Around the NFC North

The Bears measure up favorably in some of the key indicators of Super Bowl teams, the Lions are hoping they are at a low point in their development and the Packers are reducing the role of a past Pro Bowler.

Statistics are for losers, according to some. But most of the teams that made it to the Super Bowl the past 10 years shared an aptitude in key regular-season statistical categories, and in many of them, the Bears match up favorably this year. But in a few others they come up short.

The one area where the vast majority of the past 20 Super Bowl teams were strongest was in fewest points allowed. Eighteen of the teams that have played in the last 20 Super Bowls finished in the top 10 in that category, and the Bears are currently No. 1, a good sign. Four of the previous 20 Super Bowl teams finished No. 1 in points allowed and all four of them won the big game.

The season-ending hamstring injury to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris could imperil the Bears' ability to continue stonewalling opponents, especially considering they've already lost Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown for the season. But the feeling on the team is that they've still got plenty of talent on the field.

"It's going to be tough to replace him," reigning defensive player of the year Brian Urlacher said of Harris. "It's going to be like Mike Brown; you're not going to replace him. It's going to be a group effort by our d-line. We've got a lot of good players up there, and they've done a good job all year long. We went out last week, and they got (five) sacks. We have to keep doing that."

And they have to keep forcing turnovers, which is another excellent indicator of a championship-caliber team.

Numbers-wise, turnover differential has been almost as important in getting to the Super Bowl as defensive stinginess. Sixteen of the last 20 Super Bowl teams finished in the top 10 in turnover differential, and the Bears are currently No. 3. Only three teams have given the ball away more than the Bears, who have lost it 29 times, which is usually a recipe for disaster. But the Bears have taken the ball away 39 times, 10 more than the next-best team. And opponents clearly respect the Bears' takeaway talents.

"You are mindful of it," Vikings coach Brad Childress said before his team turned it over five times against the Bears a week ago. "You talk about it every day. These guys obviously are a ball-hunting team when they arrive. (They had) 17 interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries, and I bet you there have been a lot more on the ground. It's coached, and they're looking for it. They're looking for somebody to be lax with the football and even if they aren't lax with the football, they're hunting it."

The categories in which the Bears seem to be the most un-Super are all on the offensive side of the ball.

The Bears are No. 20 in total yards, while 60 percent (12) of the last 20 Super Bowl teams finished the regular season in the top 10. The average rank among those 20 teams in total yards was nine. Only one of the past 20 Super Bowl teams was worse than 20th, the 2002 Buccaneers, who were 24th.

The Bears are also average or below average in rushing yards, average gain per rush and passing yards, and they're barely above average in average gain per pass play. The Bears are 29th in average gain per rush, which would be worse than any of the past 20 Super Bowl teams except for the 2003 Patriots, who were 30th. Currently at No. 18 in passing yards, the Bears would be worse than all but three Super Bowl teams since 1997.

But because they have gotten four touchdowns from special teams and three from the defense, the Bears are No. 4 in scoring, which is a more important category than the previous four.

Fifteen of the last 20 Super Bowl teams finished in the top 10 in scoring.

With four games to go, the Bears' offense still has an opportunity to improve its numbers to the kind that usually equate with playoff success.

"I think this is a unique opportunity to look at this fourth quarter (of the season) knowing we're (already) going to the playoffs," quarterback Rex Grossman said. "(We can) really take these last four games and try to get on some sort of a streak and a rhythm and get some confidence going as an offense, and me personally, and try to hit our stride at the right time."

If not, the Bears' numbers may not add up to a trip to Miami for Super Bowl XLI.


Jeff Backus, the left tackle who has played through every injury imaginable in 93 consecutive starts, was trying to explain the empty, miserable feeling that accompanies the Lions' current 2-11 record.

He thought for several long seconds before the words finally came.

"I know it might sound stupid, but I hope with coach (Rod) Marinelli being here, I really believe in his philosophy and what he's trying to do," Backus said. "I hope we're building a foundation, I hope we're at our low.

"I hope that we're only going to move forward. I just believe in coach Marinelli, I like the guy. I like him as a person, I like him as a coach. I think his message is the right message. From that standpoint, we're doing what has to be done to lay a foundation."

If Backus wanted to think back, he would probably remember saying those same words — or words to the same effect — for his entire six years with the Lions.

  • In 2001, when they suffered through a 12-game losing streak before finally winning a game under new coach Marty Mornhinweg. They finished the season at 2-14.

