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Smith says Bears still control playoff hopes

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Smith says Bears still control playoff hopes

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) Coach Lovie Smith realizes the Chicago Bears no longer control their fate in the NFC North. Their playoff hopes still are in their hands, though.

That's something Smith emphasized Monday on the heels of an ugly loss at Minnesota that knocked the Bears (8-5) out of first place in the division. They've dropped four of five and are free falling for the second straight year with Green Bay coming to Soldier Field this weekend.

If the Packers (9-4) win, they clinch the division and a wild card is no sure thing for Chicago. The Bears were sixth in the NFC after Sunday's loss, with Washington, Dallas and Minnesota a game behind them.

``We need a little bit of help as far as the division is concerned,'' Smith said. ``But we do control our playoff hopes. That's what we have to lay everything we do right now on, to just play better football.''

That's something the Bears haven't done since they racked up 51 points in a win at Tennessee on Nov. 4. They were 7-1 after that game, but the schedule took a tougher turn with back-to-back losses against Houston and San Francisco that started this slide.

It lightens up after this week with games against Arizona and Detroit to close the season, although both are on the road. The Bears could get into the playoffs with fewer than 11 wins, but it might come down to tiebreakers.

``The pressure we're feeling right now is on our performances,'' Smith said. ``Improving, it's on us. We talked about someone else controlling the division, but what happens to us, it doesn't' really matter about the teams ahead of us or the teams behind us right now. It's just what we do. We're not looking at that at all. ... We have the Packers coming in and that's enough right there for all of our thoughts to just go on them.''

The recent skid has only fueled the notion that the early run had as much to do with who the Bears were playing as it did with how good they are.

It's also sparked memories of last year's collapse and renewed speculation about Smith's future. He was spared at the end of last season while then-general manager Jerry Angelo got the ax, after the Bears went from 7-3 to finishing at 8-8.

New GM Phil Emery had a mandate to keep the coach for this season, but beyond that?

``I think every day I've been here, each day I think all of us come to work we're going to do the best job we possibly can,'' said Smith, who's signed through 2013. ``All of our futures are tied. It's all based on wins and losses, really, and I'm OK with that.''

The Bears have lost all the momentum they had in the early going, just as they did after Cutler broke his right thumb last season.

He was unable to finish the game against Houston because of a concussion and missed the next game at San Francisco. Against Minnesota, Cutler had to leave in the fourth quarter because of a sore neck.

Cutler took a hit to the head by Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen that drew a penalty, but he said afterward his neck was bothering him all afternoon and worsened as the game went on. Cutler finished that drive before Jason Campbell took over, but he doesn't expect to miss any more time.

He said Monday during his weekly appearance on the ``Waddle & Silvy Show'' on Chicago's WMVP-AM 1000 that ``unless something drastic happens, absolutely'' he will be ready to play against the Packers.

Kicker Robbie Gould also strained his left calf during warmups. He did handle extra points and an onside kick but ceded kickoff duties to punter Adam Podlesh. The Bears did not attempt any field goals, so it's not clear if Gould or Podlesh would have handled them. Smith did not rule out bringing in kickers for tryouts this week in case Gould isn't ready.

The Bears could point to a long list of injuries in recent weeks, with Brian Urlacher (hamstring) possibly out for the remainder of the season and cornerback Tim Jennings (shoulder) sidelined against Minnesota. But that only partially explains the poor execution on both sides of the ball, the lack of big plays on defense.

They were supposed to be built to weather them, anyway. And at the moment, the Packers are rolling despite a run of injuries that would have derailed most teams.

``Right now we just have to win out,'' receiver Brandon Marshall said after the loss at Minnesota. ``It doesn't matter. Forget the Xs and Os, forget the first 11, 12 games of the season. All of that doesn't matter at this point. We have the guys in this locker room that can get it done and we have to get it done.''

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Peter King awards Lamar Jackson with weekly honor for NFL start vs. Bengals

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Peter King awards Lamar Jackson with weekly honor for NFL start vs. Bengals

The Baltimore Ravens couldn't have drawn up a better NFL start for rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. 

