NFC North News, Notes and Quotes

The Bears get one of their defensive linemen back for the finale, the Lions could be conflicted about the best approach to their last game, and the Packers are hoping their defense can carry them in a game that could let them into the playoffs with a win Sunday night.

CHICAGO BEARS

The slumping Bears defense could use a boost Sunday night at 7:15 at home against the Packers, and nose tackle Tank Johnson says he's just the guy to provide it.

"I think it all works together," said Johnson, who's missed the past two games after his third arrest in 18 months. "We all bring a little piece to the puzzle to put together and make one perfect picture. I think any time one piece is gone, of course you're going to miss them. And I'm kind of like the spark of the team.

"I'm the guy who gets the crowd going. I love to get the crowd pumped up and run around there and do goofy things, and I think they miss that. I think bringing that back this week is going to give us a huge lift, and I look forward to doing that."

The Bears' defense has been riddled after halftime the past two weeks, allowing the Lions 237 second-half yards a week after the Bucs rolled up 297. Johnson brings depth to the Bears' defensive tackle rotation and adds the best pass-rush ability of any of the interior linemen.

They missed that the past two weeks.

"When you take a good player out of the defense there's a change," defensive end Alex Brown said. "Bringing him back, it helps."

Johnson was inactive in Week 15 following his arrest on six misdemeanor weapons charges for failure to have a valid firearm owners identification card. Last week he was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team, after his convicted-felon, live-in bodyguard, boyhood friend Willie Posey, was shot to death while he and Johnson partied at the Ice Bar nightclub in River North the day after they were arrested. He has since been sentenced to home confinement for violating terms of probation from an earlier arrest.

Johnson was back at practice Wednesday for the first time since Dec. 9, and he's being counted on to work into the rotation with Ian Scott, who started in his place the past two weeks, Alfonso Boone, who replaced Tommie Harris after he was placed on injured reserve, Antonio Garay and Israel Idonije.

"Tank was back with our football team and looked good in practice," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "As I told him, ‘He's fresh, and of course he should look good.' "

Lions quarterback Jon Kitna had 196 passing yards just in the second half last week, and Bucs backup Tim Rattay had 251 passing yards after halftime a week earlier. Johnson's ability to get a push in the inside of the pocket should help the Bears when opponents have to play catch up by throwing the ball in the second half, as they did the past two weeks.

"I think it helps a lot," cornerback Charles Tillman said of Johnson's return. "We missed him. I'm glad he's back. You know, we can get him back in the rhythm of things, the swing of things, get him a couple of sacks, get him out of the house a little bit."

Johnson reportedly lost 15 pounds within a few days after his arrest, but he didn't appear any lighter than his listed 300 pounds on Wednesday.

"I'm fine," he said. "I'm normal weight, ready to go and ready to play some football and mix it up with the guys and pump the crowd up and do the things that make me who I am. I've got plenty of weight. I'm ready to go. No backlash. It's just time to play football."

Johnson said he's eager to repay his teammates for their loyalty during his off-the-field problems, and they need it, having fallen from first to fifth in yards allowed over the past four weeks and from first to ninth in passing yards allowed over the past five weeks.

"I learned a lot about this team," Johnson said. "I learned a lot about the character of my teammates. And as far as the public goes, I really don't know what to say about them. They make decisions, and that's what they go with. But as far as my teammates go, they've been wonderful, the whole organization has been wonderful, and I'm just proud to be a part of this team, and if you're a Bear you should be."

NOTES

  • RB Thomas Jones remains the Bears' starter, but he's carried just 52 times in the past four games, three fewer than backup Cedric Benson, but he's averaged 4.6 yards per carry.

  • RB Cedric Benson is still No. 2 on the depth chart behind Thomas Jones, but he has 55 carries over the past four games, three more than the starter. Benson has averaged 4.1 yards per carry in those games.

  • QB Rex Grossman will start his 16th straight game Sunday after missing 27 of the previous 32 because of injuries.

  • WR Rashied Davis doesn't have more than one catch in any of the last seven games, but those five catches have produced 89 yards and three of them have been for more than 25 yards.

  • TE Gabe Reid is expected to get most of the playing time at fullback Sunday with Jason McKie not expected to play because of a sprained ankle.


    DETROIT LIONS

    And then there was one.

    One game left between the Lions and the end of yet another agonizing, frustrating, disappointing season.

    The Lions will play that game Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium.

    A loss would extend their current losing streak to eight games, drop them to 2-14 for the season and, in all likelihood, get them the first pick in the 2007 draft.

