NFC North Stock Watch


1. Health, Chicago Bears: The Bears led a charmed life on the way to their 2010 NFC North title, losing only a handful of starts because of injury all season. But their four-game dive in 2011 has coincided with injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. Receiver Johnny Knox has been lost for the season, and receiver/kick returner Devin Hester clearly has been limited by an ankle injury. Two members of their Week 1 offensive line, left guard Chris Williams and right tackle Gabe Carimi, are also on injured reserve. I've always considered it silly to say that injuries come in bunches, but that has been the case this season for the Bears and provides a ready-made excuse for why they are likely to miss the playoffs in 2011.

2. Offensive line, Green Bay Packers: It's very possible that the Packers will have replacement starters at three of their five positions Sunday night against the Bears. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse will make his 10th start at left tackle after taking over for veteran Chad Clifton, who has been working through hamstring and back injuries. Left guard T.J. Lang could move to right tackle, replacing Bryan Bulaga (knee) and Derek Sherrod (broken leg). And that would mean Evan Dietrich-Smith would return to the starting lineup in Lang's spot. Dietrich-Smith made two starts earlier this season in place of right guard Josh Sitton (knee). That's hardly the kind of continuity you want heading into the playoffs, but the Packers have dealt with such issues before.

3. Sleep totals in Detroit: Lions coach Jim Schwartz admitted it Monday. "I'm just tired as hell," he said during a news conference less than 24 hours after his team pulled off a wild comeback victory in Oakland. In the interim, the Lions made the long flight back east and immediately began preparations for the biggest week in recent team history. Playing a day early because of the Christmas weekend, the Lions are hoping to clinch their first playoff berth since 1999 with a win Saturday over the San Diego Chargers. There won't be much time to sit by the fire or sip eggnog this week. Serious business is at hand.


1. Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions defensive end: I know we've been touting Avril regularly here on the blog, but something caught my eye late in Sunday's game that merits a mention. Moments after Calvin Johnson's go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, television cameras showed Avril pointing demonstratively at defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and then at defensive tackle Corey Williams. Poking both in the chest, Avril appeared to be saying something along the lines of: You make a play. As it turned out, Avril made one himself a few minutes later, sacking quarterback Carson Palmer and forcing the Raiders to use their final timeout. Suh went on to block the Raiders' attempt at a winning field goal. Avril now has 11 sacks this season, but it was also nice to see him recognize the moment and, as a leader, challenge his teammates in a positive way.

2. Questions about Jermichael Finley, Packers tight end: When the season began, there were those who thought Finley was the best young tight end in the NFL. The New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (15 touchdown receptions) has captured that title, and Finley has regressed a bit in the past month with more drops than the Packers would like to see. He entered Sunday's game at Kansas City with five drops in 66 targets, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and probably had three more against the Chiefs, depending on how strict of a grader you are. Finley blamed no one but himself for the drops, and we should note that his 41-yard catch to set up the Packers' first touchdown required a high degree of skill and concentration. But through 15 weeks of the season, I'm not sure we can say Finley has broken through to the degree most thought he would. He'll need 10 catches over the next two weeks to match the career high of 55 he set in 2009 -- in 13 games.

3. Jim Kleinsasser, Minnesota Vikings tight end: Multiple reports suggest Kleinsasser is prepared to retire at the end of his 13th season, marking the end of a career that is to be admired in many ways, even if it rarely was reflected in the box score. Few recall that Kleinsasser was emerging as a reliable receiving threat in the early 2000s before he tore his ACL in Week 1 of the 2004 season. Since then, he has handled one of the NFL's most inglorious jobs with aplomb, serving as a blocking tight end/quasi-third tackle and earning the respect of three different coaching staffs along the way. His approach has been a model for anyone who wants to maximize an NFL career. For 13 years, Kleinsasser has hit people hard and kept his mouth shut.