Moon: NFC North is the Bears' division to lose

914199.png

Moon: NFC North is the Bears' division to lose

With the Minnesota Vikings (5-3) losing Thursday night, the Bears have a chance to establish at two-game lead in the NFC North on the Vikings, losers of two of their last three, playing well in none of the three and giving up 36 points in each of the two losses.

The Green Bay Packers (4-3) have the Jacksonville Jaguars in Lambeau Field. Even with top receivers (Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson) hurting, the Packers should win their third straight easily.

Detroit (2-4) has Seattle (4-3) in Ford Field in a game that could exacerbate the growing pressure on Lions coach Jim Schwartz, in danger of spiraling to his third losing season in four.

The Bears and Atlanta Falcons are the only NFL teams on streaks of at least four wins; Atlantas is at six with the undefeated start and is at Philadelphia. Even though it will be another two months before it matters, if the Bears win and Falcons lose, the Bears will hold the No. 1 seed in the NFC by virtue of a 4-1 conference mark to Atlantas 2-1.

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez preaches modesty amid team's positive start

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez preaches modesty amid team's positive start

It’s amazing the difference a year has made for the Chicago Fire.

At this time last year the Fire were coming off having the worst record in Major League Soccer and looked headed to another year at the bottom. The team’s attack was toothless when David Accam was injured and any early optimism in the first year for general manager Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic waned.

In the first of three organized meetings with reporters last year, Rodriguez admitted the team’s record wasn’t good enough and preached patience. Things didn’t get much better for the Fire, which finished last for the second year in a row.

This offseason, Rodriguez made a number of big moves and the early returns are positive on most of them. Dax McCarty has vastly improved the team’s midfield and possession play, with goalkeeper Matt Lampson calling him the team’s MVP after practice on Tuesday. Nemanja Nikolic leads the league in goals, something unthinkable in the first half of last year when the Fire struggled to get one or two shots on target, let alone goals, during a match. Bastian Schweinsteiger is the big name player fans have been waiting years for and he has delivered on the $5.4 million price tag.

When Rodriguez fielded questions from reporters for an hour on Tuesday, the Fire had the third most points in Major League Soccer. He could have referenced the patience he called for a year ago and boasted about the vindication. Instead, he said, as coach Veljko Paunovic did in the past week, that the team still hasn’t accomplished anything.

“For sure I sleep a little better,” Rodriguez said. “For sure you can’t wait for the next game even sooner, especially when you’re on a good patch I think. There’s so much ground yet to cover. This is a very difficult league to prognosticate and predict, even from week-to-week.

“I think it’s my job to try to see through the results, again continue to measure our process and how we’re progressing against that process to try to make sure that we don’t have any blind spots to ourselves and what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. To push the group to constantly self-reflect and improve.”

[MORE FIRE: Tough tests in next two months should show a lot about Fire]

Rodriguez also said the Fire’s positive start hasn’t changed his expectations for this season either.

“We have to be a little bit modest, given that we as a club have struggled for so many years,” he said. “The first bar, and it’s a low bar, but it’s the playoffs.

“Our expectations were to make the playoffs. Our expectations were to contend or win the Open Cup championship and those continue to hold.”

He did admit that “skepticism is understandable” from fans who have seen the team struggle for several years. Schweinsteiger’s arrival and the team’s improved record have created what he described as a momentum, and not just on the field.

“There’s certainly a buzz,” Rodriguez said. “There’s also still that small, but loud group of wallowers who are just hoping that the wheels come off or still want different players than the ones we acquired. That will still be there, perhaps until we win a championship. Overall, I think there is an excitement that’s building.”

This is the high point of Rodriguez's still-young tenure with the club. The Fire feature a World Cup winner, have one of the best records in the league and there’s a buzz around the team. What a difference a year makes, indeed.

Jon Lester fans 10, tosses complete game as Cubs beat Giants

Jon Lester fans 10, tosses complete game as Cubs beat Giants

As much as the Cubs dreaded the idea of facing Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner in an elimination game last October – and feeling all that anxiety rippling through the crowd at Wrigley Field – the San Francisco Giants still would have had to beat Jon Lester that night.

The Giants know how good Lester is, sending manager Bruce Bochy and catcher Buster Posey as part of the group recruiting visit to his Georgia home shortly after winning the 2014 World Series. There were even rumblings of a $168 million proposal from the Giants at the winter meetings where Lester took a six-year, $155 million megadeal and the chance to make history in Chicago.  

That Lester vs. Cueto matchup in Game 5 never happened, because the Cubs pulled off a Giant comeback in the divisional round. Lester went on to become the National League Championship Series co-MVP and win his third World Series ring. 

Lester (3-2, 3.19 ERA) looked to be in October form during Tuesday night’s 4-1 complete-game win over the Giants, while Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo each homered off Cueto (4-4, 4.64 ERA).