video

DETROIT -- Joique Bell ran up the middle and had nothing. Just a wall of his own blockers and any hole being plugged up by defenders. Instead of caving, though, he bounced outside and ended up gaining a couple of yards Thursday against Chicago.

It was a small play during the Detroit Lions34-17 win over the Bears on Thursday, but it was perhaps a play of larger significance. For the first time this season, Detroit stuck with mainly one running back -- Bell -- and let him handle all of the carries.

It was a strategy perhaps forced by Reggie Bush’s third straight missed game due to an ankle injury, but it also was one that worked.

“We certainly feel that we have guys that can play when [Bush’s] not there, that can come in and give us a lift,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “So you have to say the offensive line has done a nice job in that area.

“But overall, we have guys that step in and do it and that’s key. The next man steps up and performs decently.”

That man has been Bell running the ball and Theo Riddick, who had six receptions for 54 yards, catching it.

Part of the Lions' success running was due to them sticking with it -- and with one back -- throughout the game. Bell was the only Detroit player to have a carry Thursday and he had 23 of them for 91 yards and two touchdowns.

More important, the Lions hit Caldwell’s desired four yards per carry average for only the second time this season.

“You keep pounding and pounding and pounding and eventually, something’s going to open up,” Bell said. “And we were able to make some big runs toward the end.”

Bell has taken advantage, mostly, because of Bush’s ankle injury. It is an ankle that has kept him from being healthy the past two months. His last fully-healthy game came in Week 4 against the Jets. Since then, he’s been in and out of the lineup.

Bush continues to say he expects to play and then by game day, he is inactive. He has missed the past three games.

“It’s just health,” Caldwell said. “Whenever he gets in shape, not good shape from being out of shape but in terms of injuries that he’s sustained. He’s just not quite where he should be yet and hopefully in another week, he’ll be back.”

Until then -- and maybe even after -- Bell seems to be the Lions’ best, most consistent rushing option.
video
DETROIT -- Strong outings by Chicago’s defense in wins against Minnesota and Tampa Bay conjured the illusion it might be headed toward respectability.

But what the Chicago Bears really proved Thursday in a 34-17 loss to the Detroit Lions is they are closer to the group that gave up 50 points in back-to-back weeks at New England and Green Bay than the one that forced four turnovers last week in a triumph against the Buccaneers.

"It was extremely disappointing today, and I don’t put it on the defense," Bears coach Marc Trestman said. "We lose as a team here. We had opportunities here offensively to move the football, to keep drives alive, to keep the defense off the field. We just didn’t play well offensively, [and] we didn’t play well enough defensively to win this game."

[+] EnlargeChris Conte
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonThe Bears lost Chris Conte, 47, in the first half, and Detroit and Calvin Johnson, 81, took advantage, outscoring Chicago 21-0 in the second quarter.
Since Week 4 of the 2013 season (a game the Bears lost 40-32 at Detroit), Chicago’s defense has allowed an NFL-high 34.2 points per game in road contests. This season, the Bears have surrendered 31 points or more in four out of five outings.

Prior to reeling off 474 yards of total offense, including 390 through the air, the Detroit Lions hadn’t scored a touchdown since Nov.9.

"They were going to score eventually," defensive end Jared Allen said, laughing. "You think they’re going to keep Calvin Johnson out of the end zone? Look at the first half [of the season]. They were going through a slump, then they came out. I didn’t want it to be on us. I felt like that first quarter, I felt we had a bead on them. You’ve got to play a full game, and we didn’t do that today. Defensively, we’ll take the credit for this loss. It’s unrealistic thinking you’ll keep somebody out of the end zone for the entirety of the game."

The Bears stormed to a 14-3 lead in the first quarter with Allen scooping up a loose ball after his a strip-sack on Matthew Stafford with 4:26 left in the quarter that set up Jay Cutler's 6-yard scoring strike to Alshon Jeffery.

Despite the Lions holding the ball for more than nine minutes in the quarter, Chicago stuffed the run and held them to 0-for-2 on third-down conversions.

But in the second quarter, the Lions adjusted and Chicago’s defensive floodgates opened up as the home team reeled off 21 unanswered in the second quarter. Similar to how Chicago’s offense attacked Detroit early in the game, the Lions moved to a quicker, more rhythmic passing game that put the Bears on their heels.

Free safety Chris Conte left the game with an eye injury in the second quarter, which only worsened matters as Johnson caught two touchdown passes just before intermission. Rookie Brock Vereen filled in for the injured Conte and the Lions took advantage.

