The Bears and Packers square off for a big New Year's Eve battle with playoff implications for the Packers while Chicago is looking for momentum heading into the playoffs. Detroit, meanwhile, is still keeping the "Fire Millen" mantra burning.
Sunday's New Year's Eve NFC North battle with the Packers has serious ramifications for the Bears, even if the visitors from Green Bay have already been virtually eliminated from playoff contention by a Giants victory over the Redskins the previous night.
If the Giants lose Saturday night, the 7-8 Packers should be able to sneak into the postseason by defeating the 13-2 Bears. That wouldn't sit well with Bears coach Lovie Smith, who, as most fans recall, made beating the Packers Job One when he was hired nearly three years ago.
But it's not just about keeping their biggest rival out of the playoffs for the Bears. It's more about getting themselves ready for a more successful playoff run than they've experienced the past two times they were invited to the postseason party. Both times they were one and done, failing to win their opening game. Both were played at Soldier Field the week after a bye, the same scenario that will be repeated this season. A year ago, the Panthers upset the Bears 29-21; and in 2001, the Eagles manhandled the home team 33-19.
So the Bears are looking for more momentum than they've accumulated in back-to-back pedestrian victories over the Bucs and Lions.
"We realize the position we're in, and you want to play your best ball at the end," Smith said. "You have games like that (in Detroit) and when you come back, it's always good to play in front of the home crowd. I'm interested in how we'll respond coming up this week. "We have two weeks off after that. We want to play our best ball that we've played all year this coming weekend."
For that to happen, the defense will have to regain the stingy attitude it displayed the first 10 games of the season, and the offense must continue to avoid turnovers.
"Defensively, we haven't played as well as we need to, especially the last few weeks," Smith said. "We played a good first half, but the second half - it seems like we've said that a couple times — we didn't play as well. We dominated the first half, but normally, (when) we get teams in a situation where they have to pass the football, we're in pretty good shape with our pass rush and our coverage. But having a 10-point lead (against the Lions) and letting them come back is something that we need to take care of."
The defense should be bolstered by the return of reprimanded nose tackle Tank Johnson, who missed the past two games, and by a full complement of cornerbacks.
Johnson is not guaranteed to regain his starting position, but he will give the Bears more depth and provide a boost to their inside pass rush. Smith expects to see a hungry Johnson take the field after his two-week hiatus.
"When you have something taken away from you that you really like to do, we're hoping that will be the case," the Bears coach said. "When you miss a couple games this late in the year, you should be fresh as much as anything, and he's a good football player."
Left corner Charles Tillman
missed last week with a strained back, and right corner Nate Vasher was out the previous two weeks with a strained hamstring. That put a strain on the secondary, as nickel cornerback Ricky Manning
Jr. was elevated to the starting lineup, forcing inexperience rookie Devin Hester
onto the field in passing situations.
On offense, the Bears hope to get left tackle John Tait
back after a two-week absence to rehab a sprained ankle but they re expected to be without fullback Jason McKie
, who also suffered a sprained ankle vs. the Lions.
QB Rex Grossman has five TD passes and no interceptions in the last three games after throwing six interceptions and no touchdowns in the previous two.
RB Thomas Jones has averaged just 13 carries in the past four games after averaging in the previous five.
TE Desmond Clark is averaging 13.9 yards per catch, 2.9 yards better than his career average of 11.0. His 626 receiving yards are a career best.
WR Muhsin Muhammad has averaged 14.2 yards per catch, 2.5 yards better than last season, and his 836 yards are 86 more than in 2005 but his 59 catches are five less than last season.
WR Bernard Berrian had his sixth TD catch last Sunday, triple what he had in his first two seasons combined.
DE Mark Anderson had two sacks last Sunday, giving the fifth-round rookie 12 for the season, within 2.5 of Jevon Kearse's NFL record for rookies.
NT Ian Scott has nine tackles and three pass break-ups in the past two weeks while filling in for suspended Tank Johnson, who is due to return this week.
DT Alfonso Boone, who moved into the starting lineup after Tommie Harris' season-ending hamstring injury after 12 games, had three tackles, a sack and a QB hurry vs. the Lions.
PK Robbie Gould was 4-for-4 Sunday, hitting field goals from 36 (twice), 39 and 44 yards, after missing four of his previous eight attempts.
TE Gabe Reid, the third-stringer, who had one reception in the first 14 games, filled in at fullback after Jason McKie suffered a sprained ankle and caught three passes for 18 yards against the Lions.
The Matt Millen watch is underway. Again.
And, again, anything said, written or speculated on the subject is just that - pure speculation - because neither Millen nor Lions owner William Clay Ford is talking on the record.
