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Six-Pack of Questions for Week 12 in the NFL

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) is sacked for a five yard loss by Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in third quarter of a NFL football game at Lambeau Field Green Bay, Wisconsin October 3, 2010. REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

What are some of the big questions heading into this week’s action in the NFL?

1. Can the Bears survive without Cutler?
In a word, yes. Remember, this was the same team that once went to the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman at the controls. They have a physical, unrelenting defense led by Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers, a star at running back in Matt Forte, and the most dangerous returner in the league in Devin Hester. But the biggest question is whether or not Mike Martz will adjust. Leopards don’t change their spots and Martz is a leopard thru and thru. If he wants to run his offense with Caleb Hanie the same as if Jay Cutler were under center then the Bears are going to die a very quick death. But if Martz relies on Forte and the running game and allows Chicago’s defense and special teams to win games, then there’s no reason the Bears can’t still make the playoffs with Hanie under center.

2. Can the Lions bring down the Pack?
This is the moment the Detroit Lions have been waiting for all season: To finally be able to punch the bully back. The Packers have been abusing the Lions for years but now Detroit is bigger, better and meaner. The way to beat any elite quarterback is to pressure him using only the front four because it allows a defense to drop the rest of its defenders into coverage. And thanks to guys like Ndamukong Suh, Willie Young and Cliff Avril, the Lions have one of the best pass rushes in the league. Aaron Rodgers will make plays; that’s just what he does. But the Lions certainly have the pass rushers to make his Thanksgiving a little uncomfortable if the secondary can hang with guys like Jordy Nelson in coverage. The biggest question is whether or not Matthew Stafford can avoid mistakes. Turnovers will kill the Lions but otherwise, they have the tools to slay the dragon. Now they just have to go out do it.

3. Can Leinart keep the Texans moving ahead?
The Texans own a two-game lead over the Titans in the AFC South but Matt Leinart hasn’t taken a snap in a regular season game since 2009. And when he did have his opportunities to start, he flubbed things up pretty good. But from Kurt Warner to Rich Gannon to Kerry Collins, there have been plenty of quarterbacks who prospered after first facing adversity in their careers. Leinart has first-round talent but. he wasn’t ready to lead in Arizona. That said, he’s older, wiser and hopefully more mature. Armed with a great running game and a defense playing at the top of its game, the Texans are playoff-ready. All Leinart has to do is manage games and not muck things up but can he do it?

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Chicago Bears Brian Urlacher says he wasn’t yelling at Lance Briggs on sidelines

Chicago Bears linebackers Brian Urlacher (R) and Lance Briggs sit on the bench during the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at Soldier Field on September 11, 2011 in Chicago. The Bears won 30-12. UPI/Brian Kersey

For those wondering, no, Brian Urlacher wasn’t yelling at teammate Lance Briggs on the sidelines during the Chicago Bears’ Week 5 loss to the Detroit Lions on Monday night.

“Everyone asked me what happened after the game: ‘Was I yelling at Lance on the sideline?’ I said: ‘I wasn’t yelling at Lance on the sideline. He didn’t do anything wrong,” Urlacher said. “We were both mad because we aren’t used to this. As long as (Briggs) and I have been here, we haven’t played like this.”

It’s been a frustrating year for the 2-3 Bears, who rank 29th in yards allowed per game (419.6) and 17th in points allowed (24.4). Chicago’s play has been down all season, from a poor pass rush to a suspect run defense that allowed Detroit’s Jahvid Best to rush for 163 yards on just 12 carries. In four games prior to his performance on Monday, Best had yet to total more than 72 yards in a single game, which came back in Week 1 against Tampa Bay.

Julius Peppers’ knee injury that he suffered against the Lions only compounds the Bears’ issues on that side of the ball. Peppers has yet to be ruled out for this Sunday’s game against the Vikings, but a sprained MCL usually takes weeks to heal. Briggs also requested a trade at the beginning of the year, so things aren’t going the way the Bears expected they would, especially considering they hosted the NFC Championship Game a year ago.

