CHICAGO -- They might not have known it at the time. After all, only the NFL's most ardent scoreboard watchers are paying attention on Sept. 25. But at about the time the Green Bay Packers received the opening kickoff Sunday at Soldier Field, the Detroit Lions clinched their third victory in as many games this season.
That development left the Packers needing a victory over the Chicago Bears just to keep pace with the Lions in what has the makings of a two-team race in the NFC North. The Packers did their part, holding off the Bears in a 27-17 victory that offered a new glimpse of the type of team they can become.
We should be careful about writing off the Bears, whose 1-2 start has come against the NFL's most difficult opening schedule. But the Packers and Lions are the only 3-0 teams in the NFC, pending the 2-0 Washington Redskins' performance Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys, and both the Bears and Minnesota Vikings (0-3) have dug themselves an early hole.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy laughed at the notion of division standings after Week 3, saying: "People talk about leading the division after a few games, and I think that is nonsense." Yes, Mike, we know. There is a lot of football to be played, blah blah blah.
But can't we engage in a little "nonsense" every now and then? In all sincerity, I thought the first weekend of NFC North play proved as revealing as it could possibly have been.
The Packers shifted to a different gear of their offense against a defense that typically gives them trouble, handing the ball to tailback Ryan Grant 17 times and getting tight end Jermichael Finley his first touchdown of the season. (And his second. And his third.) It was a lethal and precise response to the Cover 2 defense, and one that must be regarded with great concern by future opponents.
The Lions erased a 20-point halftime deficit at the Metrodome, just as some of you were ready to write them off as the same old Lions. It appears this group is for real. Or, as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said: "We're in our first quarter of the season and we're kicking butt."
The Vikings, on the other hand, lost their third halftime lead in as many weeks, yet another indication that they are a one-punch team. And after a week of discussion about the need to rebalance their offense, the Bears netted 13 rushing yards while quarterback Jay Cutler took three sacks and threw two interceptions. Their offense looks as convoluted and disjointed as ever, one that will need major repairs for the Bears to get involved in the division race.
It's never too early to start projecting your season's path, and Packers cornerback Charles Woodson readily admitted he was aware of the Lions' victory Sunday.
"There's no question," Woodson said. "No question. You watch the scores to see who is doing what. But at the end of the day, you have to take care of your business."
Some of you might have difficulty accepting the Lions as one of the top two teams in the NFC North, let alone one of the best teams (by record) in the conference. But I can't imagine I'll hear many complaints about putting the Packers in that same group. Sunday's game was a paradigm for how flexible and explosive the Packers' offense can be against any defensive scheme.
After working their outside receivers for much of the first two weeks, the Packers shifted toward the middle of the field against the Bears' Cover 2 defense. Most of Grant's 92 yards came on runs between the tackles, and all three of Finley's touchdowns came against the Cover 2 and a standard four-man pass rush. Receiver Greg Jennings caught a game-high nine passes for 119 yards, but none went for longer than 25 yards.
So let's get this straight. When opponents send extra pass-rushers, the Packers' outside receivers consistently beat single coverage. When defenses sit back in zone coverage, the Packers slice them up with one of the game's best tight ends. Isn't that pretty close to an unstoppable combination?
"You see as well as I do out there," Finley said. "The film will answer the question for itself."
The Packers' offense has scored at least 27 points in all three of its games, and we probably still haven't seen the full range of its arsenal. Finley was quiet, by his standards, during the season's first two games as defenses devoted multiple men to him in coverage. When the Bears gave him an inch Sunday, Finley smoked them for miles. How many more layers will the Packers reveal over time?
"All the players know that our best football is in front of us," Finley said. "People say we're playing like we're in midseason form. But at the same time, the people inside this locker room, we don't think we're in midseason form yet. Our best football is ahead of us."
Finley never lacks for confidence, but he isn't the only NFC North character striding with a swagger this weekend. I loved watching Lions coach Jim Schwartz shouting profanities at a befuddled group of officials after Jason Hanson's game-winning 32-yard field goal. Referee Ron Winter didn't immediately signal an end to the game, possibly confused about the NFL's rule that doesn't allow first-possession field goals to decide overtime games in the playoffs. Over the referee's microphone, Schwartz could be heard yelling: "Learn the [expletive] rules!"
In the same building where their quarterback once unintentionally ran out of the back of the end zone for a safety, the Lions pulled off their biggest comeback from a halftime deficit in team history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"I think there's confidence, definitely," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "You go into an environment like this, against a team that's really a whole lot better than their 0-3 record. You saw it out there today. That team's got a ton of talent, offense and defense. To be down 20 at half and come out with a victory, I think we believe in each other and that's a lot of it."
Agreed. Many of us have projected success for the Lions this season. Did we think they were good enough to do what they did Sunday? Did we think they would sit atop the division with the Super Bowl champions after three weeks? Maybe not.
Yes, Mike McCarthy, there is a lot of football left to be played. But the tone is set in the NFC North. No matter how you look at it, we have two front-runners and two teams in an early hole. It's going to be a fun ride.