NFC North rises up with close wins Sunday

Jay Cutler (Phil Sears/USP)

All three of the Vikings' NFC North opponents pulled out close wins Sunday, tightening up the race for the division at the halfway point.

BEARS CLAW THEIR WAY BACK

Jay Cutler took a beating in the first half and came back to lead the Chicago Bears to a last-second victory.

Robbie Gould kicked a 41-yard field goal as time expired after Cutler rallied the Bears in the fourth quarter for a 23-22 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

The Bears trailed 19-7 in the fourth when the game turned in a big way.

Chicago (6-1) took over on the Carolina 38 after Brad Nortman shanked a 6-yard punt, and Cutler connected with Kellen Davis on a 12-yard scoring pass with just under seven minutes left.

Then on Carolina's next play from scrimmage, Steve Smith slipped on a pass pattern and Tim Jennings returned his second interception of the game 25 yards to make it 20-19.

Cam Newton then drove the Panthers to the Chicago 27, and Justin Medlock's 45-yard field goal hit the right upright and went through to put Carolina ahead 22-20 with 2:27 remaining. Medlock finished with five field goals.

Cutler moved the Bears 55 yards to the 23-yard line before Gould nailed his game-winner.

It was another tough loss for Newton and the Panthers, who fell to 1-6 and lost their fifth straight game.

The Bears pulled this win out even though Carolina ran up 416 yards and sacked Cutler six times, with Greg Hardy getting to him three times.

Cutler completed 19 of 28 passes for 186 yards after having his ribs bruised by Detroit's Ndamukong Suh on Monday night.

Brandon Marshall had 98 yards receiving and Matt Forte ran for 70 yards and a touchdown for Chicago.

Newton threw for 314 yards and Steve Smith added 118 receiving for Carolina, but the Panthers suffered another stinging loss after firing their general manager.

With the worst record in the NFC, they fired longtime general manager Marty Hurney on Monday while making it clear no one except maybe Newton is safe.

Even he's come under criticism in recent weeks for his demeanor, and adding to the Panthers' woes was a mounting list of injuries, with three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil (foot), cornerback Chris Gamble (shoulder) and three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason (knee and shoulder) going down for the rest of the season in recent weeks.

None of that seemed to matter for much of the day.

The way this game started, it was hard to tell which team was in first place and which one was in disarray.

Hardy only had two sacks this season and never more than one in a game in his career, but he created all kinds of havoc in the first half.

The Panthers also had 226 yards while holding the Bears to 49 through the first two quarters.

Cutler tried to hit Marshall deep in double coverage on Chicago's first possession and got picked off by Josh Norman near the goal line, an ominous start for the Bears.

Forte's 13-yard scoring run through a big hole in the line on the Bears' next possession made it 7-0.

Newton responded by hitting a wide open Brandon LaFell on a slant for a 62-yard gain, putting the ball on the Chicago 18, but the Panthers settled for a field goal by Medlock.

They had another golden opportunity late in the quarter after Cutler got sacked on consecutive plays, with Charles Johnson stripping him and Frank Alexander recovering at the Chicago 16, and converted this chance.

Newton fumbled the ball into the end zone after an 8-yard scramble, but Louis Murphy made the recovery to give Carolina a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.

Medlock made it a six-point game with a 31-yard field goal with 4:36 left in the half, and the Panthers were threatening to score in the final minute of the half when Peppers wrapped up Newton as he dropped back with the ball on the 40.

A diving Jennings intercepted the wobbly pass along the sideline, but rather than take advantage of the opportunity, the Bears gave it right back a few plays later.

PACKERS SURVIVE JAGS

With the Green Bay Packers struggling, Aaron Rodgers went back to an old favorite.

Rodgers connected with Donald Driver on a 4-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Mason Crosby made up for an earlier miss with a 25-yard field goal and Green Bay escaped with a surprisingly tough 24-15 victory Sunday over the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was the third straight win for the Packers (5-3) and 16th in their 17 games at Lambeau Field.

It was the fourth straight loss for the Jaguars (1-6), who got big contributions from Rashad Jennings and Cecil Shorts in the absence of Maurice Jones-Drew.

Jennings finished with 115 yards of offense, Shorts had a career-best 116 yards on eight catches and the NFL's worst offense managed 341 yards. But Blaine Gabbert came up short on several critical plays, and the Jaguars hurt themselves with untimely penalties.

Rodgers was 22 of 35 for 186 yards and two touchdowns, which moved him past Bart Starr into second place on the Green Bay career list with 153. Brett Favre holds the Packers record with 442 TDs. James Jones had seven catches for 31 yards.

The Packers also recovered their first blocked punt for a touchdown in 22 years when Dezman Moses fell on the ball in the end zone after Davon House had blocked Bryan Anger's kick.

Green Bay's offense hadn't missed a beat without Greg Jennings, who will have surgery Tuesday to repair the torn abdominal muscle that has sidelined him for most of the season. But Jordy Nelson, who picked up much of the slack in Jennings' absence, was also sidelined Sunday (hamstring), and losing their top two receivers was almost too much for the Packers.