The Bears also made the mistake of leaving rookie Kyle Fuller, who missed practice all week because of a knee injury, in single coverage against Johnson, who finished the game with 146 yards and two touchdowns on 11 catches.

"I was pretty excited," Stafford said of Chicago’s decision to play Johnson one-on-one. "We had an aggressive game plan when it came to that. They had shown it on tape that they were going to do it. They were successful against Tampa doing it, rushing with five guys and getting after the quarterback. Our guys up front did a heck of a job, and every time we dropped back to throw, it seemed like good things were happening, so we continued to do that."

Johnson wasn’t the only Lion doing damage. Golden Tate caught eight of the 10 passes thrown his way for 89 yards, and Joique Bell rushed for 91 yards and two touchdowns.

Chicago has given up 140 points in its past three road games; outscored 31-7 in the second quarter in New England, 28-0 in the second quarter against Green Bay, and 21-0 Thursday against the Lions.

"We’ve still got to take it one day at a time. In this league, it’s week to week. Once you get into the game, your record is out the window," safety Ryan Mundy said. "You look at the Lions, they didn’t score an offensive touchdown the last few games and they lost their last two games. But that’s a hill of beans when it comes to this game, because this is a new game."

So what’s next for Chicago’s embattled defense? Defensive end Willie Young said quitting isn’t an option, nor is showing frustration.

"It’s about figuring out how to come back next week and beat Dallas," Young said. "I can’t speak offensively, but defensively we’ve got to make corrections. If we were to throw it in the tank, then next week, Dallas will do the same thing that Detroit just did to us. I can look at these guys' eyes and know they feel the same way. We’re never down. We could’ve easily given up late in the game. We could’ve laid down. But we’d never do that; too much pride on the defensive side of the ball."
DETROIT -- There were times this week when Detroit Lions wide receiver Corey Fuller wasn't sure if his brother, Kyle, would play for the Chicago Bears.

Kyle Fuller, a cornerback, had been injured Sunday against Tampa Bay, and it seemed like there was a good chance that the first on-field meeting of the Fullers might not happen on Thursday. But Kyle ended up active, and the Fuller brothers lined up across from each other for a few plays.

Fuller
They were lined up opposite one another during Calvin Johnson's first touchdown reception in the Lions’ 34-17 win over Chicago, but they also went against each other for a few plays at the end of the game.

And when they did, Corey did exactly what he said he was going to. He laughed.

“It was a lot of fun,” Corey said.

Corey said Kyle was talking, trying to get quarterback Matthew Stafford to throw at him toward the end of the game for a real Fuller vs. Fuller moment. That didn't happen, but it still became a nice moment for a family that had custom jerseys made for the occasion and planned on spending Thanksgiving dinner at Corey’s place in Michigan on Thursday night -- Kyle included.

Corey, who talks trash with his brother often, got his teammates involved as well. Johnson, who was Fuller’s assignment a good portion of the game, had 11 catches for 146 yards. After the game, Johnson was asked if Corey had asked Johnson to apologize to his brother for having a big game on him.

Nah, Johnson said, Corey told him to keep going at him. Johnson did -- but Corey was still impressed what he saw from his brother.

“I did,” Corey said. “I told him to pour it on him. You know, for Kyle to travel and cover Calvin Johnson, that’s big. That says a lot for a rookie.

“So he can only get better. So he had a great year. I actually think he did a pretty good job today. He was just covering Megatron, and he didn’t get the name Megatron for nothing.”
video
DETROIT -- The feeling came back to Matthew Stafford again during warm-ups -- something the Detroit Lions quarterback says he has sensed before. He looked around, saw how his teammates were preparing and thought this might be the day.

The day the Detroit Lions rediscovered the offense that had abandoned them for so much of the season. That all the talent the Lions pieced together would finally live up to its potential. The tempo was faster. Everything was crisper.

And after two straight losses where the Lions didn't score a touchdown and couldn't do much of anything on offense -- they needed a 34-17 win over Chicago like this as they enter a tight playoff race in December.

"It breeds confidence, you know," wide receiver Calvin Johnson said. "We know what we can do. We have film on what we can do so we just stick to those things and have great weeks of practice and just keep on pouring it on."

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesAgainst the Bears, Matthew Stafford completed 34 of 45 passes for a season-best 390 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The confidence comes from 474 yards of offense -- the most the Lions accumulated since last Thanksgiving, when they gained 561 yards against Green Bay and the ninth-best yardage total for the Lions since 2001.

