The Bears face an NFC-heavy November schedule, the Lions are facing questions about whether they are regressing, and the Packers are left questioning their defensive scheme after the Vikings' success in Green Bay. Get those stories and many more notes on the Vikings' NFC North rivals.
November will be a big month for the 4-3 Bears for a lot of reasons.
No. 1 is they play four more November games after starting the month off with a win over the Browns. They're at home against the Cardinals, then at the 49ers, home vs. the Eagles, and at the Vikings.
No. 1A is that coach Lovie Smith says November is important.
"There is a part of the year where you get yourself in position (September and October)," Smith said. "You can't be out of it. By the time you get to November, that's what a team is. Early on, you're working through different things. We feel good about getting that first win in November, and this is a key month for us."
Smith made that point to his team the night before the Browns game.
"Lovie pointed out that you don't make or break your season in September and October," linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer
said. "It's November and December where you really figure out what you're made of. We're 1-0 in November, and hopefully that's a sign of things to come."
In the two years that the Bears have made the playoffs under Smith, they were a combined 13-4 in November and December. In the three non-playoff seasons, they were a combined 12-13.
The Vikings are threatening to run away with the NFC North at 7-1. The Bears and Packers are tied for second in the division at 4-3, and Chicago and Green Bay trail the 5-2 Eagles and Cowboys, plus the 5-3 Giants. Even a 3-2 November would put the Bears at just 6-5 and probably leave them with slim playoff hopes and looking at a three-game December stretch that includes the Packers and Vikings at home sandwiched around a road game against the Ravens.
"We feel like we're still in good position," Smith said. "We're doing the things we need to do. We're taking care of business at home (3-0, but two of the wins are vs. the Lions and Browns). We have a lot of division games coming up later on (four of the final six games). But right now the best thing we can do is put ourselves in position to contend with the Vikings, is to win the games we have right now."
QB Jay Cutler has been sacked 15 times while throwing 209 passes after being sacked just 11 times with the Broncos in 2008, when he threw 616 passes.
RB Matt Forte's 90 rushing yards in Week 8 represented his second-most-productive game of the season and just the second time he's rushed for more than 66 yards. But he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and has topped 4.0 in just one game this season.
TE Greg Olsen's three catches for 40 yards last week gave him a total of nine catches for 121 yards in the past three games.
WR Devin Hester has 21 catches for 265 yards in the past three games but just one touchdown.
WR Earl Bennett had just two catches for 29 yards last week, but he leads the Bears with a 13.4-yard average per catch.
CB Charles Tillman picked off his team-best second interception of the season vs. the Browns and scored the Bears' first defensive touchdown of the season on a 21-yard return. He also recovered a fumble.
LB Nick Roach, switched back to the strong side after starting three straight games in the middle, forced two fumbles.
S Danieal Manning, who converts to nickel back in passing situations, had his first interception of the season and a 35-yard return, in addition to forcing and recovering a fumble.
PK Robbie Gould has hit 40 consecutive field-goal attempts from inside 40 yards, including three last week.
WR Johnny Knox leads the Bears with four touchdowns, three on receptions and one on a 102-yard kickoff return. He has caught at least three passes in four straight games.
RB Garrett Wolfe had a season-high 53 yards on five carries, including a season-long 36-yard run.
The Lions beat Washington. Then they played at least one good half at Chicago. Then they were in position to tie Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh down the stretch.
Then they turned in two absolute stinkers. They suffered a 26-0 loss at Green Bay that was far worse than the score indicated, and finally, after a bye week, at home, they suffered a 17-10 loss to St. Louis, a team on a 17-game losing streak.
So have the Lions taken a step backward in their development?
Coach Jim Schwartz insists on weighing all wins and losses equally, even though the Lions are coming off the NFL's first 0-16 season and progress — or lack of it — doesn't always show up in the final results.
"We don't go into a game saying, ‘Oh, yeah, guys, we have a chance to win this one. This week, not so much. This is a must-win. This one, as long as we play a good game, that'll be fine,'" Schwartz said.
