Final Word: NFC North

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Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 7:

With cornerback Antoine Winfield (foot) likely sidelined, Minnesota flatly needs to keep Pittsburgh’s offense on the sideline. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine the Vikings' defense keeping up with red-hot quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. You would think Minnesota has a pretty good option for doing just that: A steady diet of tailback Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. Both of Peterson’s 100-yard games this season have come against the AFC North, and he’s accumulated 52 percent of his season yardage total in games against Cleveland and Baltimore. But this week, Peterson will be challenging the NFL’s second-best run defense. The Steelers are giving up an average of 74.5 rushing yards per game. Chicago managed just 44 yards in Week 2, and San Diego finished with a net total of 16 in Week 4. Quarterback Brett Favre has rescued the Vikings in a couple of victories, but it’s hard to imagine them winning Sunday without a big game from Peterson.

There should be an interesting dynamic Sunday between Minnesota’s aggressive pass rush and the ability of Roethlisberger to extend a play. Defensive end Jared Allen has 7.5 sacks through six games, and overall the Vikings’ 21 sacks are tied with Denver for the most among NFL teams. But Roethlisberger is well-known for his ability to create extra time for himself. How good is he? According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, Roethlisberger has a near-perfect passer rating on pass attempts outside of the pocket: 156.3. (The best possible passer rating is 158.3.) That’s the top mark in the NFL for quarterbacks with at least 15 throws. Interestingly, Favre ranks second at 136.7. The average rating for passes outside the pocket among all qualified quarterbacks is 72.5.

Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco had two touchdowns in a 2005 victory over Chicago, and he’s been vocal about his plans to light up the Bears secondary this Sunday. He’ll need to overcome a few obstacles to do that, however. First, the Bears would be crazy not to allow cornerback Charles Tillman to match up on him all day. Tillman has been effective this season in leaving his usual position as the left cornerback and trailing a team’s star receiver. (See his performance Oct. 4 against Detroit’s Calvin Johnson for Example A.) Second, Johnson will have to operate against a defense that is doing a better job this season of limiting opposing pass yardage. The Bears rank No. 16 overall in total passing yardage allowed, but they’re eighth in average yards allowed per pass play (5.42), according to team research.

How hard will -- or should -- Chicago try to establish the run against Cincinnati? The Bengals have done a good job against the run this year, limiting opponents to 96.8 yards per game. The big question will be how effective defensive tackle Tank Johnson can be with a foot injury that forced him to miss two of the past three games. Johnson, the former Bears nose tackle, is the type of big run-stuffer who would seem to be a mismatch for struggling left guard Frank Omiyale. The Bengals are much shakier against the pass, giving up 254.8 yards per game, and the Bears might be tempted to have quarterback Jay Cutler air it out.

This could be the last chance for Green Bay’s current offensive line to get itself straight. Like they did last week against Detroit, you would think the Packers can get by Cleveland regardless of the number of times Aaron Rodgers is sacked. But with a critical division game looming next week against Minnesota looming, the Packers need to see some improvement this Sunday from right tackle Allen Barbre and whoever starts at left tackle -- T.J. Lang or Chad Clifton. Rodgers has been sacked at least four times in four of the Packers’ five games this season. It’s fair to expect a lower number Sunday against the Browns. Penalties need to come down as well. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, the Packers’ offensive line is averaging an NFL-high 23 penalty yards per game this season. If nothing changes, expect to see veteran Mark Tauscher make a bid to start at right tackle against the Vikings.