Off the record, Millen has said he has no intention of giving up the team presidency he has held since Ford hired him out of the Fox television booth in January, 2001.
Ford hasn't been available to the media for months. He visits the Lions practice facility in Allen Park on a regular basis, watches practice with Millen and then goes on his way.
But none of that is keeping the fans or media from speculating on what Ford will do or what he should do to right the Lions after a six-year span in which they have won 23 games and lost 72 with one game remaining in the 2006 season.
Sports talk radio is bubbling with indignation, calling for Ford to: A) Fire Millen, B) Sell the team or C) Do both.
A Christmas Eve walkout proposed by several Internet websites created a lot of conversation leading up to the Lions-Bears game Sunday but the response barely caused a ripple.
The websites had urged fans to leave the game with 8:57 to play in the first half. What they failed to take into consideration was the fact that Bears fans had gobbled up hundreds of tickets for the game and they had no intention of leaving with their team holding a 10-7 lead late in the half. And even Lions fans were enjoying a close, relatively well-played game.
So the appointed time came and went with only a handful - relatively speaking - of unhappy fans leaving Ford Field.
There is no telling what Ford will do at the end of the season or if he will do anything. But a year ago he gave Millen a five-year contract extension that runs through the 2010 season and he is totally unswayed by public opinion, so - unless he has a sudden change of heart - there is nothing to suggest Millen's run at the top is over.
QB Jon Kitna is likely to finish among the NFL's top five most productive QBs despite the problems he and the Lions have had getting the ball into the end zone. Kitna is among the NFL leaders in pass attempts (554), completions (344) and yards (3,902) but he has more interceptions (21) than touchdowns (17), has been sacked 58 times and has turned the ball over nine times on fumbles.
RB Aveion Cason got the start in the Lions' game against Chicago and played the first half, with Arlen Harris replacing him for the second half. They delivered 75 yards on 15 carries between them and Harris produced an additional 26 yards on five receptions. Coach Rod Marinelli gave no indication if he plans to split the playing time in the final game of the season Sunday at Dallas.
TE Casey FitzSimmons, the Lions' No. 3 TE and one of their top special teams players, is expected to be finished for the season after suffering a separated left shoulder in the 26-21 loss to Chicago. FitzSimmons battled injuries much of the season and finished with seven catches for 71 yards.
WR Mike Furrey is within easy reach of the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his four-year NFL career. Furrey, who was a starting safety a year ago at St. Louis, has caught a team-leading 87 passes for 984 yards, leaving him just 16 yards short of the landmark 1,000-yards. Only WR Roy Williams has more receiving yards among Lions receivers.
WR Roy Williams already has career high totals in receptions (76) and receiving yardage (1,206) going into the Lions' final game of the season Sunday at Dallas. Despite the impressive numbers, Williams didn't get his first red zone touchdown until the 15th game of the season and has just five touchdowns for the season, three less than he scored in each of his previous two NFL seasons.
DT Cory Redding will lead the Lions in QB sacks for the first time in his four-year career and he will do it the hard way - from the DT position. Redding started the season as the Lions' LDE but was moved inside because of injuries to the two starting DTs - Shaun Rogers and Shaun Cody - and has played so effectively, he will probably remain inside next year. He has seven QB sacks.
LB Ernie Sims is considered a strong contender for the NFL all-rookie team, despite an exceptional class of rookie LBs. Sims has started all15 games at WLB and leads the Lions defense with 133 tackles.
CB Stanley Wilson, a second-year player, turned in what was probably his best game since being drafted by the Lions in the third round last year. Wilson started against Chicago in place of Fernando Bryant, who is coming off a concussion. He had eight tackles and also broke up three passes.
WR Mike Williams' already-uncertain future with the Lions became even more clouded after he dropped several passes, including the potential game-winning TD throw in the closing seconds of the Lions' 26-21 loss to Chicago. Williams has spent much of the season in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's doghouse and has just six catches for 71 yards in the seven games in which he has been active.
WR Devale Ellis has probably secured a chance to compete for the Lions kick return job when the team goes to training camp next summer. Ellis has shown flashes of ability while filling in for Eddie Drummond on various occasions during the current season, averaging 15.3 yards on four punt returns and 23.2 on six kickoff returns.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The players got back to work Tuesday, including a practice in the afternoon, and serious work it will be during this final week of the regular season.
Having won their last three games, the Packers (7-8) could have a berth in the NFC playoffs for which to play Sunday at Chicago. Such a scenario seemed preposterous even a week ago.