This started a week ago, when Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi trimmed the play sheet so Detroit could practice more plays that would be used in games against different looks. While it didn't show against New England, the team benefited this week, when the Lions were able to focus in on exactly what they wanted to do and when.

One of the biggest changes for the Lions on Thursday was how they ran their offense. There was a faster tempo -- a more urgent pace -- to how Detroit ran its offense and it showed in its 70 plays, only the fifth time Detroit has run that many plays this season. Stafford appeared more comfortable and put together one of the best games of his career, completing 34 of 45 passes for 390 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Stafford said the Lions were kind of in a no-huddle tempo -- even though Detroit did huddle up -- so they could control the game's pace. This, in many ways, fits Stafford better than a slower, more methodical offense. Playing this way, Stafford said, was emphasized during the week.

"We didn't intentionally get away from it," Stafford said. "It's something that you have to be cognizant of and make sure you push yourself on. It's not easy to do. Receivers are running 40 yards down field and running back to the huddle and getting back to the line of scrimmage. It's difficult to do.

"I think being at home helps with as many personnel changes as we do, play-in and play-out, being able to communicate those. Guys being able to see and hear me say who is where in what personnel grouping definitely helps."

It aided Stafford, too. His 75.6 completion percentage was the fourth best of his career and his best since 2012. Actually, of his top six games, completion percentage-wise, three have come against Chicago. His QBR of 82.9 was the ninth-best of his career.

Stafford made smart decisions, evaded pressure well -- he was sacked only twice. The offense avoided penalties (five for 38 yards) and pass-catchers had only one drop. Against the blitz, Stafford was even better. He had a career-high 14 completions against blitzes for a career-high 200 yards. Of those 14 completions, he found Calvin Johnson 10 times for 137 yards and both of Johnson's touchdowns. Those numbers against the blitz are all career-highs for Johnson, too. That was the majority of Johnson's 11 catches for 146 yards.

It started with Stafford.

"This is not a typical performance now, let's not fool ourselves, right," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "[That's] not something that's done consistently in this league. But do I think that he's capable? I think and still do believe that he's capable of having great games and I do think that you still haven't seen the best of him yet.

"This was outstanding today but I think he's just capable of continuing to rise."

If Stafford does, the Lions might have found the offensive rhythm they have craved all season long.

"As a team we need to play like this more often," Lions receiver Jeremy Ross said. "We always knew we were able capable of playing like this.

"We're not really surprised at how we played because this is how we should be playing. This is the kind of offense we got."
DETROIT -- Matt Forte almost made it out, but once again, his path was blocked.

As reporters huddled at different lockers trying to make sense out of a desultory 34-17 loss to the Detroit Lions, Forte put on his sports coat and grabbed a camouflage rolling bag and headed toward the door.

But one reporter stopped him, and then the rest piled on, and Forte had to talk about a game in which he had little impact aside from a nifty 22-yard screen catch-and-run on the first drive of the game, which just happened to be the only good one of the game.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonIt was a tough day for Chicago's Matt Forte, who had with five carries for six yards in Detroit.
Forte finished with five carries, which tied a career low, for six yards. He also caught six passes for 52 yards.

Was it too tough to run the ball against the Lions’ front four?

"I don’t know," Forte said. "Because we didn’t run it."

The Lions came in with the No. 1 rushing defense, allowing 70.7 yards per game, so the Bears knew it wasn’t going to be a ground-and-pound game. But five carries for Forte puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback, Jay Cutler, who now has 20 turnovers for the season.

"It’s hard," Cutler said. "You know, I think we went into the game thinking some of these shorter passes would be an extension of our run game, some longer handoffs. It worked early on, and then we had to try and push the ball down the field a little bit."

He’s right, though it seemed like the screen passes stopped working before the Bears got behind by double digits.

"That’s what defenses do, they adjust," Forte said.

As it often happens, coach Marc Trestman sent in run-pass options, but the Bears scuttled run calls at the line. That’s normal.

"Forte only had five runs, but we probably called 15 for him," left tackle Jermon Bushrod said. "When we got up there to run these plays, it wasn’t a correct look or we had too many people in the box or they dropped a safety or they did this. It’s a lot that goes into these plays that we run. If it doesn’t look good to the quarterback, we’ve got to go out to the edge."

Forte said he didn’t know exactly how many runs were called, but said they shifted some to "smoke throws," screens to Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.

