The lasting image from the Bears’ trip to San Francisco was 49ers defensive end Aldon Smith running amok.
And now Chicago’s battered offensive line gets to face Jared Allen, Chad Greenway and the Vikings on Sunday at Soldier Field.
No, Minnesota (6-4) is not in San Francisco’s class for creating mayhem with a physically imposing defense. But the way the Bears (7-3) are blocking — make that NOT blocking — for their quarterbacks, just about any team will be a major challenge, whether it’s Jay Cutler back from a concussion, or backup Jason Campbell on the field.
“You’re going to play a great team on their home field, a place that we’ve struggled at,” Greenway said. “But this is a new year, a new team. And I think we’re going to have a focus going in there that we’re going to give ourselves a chance.
“It’s going to take our best effort. It’s going to take our best game of the year to win out there this week.”
To get that win, the Vikings figure to emphasize their ace, Adrian Peterson, and the running game, while fitting in throws to Percy Harvin, who also is having a strong season. They must be careful not to fall victim to Chicago’s ball-hawking defense, which did little against the 49ers, but otherwise has been brilliant. The Bears have seven interception returns for TDs and have forced 30 turnovers, the most in the league.
The Vikings don’t get many takeaways, but they can get after quarterbacks. Allen has 13 sacks in eight games against the Bears, including 3 1/2 in last year’s season finale.
Whichever defense sets the tone figures to swing things in its team’s direction.
On Thanksgiving Day, it’s Houston at Detroit and Washington at Dallas in the traditional games, then New England at the New York Jets at night.
Also Sunday, it’s San Francisco at New Orleans; Green Bay at the New York Giants; Atlanta at Tampa Bay; Baltimore at San Diego; Pittsburgh at Cleveland; Denver at Kansas City; Seattle at Miami; Buffalo at Indianapolis; Oakland at Cincinnati; Tennessee at Jacksonville; and St. Louis at Arizona.
The Monday night game has Carolina at Philadelphia.
Houston (9-1) at Detroit (4-6)
After escaping in overtime against Jacksonville, the Texans find themselves as the only team that can clinch a playoff berth in Week 12. A win and losses by the Titans, Dolphins, Jets, Bengals and either the Chargers or Steelers will do it. Got it?
Matt Schaub completed 43 passes for 527 yards, both totals tying for second most in NFL history, and threw for a team-record five TDs against the Jaguars. Andre Johnson had a career-high 273 yards receiving.
Houston never has been 9-1 and has four straight victories overall. It’s also 4-0 on the road.
“It shows the progress we’ve made,” said tight end Owen Daniels, who has been with the franchise for seven of its 11 years of existence. “A few years ago, it took us until the end of the season to get that ninth win. We’re at that ninth win already.”
Detroit is at a point where even one defeat likely ends its playoff hopes.
Washington (4-6) at Dallas (5-5)
One of the NFL’s great rivalries is renewed, but it hasn’t been much of a contest on the holiday. Dallas is 6-0 vs. Washington on Thanksgiving Day. It also has won three in a row and six of seven in the series overall.
It has not faced outstanding rookie QB Robert Griffin III yet, though. Griffin’s all-around play makes the Redskins dangerous with the ball, and he was 14 for 15 in a win over the Eagles last week, becoming the first rookie with 200 yards and four TDs passing and 75 yards rushing in the same game.
“It will be fun. I’ll see a lot of familiar faces,” said Griffin, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2011 at Baylor. “It’s Cowboys-Redskins or Redskins-Cowboys, whatever way you want to put it. Me being a Texas kid, I know how big the rivalry is and I get my fair shot at it.”
New England (7-3) at New York Jets (4-6)
Bill Belichick can get his 200th career victory if the Patriots win their fifth in a row. He’d be the eighth coach to reach that level, but New England must do it without star tight end Rob Gronkowski, out with a broken forearm.
“New England is so multiple, they give you sometimes it could be four wides, five wides, could be a bunch of tight ends and all that,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “So, we’ll see as the game goes how (Gronkowski’s offense) affects them.”
A victory also pretty much decides the AFC East, not that anyone really expects the Jets, Dolphins or Bills to catch New England.
San Francisco (7-2-1) at New Orleans (5-5)
As intriguing as any game on the schedule for many reasons.
The 49ers could get back quarterback Alex Smith from a concussion, but with the way Colin Kaepernick performed in a rout of the Bears on Monday night, it’s uncertain who will get the call from coach Jim Harbaugh.
Regardless, it’s the San Francisco defense that could decide things. If the 49ers can put pressure on Drew Brees and the increasingly dynamic Saints offense — Aldon Smith leads the NFL with 15 sacks — they could control matters. But New Orleans has won three straight and five of six, and Brees could become the third player with 30 TD passes in five seasons.
Green Bay (7-3) at New York Giants (6-4)
The last time they met, New York eliminated a 16-1 Packers team from the playoffs. At Lambeau Field.
The Giants will need to rekindle the overwhelming pass rush that was decisive in that game, plus get Eli Manning back on track. He’s struggled the last two weeks, both losses, and hasn’t played particularly well in a month. A better running game also would help him.
Green Bay, though, has five straight victories and is tied with Chicago atop the NFC North. In his past seven games, Aaron Rodgers has 24 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 117 QB rating. There’s a chance he could get back top receiver Greg Jennings from a torn abdominal muscle, too.
