Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Vikings cornerback Chris Cook’s day ended abruptly in the third quarter when he made contact with an official.
Cook gave up an incredible 46-yard touchdown catch to Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery with 5:24 left in the third quarter to give the Bears a 20-10 lead. After the play, Cook made contact with an official, leading to a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty and an ejection.
It was the second touchdown Cook allowed to Jeffery, who scored on a 80-yard touchdown on the second play of the second half.
Marcus Sherels replaced Cook as the right cornerback with Robert Blanton remaining as the nickel cornerback. The Vikings were thin at the position heading into the game with a fractured sternum injury to Josh Robinson.
Jeffery broke the Bears’ franchise record for receiving yards in the third quarter. He has 10 receptions for 234 yards and two touchdowns after three quarters.
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was ruled out due to concussion symptoms. Matt Cassel will finish the game at quarterback.
What would you rather do on a Saturday morning than wake up early and read weekly picks and power rankings involving 32 teams that basically are of equal strength and ability to beat, lose to or tie anyone on any given Sunday, Monday, Saturday, Thursday (and some day, when the revenue ceiling needs to be extended to a gazillion bazillion dollars, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday as well)?
CRAIG'S NFL POWER RANKINGS
BEST OF THE BUNCH
1. Seahawks (10-1)
Why: Now that the Broncos have two losses, including a blown 24-0 lead against the Patriots last week, the Seahawks are the obvious No. 1 team. So obvious, in fact, that you might want to put some money on the Saints this week. Remember, nothing in the NFL is ever as good or as bad as it seems. Seattle, right now, is the best team in the league, riding a six-game winning streak and coming off a bye. They have some issues in the secondary, but they also have the deepest secondary in the league. Note to the rest of the NFC: You better catch ‘em during the regular season because this team will be especially tough to beat at CenturyLink Stadium in the playoffs.
2. Patriots (8-3); 3. Broncos (9-2); 4. Panthers (8-3); 5. Saints (9-2); 6. 49ers (7-4); 7. Cardinals (7-4); 8. Chargers (5-6); 9. Chiefs (9-2); 10. Eagles (6-5); 11. Rams (5-6); 12. Bengals (7-4); 13. Lions (7-5); 14. Ravens (6-6); 15. Cowboys (7-5); 16. Giants (4-7); 17. Colts (7-4); 18. Steelers (5-7); 19. Bills (4-7); 20. Buccaneers (3-8); 21. Titans (5-6); 22. Dolphins (5-6); 23. Bears (6-5); 24. Raiders (4-8); 25. Jets (5-6); 26. Packers (5-6-1); 27. Browns (4-7).
28. Vikings 2-8-1 (Last week: 28): The Vikings had trouble describing how a tie against Green Bay should feel. Four days later, the Lions helped them locate the correct feeling (lousy) by beating the Packers by 30 while outgaining them in total yards, 561-126.
THE REST OF THE REST
29. Jaguars (2-9); 30. Redskins (3-8); 31. Falcons (2-9).
WORST OF THE BUNCH
32: Texans (2-9): Houston was 9-2 last year when the Vikings showed up in town and beat them 23-6. Since that game, the Texans are 3-11. They’ve lost nine straight. And the ninth loss last week came against Jacksonville. So, yeah, that pretty much deserves at least one week at the bottom of the steaming heap of bad teams.
Bears plus-1 at Vikings. The pick: Vikings 28, Bears 17.
Yeah, it’s always risky to pick against Josh McCown when he’s playing the Vikings. He’s 2-0 with a somewhat memorable season-ending, game-winning, knock-the-Vikings-out-of-the-playoffs touchdown pass to Nate Poole as a member of the lowly Cardinals in 2003 (See: “Noooooooooooo!”). But Adrian Peterson looks to have put his hamstring and groin issues behind him. The Vikings rediscovered their running game against a terrible run defense in Green Bay a week ago. And now they face an even more horrendous run defense – ranked No. 32 ½ in a 32-team league – that’s beat up and allowing close to 200 yards per game the past five weeks. The feeling here is the Vikings are still playing hard enough to punish a beat-up Bears defense while controlling the game.