"Brandon and Alshon did a good job on that, scored on one of them," he said.

That would be Jeffery’s first of two touchdowns in the first quarter, a screen he took 10 yards for the score.

After 12 games, Forte leads the Bears in rushing attempts and yards (201 for 828), and catches (78 for 650). His eight total touchdowns ties him with Marshall for the team lead.

Though running backs always lose carries when a team is behind, when your best player becomes a forgotten man in a must-win game, it’s a sure sign of fundamental problems on a fundamentally poor football team.

"The talent we have on the team, we’re definitely underachieving right now," Forte said. "Some guys got to do some soul-searching for the rest of the season to plan on how they’re going to play the rest of these games."

As for the offense, which continues to disappoint, Forte said he didn’t have the time to explain.

"I could stand here all day and talk about it," he said. "I’m not going to point the finger or nothing like that. There’s a thousand things you can talk about, penalties, all kind of stuff, shooting ourselves in the foot a lot of times."

With four games remaining, it’s obvious all the talk about the potential of the Bears’ high-powered offense was just that, talk. The Bears are averaging just 21 points per game.

"We’ve talked about it all year long," Forte said. "We got a lot of talent, but talent only gets you so far. You can look at it like that, you can have the most talent in the world, but if you don’t put it to work out there, you ain’t going to do anything with it."
DETROIT -- Observed and heard in the locker room after Chicago's 34-17 loss to Detroit at Ford Field:

Young
Inconsistency on defense played a major role in the Bears' loss to the Detroit Lions, and despite the club's 5-7 record, the players in the locker room seemed even-keeled, but that's a product of professionalism according to defensive end Willie Young.

"No frustration, no frustration," Young said. "I'm not frustrated one bit. You have to be a professional. If you get frustrated, to me that's like being a wimp."

Quick conversation: Cornerback Tim Jennings and defensive end Jared Allen stood in one corner of the locker room discussing different aspects of the game. The conversation wasn't animated, and it appeared the two were talking strategy.

Marshall cuts it short: Receiver Brandon Marshall spent less than two minutes addressing the media at his locker in the aftermath of the game, and the tenor of his remarks were of extreme disappointment as opposed to anger. Marshall caught six passes for 42 yards.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You can go back to enjoying your Thanksgiving, the Green Bay Packers don't appear to be concerned that receiver Davante Adams is at risk of missing Sunday's game against the New England Patriots.

Adams
Adams was listed as a limited participant in Wednesday's practice because of a heel injury, but he did not appear to do anything during the portion that was open to reporters.

Coach Mike McCarthy said someone stepped on Adams' foot in practice on Wednesday.

"Davante actually moved around, did some things, so they're just kind of working through exactly how they're going to handle it," McCarthy said after practice. "So I don't have high concern."

Neither did receiver Jordy Nelson.

"I think he'll be fine," Nelson said. "I'm not worried."

One player not listed on the injury report -- and who insisted that he shouldn't be -- is linebacker A.J. Hawk, who looked like he was having a hard time in coverage against Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph last Sunday. On the Vikings' first play from scrimmage, Rudolph easily ran away from Hawk for a 23-yard gain on a crossing route.

"It wasn't from being unhealthy or whatever," Hawk said. "He just caught me by surprise. I should've anticipated him coming across earlier, but it wasn't anything health-wise.

"I'm good. I'm healthy. There's no way I would ever say anything if I wasn't, but I'm actually not lying to you."

Here's the full injury report from Thursday’s practice:
MINNEAPOLIS -- Good afternoon, and a happy Thanksgiving to all of you. The Minnesota Vikings practiced on Thanksgiving morning, in a session that was closed to reporters (no complaints here), and according to their injury report, they were still missing four starters as they prepare for the Carolina Panthers.

Patterson
Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was out again with the knee and ankle injuries he suffered on Sunday, and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd did not practice again after sitting out last Sunday with a knee injury. Coach Mike Zimmer said on Wednesday that Floyd would play Sunday against the Panthers; if that's still the Vikings' plan, they will likely try to get Floyd on the practice field on Friday.

Running back Jerick McKinnon sat out for a second consecutive day with a low back strain, and tight end Chase Ford was also out with hamstring and foot injuries. Both McKinnon and Ford have been playing with back and foot injuries, respectively, and both figure to be available Sunday, but we'll again have to see how the Vikings handle things on Friday.

