Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What about the Lions?

Peter King claims that the NFC North might be the best division in football this year. In the words of the immortal Bill Lumbergh, I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree there. It's true that the Packers were crippled by injuries last year and are a much better team than the 6-10 record they finished with indicates. It's also true that the Bears have upgraded significantly at quarterback by acquiring Jay Cutler, and that the Vikings have also upgraded, albeit less significantly, by signing the Man Who Wouldn't Retire. But to claim that this makes the NFC North better than, say, the NFC East, which put two teams in the playoffs last year and had three above .500, or the NFC South, which had two of the AFC's best regular season teams in Tennessee and Indianapolis, an injury-ravaged preseason contender of its own in Jacksonville, and a tough out in also-ran Houston, is ridiculous. Just a few of the problems I see with King's assertion:

1.)Chicago still lacks offensive talent. Matt Forte is an emerging star at running back, true, and Greg Olsen is a solid tight end, but the team's receivers are still sub-mediocre. And they're depending on oft-injured graybeard Orlando Pace to protect Cutler's backside. Something tells me ol' Jay is not going to put up the same numbers this year as he did last year with one of the best lines in football protecting him and arguably the best young receiving duo in the game catching his passes. And if he gets hurt? His backup is the immortal Caleb Hanie. Yikes.

2.)Speaking of da' Bears, some of their key defensive players are getting old. Brian Urlacher didn't have a great year last year, and as he's over 30 years old it might not have been a coincidence. Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye are also over 30. And Tommie Harris, while not old, is severely injury-prone. As good as they are on paper, I don't think they make it through the season intact.

3.)Brett Favre is 40 years old, and broke down like an old hatchback with a leaky radiator once the weather got cold last year. Why should I believe the same won't happen this year? He's already playing with a bad shoulder, and he bruised his ribs blocking in his second game back. Even if he doesn't get hurt, he's certain to throw a few costly interceptions - perhaps more than his oft-maligned backups would have. He's not the same quarterback he was ten or even five years ago, and at this point he may prove to be only a marginal improvement over what the Vikings had. And that's without even considering the circus atmosphere his arrival has created in Minnesota.

4.)The StarCaps case has yet to be settled. If/when the Vikings' star defensive tackles are suspended, their fearsome run defense becomes a thing of the past. Their pass defense wasn't that good to begin with.

5.)Brad Childress still coaches Minnesota. He did a great job as the Eagles' offensive coordinator, but he's a mediocre head man at best. That's going to hurt the Vikings at some point.

6.)Green Bay's defense is switching to a new system. They've looked good in the preseason, but as nobody gameplans in the preseason, anyone using preseason performance to judge regular season potential does so at his peril. History indicates that teams switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 rarely excel in their first year in the new defense, and I don't see any reason to think the Packers will be different.

7.)The schedule is tough. These teams play each of the others twice, and if they're all as improved as King thinks, those games become commensurately tougher than they were last year. Out of division, they all play AFC north powers Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and the defending NFC champion in the Cardinals. And their other NFC matchups - Atlanta and Philadelphia for the Bears, Tampa Bay and Dallas for the Packers, and Carolina and the New York Giants for the Vikings - aren't exactly easy street either.

8.)The Lions still play here. No division with a team coming off the first 0-16 season in NFL history deserves to be considered in a conversation about the toughest divisions in the league.

It's possible, as King says, that any of the top 3 teams in this division might go 12-4 - but far more likely that one will go 10-6 or 11-5, with the other two hovering around .500. Certainly, to claim authoritatively that this division has the edge over the NFC East or AFC South is absurd. But then, throwing out absurd assertions without much evidence to back them up is something of a Peter King specialty.

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