    A win? Well, it would probably cost them the No. 1 draft pick but, more importantly, it would let them go into the off-season feeling at least a little better about themselves.

    In principle, of course, the game matters.

    "Every game matters," said quarterback Jon Kitna. "Obviously, this game doesn't really matter for this year but it would matter for us. It would just be a nice reward for all the hard work we've put in.

    "The thing that people don't see is how hard we work during practice and coach talks about it every week. That's the thing I think I'm most proud about with guys. They haven't shut it down."

    But, in reality, there is literally nothing that can ease the frustration of a season which never got untracked.

    Wide receiver Roy Williams calls the team's current 2-13 record "ridiculous." And, aside from a momentary relief, a win against the Cowboys would mean little.

    "If you're 8-8 and you're not in the playoffs, you might as well be 2-13," Williams said. "It's the waste of a season if you're not in the playoffs. That's my opinion about the NFL.

    "If we're 9-7 in the playoffs, we're good. If we're 8-8 and we're out of the playoffs, we might as well be 1-15."

    The thought going into the season under first-year coach Rod Marinelli was that the Lions would follow the path of the Miami Dolphins in their first year under Nick Saban — start slow and come on strong in the second half of the season.

    It never happened, however. They lost their first five in a row, won two of the next three (beating Buffalo and Atlanta) but haven't won a game in the second half of the season.

    Injuries and the lack of talent have been the major factors in the team's slide to a sixth consecutive season with 10 or more losses.

    The injured reserve list hit 15 this week with the addition of cornerback Fernando Bryant, the seventh starter to be lost at one stage or another of the season.

    Even before the injury list began growing, however, the Lions were not able to win. They played eight games in which they lost by seven points or less but fourth quarters have been a disaster. They have been outscored 108-63 in the final period and have blown fourth quarter leads in three of their 13 losses.

    If there has been a bright spot, it has been the emergence of a passing game under offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Although the Lions offense has been inconsistent, Kitna, Williams and wide receiver Mike Furrey have been productive.

    Kitna needs just 99 passing yards against the Cowboys to pass the 4,000-yard mark, Williams is 94 yards from 1,300 receiving yards and Furrey is just 16 yards from his first 1,000-yard season.

    Perhaps the most remarkable of those is Kitna, who has taken every offensive snap in the first 15 games of the season.

    "It's not something you set out to do but, as a quarterback, you want to be out there every single play for your team," he said. "Obviously, that means we didn't blow too many people out and that's a bummer but, as a quarterback, you want to be a dependable guy."

    NOTES

  • CB Fernando Bryant is finishing his third consecutive season on injured reserve. He played 10 games in 2004, his first season with the Lions, but got in only two the next year and nine this year before suffering a concussion in the Dec. 3 game at New England.

  • CB Dee McCann, a sixth-round draft pick in April, was signed by the Lions off their practice squad to fill the roster spot that became available when the Lions put CB Fernando Bryant on injured reserve for the final game of the season Sunday at Dallas.

  • OG Frank Davis, an undrafted rookie and the first Panamanian to play in an NFL game, will get his third consecutive start on the Lions injury-riddled offensive line. Lions coaches have been pleased with his performance.

  • FB Cory Schlesinger, a 12-year veteran, might be playing his final game with the Lions in their season finale Sunday at Dallas. Although there has been no discussion of Schlesinger's future with the team, he is playing primarily on special teams and hasn't touched the football in a game since catching two passes for 10 yards in a Nov. 19 game at Arizona.

  • QB Jon Kitna needs just 98 yards passing Sunday in the Lions' season finale at Dallas for the first 4,000-yard passing season of his 10-year NFL career. His previous high was 3,591 yards with Cincinnati in 2003, his final year before being replaced by Carson Palmer.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    The defense has been the best offense for Green Bay in its late-season comeback toward what would be an improbable procurement of a berth in the playoffs.

    That's not saying much, considering the last two teams to be left in the Packers' wake during their three-game surge to a 7-8 record have been offensively challenged Detroit and Minnesota. The Lions mustered but 142 total yards and three field goals in a 17-9 loss Dec. 17. Four days later, the Vikings were shut out on offense, managing a franchise-low three first downs and 104 total yards, in a 9-7 defeat — the touchdown came on an interception return by Fred Smoot.