Safety Harrison Smith returned to limited participation after missing Wednesday's practice with shoulder and ankle injuries, and three players who were limited on Wednesday -- Matt Asiata (concussion), Matt Kalil (knee) and Anthony Barr (knee) -- were full participants on Thursday.

With that, we'll return you to more substantive happenings in the NFC North today. Hope you all enjoy a safe and happy holiday, and we'll talk to you tomorrow morning.
DETROIT -- Longtime Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola has picked up another record for the franchise.

Raiola
Raiola started his 200th game Thursday against the Chicago Bears, the first player in Detroit history to make 200 starts. He had passed Wayne Walker (197 starts) and Jeff Backus (191 starts) this season.

The 35-year-old was a second-round pick out of Nebraska in 2001, and since then has played in all but four games for the Lions -- a constant presence on the offensive line over the past decade-plus for Detroit.

He is one of five active players to have 200 starts, behind quarterback Peyton Manning (251 with Indianapolis and Denver), defensive back Charles Woodson (230 with Oakland and Green Bay), defensive lineman Justin Smith (212 with Cincinnati and San Francisco) and quarterback Tom Brady (202 starts with New England).

Only Brady has more starts with one team among active players.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If the Green Bay Packers' plan was to feature Davante Adams on Sunday against the New England Patriots, they might have some alterations to make.

Adams did not take part in the portion of Thursday's practice that was open to the media. He was in attendance but spent the early part of the session talking with members of the team's training staff.

.

He could be a critical piece on Sunday if the Patriots, with two top-flight cornerbacks in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, can effectively cover the Packers' top-two receivers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.

A full injury update will be available after practice.

Adams practiced on Wednesday and also spoke with reporters in the locker room afterward. However, during Sunday's win against the Minnesota Vikings, he left the game for three plays during the first quarter after he appeared to fall awkwardly on his midsection after a 10-yard reception on the Packers' second series. He returned for the next series after missing only three plays.

Linebacker Nick Perry (shoulder) and cornerback Jarrett Bush (groin) were the only other players not practicing during the session that was moved to earlier in the day in order to allow everyone to get home for Thanksgiving.

Guard T.J. Lang (ankle) returned to practice after sitting out on Wednesday. Fellow starting guard Josh Sitton (toe) practiced for the second straight day.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers aren't sure whether the New England Patriots will assign Darrelle Revis or Brandon Browner to shadow Jordy Nelson on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

Whichever way the Patriots decide to play the Packers' top receiver, it most likely will remain that way for the entire game, leaving the other New England cornerback to stalk Randall Cobb wherever he goes.

"It's a matchup defense," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "They'll figure out who they want on Jordy, who they want on Randall, who they want on [tight end Andrew Quarless] and who they want on Davante [Adams], and we'll run our offense and adjust if we have to."

But don't tell Adams, the rookie No. 3 receiver, that more opportunities will come his way because of it.

To him, that line of thinking is an insult to the work that Cobb and Nelson -- who have combined for 126 catches, 1,903 yards and 19 touchdowns -- have put in through the first 11 games of this season.

"I feel like if everybody's saying that the ball's just going to come to me, they're saying that Revis is going to lock [up] Jordy," Adams said. "Jordy is one of the best receivers in the game right now. Why not still throw to Jordy if he's open? We're all going to run our routes and do our best to get open. I don't really like the whole, 'it could come to you Davante because they're going to put Revis on Jordy and Browner on Randall,' because it kind of down plays our receivers."

Few teams have gone the way of matching one cornerback on Nelson or Cobb all game long. This season, only the Miami Dolphins did it with Brent Grimes on Nelson, who still caught nine passes for 107 yards and a touchdown in the Week 6 victory.

Few teams, if any other than the Patriots, have two cornerbacks capable of doing it.

In last Sunday's win over the Detroit Lions, Patriots coach Bill Belichick went with Revis on Golden Tate and the more physical Browner on Calvin Johnson. Safety Devin McCourty usually helped bracket Johnson.

If they follow that same plan, it could be Browner (with help) on Nelson and Revis on Cobb, who plays more in the slot.

"You look at both of them," said Nelson, who last Sunday went over 1,000 yards for the second straight season. "I'm pretty confident I'll get one or the other. But you look at past games, how they've treated other teams, so you kind of get a feel for it. But they can change it up. You go through it kind of like a normal game and guys aren't going to follow you, especially when you don't know who will. So you're watching both and how they play and try to get a feel for it and have a game plan for each of them."

Whatever the scenario, Adams will almost certainly face the Patriots' number three corner.

