Around the NFC North

The Bears' Super Bowl appearance has them garnering plenty of prime-time games in 2007, the Packers have a tougher opening schedule, and the Lions are hoping for a better relationship with Shaun Rogers. Get news, notes and quotes from around the NFC North.

CHICAGO BEARS

Plenty of prime-time exposure in 2007 is one of the results of the Bears' 2006 success.

The NFC champs have five night games scheduled in the regular season, four on the road, and could have an additional game shifted to prime time late in the year. Last season the Bears were originally slated for three prime-time games but had two more added under the league's late-season flexible scheduling. Of their five night games this year, three are on Sunday, one on Monday and one on the NFL Network on Thursday.

"That's exciting to be able to play in front of a national-TV audience," said coach Lovie Smith, whose team was 4-1 in primetime games in 2006. "If you're a good football team, you have to be able to win on the road and we've had success in the past with that. We would like to play 16 games at home, but you have to play on the road, so you might as well play in front of a national-TV audience."

The Bears will not have the luxury of a powder puff early-season schedule as they did last season, when they started 7-0 thanks to a start that included games against the Lions, who finished 3-13, the 6-10 Vikings, the 7-9 Bills, the 5-11 Cardinals and the 7-9 49ers. This year the Bears' first three games are against teams that had winning records in 2006: at San Diego against the 14-2 Chargers, and at home against the 9-7 Chiefs and 9-7 Cowboys on Sunday night, Sept. 23. The first half of the season also includes road games against the Packers (8-8 last season) on Sunday night, Oct. 7, and the 10-6 Eagles on Oct. 21.

After a bye in Week Nine, Lovie Smith's team plays at Oakland against the Raiders and then the following week at Seattle on a Sunday night in a rematch of the Bears' 27-24 overtime victory in last season's divisional-round playoff game. After that, the two-time defending NFC North champions are home for back-to-back games, but they're against the Broncos, who were 9-7 last season, and the Giants, who slipped into the playoffs with an 8-8 record.

The Bears follow that with consecutive night road games against the Redskins on Thursday night, Dec. 6, and the Vikings on Sunday night, Dec. 17, before finishing the regular season at home against the Packers and the Saints, whom they defeated 39-14 in last season's NFC championship game.

Just six of the Bears' 2007 games are scheduled for noon starts, only half as many as last season.

Dates and times for the Bears' preseason games were also announced Wednesday with all four kicking off at 7 p.m. Chicago time. The Bears visit the Houston Texans on Saturday, Aug. 11 and the Indianapolis Colts Aug. 20 on Monday Night Football. They host the 49ers on Saturday, Aug. 25 and the Browns on Thursday, Aug. 30.

NOTES

  • Jamar Williams has been playing football since he was 7 and had never suffered a major injury, but that changed last Sept. 24 when the Bears' rookie linebacker ruptured his pectoral muscle while covering a kickoff against the Vikings.

    He was placed on injured reserve two days later.

    "At first I was extremely frustrated, but I had to look at it as a blessing in disguise," Williams said. "I was able to learn a lot just sitting on the sidelines and taking a spectator's view."

    Williams studied all three linebacker spots, watching starters Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer in practice, in games and on tape.

    Williams is expected to get plenty of opportunities to prove how much he learned starting with the first mini-camp in mid-May and throughout the summer, since Briggs isn't expected to participate, leaving a gaping hole on the weak side. The two-time Pro Bowler is upset at being tagged as the Bears' franchise player and has threatened to sit out at least 10 games in the regular season.

    Williams has been cleared to participate, without limitations, in the off-season program that began earlier this week.

  • Lovie Smith continues his support of incarcerated defensive tackle Tank Johnson, who received a 120-day jail sentence for violation terms of an earlier weapons-related probation. The Bears' coach recently visited Johnson at Cook County Jail.

    "Jail is jail," Smith said. "It's nothing like my home in (upscale north suburban) Lake Forest, that's for sure. Tank made a couple bad decisions. He's not a victim. He'll pay his debt to society and we'll welcome him back after that."

    Johnson's sentence could be sliced in half with good behavior, but he'll likely receive a league suspension after that, perhaps for eight games or more.

    As one of the Bears' captains, five-time Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz has been outspoken in his support of Johnson.

    "I think the whole team supported him; it wasn't just the captains," Kreutz said. "We know what kind of guy Tank is. We've all made mistakes. He's paying for them now, and when he's done with that, he'll be done paying for it."