"I don't understand how we could handicap a game and we could say, ‘OK, a win against these guys is worth — whatever — 10 points in the BCS, a win against this team is worth three points in the BCS,' or one of those kind of things.
"Our job is to win every week, and every week it might be a different way."
But Schwartz does acknowledge that the Lions have gotten off track in their past couple of games.
Asked if the Lions were on schedule, he said: "The only schedule we've ever really had is to try to improve every single day. ... We've hit a bump in the road the last couple games — at Green Bay and then this Rams game. I don't know that we made improvement in those two games.
"There has been some things. You can also take any play in a game and point to some positives. But as a team, I don't know that we saw improvement there. So we're off schedule in that regard in these last two games, yes."
Schwartz said in the offseason that the Lions' No. 1 need was talent, and that obviously remains the case. But with nine games to go, the Lions have to squeeze something out of what they have.
"We know what our issues are," Schwartz said. "We know that our margins are maybe a little bit thinner than some other teams and things like that. That's no excuse. We have to find a way to get things accomplished. ...
"There's no excuses for not getting those things done. It wasn't that we were outmanned, we were outschemed or anything else. It's made us determined. We know what our issues are. We have to find a way to accomplish our goals regardless of those."
QB Matthew Stafford returned from a right knee injury Sunday against St. Louis and looked rusty, going 14-for-33 for 168 yards with an interception. He was off-target on several throws, but his teammates also dropped six passes. The interception occurred when a ball went off the hands of a running back. Coach Jim Schwartz said Stafford had no problems with his knee after the game, but the Lions will continue to monitor him for setbacks.
RB Kevin Smith left Sunday's game with a shoulder injury. Schwartz said Smith probably was healthy enough to return, but the Lions decided to stick with Maurice Morris, who was running well. Smith averaged only 2.8 yards per carry, with 45 yards on 16 carries. He is still struggling to break the big runs Schwartz wants.
RB Maurice Morris made his first real impact as a Lion, with 14 carries for 63 yards, and could see more work. Just in time, too. He will face his former team this Sunday, Seattle.
TE Brandon Pettigrew continues to struggle. He caught only two passes for 17 yards Sunday. He had a chance to catch a couple others, but they were broken up.
WR Calvin Johnson remains day-to-day with a right knee injury. Schwartz said the Lions decided to keep him out against the Rams at 10:30 a.m. Sunday. Without Johnson, the Lions struggled badly in the passing game. No wide receiver caught a pass until the fourth quarter.
WR Bryant Johnson had at least two drops Sunday and caught only two of the eight passes targeted for him. The first drop was a killer. It was on the first drive with the Lions facing third-and-14. Had he caught the long bomb down the right sideline, the Lions at least would have been in field-goal range. Instead they had to punt.
DE Dewayne White returned Sunday after missing three games with a hamstring injury. He made a big play, intercepting a pass in the third quarter when the Rams were at the Detroit 17. Instead of giving up a score, the Lions drove down the field and tied the game, 10-10.
DT Sammie Hill returned Sunday after missing three games with an ankle injury. The coaches had talked about how happy they were to have him back, because they needed his 6-foot-4, 329-pound body in the middle. He made two tackles.
LB Ernie Sims has struggled this season, partly because of shoulder injuries. He played a full game Sunday and led the Lions with seven tackles, but the lasting image of the game might have been Sims diving in vain as Steven Jackson scored the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
LB Larry Foote might have had his worst game as a Lion. He made only three tackles, and he missed a big one — failing to stop Steven Jackson at the goal line when the Rams were backed up on the 2. Jackson rumbled for an 11-yard gain.
LB Zack Follett made the biggest hit of the Lions' season on kickoff coverage in the fourth quarter. Right after the Lions tied the game, 10-10, he raced down the field and crushed returner Danny Amendola, drawing gasps from the crowd.
P Nick Harris had a good day Sunday, dropping three punts inside the 20 — one of them at the 2 in the fourth quarter. His net average was 42.6.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers isn't losing sleep over in-house criticism made public by a couple of players.
Cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive end Cullen Jenkins had choice words about the 3-4 scheme Capers implemented this year following the Packers' two losses to the Minnesota Vikings four weeks apart.