"Depending on whether they want to put Browner inside or out, so depending on that, but yeah, most likely," said Adams, who since his career-high seven catches for 75 yards against the Saints in Week 8 has caught only for passes the last three games combined.

But that does not mean Adams' number will be called more often this week.

"We'll see," he said. "You know just as much as I do where it's going."

Panthers vs. Vikings preview

November, 27, 2014
Nov 27
8:00
AM ET
video When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis TV: Fox

When the Carolina Panthers came to Minneapolis last fall, they were a 1-3 team about to start an eight-game win streak on their way to a NFC South title.

This year, they're still in the hunt for a second consecutive division title, even though their record is a half-game worse than that of the last-place Minnesota Vikings. Both teams have lost star players to off-field issues (Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson); both have young QBs (Cam Newton and Teddy Bridgewater), although at different stages of the development process; and both head into Sunday's game trying to end losing streaks as the calendar turns to December.

ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton broke down Sunday's matchup.

Goessling: David, how would you assess the progress of Cam Newton in Year 3? It looked earlier this season as if he was turning the corner as a pocket passer, but his inaccuracy against the Saints and his turnovers the past two weeks make it seem as if he has taken a step back. What’s your take?

Newton: You’re right, Ben. He was looking pretty good as a pocket passer earlier in the season when doctors and coaches handcuffed his running while his left ankle continued to heal. He was going through his reads and progressions better than ever. When he was turned loose to run, he got back to an old habit of taking off before letting the play develop. Then injuries decimated an already suspect offensive line and he was under more pressure to make things happen. I really believe he’s trying to do too much, which is affecting his play. The return of fullback Mike Tolbert should help. Tolbert will help with the protection, as well as give Newton options on the run and in the passing game in the red zone he hasn’t really had.

Both teams have had issues with star players involved in off-the-field incidents that landed them on the commissioner’s exempt list. Hardy’s domestic violence case has had a major impact on Carolina’s defense. How have Peterson’s legal issues affected Minnesota on and off the field?

Goessling: We'll start with the on-field impact: We never got a chance to see how Peterson would fit in the framework of Norv Turner's offense, which called for him to be more involved as a pass-catcher than he'd been in the past, but I have no doubt his presence would make life easier for Bridgewater. If the Vikings had Peterson, commanding attention from defenses and forcing them to put extra men in the box, Bridgewater would get more favorable looks and teams might not be able to devote as much attention to pressuring him. Off the field, Peterson's absence has been noticeable; players certainly wanted him back, and a few of them haven't been shy about saying they think he should be allowed to play. Football people certainly want him back, although there's some concern about how the business and PR sides of his return would play out. It has had quite an impact on the season, though, and there's still at least one more twist coming; Peterson's appeal hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

You mentioned Hardy. Is that the main reason for the Panthers’ regression on defense this season, or have there been other factors?

Newton: There have been other factors, but it begins with Hardy. He was such a key cog to what defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and his staff planned throughout the offseason. When you take away his team-leading 15 sacks and 38 quarterback pressures from 2013, his ability to stop the run, play end and tackle, and drop back into coverage … well, you just can’t easily replace that. It forced others to try to do more. That led to missed assignments and an unusually high number of big plays. Even middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, made some uncharacteristic mistakes. The Panthers have finally adjusted to the new personnel and gotten back to stopping the run, which is key. They still haven’t put it all together on the pass rush, but the defense has played well enough to win the past month.

It looks as if Bridgewater is having a typical rookie season in terms of inconsistency. How much is Minnesota’s success dependent on him?

Goessling: Well, with Peterson out, the Vikings have to depend on Bridgewater much more than they'd like -- especially when you consider that Matt Cassel, not Bridgewater, was supposed to start this season. It's funny that you use the word "typical," considering all the atypical things that have happened around him this season, but yes, Bridgewater's inconsistency has been about what you'd expect for a rookie. He has shown some signs of progress, but he still looks as if he needs to speed up his progressions and trust himself to throw into tight windows more often. Essentially, he's going through the growing pains you see from most quarterbacks his age. The unfortunate thing for him is, he doesn't have much to count on around him: The Minnesota running game has been inconsistent without Peterson; the Vikings haven't gotten the breakout year they expected from Cordarrelle Patterson; and a solid offensive line was having protection problems even before it was hit with injuries. Bridgewater is being asked to carry quite a bit of the load right now. It's not ideal, but maybe he'll be better for it.

