Offense stumbles, Bears fall to Vikes

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Offense stumbles, Bears fall to Vikes

MINNEAPOLIS Adrian Peterson has his sights set squarely on 2,000 yards. Thanks to his latest jaw-dropping performance and an opportunistic defense, the Minnesota Vikings still have their eyes on the playoffs.
Peterson rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns and Harrison Smith returned an interception for a score to lead the Minnesota Vikings to a 21-14 victory over the free-falling Chicago Bears on Sunday.
Peterson topped 100 yards before the first quarter was over, helping the Vikings (7-6) overcome another lackluster day from quarterback Christian Ponder to get a victory that will keep their playoff hopes alive.
Jay Cutler was 22 for 44 for 260 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions and couldn't finish the game for the Bears (8-5), who have lost four of their last five. He took a wicked hit to the head from Everson Griffen in the fourth quarter, remained in the game for the rest of that drive, but was replaced by Jason Campbell with 3 minutes to play.There was no immediate word on Cutler's health, and Campbell threw a 16-yard TD to Brandon Marshall with 1:48 to play, but Kyle Rudolph recovered the onside kick to seal the victory.
Marshall had 10 catches for 160 yards, but Chicago's struggling offense couldn't do enough to overcome the two turnovers and Peterson's relentless effort.
Peterson's remarkable comeback from a torn ACL late last season seems to get more impressive every week. Not even a year removed from that major injury in Washington, he broke the 100-yard mark for the seventh straight game. He has 1,600 yards with three games to play, putting a hallowed 2,000-yard season within reach. He ran for 51 yards on the opening play of the game and continued to gash the broken-down Bears the rest of the way.
No one was happier to see it than Ponder, who continued to look skittish in the pocket and out of whack with his mechanics. He finished 11 of 17 for 91 yards, including an ugly interception off his back foot late in the first half.
For once, his performance didn't doom the Vikings.
Vikings fans trudged through a snow storm to get to the Metrodome, and they were ornery and ready to give Ponder all the grief they could. They booed him in pregame introductions, then Peterson touched the ball on five of six plays in the opening drive. He also ripped off a 16-yard run and finished it with a 1-yard TD.
Josh Robinson intercepted Cutler on the next possession, returning the ball to the Chicago 5 to set up Peterson's second touchdown. The Vikings were off and running, exactly what they were hoping to do.
Cutler responded, hitting Alshon Jeffery with a 23-yard TD pass that got a healthy contingent of Chicago fans chanting "Let's Go Bears!'"
Just as the Bears appeared to seize momentum, Cutler floated a pass over Marshall's head right into the arms of Smith, who headed down the Chicago sideline for a 56-yard touchdown late in the third quarter and a 21-7 lead.
The Vikings haven't made big plays in the passing game ever since Percy Harvin was lost for the season with a severely sprained left ankle against Seattle on Nov. 4. They finally did it Sunday, but it was the defense that made it happen.
Robinson and Smith combined for 100 return yards, more than the Vikings' passing game had through the air.
Now the Bears must try to hold off another December malaise under coach Lovie Smith. They started 7-1, but Smith tried to ratchet up the intensity this week, saying the Bears had to win out to get into the playoffs.
Cornerback Tim Jennings was out with an injured shoulder and linebacker Brian Urlacher, the man in the middle of the proud veteran defense, could be out for the rest of the season with an injured hamstring. Defensive tackle Henry Melton hurt his shoulder in the first half and kicker Robbie Gould was limited by a strained left calf that he suffered in pregame warm-ups.
Through six games, the Bears gave up an average of 71 yards rushing. But they had given up 136 yards per game on the ground in the previous six games.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Breaking down the World Series hangover

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Breaking down the World Series hangover

Do the Cubs have a World Series hangover?

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, NBC Sports Bay Area Giants Insider Alex Pavlovic joins CSN's Patrick Mooney to talk about the World Series hangover, how last year's playoff loss lingered in San Francisco, Johnny Cueto's quirks, the legend of Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija's ups and downs.

