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NFC North Spin cycle: Week Three

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By PFW staff

Updated Tuesday, Sept. 25 at at 12:15 p.m.

Most NFL observers surely picked the Vikings to finish last in the NFC North. Well, after three games, they are tied for the division lead, and they come off one of the season's more impressive feats: beating well-regarded San Francisco by double-digits. And then there's the matter of a little Monday-night game between the Packers and Seahawks. We now take a look at how all four North teams stack up entering Week Four.

PACKERS

What we learned: Anybody who witnessed the embarrassing final play of Green Bay’s gut-wrenching 14-12 loss in Seattle Monday night realizes that the Packers were clearly robbed of a victory after making sound second-half adjustments on both sides of the ball and taking control of the game in the third and fourth quarters. That said, there are many other reasons why the Packers now stand at 1-2 for the first time since head coach Mike McCarthy’s first season in 2006 besides the officials’ incorrect TD ruling at the end of the game. At the top of the list is the continued sputtering of an offense that was lights-out a year ago at this time. Facing three strong defenses to start the season (49ers, Bears and Seahawks) that are adept at taking away big plays downfield and keeping everything in front of them is a major factor in the offense’s decline. But so is an offensive line that couldn’t have been more overmatched in a nightmarish first half while yielding eight sacks on a national stage.

What’s in store next: The Packers’ shaky offense could get a badly needed boost this Sunday at Lambeau from an absolutely wretched Saints defense that has been shredded for a whopping 1,432 yards in the first three games. The NFC’s only remaining winless team still has a very dangerous offense, though, even though QB Drew Brees has completed only 54.7 of his passes and has a subpar 7-5 TD-interception ratio. But considering the haphazard way the Packers’ offense has come out of the chute with the 2012 season’s quarter-pole fast approaching, a rerun of the wild 42-34 victory by the Packers over the Saints that ushered in the 2011 regular season seems rather unlikely this Sunday.

What the heck? The more you play with fire, the more likely you’re liable to get burned. The NFL was burned severely on Monday night by the unbelievably poor officiating from beginning to end. An inept crew headed by referee Wayne Elliot was responsible for at least 10-15 terrible calls in a game in which a combined 24 flags were thrown for 245 yards. The incorrect TD ruling at the end of the game was no doubt the worst call of the night. But the roughing-the-passer call on Packers OLB Erik Walden and the pass-interference call on Packers CB Sam Shields on the Seahawks’ game-winning drive were equally inexcusable.

BEARS

What we learned: The identity shift some were expecting from the Bears this season is at least on hold. There was a lot of talk as recently as a couple weeks ago of the offense taking a step up and the defense taking a step back in 2012, but the defense is the side of the ball that is playing well consistently. In fact, the Bears are exceeding expectations on defense, while the new-look offense failed to meet them again vs. the Rams on Sunday. The offense has sputtered since scoring 41 points vs. the Colts in Week One. The Bears are ranked last in the NFC in passer rating (58.6) and their offense has produced only one touchdown in each of the past two games.

What’s in store next: A couple of the NFC’s 2-1 teams will square off in front of a national audience when the Bears arrive in Big D to face the Cowboys on Monday night. Both teams have opened the season with the same win-loss-win sequence. Dallas is coming off a hard-fought home victory against the Buccaneers. Both squads have serious concerns on the offensive line, so Jay Cutler and Tony Romo could each sustain their share of knocks, and the Bears will hope to have RB Matt Forté (ankle) back from injury after he was inactive in Week Three.

What the heck?: Raise your hand if you had CB Tim Jennings establishing himself as an early Pro Bowl candidate. Jennings, who was benched by Lovie Smith late last season, has played at an elite level through three games. He leads the league with four interceptions — twice as many as his previous career high — and has deflected two other passes that were picked off by teammates. A journeyman who was once cast aside by the Colts, Jennings is having a breakthrough season in his seventh year in the league.

LIONS

What we learned: The Lions' 44-41 OT loss at Tennessee reminds us that anything is possible when Detroit plays. Unfortunately, this includes both ends of the spectrum. The Lions outgained the Titans 583-437 on Sunday. They had a seven-point fourth-quarter lead with 6:53 left. However, they were their own worst enemies. They surrendered a pair of special-teams TDs, including the game-tying kickoff return 12 seconds after taking a 27-20 lead in the fourth. Later, a Brandon Pettigrew fumble was retured 72 yards for a TD. Their pass defense struggled, surrendering 378 passing yards to Titans QB Jake Locker. Credit the Lions for making an improbable comeback to send the game to pvertime, an effort punctuated by Titus Young's TD catch of a deflected Hail Mary on the final play of regulation. And lament the botched 4th-and-1 play in overtime that ended this wild game. In the end, though, the Lions are 1-2, and they continue to have a knack for getting into these tight spots. Can't they be better than this? 

What’s in store next: The Lions host the Vikings, who are a surprising 2-1 after upsetting San Francisco on Monday. QB Matthew Stafford's availabilty isn't yet known after he suffered a leg injury (reportedly a hamstring) in Sunday's loss; if he couldn't play or were limited, backup Shaun Hill would get the start. Hill, who was 10-of-13 passing for 172 yards with a pair of TDs in the fourth quarter and OT on Sunday, is a capable short-term replacement. 

What the heck?: C Dominic Raiola took the blame for the Lions running the failed fourth-down play in overtime, saying he misunderstood Hill. The Lions reportedly didn't intend to run a play, but rather to try and draw Tennessee offside. This was a crucial mistake, but focusing too much on it ignores the various other ways the Lions struggled in Week Three. This is a team that surrendered an NFL-record five TDs of 60 yards or more — five! — in defeat. In addition to the three long return TDs, the Lions gave up TD receptions of 61 yards (to TE Jared Cook) and 71 yards (to Nate Washington). The Lions have to be more sound, and Raiola's error doesn't have all that much to do with it, really. 

VIKINGS

What we learned: The Vikings can muster up the strength and slug it out, if needed. They faced off toe to toe against perhaps the league’s toughest team and won, beating the 49ers, 24-13, at their own game. Out of the chute, the Vikings ran the ball and set the tone on a 16-play opening drive capped by a fourth-down TD reception by TE Kyle Rudolph. Although the game got a little ugly with the officials, and the 49ers woke up after halftime, the Vikings never took their foot off the pedal. They responded with some efficient drives on offense and terrific defense without leading tackler Erin Henderson in the lineup and with DE Jared Allen missing a handful of plays. Christian Ponder how has done everything he can, despite some offensive limitations, to prove he’s the team’s franchise quarterback. It was a signature victory for Leslie Frazier, perhaps the Vikings’ biggest against a good team since their win in Philadelphia late in the 2010 season, when he was an interim replacement for Brad Childress. Frazier set a tone Sunday. His fourth-down call was terrific, sending the message that the Vikings were going to win at all costs, and his apoplectic rant at the officials showed some rare (but needed) emotion to rally the players and fans who have grown accustomed to his milquetoast demeanor.

What’s in store next: It doesn’t get easier with a trip to face the angry, talented and volatile Lions (coming off a wild loss in Nashville) in Detroit in Week Four. The Vikings have been a little up and down offensively, but they get WR Jerome Simpson back from suspension and Ponder (70.1 percent completions) has been very strong without him. The majority of Ponder’s passes, both on Sunday and in the prior two games, have been short and intermediate. They are not testing opponents downfield a lot, and it will be interesting to see how much Simpson’s presence changes that. The Titans hit the Lions for two TD pass plays Sunday of longer than 60 yards.

What the heck? We’d love to jump on referee Ken Roan and his group for allowing Jim Harbaugh timeouts he shouldn’t have granted, but the chorus has been loud enough elsewhere. Instead, we will be positive and give the defense its proper due. There were warts in Weeks One and Two with this young group, such as allowing late drives to Blaine Gabbert and Andrew Luck that nearly left the Vikings 0-2. But those were temporarily forgotten after Sunday’s defensive performance, which was the best in more than a year. Chad Greenway had a monster game with two sacks and 13 tackles, filling the void with Henderson out. The safeties coped as best they could with 49ers TE Vernon Davis and Jamarca Sanford forced a Frank Gore fumble. Rookie CB Josh Robinson picked off QB Alex Smith for the first time in nearly 250 passes. And Allen, after leaving for a handful of snaps, finished off the victory in style with a strip-sack of Smith. The Vikings’ improved aggressiveness was on full display Sunday in a banner victory.

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