2010 NFL Week 6 Predictions

Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers sits on the bench during the third quarter of a preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals at Soldier Field in Chicago on August 28, 2010.   UPI/Brian Kersey Photo via Newscom

The NFL pick gods couldn’t stand that I had a winning record, so they dealt me a nice crap sandwich last week.

The Vikings (thanks for that pick-six at the end of the game, Lord Favre), Bills and Broncos were all losers while my only winner was the Redskins over Packers (which came down to overtime, so clearly I was knocking on the door of a 0-4 week). Ugh.

Let’s get back on the winning track.

Falcons @ Eagles, 1:00PM ET
The Falcons have some sort of complex with the Eagles that they can’t seem to shake. I fully believe they’re the better team, but Andy Reid has had their number of late, as his teams have won seven of the last eight matchups. The fact that this game is being played in Philly doesn’t bode well for Atlanta’s chances either, as the Falcons haven’t won in the “City of Brotherly Love” since dragons roamed the earth. (What? Dragons aren’t real? Not buying it.) The Falcons have been grinding out wins the past three weeks, but I think the Eagles’ aggressive defense will give “Matty Ice” issues this Sunday.
THE PICK: EAGLES -2.5

Seahawks @ Bears, 1:00PM ET
I wouldn’t take the Seahawks against my old high school if they were playing on the road, as Seattle absolutely loses its mind when it doesn’t have the “12th Man” behind them. The Bears get a lift with Jay Cutler back from a one-week hiatus due to a concussion and as long as he protects the ball, his defense should give him plenty of opportunities to score. Julius Peppers has meant the world to Brian Urlacher and the rest of Chicago’s defense and I don’t see the Hawks getting into the end zone too many times come Sunday.
THE PICK: BEARS –6.5

Cowboys @ Vikings, 4:15PM ET
Ah, the battle of underachievement. Did anyone else notice on Monday night that as soon as Lord Favre started slinging touchdown passes that he immediately grabbed his elbow after one of the throws? I know he’s been bothered both elbow tendinitis, but the pessimist in me thought it was a little convenient that as soon as he was about to step into the role of hero again, he made a public display about his injury. Give me a break. Anyway – the Cowboys have some serious issues and for once, they go far beyond their self-destructive tendencies. If Wade Phillips can’t figure out what’s wrong with the defense then this team is going to fold like a deck of cards. I think Minnesota’s offense started to figure things out in the second half last week, which leads me to believe the Vikes will figure out a way to win this Sunday – Favre’s elbow be damned.
THE PICK: VIKINGS -1

Raiders @ 49ers, 4:05PM ET
The 49ers shouldn’t be laying 6.5 points to anyone right now – even the Raiders. I’m going to go against my better judgment and take Oakland, even though I think this is a trap. Of course, I thought the Bills’ opponents were traps the past two weeks and Buffalo went ahead and took a dump in the middle of my living room floor and then said here, you clean it up. The Niners are a bad football team and while the same can be said for the Raiders, at least they’ve shown sign of life this season. Give me the points.
THE PICK: RAIDERS +6.5

Season Record: 7-8-1

2010 NFL Preview: NFC North Predictions

GREEN BAY, WI - AUGUST 26: Aaron Rodgers  of the Green Bay Packers rolls out to look for a receiver against the Indianapolis Colts during a preseason game at Lambeau Field on August 26, 2010 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

The NFC North will challenge the NFC East this year for being the toughest division in the conference. Three of the four teams are legit playoff contenders, while the Lions only continue to improve as a whole.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the NFC North in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season.

