Josh Sitton

Vikings get to 13-3 for playoff bye by beating Bears 23-10

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Minnesota’s defense turned in another dominant performance and Latavius Murray rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns, helping the Vikings secure a first-round bye for the playoffs with a 23-10 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday.

Stefon Diggs caught six passes for 65 yards and a touchdown for the Vikings (13-3), who reached 13 wins for only the second time in the history of the 57-year-old franchise after holding a second straight opponent without an offensive touchdown.

Mitchell Trubisky finished his rookie season with a turnover-free game, completing 20 of 36 passes for 178 yards. He failed, however, to guide the Bears (5-11) across the goal line despite 11 plays from the 10-yard line or closer in the fourth quarter.

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

Trubisky also took a safety in the second quarter on an intentional grounding call when Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph closed in on a sack in the end zone and he side-armed a throw between the two pass rushers.

In what could have been the final game for coach John Fox, who’s 14-34 in three seasons, the Bears didn’t cross midfield until the fourth quarter and totaled only 30 yards rushing. They were penalized 10 times for 116 yards and went 1 for 14 on third and fourth down conversions.

The Bears are 1-5 against each of their three NFC North foes under Fox.

After a 31-24 loss at Carolina on Dec. 10, the Vikings took advantage of teams playing out the string in the last three games to get set for the playoffs.

Murray has rather quietly been one of their most productive players down the stretch, helping the Vikings move the chains and work the clock while the defense holds the lead.

Over the past two years, only Ezekiel Elliott (22 for Dallas) has more rushing touchdowns in the NFL than Murray (20, including 12 for Oakland last season).

SNEAKY SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bears stopped a streak of 90 minutes and 32 seconds by the Vikings without allowing a score, when Bryce Callahan returned a punt 59 yards for a touchdown with 5:50 left in the second quarter. Callahan knelt near the sideline while Tarik Cohen lined up on the opposite side as the expected returner, before sprinting for a sliding catch of the kick that hung over the middle of the field. He leaped to his feet and veered left past the confused Vikings and untouched for the score.

The Bears pulled a pair of fast ones on the Vikings in their matchup earlier this season, when Benny Cunningham caught a pass from Pat O'Donnell on a fake punt for a 38-yard touchdown and Trubisky scored on a 2-point conversion play when the ball changed hands four times.

VIKINGS RECORD BOOK LOOK

The Vikings finished 12-2 four times with a 14-game schedule (1969, 1970, 1973 and 1975), but the only other time they’ve topped 12 victories was their 15-1 record in 1998. … Diggs became the fastest player in Vikings history to reach 200 receptions, in 40 games. … Adam Thielen had six catches for 61 yards and finished with 91 receptions for 1,276 yards for the season, finishing seventh and ninth in team history. Randy Moss and Cris Carter are the only ones ahead on either list.

LINE SHUFFLE

Vikings quarterback Case Keenum took his share of hits and never quite found the rhythm in the passing attack he was able to establish in most of his starts this season, behind an offensive line that has shown some wear down the stretch as the injury list has increased.

Joe Berger, who switched from right guard to center with Pat Elflein shelved for a shoulder injury for the second time in four weeks, was the only original starter to play in all 16 games. Mike Remmers moved from right tackle into Berger’s spot. Jeremiah Sirles started at left guard for Nick Easton, who will miss the playoffs because of a broken ankle.

INJURY REPORT

Bears: Two starting offensive linemen, LT Bobby Massie and RG Josh Sitton, did not suit up.

Vikings: FB C.J. Ham hurt his neck and was ruled out early in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

The Vikings enter the NFC playoffs with a bye for only the fourth time since the current format began in 1990. They’ll host one of the wild-card round winners on Jan. 13 or 14.

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Browns move to brink of winless season, lose 20-3 to Bears

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CHICAGO (AP) The Cleveland Browns got pushed to the brink of a winless season, hurt by two more interceptions by DeShone Kizer and two turnovers in the red zone on the way to a 20-3 loss to the Chicago Bears on a snowy Sunday.

One more loss and the Browns will join the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams to go 0-16.

And the Browns will wrap up the season at AFC North leader Pittsburgh next week.

Then again, the Browns (0-15) keep racking up losses no matter whom they’re playing.

They’re 1-30 in two seasons under coach Hue Jackson. And after beating the then-San Diego Chargers on Christmas Eve last year, there was no holiday celebration for them this time.

Kizer threw for 182 yards and ran his league leading-interception total to 21. One of those was to a wide-open Kyle Fuller in the end zone in the second quarter.

Defensive end Myles Garrett had what looked like a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter wiped out because Carl Nassib was offside.

Rashard Higgins lost a fumble near the goal line that Chicago (5-10) recovered in the end zone.

Mitchell Trubisky threw for 193 yards and ran for a touchdown against his hometown team to help the Bears pick up the win in what might be coach John Fox’s final home game at Soldier Field. With a 14-33 record, he could be on his way out after three seasons.

The Bears at least avoided the ultimate indignity in a season full of them by not losing to the Browns.

Trubisky, who grew up near Cleveland, played a big role, completing 14 of 23 passes. He also scrambled for 44 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

Jordan Howard ran for two scores, and the Bears came away with the win after dropping six of seven.

The Bears were leading 6-3 when Garrett had his big interception return wiped on the first play from scrimmage in the third. And the Bears drove 60 yards on four plays, with Howard scoring from the 16.