Yet, Green Bay's 9-7 win over Minnesota on Thursday night coupled with some help from teams Sunday has left the Packers in the thick of a five-team dogfight for the final wild-card spot in the NFC. Green Bay still needs a number of things to fall its way this weekend, including losses by the New York Giants on Saturday and St. Louis on Sunday, besides the must-win situation it finds itself in against the NFC North-rival Bears.
Since the New Year's Eve contest might be of significance for the Packers, not to mention it has the allure of possibly being quarterback Brett Favre's swan song, the league moved it from a noon start CST to a 7:15 p.m. kickoff for NBC's Sunday night game.
Before knowing where his team stood in the cluttered NFC, head coach Mike McCarthy on Friday didn't get worked up about postseason possibilities.
"It's important for our football team to prepare like we have been," McCarthy said. "(So going forward) Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, taking one day at a time and going down to Chicago to win that football game, that's clearly our focus. Nothing else that we want to achieve can happen unless we do that."
McCarthy gave the players a long break for Christmas. They were off Friday through Monday and allowed to return home to spend the holiday with their families. All that was asked of the players while they were away was to devote 20 to 30 minutes a day to cardiovascular work.
The players were eased back into the practice week Tuesday, when they wore shells and had an extended jog-through as the game plan for Sunday was installed.
"Our workout (Tuesday) is conducive to make sure we get our bodies back along with the preparation (for the game)," McCarthy said. "We'll have an extra day of practice, but the health of our team is going to be important."
QB Brett Favre is in the throes of his worst stretch of the season. He had two interceptions without a touchdown pass in the 9-7 win over Minnesota on Thursday night, giving him five interceptions and no touchdowns in the last two games. After returning the following week from an elbow injury that knocked him out of the Nov. 19 game against New England, Favre has only four touchdowns with 10 interceptions in the last five games. His season totals are 17 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He will need three touchdown throws in the regular-season finale Sunday night at Chicago to extend his league record to 13 straight seasons with at least 20 touchdown passes.
RB Ahman Green enters Sunday's game needing only 12 rushing yards for his sixth 1,000-yard season in the last seven years with the team. He is 116 yards away from Jim Taylor's 40-year-old franchise record of 8,207 rushing yards. Green also needs 23 rushing attempts to equal Taylor's club milestone of 1,811 carries.
WR Donald Driver on Sunday will try to pad his career-high numbers of 89 catches and 1,272 receiving yards. Driver leads the NFC in both categories. He is tied with Javon Walker, who attained the total in 2004, for sixth-most receptions in team annals. Sterling Sharpe holds the record with 112 in 1993. Driver's receiving yards rank 10th in club history. Robert Brooks holds the record with 1,497 in 1995.
WR Greg Jennings was held to one catch for the second straight game. Both of Favre's interceptions were intended for Jennings, who appeared to be at fault in each instance because of his route running. Since suffering an ankle injury at Miami on Oct. 22, the once-flourishing rookie has only 24 receptions for 254 yards and no touchdowns in the last eight games.
TE Bubba Franks had season highs of five catches and 43 receiving yards in the last game, which ironically also was probably the worst performance of the three-time Pro Bowler's career. Franks dropped a pass, committed a holding penalty to wipe out a big pass play and had two fumbles, the latter of which was at the goal line in the fourth quarter that temporarily prevented the Packers from regaining the lead. Franks still hasn't scored a touchdown this season.
TE David Martin has a chance to play Sunday night after missing four of the last five games with a ribs injury. He will be evaluated throughout the week.
DE Aaron Kampman is coming off his second three-sack game of the season. Kampman is tied for the league lead with 15.5 sacks, ranking third on the team's season-best list. Late Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White had 16 in 1998. Linebacker Tim Harris holds the record with 19.5 in 1989. Kampman has never had a four-sack game, which he would need Sunday to match Harris.
CB Charles Woodson had an interception in the last game, his fifth in the last five games. Woodson has a career-high seven interceptions this season, which leads the NFC. It's the highest interception total by a Packer since safety Darren Sharper had seven in 2002. Woodson also has a career-best 22 pass breakups this season.
WLB A.J. Hawk was unofficially credited with six tackles in the game Thursday. That gives the first-round draft pick 143 tackles, which tops the team this season. Barring a monster game at Chicago on Sunday, Hawk will have the second-highest tackles total ever among Green Bay rookies. Middle linebacker Rich Wingo had 166 in 1979.
PK Dave Rayner topped the century mark for points this season with his first game-winning kick at any level, a 44-yard field goal with 1:34 left in the fourth quarter to decide Thursday's game. Rayner accounted for all of Green Bay's points with three field goals. He has 101 points. Ryan Longwell, whom Rayner replaced after the Packers' all-time leading scorer signed with Minnesota as a free agent, had a streak of eight straight 100-point seasons snapped in 2005 when he tallied 90.