1. Packers

What to Like: Given how well he played last year, Aaron Rodgers should be considered a MVP candidate this season. The fact that he was able to throw for 4,434 yards and compile a 103.2 QB rating despite constantly being under pressure is rather amazing. Just think about what he could accomplish this year if the O-line gave him even a fraction of a second more time to throw. Rodgers will lead a passing attack that racked up 261.3 yards per game last season, which was good for seventh in the NFL. He also has an assortment of weapons to throw to, namely receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, as well as rising talent Jermichael Finley. In the backfield, Ryan Grant continues to be underrated and is coming off a 1,253-yard, 11-touchdown season. Defensively, Dom Capers was a miracle worker in his first year, as Green Bay led the NFC in total defense despite switching to the 3-4 (most first-year 3-4 teams struggle). Rookie Clay Matthews turned out to be a phenomenal pass-rusher and Nick Barnett was outstanding in the middle, both against the run and in coverage. Despite his age, Charles Woodson (33) continues to play at an elite level.
What Not to Like: The offensive line was a disaster at times last year, save for the play of right guard Josh Sitton. If Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher can make it through an entire season without suffering injuries, this will be a much-improved unit and then Rodgers won’t have to spend most Sunday afternoons running for his life. But both tackles are in their 30s and injuries always seem to be an issue. At left guard, Daryn Colledge struggled, although it’s only fair to point out that he was out of position subbing at tackle. While Tramon Williams is more than capable of handling the starting corner position opposite Woodson, losing Al Harris (knee surgery) was a huge blow to Green Bay’s depth at secondary. The concern is that given Harris’ age (35) and the nature of his injury, he may never play again. The other potential issue on defense is whether or not B.J. Raji can handle playing nose tackle after a lackluster 2009 season as a 3-4 end. All good 3-4 teams have a stout nose tackle to eat up space and if Raji isn’t up for the task, it will certainly have an effect on the linebackers.
Keep Your Eye On: Jermichael Finley
Finley put himself on the map last season by catching 55 passes for 676 yards and five touchdowns in just 13 games. He finished the year by hauling in six passes for 159 yards in Green Bay’s loss to the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs, leading to high expectations this year. If he can stay focused (which is the biggest concern with this youngster), he could put up fantastic numbers in the Packers’ explosive passing attack this season.
The Final Word: Expectations are high for the Packers this year, as well they should be. If the offensive line can stay healthy then this is the team to beat in the NFC North. The great thing is that Ted Thompson spent his first round draft pick on tackle/guard Bryan Bulaga, meaning Green Bay now has depth in case injuries do start to mount. Rodgers is the real deal and could lead the Pack deep into the playoffs if his O-line doesn’t get him killed first. Defensively, there are some concerns but Capers will make up for them by being aggressive. If the Packers can win the division and force opponents to come to Green Bay come January, then this will be a legitimate Super Bowl contender this season. The pieces are in place for this team to make a serious run.

Green Bay Packers 2010 Question Mark: Offensive Line

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Peter King releases his 2010 NFL Power Rankings

SI.com’s Peter King released his first NFL power ranking for the 2010 season and has more than a handful of surprises, most notably at No. 1.

1. Green Bay. It’s not just the maturation of Aaron Rodgers. It’s the carryover from a fluky end to 2009 (the weird playoff loss at Arizona) and the fact that only one team in football — New Orleans — had a better point differential than the Pack’s plus-164 last year. I like Jermichael Finley to become a great player in his second starting season. I don’t trust the pass-rush (where Clay Matthews is the only real thing), and I worry about two of the top three corners coming off ACL surgery, and aging. But the defensive front is formidable, and a very good match for the good run teams of the AFC North. I also like Weeks 2 through 5 on the schedule (Buffalo, at Chicago, Detroit, at Washington), which sets up for a strong start.

This should make my colleague John Paulsen extremely happy. The Packers’ offense is explosive, although the offensive line will once again be the focus. Rodgers endured a ton of hits last season and those blows eventually catch up with a quarterback. His O-line must do a better job of protecting him for them to get back to the playoffs.

With Green Bay ranking first, King must have the Saints at No. 2, right? Wrong.

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