Around the NFC North

The Bears are hoping that defense can carry them and their QB can be good enough in their first playoff game, the Lions are still left searching for answers after another disappointing season, and the Packers are hoping the defensive progress they made during the season remain intact during the offseason. See what's on the minds and coming out of the mouths of the Vikings' divisional rivals.

CHICAGO BEARS

In order to defeat the Seahawks Sunday at noon and advance to the NFC title game, the Bears won't need a spectacular effort from quarterback Rex Grossman, as long as the trend established in the first four playoff games holds up.

With the exception of the almost-always superb Tom Brady, none of the other seven quarterbacks in the wild-card round played exceptionally well. That should be a relief for the Bears, who proved during the regular season that they could win with only a mediocre performance from Grossman.

Bears coach Lovie Smith believes there are more important factors in winning in the playoffs than great quarterback play, although it's nice to have that, too.

"Of course you want the quarterback to play very well," Smith said, "but I think in playoff games, first you need to play great defense. As I went over to Indy (to watch the Colts-Chiefs game), what I saw was their defense dominated the football game. You need to start out with good defense, good special teams and go from there.

"The things we talk about (being important) are not just in the playoffs, but always: running game on offense, no turnovers and taking the ball away. I don't think it really changes."

Some of the top quarterbacks in the NFL combined to throw just 11 touchdowns last weekend while they were intercepted nine times. Perennial Pro Bowler Peyton Manning was picked off three times, and Matt Hasselbeck twice in winning efforts for the Colts and Seahawks, respectively. The Eagles won with Jeff Garcia throwing for only 153 yards on 31 passes.

"The big thing Rex has to do is just be efficient with the ball," Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "Make good decisions, be very decisive and just trust his reads. Read it and trust it.

That's the biggest thing. If he does that, physically, as far as being able to throw the ball and do all that stuff, he'll be great. He just needs to be patient and (put) the ball where it's supposed to go."

The Bears will not willingly put the game in Grossman's hands to win or lose. They don't need him to play great to win, but they might not be able to afford another disaster. That's been a popular theme in the media, but Grossman has tried to ignore the rhetoric.

"I don't care what they say," he said. "I want to do what my coaches are asking me to do and play efficiently and complete a high percentage of passes and make plays when they're there. That's what I am going to go about doing. Hopefully we get into a rhythm early and we can take some shots down the field every once in a while."

During the regular season, the Bears won games in which Grossman was picked off twice (first Vikings game), three times (second Vikings game) and four times (Cardinals) in the regular season. His passer ratings in those games were, in order: 64.9, 1.3 and 10.2. In the Bears' 10 other victories, Grossman was intercepted just three times. If he avoids mistakes in the postseason, conventional wisdom says the Bears will succeed, and Grossman believes he'll do that and more.

"I have a lot of confidence going into this game because I have such a great team," he said. "We have a great defense, we have a great running game, and our offensive line is going to give us time to throw. I'm just excited about this opportunity. I feel like if I just do what I am supposed to do, and do what the coaches ask me to do, and make the plays when they're there, I've got a lot of confidence that I can go out there and do that and be extremely effective. When they're not there (I just have to) minimize the damage, just check it down, and take what the defense gives you."

SERIES HISTORY: 10th meeting. Seahawks lead series, 6-3, but this is the first postseason game between these two teams. The Bears routed the Seahawks 37-6 in Week Four of the regular season in a Sunday night game at Soldier Field.


DETROIT LIONS

From day one — just minutes after the Lions had dropped their season opener to the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks — Rod Marinelli wasn't looking for or accepting alibis.

"I'm not going to throw them a rose and say ‘good job,' " he said, after the surprisingly close 9-6 loss at Ford Field. "They expect more and I'm going to demand more. Our standards are higher."

The standards might have been higher but the Lions never really got any closer to living up to Marinelli's demands. At least, not on a consistent basis. They won only three games in their first season under Marinelli, beating Buffalo, Atlanta and Dallas on their way to a 3-13 season.

It was disappointing and — to some, at least — surprising that the Lions did not fare better after their investment of hard work, a greater dedication to the job at hand and a completely different approach to virtually every phase of the game under Marinelli.

There had been a feeling at the time of Marinelli's hiring that the Lions had enough residual talent to win at least a few more games under the more demanding, tightly-disciplined approach of the new staff.

Even in the team's front office, there was a belief that the 2005 Lions — loaded with five offensive skill position players taken in the first round of the previous four drafts — had under-achieved terribly in the final season under coach Steve Mariucci and his successor, interim coach Dick Jauron.

In hindsight, that talent — from quarterback Joey Harrington through wide receivers Charles Rogers and Mike Williams — was astonishingly over-rated by everyone from team president Matt Millen through the lowest man on the scouting staff.

Yes, the Lions suffered a devastating number of injuries 2006, but even if they had stayed healthy, it is doubtful they would have won eight games.

In hindsight — regardless of what Marinelli says in defense of his players — the Lions simply do not have the personnel to hold their own against the better teams in the NFL.

To the bitter end, Marinelli manned up to and took responsibility for the team's three-win season.

