1. Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: Ponder has brought the franchise to a crossroads as it nears the end of his second season. The hope was that Ponder would demonstrate steady improvement and establish himself as a long-term starter by the end of the season. Instead, he is still turning in clunkers that are every bit as bad as his worst games as a rookie. Among many abominable numbers, here is perhaps the most eye-popping: Ponder has completed only four passes this season that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. There are extenuating factors involved, including a weak group of wide receivers, but Ponder is also facing defenses that are aligned more often in run-stopping schemes than any quarterback in the NFL. In short, Ponder has offered no indication through 22 career starts that he can be a long-term starter. Barring an immediate turnaround, the Vikings will have a much tougher decision this offseason than they could have possibly hoped.
2. Detroit Lions drafting philosophy: The apparent end of receiver Titus Young's short tenure has intensified scrutiny on the Lions' four drafts under general manager Martin Mayhew. Of the 29 players selected over that time, seven are currently starters and three more are valuable backups or special-teams players. That's not a horrendous ratio, but what stands out is that Mayhew has taken some risks that have not panned out. Young's character issues were well-known in college. The same goes for the concussion history of tailback Jahvid Best. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley is emerging as a playmaker, but not after experiencing some of the maturity issues he displayed in college. Injuries have stunted the growth of safety Louis Delmas, receiver Ryan Broyles and cornerback Dwight Bentley, and Mayhew can't be blamed for those. It should also be noted that 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff appears ready to step in as a starter. But it's clear that after four years of drafting, Mayhew's roster still has some notable holes.
3. Defensive nucleus, Chicago Bears: The Bears laughed off preseason concerns that their best defensive players were too old in a collective sense, and during a 7-1 start, their defensive veterans -- most notably cornerback Charles Tillman and linebacker Lance Briggs -- were the talk of the league. The Bears were also emboldened by the emergence of two younger players, defensive tackle Henry Melton (six sacks) and cornerback Tim Jennings (eight interceptions). But their core has started to break down during a 1-3 stretch. Linebacker Brian Urlacher might miss the rest of the season because of a hamstring injury. Tillman has been dealing with a foot injury and has managed just one forced fumble, his specialty, in that stretch. Briggs has an ankle injury and hasn't caused a turnover in six weeks. Defensive end Julius Peppers, meanwhile, has two sacks in his past five games. The Bears will need to accelerate their restocking efforts this offseason.
1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings tailback: Quite simply, Peterson is having the best season of his Hall of Fame career -- and he still hasn't reached the one-year anniversary of knee reconstruction surgery. He is on pace for 1,928 yards, a total that would put him among the seven-best seasons for a running back in NFL history. Given Peterson's competitiveness, you know he is gunning for a 2,000-yard season and hasn't ruled out the possibility that he could break Eric Dickerson's record of 2,105 yards in 16 games. To do so, he'll need to average 165 yards per game over the Vikings' final four. It sounds impossible, but what about this season has seemed probable for Peterson? He continues to run with power, averaging an NFL-high 3.2 yards per carry after first contact, which is twice the NFL average. Speed? Peterson has a league-leading 17 rushes of more than 20 yards. Only one other NFL player has double-digit runs of that length (C.J. Spiller of the Buffalo Bills).
2. Calvin Johnson, Lions receiver: Somehow, Johnson is on pace to set an NFL record for receiving yards in a season despite playing on an offense where most of the other pass-catching threats have been injured -- and with a running game that hasn't made teams pay for ignoring it. The Lions lead the NFL with 547 passing attempts and rank No. 25 with 295 rushing attempts, and yet Johnson has caught 86 passes for 1,428 yards with four games left to play. It's true that some of those yards have come late in losses, most notably a 207-yard effort in Week 10 against the Vikings. He also has managed only five touchdowns after catching 28 in his previous two seasons combined. But for the most part, Johnson is one of the few Lions players who has maintained his performance level from last year's 10-6 team.
3. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers linebacker: Yes, I know Matthews has missed the Packers' last three games because of a hamstring injury. But hopefully those three games have generated a better appreciation for his impact on the defense. The obvious concern was making up for his pass rush, but I think you've seen how important Matthews' tackling in the run game and overall playmaking is. At the time he was injured, opponents were converting 34.9 percent of third-down opportunities. Since then, they are 46.1 percent. It's also worth noting that the Packers have given up two of their three biggest games against the run with Matthews sidelined. Overall, opponents have racked up 457 rushing yards in those three games -- at 5.5 yards per rush. If you didn't know it before, you should agree that Matthews is more than a pass-rusher.