Last week: Vikings plus-4 at Packers: The pick: Vikings 24, Packers 21. The final: Vikings 26, Packers 26. Record: 6-4-1, 5-6 vs. the spread.
Saints plus-4 ½ at Seahawks: Saints 38, Seahawks 35.
Why?: Big Monday Night Football stage with giant playoff implications. The assumption is the Seahawks can’t lose at home in this situation. Assumptions are a bad thing when trying to make any sense of the NFL. Look for Drew Brees and a much, much, much-improved Saints defense to make the biggest statement of the year to date in the NFC.
Last week: Panthers minus-4 ½ at Dolphins: The pick: Dolphins 27, Panthers 24. The final: Panthers 20, Dolphins 16. Record: 4-8.
Titans plus-3 ½ at Colts: Colts by 6.
Broncos minus-5 at Chiefs: Broncos by 7.
Jaguars plus-7 at Browns: Browns by 3.
Buccaneers plus-7 ½ at Panthers: Panthers by 3.
Cardinals plus-3 at Eagles: Cardinals by 7.
Dolphins plus-2 at Jets: Dolphins by 3.
Falcons plus-3 ½ vs. Bills in Toronto: Bills by 7.
Rams plus-8 at 49ers: 49ers by 3.
Patriots minus-7 ½ at Texans: Patriots by 14.
Bengals plus-1 at Chargers: Bengals by 3.
Giants minus-1 ½ at Redskins: Redskins by 3.
Record: Last week: 5-7-1; 7-6 vs. the spread. Overall: 93-71-1; 73-87-4 vs. the spread.
Both Vikings defensive back Xavier Rhodes and wide receiever Joe Webb were full participants for the first time this week. With Rhodes playing Sunday, it helps solidify one of the Vikings’ corner spots in a depleted secondary facing Bears wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
“We’re pretty thin in the secondary and playing with a lot of guys that are out of position that you don’t really want to play as much as we’re having to play them because it does affect your special teams as well," Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said. "To have Xavier back, that’s a big deal.”
Frazier said Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will also play on Sunday despite missing practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Fraizer said Peterson looked fine in his return to practice on Friday.
“Just trying to rest that groin a little bit and let him get treatment,” Frazier said. “Not 100 percent but not to the point where it’s worse than it was when we played Green Bay.”
Vikings safety Harrison Smith practiced for the first time since suffering a turf toe injury against the Panthers in Week 6. While he’s able to practice, Smith isn’t eligible to return off injured reserve until Dec. 15 against the Eagles.
“He really looked pretty good,” Frazier said. “I was telling [Vikings head athletic trainer] Eric Sugarman a little bit ago that that rule is a good rule but man I wouldn’t mind if he could play this week, because he moved around well enough where you had no qualms putting him in the ballgame.”
For this week's Behind Enemy Lines, we turned to some guy named Dan Wiederer. Name rings a bell. Used to cover the Vikings for the Star Tribune until joining the Chicago Tribune to help cover the Bears:
1, Quarterback Jay Cutler won't play, but is that even a bad thing anymore considering how well backup Josh McCown has played while posting a 2-1 record? What has McCown done best of all in his role and do you think there's any chance the Bears let Cutler walk after the season?
DW: "The Bears would prefer that Cutler start. But they’ve certainly developed an impressive rhythm and an undeniable confidence in McCown. This is something very new and very refreshing for an organization that has experienced major falloffs when forced to turn to their back-up quarterbacks in years past. Simply put: McCown is better than Jason Campbell, better than Caleb Hanie, certainly better than the 2004 carousel that featured Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel and surfer Chad Hutchinson.
