season," said rookie cornerback Stanley Wilson, from Stanford. "Staying on a routine, making sure that we remained healthy. This NFL season is a lot longer than the college season."

    And then Mariucci, a native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, provided them with some helpful advice and a helpful appliance - an ice scraper - to get them through the Michigan winter that many of the rookies have not experienced.

    "I used to live in Boston for a little while," Wilson said. "So I've seen the snow, I've been around it, but I haven't been in it for a long period of time, especially driving in it. I know that's going to be a big difference.

    "You never get used to the snow. I was raised in Cali," Wilson said, referring to California. "I don't like cold, so it's going to take some adjusting."

    For quarterback Dan Orlovsky, the snow is no big deal.

    "I'm used to it, being from Connecticut," Orlovsky said. "I'm not really sweating the snow. I'm looking forward to it."

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