NFC North Stock Watch


1. Certainty in the short term, Chicago Bears: Their season derailed by injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and tailback Matt Forte, you wonder if the Bears are approaching the end of days for their nucleus of the past eight years or so. Already, they have bid farewell to center Olin Kreutz, tight end Desmond Clark, tight end Greg Olsen and defensive tackle Tommie Harris. Linebacker Lance Briggs asked for a trade last summer. Will the Bears oblige him this winter? Will they start over on offense (again) by replacing offensive coordinator Mike Martz? And is there any chance that general manager Jerry Angelo, 62, will retire this winter, as rumored? Those questions are at least fair game at this point.

2. Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: Sunday's turnover-riddled performance was one of the worst for an NFL quarterback in the last four seasons, according to the Total Quarterback Rating system. Above all else, Ponder carried with him into the draft a reputation for smart play and solid decision-making. There are typically a combination of factors that go into a stretch of turnovers, and that includes a lack of playmakers surrounding the quarterback. But there is no defending some of the mistakes Ponder has made. He was dealing with a hip pointer last week, but for his sake I hope he is able to play Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. The Vikings need to see him bounce back from the inevitable adversity rookie quarterbacks face.

3. Left tackle confidence, Green Bay Packers: The decision to rotate Marshall Newhouse and rookie Derek Sherrod makes me nervous. Perhaps it was too much to expect Newhouse, the final pick of the fifth round in the 2010 draft, to be able to hold down the position indefinitely while starter Chad Clifton recovered from a hamstring injury. Newhouse doesn't fit the pedigree of an NFL left tackle. He's 6-foot-4, and fair or not, starting-quality left tackles aren't usually available late in the fifth round. Sherrod, on the other hand, is of classic left tackle size and was the Packers' first-round pick in 2011. If anyone projects as Clifton's long-term replacement, it's Sherrod. But I hate seeing a playoff team's left tackle position unsettled in Week 15. That's asking for trouble.


1. Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions defensive end: I wonder how many people outside the NFC North realize that Avril -- and not Kyle Vanden Bosch or Ndamukong Suh -- leads the Lions in sacks. Avril added two more to his season total Sunday against the Vikings and now has a career-high nine through 13 games. Avril has also forced six fumbles, a figure that is tied with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs for the NFL lead. As we discussed Monday, Avril has made himself some money this season. The only question is whether the Lions will be the ones writing the check next year.

2. Moment of truth for Packers receiver Jordy Nelson: The caveat has followed Nelson this season, even as he has caught 51 passes for average of 18.8 yards and scored a team-high 10 touchdowns. He has been beating favorable coverage, the theory goes, after opponents prioritize receiver Greg Jennings and tight end Jermichael Finley. That might have been the case for some of Nelson's big plays this season, but now we'll get an opportunity to see what Nelson can do against what figures to be more attention from opponents as Jennings recovers from a sprained knee. The guess here is that Nelson won't miss a beat.

3. Detroit Lions: They have absorbed more than their share of national criticism this year, but the Lions are also deserving of some significant big-picture praise. Sunday's victory over the Minnesota Vikings, as nail-biting as it was, ensured the franchise its first non-losing season in a decade. Their next victory would be their first winning season since they finished 9-7 in 2000. In all reality, 9-7 represents the high point of what most national observers thought possible for this team. For as hard a time as I've given coach Jim Schwartz this season, he would deserve a special award -- Coach of the Past Three Years -- for turning out a winning record so quickly after the 0-16 disaster of 2008.