As silly as it seems, the Panthers are a half-game out of the lead in the NFC South. Is this a team that’s thinking playoffs? I know anything can happen once you get there, but would it even be beneficial for them to make the playoffs and drop 10-12 spots in the draft because of it?

Newton: As silly as it sounds for a team that hasn’t won since Oct. 3, yes, the Panthers are thinking playoffs. They really believe they can turn the season around this Sunday as they did in Minnesota last season when a 1-3 team began an eight-game winning streak with a 35-10 victory over the Vikings. Interesting on the draft, though. They could use a franchise left tackle, and the best way to get that usually is in the first 10 picks of the draft. That won’t happen if they make the playoffs. On the other hand, if they win the NFC South, they get a home playoff game, and that could be a good payday. And if winning breeds winning, making the playoffs probably would be as valuable for this franchise moving forward as a high draft pick because it has never made the playoffs two years in a row.

Obviously, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn played the past five seasons with the Panthers. How has he played so far this season, and do you think his former team will try to create a few mismatches with him, at 5-foot-8, defending 6-5 rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin?

Goessling: Munnerlyn got off to a rough start early this season, but he has played better in recent weeks. Really, the entire Minnesota secondary has shown quite a bit of improvement this year. Munnerlyn will be the left cornerback when the Vikings are in their base defense and will move inside to play the slot in nickel situations. Xavier Rhodes is the right cornerback, and Josh Robinson moves to left corner when Munnerlyn slides inside, so if the Panthers want to line up Benjamin on Munnerlyn, they'd effectively have to get him to the right side of their formation while the Vikings are in their base defense. It's likely Benjamin will see more of Rhodes, his former college teammate who has done a nice job handling bigger receivers. It should be a good matchup to watch Sunday.

video
GREEN BAY, Wis. – If you thought Bill Belichick's comparison of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers was deep, what until you hear what Mike McCarthy said Wednesday.

Brady
Rodgers
Expanding upon the New England Patriots coach's deadpan line from Wednesday morning that "they both wear number 12" before walking off, the Green Bay Packers coach offered something more.

"They're both from California," McCarthy said.

And with that, perhaps paying homage to Belichick and his sometimes brief news conferences, McCarthy's news conference was over.

To be fair, McCarthy did answer other questions with much lengthier responses and also prefaced his line by saying he believes questions about comparing players are difficult.

"Stay away from them," he said.

During his session with reporters on Wednesday, Rodgers was told of both coaches' remarks and then was asked if there were any other similarities?

"That's probably it right there," Rodgers said.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Before he starts his own film study each week, Ryan Kalil turns on the video of the Minnesota Vikings' game, to see how his little brother did. It's typically provided him a way to check in with Matt Kalil, but this year, there's been a little more urgency in the process.

The Carolina Panthers center talks with his younger brother after every game. He's heard the frustration in Matt Kalil's voice about the way he's played this year and the criticism he's received. So when he turns on the Vikings video, Ryan Kalil isn't just checking in on his brother; he's trying to help him find a solution.

"I've watched him do a lot of good things," Ryan Kalil said. "We've played a lot of same opponents that they play in the division this year, so we've watched a lot of Vikings film this year. And he's gotten highlighted a bunch: 'We've got to do this. Look at this left tackle. We've got to do this.' And that's exciting. I'm proud to be able to see that and be a part of that and be associated with him. So he does a lot of good things.

"I think late in the game, being down, a lot of passing situations, it's hard. And it's not ever one thing that happens. Not making excuses for him; at the end of the day that's your job. You have to block, but I think the biggest thing I'll say about Matt is he works hard. I know he's very talented. I know the knee thing does bother him, and I think he'll be fine. I think he's going to be a good player for a long time."

[+] EnlargeMatt Kalil
Jim Mone/Associated PressMatt Kalil is in his third season with the Vikings.
The four-time Pro Bowl center's conference call with Twin Cities reporters on Wednesday was largely an analysis, and at times a defense, of his younger brother, leading into Sunday's game in Minneapolis between the Panthers and Vikings. Matt Kalil has struggled on the field this season and weathered heavy criticism off of it. Things seemed to come to a head Sunday when Matt Kalil was penalized three times in a loss to the Green Bay Packers and knocked the hat off a fan who was heckling him outside TCF Bank Stadium after the game. Video of the incident surfaced on Deadspin on Monday morning, and Matt Kalil said he shouldn't have responded to the fan, adding, "That guy's not worth my time."