Atlanta (9-1) at Tampa Bay (6-4)
Atlanta lost for the first time two weeks ago, then needed to rally to beat Arizona. The Falcons have won six of the past seven meetings with the Bucs, but those were different Tampa teams. This one is as potent on offense as, well, Atlanta.
Buccaneers rookie Doug Martin already has rushed for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Their rookie running back has had some really explosive games,” Smith said. “It will be a challenge for us.”
But covering Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez will be a huge challenge for the Bucs.
Baltimore (8-2) at San Diego (4-6)
The Ravens will have star safety Ed Reed as they seek their fourth successive victory and eighth in nine games. His one-game suspension for illegal hits was overturned on appeal and instead he was fined $50,000.
Reed and the Baltimore defense haven’t played close to the level of previous standards, but did have a strong performance in taking charge of the AFC North last week at Pittsburgh.
San Diego, loser of five of its last six, leads the NFL in throwing interceptions (14) as Philip Rivers struggles without much supporting talent compared to previous years.
Pittsburgh (6-4) at Cleveland (2-8)
Plax is back in Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, the addition of wideout Plaxico Burress, who was without a team all season, doesn’t offset the slew of injuries on offense. Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder, ribs), Antonio Brown (ankle), Jerricho Cotchery (ribs) and Byron Leftwich (ribs) have been sidelined, but Brown could return in Cleveland.
Fortunately for the Steelers, they have a trio of hefty running backs who have come through in Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman.
The Browns blew a 13-0 lead in Dallas last Sunday, another sign of their inexperience. They do play hard for coach Pat Shurmur, who is trying to save his job.
Denver (7-3) at Kansas City (1-9)
The Broncos have won five straight and have their sights on running the table, perhaps grabbing home-field advantage for a portion of the AFC playoffs, if not for the whole thing. Peyton Manning needs one victory, something he’s likely to get against the collapsing Chiefs who have dropped seven in a row, to have the second most by a starter in league history. He would move ahead of his current boss, John Elway.
Manning is directing a precise offense, but Denver lost leading rusher Willis McGahee to a right knee injury. The Broncos’ defense is getting superb play from Von Miller, who had three sacks last week for 13 this year.
KC leads the NFL in turnovers with 31 and has a minus-21 differential. Denver’s minus-3 pales in comparison.
Seattle (6-4) at Miami (4-6)
One game after beating his former player at Southern Cal, Jets QB Mark Sanchez, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll goes against one of his Heisman Trophy winners, Reggie Bush. Well, Bush did win the Heisman, but gave it back after he was found guilty of NCAA violations.
Seattle’s defense gets better and more physical each week, something Bush figures to learn Sunday. Bush has totaled 41 yards rushing over the past two games, part of a three-game skid, and even was benched in that span.
Buffalo (4-6) at Indianapolis (6-4)
Were the Colts exposed at New England last Sunday in their 59-24 defeat, or was it simply a case of Indy not being able to play with the big boys yet?
“Once you sit down and watch the film, the critiquing and the criticism, and once that happens, you sort of flush it and realize it’s on to the next one,” Andrew Luck said. “If this was the last one of the season and you’re done, it would sting a lot more.”
Luck has five 300-yard passing games to set an NFL mark by a rookie. His 2,965 yards passing are the most by an NFL rookie through 10 games.
Buffalo’s defense awakened in a 19-14 victory against Miami, but still ranks 27th overall.
Oakland (3-7) at Cincinnati (5-5)
With two consecutive victories, the Bengals have revitalized their season. A schedule that includes San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia after the Raiders has them salivating about their chances of making the postseason. Receiver A. J. Green has TD catches in nine straight games.
Oakland, loser of three in a row, has former Bengals QB Carson Palmer, the first overall draft pick in 2003 who still holds Cincinnati marks for career completion percentage (62.9) and passer rating (86.9). It will be Palmer’s first time facing the Bengals since he forced a trade to Oakland last year for a first-round and second-round pick.
Carolina (2-8) at Philadelphia (3-7), Monday night
No, the NFL can’t flex games to the prime-time broadcast on Mondays, so viewers are stuck with two of the league’s biggest flops.
Carolina thought it would build off Cam Newton’s sensational rookie season, but instead of sizzling it has fizzled.
No worse than the Eagles, though. Expected to be championship contenders, they have fallen apart, with sloppy play everywhere, particularly on the offensive line, in the secondary and at quarterback, where rookie Nick Foles could again get the nod ahead of Michael Vick, who is recovering from a concussion.
Tennessee (4-6) at Jacksonville (1-9)
Jacksonville had powerful Houston in trouble last Sunday, but couldn’t put away the game. The 37 points for the Jaguars in that loss brought their season total to a measly 164. They will go with Chad Henne at quarterback with second-year starter Blaine Gabbert on injured reserve.
It looks like the Titans have fixed some of their defensive woes, and they come off a bye that followed a 37-3 romp in Miami, their best performance all season. Before that came their worst, a 51-20 thrashing at the hands of the Bears.
St. Louis (3-6-1) at Arizona (4-6)
Arizona was 4-0 when it journeyed to St. Louis and was beaten 17-3. Things have been downright ugly since for the Cardinals, who can’t score, can’t decide on a quarterback, and struggle against the run. A defense expected to excel has disappointed.
The Rams are maddeningly inconsistent, following a tie at mighty San Francisco — a game they should have won — with a flop against the Jets. Look for a steady diet of runs by Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson.
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