  • In 2002, when they showed a flicker of life with three wins in the first eight games, then lost the remaining eight to finish 2-13. Mornhinweg was fired.

  • In 2003, when they lost six of their first seven under new coach Steve Mariucci but won four of their final nine to go 5-11 for the season. Perhaps they had turned the corner.

  • In 2004, when they started the season with four wins in the first six games, then lost eight of the remaining 10 to end the season a disappointing 6-10.

  • In 2005, when they lost seven of the first 11. Mariucci was fired four days after Thanksgiving and the Lions finished the season with one more win under interim coach Dick Jauron. Another 5-11 season and another fresh start.

    And now it's Rod Marinelli, fresh and enthusiastic about hard work and pounding the rock and correcting the mistakes to turn the franchise around. So far, the Lions have lost 11 of their 13 games and they're still trying to turn the corner to find their way back to NFL respectability.

    Maybe, as Backus suggested Sunday after the 30-20 loss to Minnesota at Ford Field, the Lions are at their low. Or maybe they're continuing a six-year pattern of merely bouncing from one low to another with only an occasional victory to offer false home that they are on the way up.

    With three games left on the schedule — at Green Bay next Sunday, at home against the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears on Christmas Eve and the season finale at Dallas on New Year's Eve — they have scant opportunity to get around the ever-elusive corner and finish the season on a high note.

    The fans showed their displeasure with a half-hearted "Fire Millen" chant after the Lions had fallen behind the Vikings, 20-0, less than two minutes into the second quarter Sunday and media critics have suggested Marinelli change quarterbacks — sit Jon Kitna (14 touchdowns, 19 interceptions) and play Josh McCown or Dan Orlovsky.

    But owner William Clay Ford has shown no inclination to dump team president Matt Millen and Marinelli says outright that he will not bench Kitna.

    Wide receiver Roy Williams says he understands the chain of responsibility.

    "The problem has to go through somebody," Williams said. "It starts with the ‘fire Millen' and it just trickles down — Millen to the head coach to the offensive coordinator to the quarterback to the receivers to the offensive line to the trainer. It starts at the top and everything rolls downhill."

    But Williams says it's folly to blame the president or the quarterback, as many Lions fans and certain players did a year ago when former quarterback Joey Harrington was literally booed out of town before being traded to Miami last spring.

    "Obviously, the guy in Miami wasn't the problem," he said. "That's what I keep trying to tell you all. It's not the quarterback that's the problem here. Even now.

    "The quarterback is not the problem, the running back is not the problem, the offensive line is not the problem. We, collectively — as a group, are the problem. Not doing things we're supposed to do. We are the problem, not just one individual."

    Meanwhile, the Lions skid along at the bottom of the NFL standings, from one low point to another hoping for the big bounce that never seems to come their way.


  • RB Kevin Jones had his worst day as an NFL running back and finished the game with a painful foot injury in a futile dive for the goal line late in the fourth quarter of the Lions 30-20 loss to Minnesota. Jones carried nine times and finished with a negative three yards for the day, although he caught six passes for 67 yards and a touchdown. The Lions would not confirm the nature of his left foot injury but he left the game in agonizing pain and was on crutches when he left the stadium, leading to speculation the foot is broken.

  • QB Jon Kitna continued to struggle with a turnover problem as he was intercepted three times and also lost a fumble in the Lions' 30-20 loss to Minnesota on Sunday. Kitna has been intercepted at least once in each of the last 11 games and has been intercepted six times in the past two games. He is among the NFL leaders in turnovers with 26 in 13 games.

  • CB Jamar Fletcher came up with his second interception of the season and cashed in on the opportunity with an 88-yard return for a touchdown in the Lions' 30-20 loss to Minnesota. Fletcher made the play against Vikings starter Brad Johnson and was escorted down the left sideline by FS Terrence Holt to the end zone midway in the second quarter.

  • OG Ross Verba finished the Lions' 30-20 loss to Minnesota on the sidelines with what coach Rod Marinelli described as a "pretty severe groin strain" and is appears he might be in danger of missing his seventh start of the season when the Lions play at Green Bay next Sunday.

  • PK Jason Hanson continues to provide the most reliable scoring threat in the Lions' sluggish offensive arsenal. Hanson, who kicked four field goals a week ago in the Lions' 28-21 loss at New England added two more Sunday in the 30-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Hanson connected from 53 and 45 yards against Minnesota. The 53-yarder gave him 30 from 50 yards or more in his 15-year NFL career; only three other kickers have had that many.


    Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila's days as an every-down defensive end might be behind the Pro Bowl player who is only 29 years old.

    His workload was reduced significantly in the 30-19 victory at San Francisco on Sunday. Gbaja-Biamila started the game at right end but was relegated to playing mostly on passing downs.

    Concerns about Gbaja-Biamila's effectiveness against the run and the effect of playing so much had on his diminished results prompted the late-season change in role for him.

    Ironically, Gbaja-Biamila was on the field for the 49ers' second play from scrimmage — a 72-yard run by Frank Gore, who shed a would-be tackle by Gbaja-Biamila 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.

    Cullen Jenkins, who has been primarily an inside player this season, spelled Gbaja-Biamila on early downs thereafter.

    "Just different combinations of guys. It's something that we'll continue to do as we move forward," head coach Mike McCarthy said.

    Gbaja-Biamila was taken aback by the downsizing that first went into effect in practice last week. He was equal parts confused and frustrated. The initiative, though, paid off Sunday, as Gbaja-Biamila had three early pressures of Alex Smith, whom the Packers forced into a pair of second-half interceptions.

    Green Bay's previously maligned defense had three takeaways, turning them into 10 points in the process of halting a three-game losing streak.

    Getting more out of Gbaja-Biamila with less work isn't without precedent. He had a career-high 13.5 sacks in 2001, when he didn't start a game. He matched the output in 2004, the last of four straight seasons with double figures for sacks.

    Gbaja-Biamila's sack total since 2005 has been only 13, including five this season, when he had been on the field about 80 percent of the time before Sunday.

    Gbaja-Biamila, a devout Christian, is resigned to the reduction in playing time.

    "I've been here before. I've been a third-down specialist before (and) I had a great year (2001). God was able to do a lot of great things with that. I'm not tripping," he said. "Whatever my role is, my goal is to be faithful to whatever is called upon me. If they want me to play 100 percent of the snaps, I'm going to play faithfully. If they want me to play a few snaps, I'm going to do that. That's all I'm going to be judged on, is what's given to me. What's not given to me is not going to be my responsibility."

    Gbaja-Biamila will be a subject of conversation for the organization in the off-season. He would be coming off the fourth year of a seven-year, $37.3 million contract doled out by the regime led by former general manager/head coach Mike Sherman. Gbaja-Biamila has a base salary of $5 million and a salary-cap number of $6.5 million in 2007, which GM Ted Thompson would have a tough time justifying for a part-time player.

    Asking Gbaja-Biamila to take a pay cut or going so far as to release him are possibilities, of which the onetime sack master is mindful.

    "There's temptation. There's temptation to worry about tomorrow and worry about what's going to happen after the season, (knowing) you're going to get paid this much," Gbaja-Biamila said. "It's tempting (to think about the what ifs). But, I've tried to stay the course and focus on the Lord and just worry about today. Today has enough troubles of its own. Let tomorrow worry about itself."


  • QB Brett Favre had a mistake-free performance in the 30-19 win at San Francisco on Sunday after having five interceptions in the last two games. Favre was an efficient 22-of-34 passing for 293 yards and two touchdowns, moving him within seven TDs of Dan Marino's league record of 420. Favre also extended his NFL record of consecutive seasons with 3,000 passing yards to 15.

  • WR Donald Driver had a momentous game with nine receptions for 160 yards, highlighted by a 68-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the third quarter. Driver became only the fourth player in team annals to attain 1,000 receiving yards for the third straight season, joining James Lofton (1983 to ‘85), Sterling Sharpe (1992 to ‘94) and Antonio Freeman (1997 to ‘99). Driver has 1,103 yards this season, only 118 shy of his career best last season.

  • RB Ahman Green needs just 238 yards to become the Packers' all-time rushing leader. Green, who had 77 yards in 21 carries Sunday, has 7,970 yards in his seven seasons with the club. Jim Taylor has the 40-year-old record of 8,207 yards.

  • TE David Martin was deactivated for the third straight game because of a ribs injury. Martin, the team's top pass-catching tight end, practiced the final two days of the week and was hopeful of playing Sunday.

  • RT Mark Tauscher missed his fourth straight game because of a groin injury. Rookie Tony Moll again started in Tauscher's absence. Tauscher is iffy to return before the end of the season.

  • DE Michael Montgomery didn't play Sunday and could be out the remainder of the season. The second-year backup suffered ligament damage in his right knee during practice Dec. 6. Montgomery has played in 11 games this season and has 21 tackles with 1.5 sacks.

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