NFC North Stock Watch


1. My ability to defend the Detroit Lions' aggression: Nothing that happened Sunday at Soldier Field will change the emerging national narrative of the Lions as a dirty team. And in all fairness, it's getting harder and harder to split hairs in explaining the difference between tough and dirty as it relates to their play. Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said the Lions play to the "echo" of the whistle, and that's a fair and accurate way to describe it from a technical standpoint. But visuals of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ripping off Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's helmet, and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford slinging the Bears' D.J. Moore to the ground by his helmet, carry far more weight in the court of public opinion. Monday, coach Jim Schwartz asked why no one was calling the hit by Bears defensive end Julius Peppers on receiver Calvin Johnson dirty. It was a "clothesline right in the neck area," Schwartz said. Technically, Schwartz is right. But the volume of instances the Lions have produced this season, explainable or otherwise, is reaching critical mass.

2. Minnesota Vikings' competitiveness vs. Green Bay Packers: The Packers are supposed to be the Vikings' top rivals, but the Vikings have produced a number of complete clunkers against them in recent years. They lost 45-7 Monday night, absorbed a 31-3 loss at home in 2010 and were embarrassed 34-0 at Lambeau Field in 2007. We should give the Packers some credit for their performances in those games, but on each occasion the Vikings seemed mentally disengaged from the start. Monday night's game seemed over as soon as the Packers' Randall Cobb returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown -- with all of 1 minute, 18 seconds gone in the game. NFL teams have to show up 16 days a year. For some reason, the Vikings are habitually missing that train against a division rival.

3. Remi Ayodele, Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle: Although he has not been seeing much playing time, Ayodele had started the Vikings' first eight games as the free-agent replacement for nose tackle Pat Williams. In those eight games, Ayodele was unofficially credited with two tackles. The Vikings finally replaced him in the starting lineup Monday night with rookie Christian Ballard, who is a better pass-rusher. Ayodele isn't the reason why the Vikings are 2-7, but he has to qualify as one of the least productive free-agent acquisitions in recent memory. He signed a three-year, $9 million deal that includes $4.25 million in 2011 compensation.


1. Canton credentials for Devin Hester, Chicago Bears returner: Hester is one return away from tying the NFL record for touchdown returns of 19, set by Deion Sanders. He has reached that precipice in less than half the career games it took Sanders and, at 29, would seem to have a number of highly productive years remaining in his career. It's reasonable to believe he'll not just break Sanders' record but ultimately crush it. So if Hester's career arc rises so high above the best returners in NFL history, it would be hard for Hall of Fame voters to ignore him. Here's the way Urlacher put it Monday: "He's the greatest of all time at what he does, and in my opinion, when you're the greatest of all time at your position you should be in the Hall of Fame. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my opinion."

2. Dom Capers, Packers defensive coordinator: We don't have a recording of every word he spoke last week, but we can assume that Capers took cornerback Charles Woodson's blunt assessment of the Packers defense in stride. Capers started coaching four years before Woodson was born, but you're never too experienced to tune out constructive criticism. We'll never know what Capers would have done Monday night had Woodson not spoken out, but he certainly reinforced his reputation as a flexible manager by turning loose his players on the blitz. "That's the great thing about Dom," Woodson said. "You can talk to him. Tell him what's on your mind. Tell him what you think."

3. Bears competitiveness in the NFC North: After watching the Packers' three-phase romp Monday night, it's hard to conceive them not winning the division. But of all the teams remaining on their schedule, the Bears might be the most formidable. One way to stop a high-flying offense is to hit it in the proverbial mouth and then capitalize on mistakes. One of the few things the Vikings did to the Packers was put pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was sacked three times and was forced to scramble away from pressure on six other plays. The Bears can put the same kind of pressure on Rodgers and are better equipped to take advantage of that situation. We'll see if the teams' Week 16 matchup carries any postseason implications.