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.

Brian Urlacher fires back at Dhani Jones

Chicago Bears linebackers Lance Briggs (L) and Brian Urlacher and wide receiver Johnny Knox stand on the field before the game against the Washington Redskins at Soldier Field in Chicago on October 24, 2010. UPI/Brian Kersey

“When was the last time Brian Urlacher got off a block?”

That was Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones after leaving Urlacher off his list of top 10 linebackers for the NFL Network – a list in which Jones ranked himself No. 7.

Always willing to confront his critics, Urlacher responded with this gem (courtesy of the Chicago Tribune):

“I think we were drafted in the same class, right? … I haven’t heard anything about him since then,” Urlacher told “The Waddle & Silvy Show” on WMVP-AM 1000. “I saw him on a TV show with a bow tie on, though. So I know him better for the way he dresses than what he does on the football field. Look, guys are going to talk. I’ve definitely had a lot worse things said about me publicly from guys, so I can live with it.”

It never ceases to amaze me how much criticism Urlacher has received throughout his career. Does he miss tackles sometimes? Yes, as does Ray Lewis, Clay Matthews, Patrick Willis, DeMarcus Ware and the rest of the top linebackers. Play enough downs in the NFL and you’re going to blow your fair share of assignments. But that doesn’t mean that a player is overrated like some have suggested Urlacher is.

Urlacher’s critics should bone up on the Tampa 2 and what the middle linebacker’s responsibilities are in that defense. Then consider how Urlacher has played 11 seasons, has gone to seven Pro Bowls and was named the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. Nick Roach proved in 2009 that not just any linebacker could play the middle in the Tampa 2 and have success. And that’s not a knock on Roach – that’s a testament to how good Urlacher has been throughout his career. (2009 was also the year that the Bears defense fell to No. 16 overall, largely because Urlacher was lost for the season following a Week 1 injury suffered against the Packers.)

Jones and everyone else who think Urlacher is overrated have the right to their opinion. But I have a hard time believing that Jones could play the middle in a Tampa 2 even half as well as Urlacher has.

Packers beat offensively challenged Bears, become second No. 6 seed to make Super Bowl

Green Bay Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji (Left-Center) celebrates with teammates after intercepting and scoring a touchdown against the Chicago Bears during the fourth quarter of their NFC Championship game at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois, USA 23 January 2011. The Packers defeated the Bears 21-14 and will play the AFC Champion in Super Bowl XLV 06 February in Dallas, Texas, USA. EPA/JOHN G. MABANGLO fotoglif933236

Here are five quick-hit thoughts about the Packers’ 21-14 win over the Bears in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

1. The Packers’ improbable run continues.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate what the 2010 Green Bay Packers have been able to do. They entered the season as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, only to see their hopes seemingly wash away because of injuries. Needing two wins in the final two weeks just to qualify for the postseason, they crushed the Giants and edged out the Bears to clinch the No. 6 seed in the NFC. Against long odds, the Packers then go on the road and knock off the Eagles, the No. 1-seeded Falcons and the No. 2-seeded Bears to reach the Super Bowl. It’s hard enough to win on the road, nevertheless do so in the postseason when home field advantage is so paramount. The Packers are red-hot and match up well with either the Jets or Steelers.

2. Capers deserves a lot of praise for the play of his defense.
Rex Ryan has earned a lot of attention this postseason for his defensive game plans, but Dom Capers deserves some of the spotlight after what Green Bay did on Sunday. His defense is the main reason the Packers won today – not Aaron Rodgers. The Bears made things interesting in the fourth quarter and the Packers did catch a break when Jay Cutler left the game with a knee injury, but let’s not take anything away from Capers’ game plan. The Bears could do nothing offensively for the first three quarters and their offensive line couldn’t stop Green Bay’s pass rush. Matt Forte had a couple of nice runs and Caleb Hanie made some clutch throws in the fourth quarter but again, domination was on display. The Packers held the Bears to 218 passing yards and 83 rushing, all while forcing three turnovers. On a day when Rodgers wasn’t at his best, the Packers needed a strong defensive effort and that’s exactly what they got.

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Should the Bears extend Lovie Smith’s contract?

Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith watches his team play the New England Patriots during the second quarter at Soldier Field in Chicago on December 12, 2010. UPI/Brian Kersey

If Bear fans were presented with this question before the season started, half of them would have probably said that Lovie Smith would have to win the Super Bowl this year and the other half would have given an empathetic: “No.”

If the hated Packers wax the Bears this Sunday at Solider Field, it stands to reason that Chicago fans will return to the same mindset they had before the season and wish Smith the best as he heads out the door. But what if the Bears win? Then what? Even if they lose to the Steelers or Jets in the Super Bowl, Smith would be responsible for taking the Bears to the title game twice in the past five years. Doesn’t he deserve a contract extension because of that?

Smith has one more year left on his current deal and at least one of his players thinks that he deserves an extension (from

“I believe he has done a great job here. He’s the reason we’ve won,” [Brian] Urlacher said Wednesday on “Mike & Mike In The Morning” on ESPN Radio. “I think he’s been here seven years and this is our second NFC Championship [Game], and it hasn’t been that way around here in a long time. There were a few years where we were 7-9, 8-8 and that was good. People were excited about that because it meant we were getting better.

“Now if we’re not in the playoffs or the NFC championship people are disappointed, and that’s because of him. That’s how he makes people believe around here, and that’s what he expects out of us. I believe in him. I don’t see why he wouldn’t get an extension. He’s earned it, and I don’t want to play for any other coach.”

Urlacher makes a fair point but fans aren’t going to forget how Smith has struggled with game preparation and in-game management over the years. Good coaches put game plans together that take advantage of their opposition’s weaknesses throughout the course of a game. The better ones are not only good game-planners, but they make solid halftime adjustments to win in the second half.

The best head coaches, guys like Bill Belichick, Sean Payton and even Rex Ryan from a defensive standpoint, can make adjustments on the fly. They don’t stray from their game plan, but they can attack opponents series-to-series and strike when the iron’s hot. Whether fans like to admit it, Smith can put together a good game plan more times than not. But he doesn’t always make sound halftime adjustments and he rarely makes in-game adjustments to attack his opponent when they’re not looking.

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