Plus Kelly Crull, Jeff Nelson and Tony Andracki break down the Cubs’ defensive struggles this year compared to an historic 2016 and how Ian Happ fits into the Cubs’ lineup in both the short and long term.

Listen to the latest episode below:

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

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USA TODAY

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

Caleb Swanigan, unsurprisingly, is heading to the NBA.

Last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year announced Wednesday that he’ll pass up the final two seasons of his NCAA eligibility for a paying gig at the professional level, an awesome opportunity for a kid who battled obesity and homelessness to become one of the best basketball players in the country.

But Swanigan’s departure from West Lafayette means a heck of a lot to the Big Ten.

Without the league’s most dominant big man, what becomes of Purdue’s chances at winning a conference title? Similarly, with a weakened — though still strong — group of Boilermakers, what does the Big Ten race look like going into 2017-18?

First, Purdue. Matt Painter’s program is plenty healthy, and while there’s no doubt that losing Swanigan is a big deal, the Boilers got some really good news, too, Wednesday when Vincent Edwards announced he’ll be returning for his senior season. Seven-footer Isaac Haas also made the decision to return to West Lafayette, meaning the towering frontcourt hasn’t been completely decimated just because tha man called “Biggie” is gone.

Purdue will also return Carsen Edwards, who had an impressive freshman campaign, and Dakota Mathias, a terrific defender and 3-point shooter. Two more important pieces — P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline — are back, as well. And Painter will welcome in freshman Nojel Eastern, a highly touted guard from Evanston.

So the Boilers are still in very good shape. There will be a big magnifying glass on Haas, who despite his physical attributes hasn’t always found consistent on-court success. But there have been plenty of flashes of brilliance from the big man. A big step forward in his game would go a long way in easing the blow of losing Swanigan and could keep Purdue as one of the frontrunners for a conference title.

That brings us to the Big Ten race. Ever since Miles Bridges, the conference’s reigning Freshman of the Year, announced he’d be returning to Michigan State for his sophomore season, the Spartans have been the near-unanimous favorite. Only something like Swanigan deciding to stay at Purdue could’ve changed that. And with Swanigan expectedly heading to the NBA, Michigan State remains the preseason pick to win the conference crown.

Like any good year in the Big Ten, though, there will be challengers.

But Michigan State is the popular choice to win it because of Tom Izzo’s insane 2016 recruiting class is returning completely intact: Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford are all back. And Izzo brings in one of the top 2017 recruits in forward Jaren Jackson.

But Sparty isn’t the only one with an impressive returning group. Purdue’s experienced roster has already been covered. Northwestern, a surprise contender in 2016-17, should be even better as Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey enter their fourth year playing together. Dererk Pardon, a shot-blocking whiz at center, is also back, as is sharp-shooter Aaron Falzon, who sat out the 2016-17 season with an injury after starting during his freshman year in 2015-16.

There will be big shoes to fill for some perennial contenders like Maryland — which must replace Melo Trimble — and Michigan, which watched eligibility run out on Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin before D.J. Wilson decided to head to the professional ranks Wednesday. But those teams have plenty of talent returning, too. The Terps will have all three of their fab freshmen — Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter — back for sophomore seasons, while the Wolverines have Moe Wagner back in the fold alongside Xavier Simpson and Duncan Robinson, among others.

And what of last year’s shocking contender, Minnesota? The Golden Gophers didn’t lose too much this offseason and will return almost every main player from last year’s 24-10 squad: Amir Coffey, Nate Mason, Reggie Lynch, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer and Eric Curry.

There are up-and-comers to think about, too, such as last year’s freshman-heavy squads at Iowa and Penn State. And could new head coaches Brad Underwood and Archie Miller make instant splashes at Illinois and Indiana, respectively?

If it sounds a little too much like the annual coach speak that “any team can win on any night” in the Big Ten, that’s because there is a good deal of truth to that oft-used phrase.

There are definitely tiers to this thing, though. Even without Swanigan, Purdue is still in one of those upper tiers. But there might be no team besides Michigan State at the very top of the heap, something underscored by Swanigan turning pro.