    Fellow defensive tackle Tommie Harris says he's no longer worried about Johnson.

    "I went to see him when he got in there," Harris said. "I'm going again this week. He's fine right now. It happened already. It's over. The point right now is to get better, so that's what he's working to do."

  • Recently acquired strong safety Adam Archuleta said Bears coaches have indicated that he was brought aboard as a starter, and if that's true, it appears veteran Mike Brown will be moved from strong safety to free and both will start — unless Archuleta has been misled.

    "We have a lot of options in front of us, and that's what Adam gives us, the chance to look at some different combinations," coach Lovie Smith said. "Mike Brown is our starter. From there we are going to let it all play out and we'll go from there. Mike will start at one of the safety positions."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "They called me up. That was the deciding factor. They said they wanted me to come in, and I said, ‘I'll do it.' I've been here for three years. I had no intention of traipsing around the country looking for a place to play. I was just going to wait and (see) who called me with an offer. The Bears were obviously the first team on my list, and when they called me, negotiation's over. Sign the deal." Unrestricted free agent guard Ruben Brown on why he decided to return to the Bears for a 13th NFL season.


    DETROIT LIONS

    Joe Barry knows Shaun Rogers' reputation — that Rogers is a great athlete with a not-so-great attitude.

    But Barry doesn't know Rogers personally. Barry just joined the Lions as their defensive coordinator in January. And he says he is going to judge his star defensive tackle only on what he does from here on out.

    "I've known Shaun Rogers for three weeks, and that's all I know," Barry said. "I can care less about the ‘05 Shaun Rogers or the ‘06 Shaun Rogers. This is ‘07. We're off to a great start, so I feel good."

    Rogers was conspicuously absent March 19 when the Lions began their voluntary off-season conditioning program. But after speaking to coach Rod Marinelli, Rogers came to Detroit — and later did a rare interview with a Detroit radio station.

    "Me and coach Rod have no problems," Rogers said. "I don't foresee any. There's been tales of some, but me and him have had no kind of conflict. We've sat down and we've charted out a map of things we'd like myself to do, and I've voiced my opinions. Right now it's just about getting healthy, getting back in shape, so I can play."

    Rogers is recovering from knee and shoulder surgeries and didn't participate in the first three voluntary practices. But he drew praise just for being there.

    "He's in the building," Barry said. "He's lifting. He's on the treadmill running. He's out here at practice watching. That is huge for us because he's going to have to make a lot of plays for us in the fall.

    "The players see him, and the coaches see him, and he's got a smile on his face. I couldn't be more happy."

    NOTES

  • Tatum Bell and T.J. Duckett? Running back Kevin Jones isn't worried about the Lions' recent acquisitions, even though he is recovering from a serious left foot injury. "I see Tatum as an every-down back," Jones said. "I don't see Duckett as an every-down back. I guess they do need insurance. Were my feelings hurt? No. Because when I'm healthy, I'll be the guy. That's all that matters to me."

  • Jones resumed jogging a week or two ahead of schedule. "My goal is to be back for camp," Jones said. "I'm on pace, a little ahead of pace, I guess." Coach Rod Marinelli is cautiously optimistic. "It looks like he's really progressing well," Marinelli said. "I think everybody's excited about it. But I don't want to build false hopes to anybody."

  • Defensive coordinator Joe Barry said Stanley Wilson was the starting cornerback opposite Fernando Bryant — not Travis Fisher, the free agent the Lions signed to a one-year, $2.25-million contract. "He can run. He does have speed," Barry said of Wilson. "But also he's a tough kid. He's willing. He will tackle. He will stick his face in there." Fisher is the nickel back.

  • Barry said Paris Lenon was the starter at middle linebacker ahead of Teddy Lehman in camp.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Is he still the best player in this draft? Yeah, I'm on that bandwagon." — QB Jon Kitna, lobbying the Lions to draft wide receiver Calvin Johnson second overall.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    The only semi-guarantee on the Packers' 2007 schedule is that they should end the regular season with a home victory against Detroit, which has lost 16 straight games to Green Bay in Wisconsin since 1992.

    The Packers have their work cut out before that Dec. 30 game, however.

    Their strong vibes from finishing last season with four straight wins to get to 8-8 and just short of a playoff berth were tempered by the unveiling of the schedule April 11.

