1. Margin of error in Green Bay: Given their list of injuries to prominent players, the Packers probably are fortunate to remain in playoff contention at 8-6. None of their losses this season have come by more than four points, and their total margin of those six defeats is 20 points. But there is no longer any wiggle room. The Packers will be eliminated from the playoffs if they lose Sunday to the New York Giants. They need victories in their final two games to ensure a wild-card berth. Given the unpredictable nature of an NFL season, all any team can hope for is to be in this position. There is no sense lamenting how injury-free the Chicago Bears were on the way to their division title. The Packers have an opportunity and need to capitalize on it.
2. Candid speech in Minnesota: Shortly after he tweeted that the field at TCF Bank Stadium was "unplayable," Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe said he had been asked to stop publicly discussing field conditions. Later, ESPN's Ed Werder reported the Vikings instructed all players to stop criticizing it. To be fair, most private companies would do the same thing. You aren't guaranteed free speech as part of employment, especially if it casts your employer in a poor light. But at the same time, there was a strong sense that NFL and team officials were glossing over potential safety issues with the field by expressing unfounded confidence and revealing only vague details about the preparation process. Muzzling players only added to that suspicion. Why shut them down if there is nothing to hide?
3. Concerns about the Chicago Bears' receivers: We spent a fair amount of time last offseason debating the merits of the Bears' receivers and whether they would overlook the skills of tight end Greg Olsen in the Mike Martz scheme. The Bears kept telling us they considered the sum of the parts to be greater than any one individual, and on cue, they have three wide receivers with 36 or more catches. Johnny Knox is nearly on pace for a 1,000-yard season. Knox, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester each have three touchdown receptions. And while Olsen has been limited to 35 receptions, he has a team-high five touchdowns.
1. Holiday cheer in Oconomowoc, Wis.: We noted Monday that Vikings quarterback Brett Favre wore a towel with a backwards "4" in honor of 5-year-old Anderson Butzine, who has a terminal brain tumor. Favre and his wife, Deanna, visited Butzine's family in suburban Milwaukee last Friday. If you haven't already, take a few minutes to watch this homemade video of Favre's visit. No matter what you might think of Favre, the impact of his visit is undeniable. If you're interested in more of Butzine's story, be sure to check out his CaringBridge page. And then be sure to give your children an extra hug today.
2. Lovie Smith, Chicago Bears coach: Last winter, there were suggestions that the Bears would have fired Smith were it not for the $11 million buyout on his contract. This winter, he's the top coach in the NFC North. Smith has been described by detractors as tone-deaf to the realities of the world around him, but that proved to be an attribute for this season. Even if it was misplaced, Smith's genuine confidence in this Bears team helped everyone tune out the near-universal expectations for an all-out collapse in 2010. Sometimes, insulation helps.
3. Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions defensive tackle: Although he hasn't had a sack in three games, Suh continues to have a precedent-setting season. In an ESPN Insider piece this week, Vince Verhei of Football Outsiders suggests Suh is having the best rookie season of a defensive tackle in at least 13 years. Football Outsiders measures defensive tackles partly with a metric known as "defeats" -- the sum of plays that result in a loss of yardage, turnover and/or a stop on third or fourth down. Suh has 25 defeats this season, two more than Shaun Rogers had for the Lions in 2001. I think we all know Suh is having a great season, but this analysis helps us put it in some historical context.