Trubisky made it 20-3 when he scored on a 4-yard draw. That capped a 12-play drive that Howard kept going with his 8-yard run on fourth-and-1 at the 15.

Danny Trevathan then stripped Higgins at the Chicago 3 after a 17-yard reception near the end of the quarter, and the Bears’ Prince Amukamara recovered the fumble in the end zone.

INJURY REPORT

Browns: DE Myles Garrett got poked in the eye on the first play of the fourth quarter but returned to the game.

Bears: RT Bobby Massie suffered a knee injury in the first quarter and played through it. … G Josh Sitton (ankle) and TE Adam Shaheen (chest) were inactive.

UP NEXT

Browns: At Pittsburgh on Dec. 31.

Bears: At Minnesota on Dec. 31.

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Saving the Packers

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It seemed reasonable to expect the Green Bay Packers to have one of the best offenses in the NFL this year. Jordy Nelson‘s August ACL tear hurt their prospects, but they still had Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Eddie Lacy, and one of the league’s better offensive lines. Instead, they have been shockingly mediocre. What do the numbers suggest, and is there any reason to expect the Packers to be better in Week 17 against the Minnesota Vikings and in their playoff game the following week?

The Trend Is Discouraging

There is no doubt their Week 16 offensive performance against the Arizona Cardinals was miserable. By DVOA, Football Outsiders’ play-by-play metric that adjusts for game situation and opponent quality, it was the second-worst of Rodgers’ tenure as the Packers’ starter. Only his three-interception performance in Tampa back in 2008, in his first season as a starter, is worse, and just barely (minus-56.2 percent versus minus-55.2 percent).

If that was just a one-off, we could write it off. It was not. The Packers have posted a below-average DVOA on offense in four of their past five games. Coach Mike McCarthy taking the play-calling reins back from offensive coordinator Tom Clements worked against Dallas, but not against Oakland and certainly not last week.

Some week-to-week variation is to be expected, but Green Bay’s three best offensive performances of the season by DVOA came in Weeks 1, 2, and 3. Since then, they are 21st in DVOA, just ahead of the Browns (minus-6.3 percent compared to minus-7.2 percent). This is not the company the Packers expected to be keeping.

Offensive Line Issues Are Part of the Problem

In 2014, the Packers had an excellent, consistent offensive line. From left to right, David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Corey LinsleyT.J. Lang, and Bryan Bulaga started 79 of 80 games. All five returned, but not for every game. Sitton is the only one with 15 starts, and he has been worse than his near-flawless performance last year (0.0 blown pass blocks per Football Outsiders’ charting). The others have all missed time, and Green Bay’s offensive line depth has not been up to the challenge.

The line issues have shown up in both the run and pass games. It seemed like Rodgers turned a corner in 2014, going from a quarterback sacked more than most to one adept at avoiding sacks. His adjusted sack rate, which accounts for down and distance and opponent was just 5.3 percent last year and is 7.3 percent this year. By offensive line yards, which attempt to account for the distribution of yards between the back and the line, they went from a top-eight unit the past two seasons to 22nd. That includes fifth-worst in stuffs, those runs for no gain or a loss.

Receiving Depth Was Tested and Flunked

The loss of Nelson was potentially devastating because Rodgers was extraordinarily reliant on just two receivers last year, both by volume and for big plays. Both Nelson and Cobb caught over 90 passes and did so with great efficiency. Cobb ranked first in DVOA last year, while Nelson was eighth. No other Packers receiver or tight end came out better than average.

The story is similar this year. James Jones, reunited with Rodgers after the Giants cut him, is the only Packers wide receiver or tight end with a DVOA better than 0.0 percent on 25 or more targets. Green Bay’s young players have not developed the same rapport with Rodgers as Cobb and Nelson.

Davante Adams, praised to the skies by Rodgers in the offseason, ranks next-to-last in DVOA among qualifying receivers. The other young player who saw a big uptick in his role, tight end Richard Rodgers, is merely below average.

The more puzzling case is Cobb, who is below average by DVOA after he topped the league last year. His yards per catch have fallen from 14.1 to 10.8. Some decline in his YAC was expected; he had a number of long touchdowns last year, more than was sustainable. But Rodgers has found him more than 20 yards downfield on just six targets this year, even on one of his customary extended plays.

Cobb has seen his usage change. In 2014, he was largely a short-area receiver, with 38 percent of his targets between one and five yards downfield and was rarely targeted at or behind the line of scrimmage. This year, his distribution is much more even, with between 23 and 32 targets at or behind the line of scrimmage, from 1-5, 6-10, and 11-15 yards downfield. That looks a lot more like how Nelson was targeted last year. But as good as Cobb is, he is not Nelson, and trying to force him to be him has not worked and might have taken Cobb away from what he does best.

What Can Be Done?

McCarthy took back play-calling duties because he wanted the offense to work differently. The Packers have tried to run the ball more since, but they haven’t had much success outside of the Dallas game. Yes, Lacy and James Starks have been part of the problem, or at least not the answer. Both have been efficient receivers this year, though, and a pass game oriented more towards the backs and short passes could be more successful than the receiver-driven offense McCarthy has preferred. It is too late to make major changes, though, so only incremental modifications are likely. Green Bay’s best chance to realize the promise of their 6-0 start is to rely on Rodgers’ improvisational ability and a defense that outside of the Broncos game has played at least reasonably well.