So the first week of the NFL season has come and gone, and those of us with an eye on the NFC North got our first looks at the teams that made up what was once widely known as the "Black-and-Blue Division." Lately of course, all that has been black-and-blue about the NFC North is the way each of these four teams has either floundered down the stretch drive (Minnesota and Green Bay) or simply tanked once the calendar flipped to September (Chicago and Detroit).
In spite of all that, expectations in each of these old-school NFL towns are looking up in one way or another in 2004. With that in mind, what follows is the first weekly edition of what will be known henceforth as the "Black-and-Blue Review," written by yours truly.
In addition, due to the fact that I failed to get my NFC North preview done by last Sunday's kickoff, and despite the fact that Green Bay's blitzkrieg rushing attack last-Monday night now makes my prediction of an 8-8 finish for the Packers look ridiculous, this first review will include my pre-season predictions for each team's final 2004 regular-season records.
If the Packers break the NFL team-rushing record this season and win the Super Bowl in the process, all of you Cheeseheads can turn me into flambé.
Note: Rankings below are in order of my pre-season prediction. Beginning next week they will be determined by each team's weekly performance.
Current Record: 1-0 (Projected Finish: 11-5)
I think it's now safe to say that the best QB in the division now resides in the Metrodome. If last Sunday's destruction of the Cowboys by the Vikings was any indication, Daunte Culpepper has officially arrived. Culpepper's line Sunday: 17-of-25, 242 yards, 5 TD's and a 147.1 passer rating. If Michael Bennett can return in time to take over for Onterrio Smith when he begins his impending 4-game substance abuse suspension, Minnesota shouldn't miss a beat offensively.
The Viking defense however was another story. The effects of the season-ending Achilles injury to CB Ken Irvin in pre-game warm-ups reared its ugly head early, as the Cowboys creaking QB, Vinny Testaverde went 29-50 for 355 yards and a TD. In spite of the fact that Dallas possessed the ball for 14 of the games first 17 minutes, they only came away with a 3-0 lead. For that, the Vikings-D and their new coordinator Ted Cottrell deserve credit.
Current Record: 1-0 (Projected Finish: 9-7)
I guess "Fugly" would have been a nice way to describe Detroit's 20-16 opening-day victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Nevertheless, the Lion victory snapped their NFL record 24-game road-losing streak and gave Steve Mariucci's troops something to smile about despite losing second-year wideout Charles Rogers to another season-ending broken collarbone. It was the same collarbone that Rogers broke in Week 5 last season.
The play of Lion DT Shaun Rogers highlighted the day for Detroit. Rogers finished with 4 tackles (3 solo), a sack, a fumble recovery, and a blocked field goal that was returned a team-record 92-yards for a touchdown by safety Bracy Walker. The special teams' TD was the difference in the game as the Lion offense stumbled, collecting only 262-total yards and a touchdown, including a putrid 77-yards on the ground on 30 carries (2.6 average).
With Charles Rogers gone for the year, #1 CB Dre' Bly out at least the next two games with a MCL sprain, and the Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles coming to Ford Field in the next two weeks, the Lions offensive production must improve. If it doesn't, Detroit could be staring a 1-2 record in the face going into their bye week at the end of the month.
Current Record: 1-0 (Projected Finish: 8-8)
If the Pack keeps steamrolling opponents on the ground like they did Carolina last Monday night, my prediction of an 8-8 finish will smell like a 2,000 pound block of sun-baked Limburger by December. Watching Green Bay run the ball through the eyes of that terrific on-field camera device that's now all the rage, was like poetry in motion. Somewhere in the great gridiron beyond, you know that ole' gap toothed Packer legend with the funny glasses had to be smiling from ear-to-ear.
The main reason for my 8-8 prediction is the Packer defense. With the Mike McKenzie holdout, and the poor play for the defense overall last season, I just don't think they will have the horses to get it done over the long haul. Under new D-coordinator coordinator Bob Slowik, Green Bay did look more aggressive Monday night than they did all of last season. However, you have to wonder how much of that could be contributed to the absolutely gut-wrenching offensive performance the out-of-synch Panthers turned in.
If the Pack rolls over the Bears this Sunday on the unfrozen tundra, they could very well jump to number one by next week.
4. Chicago Bears
Current Record: 0-1 (Projected Finish: 5-11)
The Bears gave Detroit every opportunity to win the game Sunday, and although the Lions did their best to try and give those opportunities back, Rex Grossman's end-zone pass into double coverage late in the final seconds sealed the Bears' fate. To his credit, the young QB took the blame for the defeat.
I like Grossman. It was only his fourth career start, and while at times he looked terrible Sunday he also flashed some glimpses of what he could become. His situation reminds me of the one Joey Harrington was in the last two seasons in Detroit; a young QB with no established playmakers to help bail him out when he needs help. If Grossman ever does get that help, it will be interesting to see what he becomes.
The Bears have one hell of a test ahead of them this Sunday in Lambeau Field. How they perform against their arch-rival could go a long way in determining what this team is capable of for the rest of 2004.