Matt Kalil had said he was on the phone with his father Frank during the exchange with the heckler; Ryan Kalil offered his father's perspective on it on Wednesday before sharing some humorous advice about how he'd have handled the situation.

" I asked my dad if he heard what happened," Ryan Kalil said. "He said, 'Yeah, I heard the whole thing.' He said, 'It was a really ugly deal.' The guy called him over, said he was a big fan, asked for his autograph. He went over there and then he started saying some pretty ugly stuff to him. So I think my brother just kind of reacted. It's probably my fault for picking on him when he was little. Flipping his hat, I think that was the go-to move for me.

"I was a little disappointed. I actually would have liked him to go with the, 'You spilled something on your shirt' and then throw the finger up and hit him in the chin. I think that would have been a funnier move."

Ryan Kalil said his entire family will be in Minnesota this weekend for the game, and if anything, he hopes the opportunity for Matt Kalil to see his nieces and nephew will provide a pick-me-up.

The big brother, still looking out for the younger one, believes he'll be fine in the end.

"The thing that hurts them is just everybody telling him he's letting the team down, and that's not what he wants to hear," Ryan Kalil said. "I don't think he's the problem with Minnesota not having a better record. I don't. I think there's a lot of different things that go into a season not being as good as you want it to go, and we're dealing with the same kind of stuff here. I don't think it's one person. But that's easy coming from me. It's one thing when you're hearing it every day. And even if you turn off the Twitter and you don't read the articles, you know what the conversation is, just based off the questions you're being asked daily, you know? It's frustrating. I think he's strong, though. I don't think he's gone in the tank. I don't think anything like that. I think he'll be fine. I think it's just learning experience."
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Willie Young heard Matthew Stafford called him “one of my favorite teammates” Tuesday and the former Detroit Lions defensive end -- now with the Chicago Bears -- started to laugh.

Young, who left the Lions in free agency during the offseason, was actually one of the more well-liked players in the Detroit locker room during his four years with the Lions, but, yeah, Young thought Stafford might be trying to fete him just a little bit.

“Absolutely, yeah,” Young said, laughing. “Yeah. He’s buttering me up on that one. Matt Stafford, man, he was a cool guy. He came to work every day, put the work in. Obviously he’s a very talented quarterback. He doesn’t make too many bad decisions, I would say. I know this year he hasn’t been because they’ve been on the winning side of things.

[+] EnlargeWillie Young
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsFormer Lions defensive end Willie Young has been a force as a Bear, compiling eight sacks.
“He’s obviously a respected quarterback, get rid of the ball fast, make pretty good decisions, has some good guys in the backfield running the ball for him. But I could see why he might be trying to be kinda nice to me right now because he’s a little low on protection right now. I don’t blame him for being nice right now.”

Stafford is smart to try to get on Young's good side, as Young has flourished since leaving Detroit in the offseason. Finally getting a chance to be an every-down defensive end in his fifth NFL season, he is 13th in the NFL in sacks with eight -- two more than he had in his four seasons with the Lions. Considering the Lions could end up starting two rookies on the offensive line Thursday if Cornelius Lucas replaces the injured Riley Reiff at left tackle, and Young could have a big return to his old stadium.

Young was a seventh-round pick out of North Carolina State, but ended up as mostly a rotational player until last season, when he played every game after a season-ending injury to Jason Jones. Having had to learn behind Kyle VandenBosch, Cliff Avril, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Andre Fluellen in various forms helped him as he watched from the sidelines.

“Don’t get it wrong now, is it tough sitting on the sidelines, not playing, knowing that you have what it takes to be a player, yeah, it’s tough, it’s real tough,” Young said. “But I was able to figure out a way to deal with that and take everything that I could from the game, from the sideline standpoint. It just bettered me as a person and obviously as a player.”

It’s a progression Lions players expected when Young received more snaps, especially after he made the leap from 11 tackles in 2012 to 47 in 2013, which helped set up his free agency move.

Young said Tuesday he didn’t know if the Lions made him an offer during free agency or if they even called his agent to inquire about his services. He just knows his agent told him he was headed to Chicago on a new deal.

When asked about Young and free agency, Lions coach Jim Caldwell wouldn’t say whether or not he had wanted to bring Young back this season or not, but complimented his pass rushing ability.

His old teammates, though, saw exactly what Young could do from the beginning and figured this type of leap might come from him.

“Everybody saw what he could do from the jump,” Fluellen said. “I’m actually not surprised at all. He has a special talent and he has a really good attitude for the game.

“I’m not surprised at all.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD