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NFC North Spin cycle: Week Four

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By PFW staff

Updated at Tuesday, Oct. 1 at 12:30 p.m. ET

The surprising Vikings took hold of the division one-fourth of the way through the season with a big win at Detroit, snapping an 11-game losing streak to NFC North foes. The Packers bounced back, barely, from their controversial loss at Seattle by edging the winless Saints. And the Bears used five defensive takeaways and a good game by Jay Cutler to ease by the Cowboys on Monday night.

BEARS

What we learned: Comfortable wins at Soldier Field against the Colts and Rams are nice, but pummeling the Cowboys on the road in front of a national-television audience is much more impressive. In a game where turnovers returned for touchdowns swung the game in Chicago’s direction, we don’t want to get too carried with praise for the offense — it produced two field goals and two touchdowns — but QB Jay Cutler was extremely sharp (18-of-24) and the offensive line allowed him to be hit only three times (two sacks). Like we’ve seen in past seasons with the Bears, the offense may be hitting its stride after a bumpy start.

What’s in store next? The Bears have a short week to prepare for the 1-3 Jaguars, who will host Lovie Smith’s club on Sunday. Jacksonville is ranked 32nd in points per game (15.5) and yards per game (254.3), and its only win of the season came against the Colts. This is a game the Bears, who are tied for first place in the NFC North with the Vikings, should win comfortably.

What the heck? We may never get the full story from Jay Cutler and Mike Tice on what happened between the two of them on the sideline when the cameras caught Cutler walk away from Tice, sit down on the bench and get back up and walk away as soon as Tice sat next to him. Tice then got up and approached Cutler. We know Cutler was frustrated that a play call was not getting in soon enough for his liking at one point during the game, but regardless, Cutler did not seem to be showing Tice an appropriate level of respect during the awkward sideline exchange.

LIONS

What we learned: The Lions’ special-teams problems were no fluky, one-week issue. After giving up punt- and kickoff-return scores at Tennessee in Week Three, the Lions did the same in a 20-13 loss to Minnesota in Week Four, with Percy Harvin returning the opening kickoff 105 yards and Marcus Sherels bringing back a punt 77 yards in the third quarter. In a game where the Lions’ offense could muster only one touchdown, Detroit’s special-teams lapses were tremendously costly. The Lions wasted a strong effort from their defense, which allowed 227 yards and zero touchdowns. Now 1-3, Detroit enters the bye week two games out of first place in the NFC North.

What’s in store next: The Lions’ Week Five bye gives them a chance to regroup, and they are going to have to quickly bounce back to salvage their season. Four of the Lions’ first five games after the bye are on the road, with games at Philadelphia and Chicago to start the sequence. The Lions could rue their sloppy play in Weeks Three and Four for a long time, for their schedule surely does not get any easier.  

What the heck? The Lions’ kicking game problems have cost them dearly. Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said he will not fire special-teams coach Danny Crossman, saying that the club is not being “out-schemed.” Said Schwartz: “(There) are physical plays that we have to make and we’re professional athletes. We have to make them.” Given Schwartz’s comments, it will be interesting to see if the Lions make any personnel changes in light of their special-teams woes. The issues already have taken a major toll on the club, given where the Lions find themselves in the standings.

PACKERS

What we learned: No doubt motivated going up against fellow All-World gunslinger Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers looked like the league’s reigning MVP for the first time this season in Green Bay’s 28-27 victory over the Saints, throwing for four TD passes and completing 75.6 percent of his throws. But with the Pack looking like they’re definitely back in the playoff mix, Dom Capers’ defense did take a major step back. The Packers managed only two sacks and failed to register a takeaway, as Brees and the Saints outgained Green Bay 474-421. Getting back to the offense, Packers WR James Jones (5-56-2 receiving) looks like an emerging force who could continue stealing more than a few receiving opportunities from an ailing Greg Jennings (1-9-1).

What’s in store next: The Packers travel to Indianapolis, where they will be taking on a Colts team that suddenly has been forced to deal with the sad news that new head coach Chuck Pagano has been diagnosed with leukemia. Coming off their bye week, it remains to be seen how the Colts will react to a scary development that nobody saw coming. For the Colts to have any chance of winning, they must pressure Rodgers. The prospect of that happening should improve with the likely return to action of Colts OLB Dwight Freeney (ankle, check status), who has been sidelined since early in Week One.

What the heck? Two “what the heck?” moments stick out. Let’s start with Packers backup QB Graham Harrell tripping over his feet attempting to hand off the ball to RB Cedric Benson just short of the Saints’ goal line on the first play of Harrell’s pro career with Rodgers momentarily sidelined by an eye injury. The ball popped loose and was recovered by the Saints at their own 8-yard line. A few plays later, New Orleans took a 24-21 lead on an 80-yard TD bomb from Brees to backup WR Joseph Morgan. The second major eyebrow-raiser was another missed call by the officials that almost cost the Packers dearly — Jeff Triplette’s ruling that Saints RB Darren Sproles did not fumble a kickoff with seven minutes remaining. The hopeless look on the face of head coach Mike McCarthy, who had run out of challenges for the day, told you all you needed to know.

VIKINGS

What we learned: This team’s formula works. Despite coming up just short in a comeback against the Colts in Week Two, the team sits at 3-1 in sole possession of first place after its second consecutive impressive victory. The defense, a power run game and special teams were the key elements in beating the 49ers at home and the Lions in Detroit — Leslie Frazier’s first NFC North victory in 10 tries. The Vikings hit Lions QB Matthew Stafford nine times (with five sacks), ran for 127 yards (4.5 per carry) and returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns. It was enough to hold on to victory in a key win for this franchise.

What’s in store next: The Vikings return home for three of the next four games, starting with the Titans coming to town Sunday, and the emphasis will be on generating more explosive plays on offense. Peterson has been magnificent in his speedy return and looks like his old self, but his longest run of the season has been 20 yards. The Vikings have not had a pass play of longer than 29 yards this season, although the return of WR Jerome Simpson (he supplied a few downfield plays and drew two long pass-interference calls) should help in that department.

What the heck? Where did this defense come from? The Lions pressured and confused Stafford, and they might have come up with a way to combat Calvin Johnson, something that could come in handy over the next, oh, seven or eight seasons. FS Harrison Smith knocked a pass loose from Johnson and is a physical match for him, and LB Chad Greenway — having his best season — slammed Johnson in a message-sending hit, though he was penalized on the play. The D-line looks like one of the NFL’s quickest, with Jared Allen and Brian Robison screaming off the edges, Letroy Guion and a rejuvenated Kevin Williams knifing through the middle and jack-of-all-trades pass rusher Everson Griffin coming off the bench to add punch. The secondary, such a sore spot last season, has been competent. It’s a wholesale improvement under the guidance of Frazier and first-year coordinator Alan Williams, who has taken more chances than his predecessor and has given the group an edge.

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