The Vikings were the only NFC North team in the loss column in Week Nine as the Bears, Packers and Lions cruised to double-digit wins on Sunday.
What we learned: The Bears did not have any real letdowns in the first half of the season. Yes, they played a very bad game at Green Bay in Week Two and have escaped with an ugly win on a couple of occasions, but the truth is the Bears beat everyone they should have. That’s what good teams do, and that’s why they are tied for the second-best record in the league at 7-1. Some league observers had Sunday’s visit to Tennessee marked as the proverbial trap game that the Bears would lose, but after a shaky first 10 minutes or so, the Bears stepped on the gas and did not let up in a 51-20 blowout.
What’s in store next: Week Nine marked the conclusion of the soft part of the Bears’ schedule — the slate of opponents appears to be pretty tough from here on out, and Chicago opens the second half of the season in a Sunday-night game against the league’s only other 7-1 team, Houston. The Bears will host the Texans, whom the Bears have never defeated (they are 0-2 against them). As is the case with the Bears, the Packers are responsible for the only loss on Houston’s record.
What the heck? Head coach Lovie Smith likes to talk about the different phases of the game and the importance of winning in all three phases (offense, defense and special teams). He had to be pinching himself in the first quarter, when the Bears scored a rushing TD, passing TD, interception-return TD and returned a blocked punt for a TD, becoming the first team in league history to accomplish that feat in a single quarter. The Bears scored a franchise-record 28 points in that opening quarter (the previous high for a first-quarter output was 24 points). They scored three of those TDs in the span of 2:07 of game time and basically put the game away before the second quarter.
What we learned: The Lions handled their business on Sunday. That’s a good sign. Time will tell whether the Lions, now 4-4, will once again prove to be a legitimate playoff contender. But they are on the right track after dusting Jacksonville 31-14 on Sunday. The Lions got the lead in the second quarter and never looked back, with three TD runs from Mikel Leshoure before halftime giving Detroit a just-about-insurmountable 21-0 lead against a struggling Jaguars club. The Lions had ideal balance on offense, with 285 passing yards and a combined 143 rushing yards and four TDs from Leshoure and Joique Bell. The defense did its job, too, as Jacksonville was held off the scoreboard until 8:36 left in the game. Finally, we learned that WR Calvin Johnson was able to play through a knee injury that kept him out of practice all week. Playing 83 percent of the snaps, Johnson caught seven of the eight passes thrown his way for 129 yards.
What’s in store next: The Lions get a rematch with the Vikings (5-4). Minnesota captured the first meeting in the series in Week Four, winning 20-13 in Detroit on the strength of two special-teams TDs. Also, while the Lions outgained Minnesota 341-227, they scored only one touchdown, and it came when trailing by 14 in the final three minutes. A Lions win would move Detroit above .500 and ahead of Minnesota in the NFC North standings. A Lions loss would be quite tough to take, as it would give the Vikings the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker. The Vikings have slumped of late, losing two in a row and three of their last four.
What the heck? Johnson is on pace for 96 catches, 1,534 yards … and two touchdowns. He didn’t reach the endzone in Week Nine, though he was tackled at the Jaguars’ 1-yard line after a long reception. His lone TD came six weeks ago at Tennessee from backup QB Shaun Hill. As the Lions’ official website noted on Monday, Johnson has been tackled four times at the opposition’s one-yard line and once at the two-yard-line in the Lions’ first eight games. Touchdowns aside, Johnson is still having a very good season — and you would have to think the TDs are going to start stacking up if he keeps getting the volume of catches he has received thus far.
What we learned: Taking on more of a resemblance with every passing week to the 2010 Packers squad that overcame a massive injury epidemic on the road to the Super Bowl, the Packers won their fourth consecutive game while continuing to get stung by an injury bug that has shown no mercy. In the 31-17 win over Arizona that moved their record to 6-3, three very key players went down for the count with injuries — WR Jordy Nelson (ankle), who was fresh off a hamstring injury that already had forced him to miss time, ORT Bryan Bulaga (hip) and Defensive MVP candidate OLB Clay Matthews (hamstring). The good news is that, as was the case throughout the 2010 season, the Packers’ replacement parts performed at peak efficiency, most notably all-everything WR-RS-RB Randall Cobb, who stepped up big time with both Nelson and Greg Jennings (groin) out of the lineup with a pair of picturesque TD catches. Another positive worth noting was a double-barreled ground game featuring Alex Green and James Starks that produced 114 of the team's 176 rushing yards.
What’s in store next: With their injury list lengthening, the Packers’ bye week obviously couldn’t be coming at a better time. The team has been given the entire week off before returning to practice next Monday to prepare for its Week 11 bout with the division-rival Lions. Suffice it to say, the team is crossing its fingers that the latest rash of injuries isn’t too serious, especially in the case of Matthews, who showed how magnificent an all-round defender he could be when he was fully healthy the first half of the season.
What the heck? It ended up not mattering much in the grand scheme of things, but QB Aaron Rodgers’ first interception in four games did not sit well at all with head coach Mike McCarthy, who thought Cardinals CB William Gay’s pick should have been overturned after he ripped the ball away from Cobb. On the next play, Cardinals QB John Skelton hit Andre Roberts deep over the middle with a pass that set up LaRod Stephens-Howling’s TD run that tied the game at 7-7. One other negative: another missed field-goal attempt (from 33 yards away) by Mason Crosby, who has become increasingly erratic.
What we learned: They are in trouble. Right now. After starting out 4-1, and even 5-2, things have turned sour. The Vikings remain out of the cellar — barely — but are in need of a lifeline. Adrian Peterson did his best jump-on-my-back effort Sunday, barreling through a very good Seahawks run defense for 182 rushing yards and quieting one of the NFL's best crowds early, but it wasn't enough to stave them off in a 30-20 loss in Seattle. Why Peterson, who had 144 yards by halftime, received only five carries in the second 30 minutes is anyone's guess. The passing game is a total nightmare right now. QB Christian Ponder isn't getting benched for now, but he's not the only issue.
What's in store next: It's panic time, as the Vikings get to face the suddenly hot Lions, who look little like the team Minnesota beat back in Week Four. That version of the Lions was out of sync offensively and a mess defensively. And that version of the Vikings was confident, if not a bit tame offensively, but certainly quite sure on defense and special teams. Now the defense has gone by the wayside, although the special teams have remained stout. Rookie PK Blair Walsh is one of the few consistent offensive threats; he banged a 55-yard field goal through the uprights outdoors at Seattle. That's an amazing 5-for-5 on FG attempts of 50 yards or longer through nine games.
What the heck? We all have learned to accept that Percy Harvin can run a temperature now and then. It might even be part of what makes him so great. But his sideline rant Sunday is the kind of thing that can unravel a mentally soft team, and head coach Leslie Frazier has to clamp things down quickly. Harvin blew up in the second quarter after Ponder couldn't get the ball to him and spent a good amount of time vociferously expressing his anger to Frazier. The coach must tame Harvin or channel that energy toward positive things on the field. It's a tough balance right now, and you could see the team chemistry tilting if the Vikings keep losing. Ponder is a mess, Harvin is upset and Frazier can't panic. Delicate times.