Asked to evaluate the job he did in his first season, he said: "Not good enough."

Asked why he didn't win enough games, he responded: "Well, I've got ... just got to do a better job, maybe earlier getting the toughness that I wanted, the consistency I wanted, day in and day out."

Eventually, Marinelli agreed — but only in the most general terms — that the Lions need more quality players.

"Well, you always do," he said. "Every coach is going to say, ‘Oh, we always need more players and more players.' I look at it as certain guys evolve. That's how I evaluate.

"I'll take a guy like Cory Redding; he evolved. As a player, he improved. You start looking at (Jon) Kitna, did he evolve? You start looking at this young offensive line we ended up with."

In the 39-31 win over Dallas on New Year's Eve, the Lions had only two of their projected offensive line starters — left tackle Jeff Backus and center Dominic Raiola — on the field. Left guard Ross Verba, right guard Damien Woody and right tackle Rex Tucker were all on injured reserve, along with some of the players who had replaced them.

Instead, the Lions played with a practice squad player — Clint Stickdorn — at right tackle, a free agent off the street — Stephen Peterman — at right guard and an undrafted rookie — Frank Davis — at left guard.

The fact the Lions were able to win with that lineup at Dallas is an indication the young players were evolving and improving. But if the Lions are ever going to get back to respectability, they're going to have to get better in a lot of areas, regardless of who's taking the blame for last year's shortcomings.


GREEN BAY PACKERS

Head coach Mike McCarthy was expected to wrap up evaluations of his coaching staff last weekend. No news has surfaced since, which is good news for previously embattled defensive coordinator Bob Sanders.

McCarthy had suggested during his season-ending news conference Jan. 3 that no coaching changes were in the offing, other than filling the vacancy at offensive coordinator. Nevertheless, some of the defensive players headed home within days of the final game New Year's Eve not sure that things would, for a change, remain status quo next season.

"I sure hope so," defensive end Aaron Kampman said when asked whether Sanders was deserving of a second year coordinating the defense.

Speaking for his fellow veteran teammates, Kampman didn't downplay how he's grown tired of what has been an annual off-season rite for the defense. Kampman and some others have gone through a coordinator each of the last four seasons — from Ed Donatell at the end of his four-year tenure in 2003, to Bob Slowik in ‘04, to Jim Bates in ‘05 and to Sanders.

Up until the final month of the season, it seemed a given that McCarthy would have to cut bait with Sanders. The former defensive ends coach was McCarthy's fallback replacement at coordinator after Bates spurned an invitation to remain with the team that passed on him to be the head coach.

Sanders stuck to the framework installed by Bates, but the results were a far cry from those attained by the seventh-rated overall defense and top-rated pass defense in 2005. Despite being supposedly bolstered by the free-agent signings of Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett and safety Marquand Manuel along with the top-five selection of linebacker A.J. Hawk in the draft, the unit was a travesty.

The Packers were gluttons for giving up the big play — 44 passes of 16 or more yards just in the first six games. They ranked last in total defense after Week 7 and brought up the rear in pass defense for five straight weeks, through Week 10.

"To be able to have the same system, the same terminology, all of those types of things in place, it takes a while to get your feet wet," Kampman said in retrospect. "Anytime you have group dynamics like that, it takes a while for everyone to get used to each other."

Better late than never, the defense resolved most of its lax communication and coverage lapses on the back end and apparently spared Sanders from the chopping block. Green Bay's four-game winning streak to close the season was due in great part to the defense's yielding all of 35 points and three touchdowns, producing 13 turnovers and 12 sacks and giving up a meager average of 226 total yards per game.

No one was apologizing that the Packers might have benefited from playing a feeble offensive quartet of San Francisco, Detroit, Minnesota and Chicago.

"Obviously, we came together well at the end of the year," Kampman said. "So, yeah, I really hope that everything continues to just go the way it has been and we can all keep this going."

By season's end, the Packers had shot up the league charts to 12th in total defense and 17th against the pass.

Provided they re-sign Cullen Jenkins, a potential restricted free agent who starred as a late-season starter at end, and keep cornerback Al Harris and middle linebacker Nick Barnett from squawking over their contracts, Green Bay will enter next season fortified on defense.

Kampman (NFC-leading 15 1/2 sacks, first Pro Bowl nod) and Woodson (NFC-high eight interceptions) had career-best seasons. The linebacker corps, featuring Hawk's team-leading 155 tackles, established itself as one of the top groups in the league. Pickett and Corey Williams solidified the interior of the line.

As the players and presumably McCarthy see it, retaining Sanders is in the defense's best interests to continue its turnaround from a disastrous first three quarters of the past season. Yet, there will be little tolerance for any relapses.

"It would be convenient for me to sit here and say that (the transgressions) were (due to) growing pains; some of it was," McCarthy said. "But, there's definite identifiers that we need to go back and look at and make sure we get it ironed out because we cannot have that again. To go through the stretch that we went through with the explosive gains, and be so productive in the other areas, there's something wrong there. We just need to make sure that doesn't happen again."


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