"I think best of all is that McCown is a detailed worker and has put himself in position to succeed when needed. He knows Trestman’s offense inside and out and best of all he understands that he doesn’t have to be the star of the offense, that if he makes good reads and spreads the ball around, success will come. The Bears have two big-time receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, a versatile run-catch threat in running back Matt Forte and, finally, a reliable tight end in Martellus Bennett. McCown has said many times in the past month that recognizing and understanding the help he has around him has made his transition so much easier. He’s also been very, very good at protecting the ball. In his first two starts plus his two relief appearances, he never turned the ball over. Last week against St. Louis, he had his first two turnovers of the season within 40 seconds of each other late in the fourth quarter with the Bears trying to rally. The first was a strip sack by Robert Quinn that could easily be blamed on left tackle Jermon Bushrod; the other was an interception on a play that Trestman wishes he hadn’t called.
"Bottom line: McCown came in when Cutler tore his groin in Week 7 and led the Bears to 313 yards and 24 points after halftime, including a go-ahead TD pass to Bennett with 3:57 left of a 45-41 loss to the Redskins. It was clear he had enough in the tank to keep the offense humming. And he’s done nothing in November to diminish that confidence he built up for himself and from his teammates.
As for Cutler’s long-term future in Chicago: the best bet is that he’s back in 2014. He has made it very clear that he doesn’t want to move on from an offense and a coaching staff that he’s incredibly comfortable with. And the Bears have made it clear that they like what he brings to the table to run that offense and be productive. His health is an obvious issue. He’s started 16 games for the Bears only once in five seasons. And there will be some definite struggles from both sides on the negotiations of a new deal. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bears slapped Cutler with the franchise tag in March then spent the spring and summer pounding out the details of a longer-term deal".
2, What is the primary reason for the Bears' 32nd-place ranking in run defense and do you sense that Adrian Peterson will have a big day on Sunday?
DW: "Week 3: Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton is lost for the season with a torn ACL. Week 4: Melton’s back-up Nate Collins is lost for the season with a torn ACL. Week 6: Starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams is lost for season with a torn pec. Week 7: Linebacker Lance Briggs fractures his shoulder and hasn’t played since. Week 10: Cornerback Charles Tillman suffers a season-ending triceps injury. Defensive end Shea McClellin has also missed two games with a hamstring issue. Defensive tackle Stephen Paea has missed three games with a toe problem.
"Translation: the Bears have had little opportunity to develop any sort of continuity or chemistry and are now playing a defense that requires 11 guys to play in synch with 11 guys who haven’t played together enough to develop a trust and a feel for one another. They’re currently starting two rookies (Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene) at linebacker alongside James Anderson, who’s in his first year with the team. The run fits have been horrible. The d-line has been handled up front far too often. And safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright always seem to take poor angles and miss tackles on the big runs. There’s no fix in sight. Last week, an undrafted rookie back-up went up over 100 yards in just more than two quarters of action. The Bears are allowing an average of 197 rushing yards in their past five games. So as long as the Vikings don’t fall behind early and abandon the run, there’s no reason Peterson can’t chase 200 yards on Sunday."
3, You've seen Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. You've seen the Vikings secondary. How do you assess this matchup? And is Marshall still the primary target or do both of them sort of share the stage now?
"If I were the Vikings, I’d be panic-stricken. Marshall and Jeffery really believe they’re the most dangerous receiving duo in the NFL. And they’re putting up the numbers to back it up (132 catches, 1,805 yards, 12 TDs). They’re both big, physical guys who can make big plays even when closely covered. And if a defense pays them too much attention, the Bears’ offense has Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett to stress an opponent out underneath. Marshall is still the top dog. No questions asked. And he’s on pace toward delivering the third-most productive receiving season in team history. (He set the single-season yards record last year). But when defenses roll coverage his way and bracket him and make him the focal point, Jeffery can kill you. The Saints took Marshall away completely in Week 5 and Jeffery delivered a team record 218 yards. It’s a shared stage. Marshall still wants to be the headliner and is. But he also takes great pride and comfort in the continued progress of Jeffery."
