In his most recent ESPN.com mailbag, John Clayton broached the possibility of having four playoff contenders in the NFC North.
It's a reasonable consideration when you recall that three of our teams achieved double-digit victory totals last season and a fourth, the Detroit Lions, were as active this offseason as any team in the division. Here's how Clayton put it: "If Jay Cutler does well with [new Chicago Bears coach Marc] Trestman, Vikings QB Christian Ponder gets better and the Lions bounce back … you are talking four playoff-caliber teams."
That statement got me thinking. (Yes, there is a first time for everything.)
By rule, the NFC North can't place four teams in the 2013 playoffs. So how can we fairly judge whether it fielded four "playoff-caliber" teams? I think a fair standard for "playoff-caliber" is a winning record at the end of the year. And for what it's worth, that hasn't happened since the eight-division format began a decade ago.
(Thanks to Justin Page of ESPN Stats & Information for double-checking my research there.)
There have been a couple close calls in divisions that finished with three winning teams and a fourth at 8-8. I'm so often asked if the NFC North should be considered the toughest division in football. Here is a way to demonstrate that in a way that has never been done before: Four winning teams by season's end. Why not?