    It's possible a previously imploding defense will have to carry Green Bay one more time if it comes into Sunday night's regular-season finale at Chicago still with a shot of advancing to the postseason. The Packers, one of five 7-8 teams in contention for the last wild-card spot in the NFC, will know by kickoff if they will be playing to win the berth or if they have been eliminated.

    If it indeed comes down to a must-have victory, a lot could be riding on the weak shoulders of the offense. Get the Packers inside the opponent's 20-yard line, and they're an accident waiting to happen.

    "When you get into the red zone, that's when you should light up," receiver Donald Driver said Wednesday, "but it seems like the bulb hasn't been working. So, we've got to light the bulb up a little bit. Our goal right now is to work on the red zone and fix it, fix our problem."

    A good chunk of Thursday's practice was to be devoted to a last-ditch attempt at solving the offense's ineptitude in the red zone.

    The Packers rank second to last in the league with a success rate of 33.3 percent, scoring only 15 touchdowns in 45 red-zone opportunities. Oakland is bringing up the rear with a conversion rate of 29.9 percent (10-of-34).

    "That hurts you," Driver said. "You've got to make sure that every time you go out there, you put points on the board, especially when you get in the red zone."

    Since turning all four red-zone incursions into touchdowns in their 31-14 dismantling of Arizona on Oct. 29, the Packers have reached the end zone only five times in 24 would-be golden opportunities in their last eight games. What's more, it's been a 50-50 proposition that they've come away with some points in those squandered chances. There's been nine field goals but five turnovers, two missed field goals, a turnover on downs and two end-of-game series in which a knee was taken.

    "I don't think I've ever been around an offense that's turned the ball over that much in the red zone, and that's really our Achilles' heel on offense as a whole," head coach Mike McCarthy said.

    The Packers have seven red-zone turnovers on the season, a revolting fact for offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski.

    "That's a lot. That's 49 points taken off the board," Jagodzinski lamented. "All 11 of ‘em (on offense) have to do the right thing."

    Indeed, the Packers have been their own worst collective enemy in the red zone. As seamless as their execution has been at times working with the ball between the 20s, the offense frequently has self-destructed down near the end zone because of a variety of breakdowns.

    During its red-zone struggles the last eight games, Green Bay has run 74 plays but generated only 118 yards for an average of 1.6 yards per play. Quarterback Brett Favre is a sickly 14-of-41 passing for 59 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.


    The Packers have overcome 2-for-12 efficiency in the red zone to win the last three games, when their per-play output inside the opponent's 20 was an average of 1.3 yards (48 yards in 38 plays). Favre's gory stat line is 7-of-23 passing for 34 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.

    "Really, it's just fundamentals because if you look at the breakdowns in the red zone, the first thing that jumps out is turnovers," McCarthy said. "You can talk about any situation in football, and if you turn the ball over in that situation, it's not going to be very good. So, we need to improve at that, number one.

    "Number two is just making plays, taking advantage of the one-on-one matchups. And, that comes down to just the fundamentals. We're just really stressing the same things in Week 1 that we are in Week 17 and just continuing to work at it."

    The better-late-than-never cure could be in the offing Sunday, ironically against a Chicago team hailed for its stalwart defense.

    The Bears have been a generous bunch of late in the red zone, giving up seven touchdowns in as many opportunities the last three games and yielding a 10-for-13 conversion rate in the last five outings. For the season, teams have been successful 50 percent of the time (18-of-36) in scoring a red-zone touchdown against Chicago.

    NOTES

  • WR Donald Driver was held out of practice Wednesday to rest the dislocated right shoulder he aggravated in the Dec. 21 win over Minnesota. Driver is probable for the game Sunday night at Chicago.

  • RB Ahman Green, as usual, was given Wednesday off to preserve his chronically sore knees. Green, too, is probable for the upcoming game. He needs 12 rushing yards for a record-setting sixth 1,000-yard season as a Packer. Green is 116 yards away from Jim Taylor's 40-year-old franchise record of 8,207 rushing yards.

  • CB Charles Woodson also was held to the midweek routine of not practicing because of a lingering shoulder injury. Woodson, who leads the NFC with seven interceptions, probably won't practice until Friday but is probable for the game.

  • TE David Martin practiced Wednesday and could be cleared to play Sunday for only the second time in the last six games. Martin is questionable with a ribs injury.

  • LB Abdul Hodge is questionable at best for the game because of a shoulder injury. Hodge didn't practice Wednesday. The backup has been sidelined the last two games.

  • S Atari Bigby might miss a third straight game because of a hamstring injury. The backup didn't practice Wednesday.


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