After Crosby's missed 32-yard field goal attempt - he clanged it off the upright - left the Packers clinging to a 14-12 lead, Rodgers finally got them on track. He found Jones for a 31-yard gain up the middle, then hit Randall Cobb for a short gain. A tripping penalty against the Jaguars gave the Packers the ball at the 4-yard line and, two plays later, Rodgers and Driver connected for the score.

The Jaguars stalled on the Green Bay 12 after back-to-back incompletions from Gabbert, and they settled for another field goal by Josh Scobee. The 32-yarder was Scobee's 20th straight field goal, matching the franchise record set by Mike Hollis. He also kicked field goals of 38 and 22 yards.

Scobee booted the kickoff out of bounds, giving the Packers the ball at their own 40 with less than 7 minutes left. But when the Packers managed all of 3 yards, the Jaguars had a chance to make things interesting.

Gabbert looked for Blackmon twice from midfield, throwing incompletions both times. They finally connected on the third try, a 6-yard gain that gave them fourth-and-4 from the Green Bay 44. They went for it, but not only did Gabbert not get it anywhere close to Blackmon, Tramon Williams nearly picked it off.

A pass interference call against Jacksonville on the next drive set up Crosby's 25-yard field goal, sealing the victory.

LIONS WIN IN LAST MINUTE

The Detroit Lions drafted Titus Young last year, envisioning him as the receiver to eventually replace veteran Nate Burleson.

It has happened sooner than planned, and Young is making the most of his opportunity.

Young caught his second touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford on a 1-yard slant with 20 seconds left, lifting Detroit to a 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

"Matthew trusted me all day, and he gave me a perfect opportunity to make a play at the end," Young said. "I wanted do that for everyone on the team, but I especially wanted to do it for Nate."

Burleson broke his right leg in Monday night's loss at Chicago, pushing Young up the depth chart. Burleson sent a motivational message to his teammates on offense that was shown on video Saturday night.

Young caught a go-ahead TD midway through the second quarter and finished with nine receptions and 100 yards receiving — both career highs — in a breakout performance that didn't surprise Detroit coach Jim Schwartz.

"I wasn't worried about Titus," Schwartz said. "Titus has never lacked for self-confidence."

Young needed to make the second TD catch after Zach Miller had a spectacular, 16-yard snag on a toss from Russell Wilson with 5:27 left that put the Seahawks ahead.

But Seattle (4-4) couldn't stop the Lions (3-4) on their last possession.

"We're disappointed that after that terrific drive, we couldn't finish it off the way we wanted to," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "We didn't get the stops on third down."

That was a problem for the Seahawks all afternoon, giving up first downs on 12 of 16 third downs on defense, including three on Detroit's last drive.

Stafford led the 16-play possession that started at Detroit's 20 with 5:27 remaining. It began with a 15-yard pass to Calvin Johnson and was kept alive with third-down conversion passes to Johnson in Lions territory, to Joique Bell that set up the winning score from just outside the goal line on another third down.

After Stafford had to throw away two passes to avoid sacks with no timeouts left, Young broke inside of cornerback Brandon Browner and caught the winning TD pass.

"There were four dudes standing next to Calvin and one standing next to Titus, so I liked my odds on that side," Stafford said. "Calvin got a lot of attention all game, just like he always does, but the other guys stepped up. Titus had a huge game, Brandon Pettigrew had a hell of a game, Ryan Broyles made some big plays, and the running backs were coming out of the backfield and making catches.

"That's what we needed."

Stafford threw a winning TD pass with less than a minute left for the second time this year and for the fourth time in four seasons. He has led nine drives — including three this year — that led to decisive winning scores in the fourth quarter and overtime during his 36-game career.

"It's easy to be confident in Matt when you are with him every day," Schwartz said. "The talent he has isn't just going to go away."

Stafford was 34 of 49 for 352 yards with three TDs, also connecting with Broyles in the end zone at the end of the first quarter. The quarterback also ran for a 1-yard TD that gave Detroit a lead early in the fourth period for the first time this year.

It looked like the Lions were going to blow it.

Seattle went ahead when Wilson lobbed a pass into the end zone that a leaping Miller tipped to himself with his right hand and hauled in with both hands for the go-ahead TD.

"I knew he'd catch it," Wilson said. "He has unbelievable hands."

Seattle, though, was the team that failed to hold onto the lead and ended up losing consecutive games for the first time this year.

Wilson was 25 of 35 for 236 yards with two TDs and an interception. Marshawn Lynch ran just 12 times for 105 yards, including a career-high 77-yard run early in the second quarter for one of five lead changes in the closely contested game.

Sidney Rice had six receptions for 55 yards and a 9-yard score that put Seattle up 17-7 early in the second quarter.

Young's first score, catching a 46-yard pass in stride from Stafford, started Detroit's comeback on the ensuing possession. His second one sealed the much-needed victory for the Lions.

"Huge win," Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril said. "I'm just glad we pulled it out because 2-5 is a bigger hole than 3-4."

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