With the weight of keeping his team in playoff contention against a division rival that crushed those hopes less than a year ago firmly on his shoulders, Jackson stepped onto the field at M&T Bank Stadium and not only got the win, but set records along the way.

The 21-year-old's performance caught the attention of local and national pundits, earning him one of two Offensive Players of the Week honors in Peter Kings' Football Morning in America.

In the 24-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the first-round draft pick was 13-of-19 for 150 yards in the air while rushing for 117 yards on 27 attempts.

Those 117 rushing yards were the second-most by a rookie quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger with 46 of them on the Ravens' opening drive alone. Coincidentally, Robert Griffin III holds the record for most rushing yards by a rookie QB with 138 back in October of 2012 with the Redskins.

His speed was an issue all afternoon for the Bengals as well. Jackson is so fast that according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Jackson reached 15+ mph on 14 rushing attempts. No other player has hit 15+ mph on more than nine rushing attempts this season. 

"The way he bounced back and his composure," safety Eric Weddle told reporters after the game on what impressed him about Jackson's performance.

"He threw that pick [to start the second half], and what did he do next drive? He went down and scored. And it was like nothing happened and you can't teach that. It's something that you see in him, he's very even-keeled, cool calm and collected...that's what impressed me. His physical ability and the way he plays; we see it everyday so I expect him to play like that. But just to overcome some adversity early on in his first start and to come back and lead a huge drive and make some big plays...I just think his composure."

Now the Heisman Trophy winner will have to maintain that same composure when the Oakland Raiders come to town in what will likely be his second NFL start.

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NHL Power Rankings: What a difference Tom Wilson makes

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USA TODAY Sports

NHL Power Rankings: What a difference Tom Wilson makes

If I told you the Caps would lose Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie on the current road trip and win at least two of their four games, you would probably take that.

Well, on Monday, Washington has a chance to grab three out of four wins on their road trip in a stretch that feels like it could be a turning point on a sluggish start to the season.

At 9-7-3, there’s no question the Caps were hoping for a better start to the season considering all the players they had coming back. Having said that, given all the challenges they have faced to start the season (Tom Wilson’s suspension, all the injuries), first year head coach Todd Reirden has done a decent job to get the team to this point.

Now a quarter of the way in, however, it’s time to pick things up and make a run.

SEE THIS WEEKS’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

Here are a few observations from the past week:

  • What a difference Wilson makes. The Caps look like a completely different team with him in the lineup. When he first started playing on the top line last season, he looked a bit out of place, but that’s definitely no longer the case. He adds so much more than just physicality. He is a good skater, wins board battles and has the offensive and defensive ability to make that top line defensively balanced while still being so dangerous offensively. Not only does he look tremendous on the top line, but the Caps also really struggle to fill his spot in the lineup when he’s out. If you still think he’s nothing more than a goon, you’re just not paying attention to all the positives he brings to the lineup.
  • The Caps have found a backup goalie. I have gone back and forth on Pheonix Copley, but there’s no denying how well he has played when the team needed him the most. He looked great in the preseason, shaky to start, but he has gotten better with each game. With Holtby’s injury, Copley was forced to start three road games in four days and he provided solid, strong goaltending. In seven appearances this season, Copley has a 2.65 GAA, .908 save percentage and, most importantly, a record of 4-2-1. He is not nearly as smooth a goalie as Holtby, but he has great size which he uses to his advantage specifically down low. He has also looked great on breakaways and odd-man rushes. The question of backup goaltending now looks officially settled.
  • This isn’t the first time we’ve seen John Carlson with Dmitry Orlov as a pair. They played a few games together at the start of last season and they looked horrible together. Putting Orlov with Matt Niskanen and Carlson with Michal Kempny provides much more balanced pairings, but it just wasn’t working this season. Interestingly enough, all four players have looked better the last few games since switching it up. Perhaps the pairs had gotten stale and they just needed time apart, but for now the switch is working.
  • Madison Bowey may be the most improved player on the roster this season and is playing with a lot more confidence on both ends of the ice. That first NHL goal is coming.

How improved the Caps look with Wilson back plus how the team banded together in the wake of so many significant injuries gave them a boost this week.

FIND OUT WHERE THEY LAND IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS

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