Thursday, September 07, 2006

2006 NFL preview: NFC North

This used to be the man's man division. The blood-and-guts, black-and-blue, unshaven, hairy-chested, break-a-metrosexual-in-two-over-your-leg division.
Now, this is a division without a head. The Packers have eroded, the Vikings are terminally mediocre and the only dominant unit in the whole division is the Bears' defense. But "dominant" is stretching it even here. The Bears have a good D-unit, but the monsters of the midway they're not.
The winner of this division gets the "Mr. Irrelevant" award for the NFC playoffs. One and done.

1. Chicago Bears (10-6)
The defense is driven more by the proverbial whip of coach Lovie Smith than the raw talent of Brian Urlacher. Curiously, Urlacher is still hailed as the spiritual heir of Dick Butkus.
The offense isn't very good. Fortunately, all they have to do is not screw up too badly and the Bears should still win more than they lose. As it is, they can't find a quarterback out of the Three Stooges: Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton and Brian Griese, and they can't find a running back out of the other Three Stooges: Cedric Benson, Thomas Jones and Adrian Peterson (one year from now, he will be affectionately referred to as "the other Adrian Peterson.")
The x-factor: Orton and Benson. If those two step up at their respective positions, the Bears might have some semblance of an offense. I'm not holding my breath.

2. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
Only two things are keeping the Vikings from a total collapse: Brad Johnson's head and Ryan Longwell's foot.
Between quarterback Johnson's veteran knowhow and PK Longwell's upper-tier kicking game, the Vikings should be able to put enough scoring drives together to remain respectable, even without Koren Robinson. It won't get them to the playoffs, but after having some very notable players implemented in the infamous sex-boat scandal less than a year ago, "respectability" is a relative term in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
The x-factor: Lake Minnetonka. Keep any Vikings player at least 500 yards away from it. Get a restraining order if you have to.

3. Detroit Lions (6-10)
Head coach: inexperienced Rod Marinelli. Offensive coordinator: egotistical and abrasive former NFC champ Mike Martz. How long do you expect that setup to work? Until the Lions fall below .500? Me, too.
The good: Joey Harrington is no longer on the roster. The sorta good: Jon Kitna is on the roster. The possibly good: Mike and Roy Williams will be his primary targets. The bad: Kevin Jones is a one-man show in the backfield. The really bad: Unless you live in Southeast Michigan, can you name two Lions defensive starters? The unspeakable: Matt Millen is still running the show, and assistant coach Joe Cullen was arrested for allegedly driving in the nude.
The x-factor: Kitna. He lent stability to the Bengals in their formative years, and look at them now. If he can do the same for the perennially pitiful Lions, he should be canonized.

4. Green Bay Packers (4-12)
Brett Favre should have hung them up. He deserves better than to go out as a diminished star piloting a rust hulk that was once a gleaming machine he led to back-to-back Super Bowls.
The trouble is, who takes his place? Aaron Rodgers? Probably not ready. Ingle Martin? If you ever start a QB named Ingle, your GM should be fired immediately.
The presence of A.J. Hawk gives the Packers a defensive centerpiece, but building around him is another story.
The x-factor: Favre. He's the only think that inspires anything beyond a yawn about this team. and that's only because he's on what should be a farewell tour.

Up next: the NFC East

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