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NFC North Spin cycle: Packers, Bears moving in opposite directions

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By PFW staff

The Packers overcame a slow start to beat the Lions at home Sunday and the Bears' slide continued in Minnesota as the Vikings kept their playoff hopes alive.

BEARS

What we learned: The 8-5 Bears are still in position to make the playoffs as a wild card, but they are regressing. We saw signs of it last week against the Seahawks and it was made even more clear in their 21-14 loss to the Vikings — a team the Bears beat comfortably (28-10) at Soldier Field just a couple weeks earlier. The Bears’ defense could not make enough plays to stop a one-dimensional offense and the Bears’ offense was out of sync for the vast majority of the game. The Bears’ decline already had cost them the lead in the NFC North (they are now a full game behind the Packers in the standings) and now their margin for error is getting thin as the sixth seed in the NFC.

What’s in store next: Lovie Smith’s team will try to regroup heading into a rematch with the rival Packers (9-4), who beat the Bears, 23-10, at Lambeau Field in Week Two. Green Bay has won five straight against Chicago, including the NFC Championship game at Soldier Field in the 2010 season playoffs, and would clinch the NFC North title with a win Sunday. The Packers have won seven of their last eight games and are 4-0 against division opponents. Word is they expect to have two of their defensive stars, OLB Clay Matthews and DB Charles Woodson, return from injury for Sunday’s game.

What the heck? QB Jay Cutler made some poor throws Sunday — including a third-quarter interception that was returned for a touchdown by Vikings S Harrison Smith — but his top receivers let him down in the fourth quarter. WRs Brandon Marshall and Devin Hester had back-to-back drops on third- and fourth-down plays in the final quarter on the drive in which Cutler sustained the neck injury that sidelined him on the Bears’ next drive. Hester likely would have scored a touchdown if he had held on to the 3rd-and-6 pass that hit him in the hands. TE Kellen Davis and WR Alshon Jeffery each had a drop, too, in the second half.

— Dan Parr

LIONS

What we learned: The Lions continue to play hard, but their slide has yet to reach its end, and a 27-20 loss at Green Bay on Sunday night extended their losing streak to five games. Detroit (4-9) got off to a fast start, scoring on its first two drives en route to a 14-0 lead. However, the Packers started to chip away thereafter. Once again, the Lions were their own worst enemies. QB Matthew Stafford lost a fumble attempting to throw, and Packers DL Mike Daniels stormed 43 yards for a TD to cut Detroit’s lead to 14-10 in the second quarter. Later, Stafford threw a pick, ending a promising Detroit drive into Green Bay territory. Overall, the Lions would muster just two more field goals after their fast start. The Lions’ defense held up fairly well against the Packers’ imposing offense, with QB Aaron Rodgers limited to just 173 yards passing with no TDs. However, Rodgers did run for a score, and on the game’s pivotal drive, the Packers’ running game took over, grinding out 59 yards on seven carries as Green Bay took the lead for good on DuJuan Harris’ 14-yard TD run off right guard.

What's in store next: There’s little doubt the Lions are struggling, but they are still in much better form than the Cardinals (4-9), whom they visit Sunday in Arizona. The Cards have lost nine in a row and were embarrassed at Seattle on Sunday, committing eight turnovers in a 58-0 loss. The Cardinals’ mighty struggles at quarterback and lack of punch on offense have caused them to steadily fade from contention. Nevertheless, the Cardinals do have a solid defense, and they have one of the game’s more respected wideouts in Larry Fitzgerald.

What the heck? After starting strongly, Stafford didn’t have a sparkling final three quarters. After halftime, he completed just 14-of-29 passes for 150 yards. In his defense, the Lions lost TE Brandon Pettigrew to an ankle injury, further thinning the corps of targets opposite Calvin Johnson. However, Stafford’s mechanics were somewhat shaky at times.  

— Mike Wilkening

PACKERS

What we learned: Maintaining their composure on a national stage after being dominated by the Lions in the first half, the Packers rallied in convincing fashion, literally running over the Lions with a multi-threat 140-yard rushing attack in a 27-20 victory that propelled them into sole possession of first place in the NFC North. With it very likely they could be playing in the same kind of inclement winter in which they played Sunday night in Lambeau Field in their next two games — at Chicago and then back home vs. Tennessee — a strong overall performance that also included two tide-turning takeaways by the defense and a pair of clutch 40-yard-plus FGs from Mason Crosby would appear to bode well for the Packers’ short-term future.

What’s in store next: The Packers can capture their second straight NFC North title with a victory next Sunday vs. the slumping Bears at Soldier Field. Unlike the Packers, the Bears fell behind early and were never able to catch up in a 21-14 loss to the Vikings — Chicago’s fourth loss in its last five games. While the Bears must continue to persevere without defensive leader MLB Brian Urlacher (expected to miss the rest of the regular season with a hamstring injury), the Packers’ defense will be getting a nice boost at just the right time with the likely returns of S-CB Charles Woodson (collarbone) and ROLB Clay Matthews (hamstring), who have not been in the starting lineup together in lineup since the Week Seven win over the Rams.

What the heck? There was real cause for concern in a first half in which the Lions mounted a 218-94 yardage advantage with two long TD drives on their first two possessions. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Lions QB Matthew Stafford was able to spearhead 11-of-17 third-down opportunities. There was also a questionable penalty on SS Morgan Burnett for hitting Lions WR Calvin Johnson in the head that led to a Lions field goal. And believe it or not, WR James Jones dropped his first pass of the season.

— Dan Arkush

VIKINGS

What we learned: There is life left in this team. Adrian Peterson once more lifted his team on his broad shoulders with a huge effort — most of it coming in the momentum-grabbing first quarter — as the Vikings held off the Bears, 21-14, at the Metrodome. Peterson was a monster on the first two drives as the Vikings snagged a 14-0 lead, and he totaled 104 rushing yards and two scores in the first 15 minutes. Although the Bears pretty well stoned them from there defensively, the Vikings' "D" hung on, knocked Jay Cutler from the game and made the clutch plays they had to.

What's in store next: The Vikings face the Rams in St. Louis with the playoffs still in sight. But that doesn't mean there won't have to be some fortunate tidings along the way to make it happen. The Cowboys and Redskins also are 7-6, and though all three are lumped together, the Vikings find themselves third in the pecking order because of tiebreakers. They lost to the Redskins and have a worse record vs. common opponents than the Cowboys right now. And don't forget the Rams, either. They are 6-6-1 and have lost only once since Oct. 28. Things could (and likely will) change in the playoff race, but the Vikings face some climbing either way.

What the heck? QB Christian Ponder once more failed to reach 100 passing yards in a game. It's the third time this season it has happened, and the fifth game with 119 or fewer in 13 starts. He wasn't bad Sunday, save for a terrible decision on his final throw of the first half in which he missed a wide-open Jarius Wright and instead found the wrong Wright: the Bears' Major, for an INT. It could have been a touchdown pass, or a huge gain. Of course, bad luck struck when he suffered a well-thrown drop from Devin Aromashodu in the endzone. That's not on Ponder. But it's clear what the Vikings are doing in lieu of Percy Harvin's season-ending injury: They are whittling down Ponder's work and responsibility and yet trying like mad not to crush his confidence. He had only 17 pass attempts (plus one sack) in the game, and only two in the first quarter, during most of which they held a 14-0 lead.

— Eric Edholm

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