Optimism is never higher than in Week 1 of the NFL season, when teams are healthy and everyone has the same record. But there is an edge these days to the confidence that seems pervasive in the NFC North as the 2009 season approaches. A historic offseason, followed by a preseason in which all four division teams finished 3-1, has given way to the most anticipated regular season in the middling eight-year history of the NFC North.
“This is the division to beat,” said Minnesota tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, not to be verbally outdone. “I feel like this Black and Blue division is really coming to light. You’ve seen the Bears play [well], I see the Packers are playing [well]. Even the Lions are starting to get it together. We’ll be battling amongst each other, but I feel like we’re going to be the team to beat.”
Minnesota, of course, added quarterback Brett Favre to a team that finished 10-6 last season with Gus Frerotte and Tarvaris Jackson sharing the position. Chicago acquired Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler, believing he could add a few more victories to their 9-7 team. Green Bay shook up its defense and, more importantly, displayed what might have been the NFL’s sharpest offense during the preseason (nine touchdowns in 13 possessions.) And Detroit brought in an NFL-high 31 new players, reason in itself to believe that (modestly) better times are on the horizon after its 0-16 season.
From an early-September perspective, it all adds up to the reasonable expectation that at least one, and possibly both, NFC wild cards will come from the NFC North. Suffice it to say, that’s never happened for the Black and Blue since the NFL realigned in 2002.
Over the ensuing seven seasons, the NFC North has boasted of only one wild-card team: Minnesota, which backed in with an 8-8 record in 2004. Otherwise, the annual division champions have been the only playoff teams. We’ve never had a season that finished with three winning teams, and in four of the seven years, only one team has ended with a winning record.
NFC North: 2002-08
• Seasons: 7 • Teams with winning records: 10 (in 28 opportunities, or 36 percent) • Total playoff berths: 8 • Wild cards: 1 (Minnesota, 2004) • Playoff record: 5-8
Many of us would be shocked if that were the case in 2009. While I agreed with this ESPN.com consensus that Minnesota will win the division, followed by Green Bay and Chicago, I picked both the Packers and Bears to clinch wild cards. I haven’t examined the tiebreakers enough to know how possible that is, but hey, after this offseason I’m feeling cocky, too. I think you’ll also be pleasantly surprised when the first edition of ESPN.com’s regular-season power rankings are revealed later Tuesday. (Tease: Three NFC North teams are within striking distance of the top 10.)
Seifert NFC North picks, 2009
1. Minnesota 2. Green Bay* 3. Chicago* 4. Detroit
For a bit of rational perspective, I went to one of the NFC North’s elder statesmen. Minnesota place-kicker Ryan Longwell’s tenure dates B.N. -- before the North -- and back to the days of the old NFC Central. Longwell recalled his 1997 season in Green Bay, when four Central teams (including Tampa Bay) finished with winning records and made the playoffs.
(Only the 4-12 Bears were left out of the fun. The Packers won the NFC but lost to Denver in Super Bowl XXXII.)
“We had a deep division that year,” Longwell said, “and I think you can see that potential this year as well. With the Packers changing their defense, and Cutler going to Chicago, and then the offseason we had, it’s definitely amped up the competition. We’ve typically just had one team at the top and everyone else fighting it out. We’ve been respected as a competitive division, but I think we’re a lot closer to [big-time] than we’ve been in a while.”
Before we start booking Miami hotels for Super Bowl XLIV -- well, before you do, because I already have -- we should take a moment to temper ourselves.
The Packers’ new defense is far from a finished product. It forced a turnover every 20 plays during the preseason, but frankly, a blitzing defense should catch offenses flat-footed in the preseason before actual game planning occurs. Moreover, much of the Packers’ preseason buzz is based on an offense that really wasn’t to blame for last season’s 6-10 record.
Indeed, Packers coach Mike McCarthy noted that “preseason football is different.” But McCarthy added: “Our football team played very good football for a big part of the preseason, and that’s the reality of where we are.”
Still, like everyone else, the Packers are now 0-0 and will face an opponent that will actually scheme to stop them Sunday night at Lambeau Field. But the Bears’ defense might not have kept pace with the division-wide improvement in the passing game -- let alone the Packers’ explosive group. It’s still not clear where their pass rush will come from, if not with the blitz, and injuries have thrown their secondary into uncertainty and raised questions about whether they can hold up if linebackers are forced to rush rather than help cover.
And in Minnesota, the reality is that Favre has been with the team for 22 days. He didn’t play a preseason down with his No. 1 receiver, Bernard Berrian, and recently suggested his timing would be a work in progress “up until the last game” of the season.
But those issues are micro problems in a macro environment of high expectations. There have been years when we’ve debated whether the Vikings had a starting-caliber quarterback, not picked at his timing with an injured receiver. We’ve entered seasons unaware if the Packers knew it was legal to blitz the quarterback, not wondering how their packages might be game planned against. And there have been seasons when the Bears didn’t have the luxury of depending on their offense to help cover for defensive shortcomings.
All told, we’ve never seen anything like it. At least not in these parts.