4-team Race For Division Crown

Chicago (5-1 before Sunday's games) leads the NFC Central Division, with Green Bay (4-2) right on its heels. Tampa Bay is 3-3 but has made a habit of finishing strong after disappointing starts. Minnesota is 3-4 but showed it could contend by dismantling the Packers on Oct. 21.

Judged with history as a guide, nobody should be surprised that four teams are vying for the championship in the NFC Central Division. Judged with preseason guesses as a guide, the wide-open division race is a shock.

Chicago Bears
While the Bears' ridiculously easy opening to the schedule — and the resulting possibility for a strong start to the season — was noted in this space at the start of the season, the five-game winning streak they carried into the Cleveland game is surprising.

After an opening loss to the suddenly mediocre world champion Ravens, Chicago has reeled off victories against Minnesota, at Atlanta, home against Arizona, at Cincinnati and home against San Francisco. Of those opponents, only San Francisco had a winning record, and the 49ers' win total was beefed up against their own woeful schedule.

Still, what the Bears have accomplished is amazing considering the revolving door at quarterback and a weak offense. Defense has been the key. The Bears rank in the middle of the pack in yards allowed per game but lead the NFC in points allowed. As hoped, the addition of Keith Traylor and Ted Washington up front has allowed a talented linebacking corps pile up the big plays.

Are the Bears a legitimate contender? We'll find out soon as Chicago gets into the meat of its schedule. The Bears host Green Bay Nov. 11, with games at Tampa Bay and Minnesota to follow. After a home game against Detroit, the Bears play at Green Bay, host Tampa Bay, visit Washington and Detroit before concluding at home against Jacksonville.
Predicted finish: 10-6

Green Bay Packers
Most of the league assumes the Packers are legitimate contenders. And based on the talent and depth at nearly every position, that assumption is probably correct. Based on the results through their first six games, however, that assumption hardly is backed up by facts.

The two losses, at Tampa Bay and at Minnesota, were major disappointments considering the Packers rightfully felt they should have won those games. Tampa Bay, until unloading on the Vikings, was the league's biggest disappointment. Their running attack, the one thing their offense relies on, is one of the worst in the league. Tony Dungy's critics like to hammer him for his conservative offense, but against Pittsburgh in Week 6, quarterback Brad Johnson was sacked 10 times. The Bucs' run defense, despite a lineup full of No. 1 draft picks and hefty salaries, is mediocre. And their third-down defense ranks near the bottom of the league.

When you take quarterback Daunte Culpepper out of the mix, Minnesota's running game is almost nonexistent. But the Vikings had no problems running against Green Bay. And the Packers offense was bottled up the entire game by one of the NFL's weakest units.

Three of the Packers' four wins came against Carolina, Detroit and Washington. Those teams have combined for four wins through Week 7. The other victory was an eye-opening throttling of Baltimore. The defending champions, however, have lost to Cleveland and Cincinnati as well, tarnishing the Packers' biggest win.

After the Week 8 game home rematch against Tampa Bay, the Packers visit Chicago, host Atlanta, play at Detroit and Jacksonville, host Chicago, visit Tennessee, host Cleveland and Minnesota before finishing at the Giants.
Predicted finish: 11-5.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have made a habit of erasing bad starts with brilliant finishes. They'll have to do that again to put themselves in position to contend for the conference championship they were favored to win.

A lot of time and money has been spent building Tampa Bay's offense, but it remains a clunker. Even after a 41-14 thrashing of Minnesota on Oct. 28, the Bucs are averaging less than 20 points per game. The offensive line, featuring two high-profile free-agent pickups, a 2000 second-round draft pick and a 2001 first-round draft pick, has been unable to protect Johnson or open holes consistently for the running backs.

The defense showed its dominating form against Minnesota by allowing zero first downs in the first half. Still, All-Pro Warren Sapp has just one sack after predicting he'd break Mark Gastineau's record of 22.

The schedule doesn't get any easier after the Green Bay game: at Detroit, home to Chicago, at St. Louis and Cincinnati, home to Detroit, at Chicago and home against New Orleans, Baltimore and Philadelphia to finish. They may have to sweep Chicago or win two of those three concluding home games to make the playoffs.
Predicted finish: 9-7

Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings running game is horrible. They sorely miss the retired Robert Smith, the deceased Korey Stringer and free-agent defections Todd Steussie, Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy.

Because the Vikings can't run, defenses have been playing deep to take away the bomb to Randy Moss. Moss is getting his touches, but they are on underneath routes. Unless the running game develops, Minnesota is not going to the playoffs.

After the Week 8 bye, Minnesota is at Philadelphia, home to the Giants and Chicago, at Pittsburgh, home to Tennessee, at Detroit, home against Jacksonville, and at Green Bay and Baltimore.
Predicted finish: 7-9.


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