4, Will Matt Forte (knee) play and, if not, what kind of impact would that have on McCown and the offense? Who would step into that role?
"I’d expect Forte to play. The Bears didn’t think his knee hyperextension was going to be a problem. He actually returned to finish the game against the Rams and seemed to be walking without a limp on Monday. He’s a big deal to the offense. I’d actually dispute the idea that he’s overrated. I think, around here anyway, he’s underrated. Sure he has only one 100-yard rushing outing this season. But at his current pace, he’s headed for more than 1,800 yards from scrimmage and has scored eight touchdowns in 11 games. If he were out, the Bears would be in trouble. Michael Bush is more of a short-yardage guy and he’s struggled with that this season as evidenced by his seven carry, minus-4 yard day in St. Louis. Bush is averaging 1.6 yards per attempt for the season. The only other option is Michael Ford, an undrafted rookie out of LSU. But that’d be a significant dropoff from Forte."
5, Overall, how has Marc Trestman's first year gone? Better than expected, worse, about the same? Is the pulse that he's done a really good job with the offense and was a good hire or that he's struggled with the defense, which was Lovie Smith's strength, and therefore was a bad hire?
"Trestman’s an interesting question around here. The folks of Chicago have longed for a better offense for years. The sad part is it may have arrived a year or two too late with the defense in dramatic decline. I think overall, fans are thrilled with the hire because they see the potency of the offense and its potential to evolve into something even greater as time goes on and guys get used to the system and playing with one another. They did a great job in the offseason of refurbishing the offensive line, getting two free agents (Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson) to start on the left side and drafting two rookies (Kyle Long and Jordan Mills) to flank Roberto Garza on the right. The line is better. Much better. The game-planning and play-calling has been solid. The production has been there all year offensively. Trestman deserves credit for getting it all to work together.
"Defensively, there are some questions on how good of a coordinator Mel Tucker really is. But to me, it’s hard to judge a guy missing so many key players, including Pro Bowlers on all three levels of the defense. Not sure who could withstand those blows and still have a top-notch defense.
"Trestman earned plenty of praise in a 3-0 start and seems to have that ability to level a team through the highs and lows of the season. To me, that’s an underrated skill of a great coach. He also has a proclivity for being gutsy, for rolling the dice on fourth downs. The Bears are 6-for-10 on fourth downs this season. The most notable conversion was a fourth-and-1 from their own 32 with a four-point lead and 7:50 to play at Lambeau Field. You blow that one and people go crazy. But they converted, held the ball until the final minute and sealed a drive of nearly 9 minutes with a field goal to finish off a 27-20 upset.
"In the last two losses however, Trestman passed up field goals (45 yards against Detroit, 19 yards against St. Louis) to go on fourth-and-1 and the Bears were stuffed. Now Trestman is taking criticism for not taking the points. But he makes these decisions with great thought and calculation and also understands he’s playing with a porous D that can’t always get stops when they’re needed."
As expected, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (groin) didn't practice today. He's typically rested late in the season because, well, he's Adrian Peterson. He gets and gives enough punishment on game day.
Also missing practice were: CB Xavier Rhodes (concussion), WR Joe Webb (concussion), TE Kyle Rudolph (foot) and Josh Robinson (fractured sternum). Rudolph and Robinson are out. Rhodes and Webb passed the first part of the NFL's protocol for return from concussions. They took the exertion test today. If they're symptom-free on Thursday, they can return.
Meanwhile, DT Kevin Williams (quadriceps) was limited. RB Matt Asiata (shoulder), NT Fred Evans (knee), LB Chad Greenway (wrist) and FS Andrew Sendejo (foot) were on the injury report but had full practice participation.
For the Bears, QB Jay Cutler (ankle) and LB Lance Briggs (shoulder) are out. RB Matt Forte (knee), CB Derrick Martin (hamstring) and S Anthony Walters (groin) did not participate in today's practice.
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