Woodson vented frustration about a lack of aggressiveness on Capers' part with his blitz-oriented system in the 30-23 defeat in Minneapolis on Oct. 5.
Jenkins then questioned whether the playmakers on defense were being "handcuffed" by the assignment of roles in the 3-4 after the Vikings completed the season sweep with a 38-26 win Sunday at Lambeau Field.
In both games, the Packers didn't sack or intercept a pass from ex-Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, who threw for seven touchdowns.
"It's an emotional game," said Capers, in response to Jenkins' critical comments. "I think that's frustration over losing a big game. Different guys handle it in different ways. As long as he knows that this defense is not based on individuals, it's based on a total team effort."
Despite big performances by Favre against his former team that widened the 7-1 Vikings' NFC North lead to 2 1/2 games over the 4-3 Packers and Chicago Bears, Green Bay is tied with the Washington Redskins for fourth in the league in total defense. The Packers have allowed an average of just 283.4 yards per game.
Green Bay, however, ranks 28th in the 32-team loop with only 12 sacks.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy defended Capers' scheme, which replaced a longstanding 4-3 front employed by Green Bay, after the coordinator used more blitzes Sunday than he did in the first meeting against the Vikings.
"I'm not interested in having Pro Bowl players and having a 27th-ranked defense," McCarthy said. "Our interest and our focus is on being a top-three defense in the league. It's utilizing all of our players. Sometimes, players are asked to do things, to sacrifice so someone else can benefit from it, and that's part of the deal. That's the way we operate.
"We have a lot of good players on defense. It's not about one guy getting his. That's not the way we operate, and that will be our focus, and it has been our focus since Dom came here."
QB Aaron Rodgers probably won't do anything of significance in practice until Friday after he suffered a toe sprain on one foot and aggravated a sprain in the other foot during the 38-26 loss to the Vikings on Sunday. Rodgers is expected to be OK to make the start Sunday at Tampa Bay. He has been sacked a league-high 31 times.
LB Brandon Chillar is expected to be out at least two weeks because of a broken hand he suffered in the first half Sunday. Chillar underwent surgery Monday and will be fitted with a club-like cast when he returns to the field. He was a frequent contributor as the team's nickel linebacker.
LB A.J. Hawk could move back into a full-time role with Brandon Chillar out indefinitely with a broken hand. Hawk was limited to base duties the last few games, deferring to Chillar in the sub packages. Hawk forced a fumble on special teams in Sunday's game.
FS Nick Collins will be monitored as the week progresses because of an ankle bruise he sustained early in the second half Sunday. Collins returned to finish the game. He should be OK to make the start this weekend.
WR Donald Driver likely won't be hindered in practice this week after he sustained a shoulder stinger late in Sunday's game. Driver went back in after missing only a play. He had six catches for 63 yards and continues to lead the team on the season with 33 receptions for 542 yards and three touchdowns.
WR Greg Jennings had a season-high eight catches for 88 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. It was only the second touchdown of 2009 for Jennings and his first since opening day.
TE Jermichael Finley is a big question mark to recover in time to play in Sunday's game after missing the last outing because of a knee sprain. Finley is the team's top playmaker at tight end with 17 catches for 260 yards (15.3 average) and a touchdown.
RB Ryan Grant was held to season lows of 10 carries and 30 rushing yards Sunday, a week after he had season highs of 27 carries and 148 rushing yards. Grant has rushed for only 525 yards and three touchdowns in seven games.
LT Chad Clifton will be under consideration to return to the starting lineup this weekend if he holds up well during the practice week. Clifton was activated Sunday for emergency duty but didn't play, as rookie T.J. Lang made his second straight start. Clifton had missed three of the previous four games because of a recurring ankle sprain.
RT Mark Tauscher could be in line to make his season debut against the Bucs. He was deactivated for two games after the Packers re-signed him Oct. 12, then went through a full week of practice last week and was in uniform Sunday as an emergency backup to Allen Barbre, who played the full game. Tauscher hasn't played since he suffered a season-ending torn ACL in early December last year.