    Head coach Mike McCarthy's objective of reversing the team's trend of starting 1-4 each of the previous three seasons will be tested early and often. Of the seven games against teams that were in the postseason earlier this year, three will be played in the first three weeks (Philadelphia, at New York Giants, San Diego) and five will occur in the first eight outings (also Chicago and at Kansas City).

    "We're going to have our hands full with that schedule, but we'll be prepared and we'll get ready to play good football early in the season," team president John Jones said. "We'll need our best football early because of the way the schedule came out."

    Based on 2006 records, the Packers have the 10th-easiest schedule in the league with an aggregate 126-130 record for their opponents.

    Yet, the first half of the schedule stands to be a huge challenge because the eight opponents combined to go 74-54 last season. The only two foes with non-winning records are Minnesota and Washington.

    The possible saving grace for the Packers during the tall order that is phase 1 is they will be home for four of the first six games. Then again, they've been more pushovers than rude hosts at Lambeau Field the last few seasons.

    The second half of the schedule features back-to-back Thursday games — at Detroit for a Thanksgiving Day game Nov. 22 and then at Dallas on Nov. 29 — for the first time in franchise history. Those two games are at the front end of a possible key stretch in which Green Bay will play four of five games on the road.

    The allure of another season for quarterback Brett Favre warranted three prime-time games — Sunday night against Chicago on Oct. 7, Monday night at Denver on Oct. 29 and Thursday night against the Cowboys — in addition to the Thanksgiving date.

    "That's icing on the cake. We really appreciate those national games, for our fans all around the country," Jones said.

    Still, the Packers aren't slated for any marquee late-afternoon kickoffs. All but three of their games will start by noon Central time.

    NOTES

  • It's no secret the Packers are in need of an upgrade at tight end, what with the apparent decline of three-time Pro Bowler Bubba Franks and top backup David Martin's signing with Miami in free agency.

    The personnel department is leaving no stone unturned in its quest to fill in the cracks at the position. The Green Bay Press-Gazette reported that Packers scout Shaun Herock worked out former University of Wisconsin-La Crosse basketball player Joe Werner in early April.

    Werner hasn't played football since he was a sophomore in high school in Chippewa Falls, Wis. Yet, he's intriguing as an athlete who possibly could make a successful return to the gridiron because of his size of 6 feet, 6 1/2 inches and 250 pounds.

    Werner's was the Player of the Year in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and earned selection to the Division III All-America second team in his final college season.

    "He's never going to take his basketball game to the NBA," UW-La Crosse basketball coach Ken Koebl told the Press-Gazette, "but he's a real strong, physical kid, and so many people who know him say he looks like a tight end. It's possible he could be a good one if he ever worked at it."

    San Diego All-Pro Antonio Gates and Indianapolis' Marcus Pollard are established tight ends who were strictly basketball players in college.

    The Packers could evaluate Werner further by having him in for their post-draft minicamp in early May on a tryout basis.

  • Although they signed former New York Giants cornerback Frank Walker, their only free-agent acquisition thus far, the Packers are keeping their options open for the nickel-back role.

    Mark Bartelstein, agent for Tory James, told the Press-Gazette that he has had contract discussions with Green Bay about the 33-year-old cornerback.

    James, a full-time starter for Cincinnati the last four seasons, also has drawn interest from New England, New Orleans and Oakland.

    "He's been a starter his whole career. If someone gets him as a third corner, that's a heck of a weapon to have," Bartelstein said.

  • 2007 schedule oddity I: The Packers for the first time will end the regular season, on Dec. 30, against division rival Detroit in Wisconsin. Since the teams' first meeting in 1930, when the Lions were known as the Portsmouth Spartans, Green Bay has played its final regular-season game on the road against the Lions nine times, most recently in 1993.

    Incidentally, the Packers have never hosted Chicago, their oldest rival, to close the regular season.

  • 2007 schedule oddity II: Green Bay and Philadelphia will meet for the fifth straight year as intraconference foes, but their season-opening matchup Sept. 9 won't be in Philadelphia, where the teams have met the last four games. The Eagles won all of those.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Nick is about as old school of a football player as you can find — in his values of team, his values of loyalty. It's more important for him to take the sure thing now, even knowing that he could be a guy next year who ends up in a position where the (money) numbers get huge." — Agent Chuck Price on client Nick Barnett's forsaking a chance to be an unrestricted free agent next year and signing a six-year, $34.85 million contract extension.


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