Packers' head coach Mike Sherman addressed various questions at his press conference on Wednesday regarding his team's poor start. Among them was whether or not the struggles of the rest of the division have provided a silver lining for his team.
"I can't see it, and I've looked real hard for it," he said, "but there is no need to get on the ledge. We are going to get better. We are going to make progress. I do believe this team gets it."
Sherman may not see a silver lining at the moment, and rightfully so, but he may later in the season when the Packers could still be in the hunt for a playoff spot with a losing record. Such an unlikely scenario is made possible because of the NFL's most recent realignment (2002) to four-team divisions in each conference. That change eliminated one wild-card playoff team in each conference and made it a little easier to win a division title (with an added division to each conference).
To win a division title with a losing record carries a certain sense of cheapness and should it happen, it would make the NFC North a sour footnote in NFL history.
After two weeks this season, it is clear that each team in the NFC North has offensive questions with no immediate answers. The Packers are lacking rhythm and are without Pro Bowl wide receiver Javon Walker for the rest of the season; Vikings' Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper is on the verge of losing confidence after throwing eight interceptions against no touchdowns, and he does not have Randy Moss anymore to bail him out; the Lions have weapons, but with quarterback Joey Harrington struggling and no viable replacement, they are a losing streak waiting to happen; and the Bears have a rookie quarterback, Kyle Orton, who is bound to make mistakes and cannot be expected to carry the team.
On top of personnel and execution issues is the schedule that each team faces. The NFC North plays the AFC North in non-conference games, creating serious match-up problems. Not only is the AFC North one of the deepest divisions in football, it is also one of the most defensive-minded and tough. Three of the four teams in the division – the Bengals, Browns, and Steelers – are all led by head coaches considered to be some of the best defensive minds in the game. Those coaches and teams, with confident defenses against struggling offenses, spell doom for the NFC North.
Even if the teams in the NFC North split games played against each other this year, which could well happen with such mediocrity and no clear favorites, consider the other non-division games each will have to play:
The Packers, after going through the so-called "easy" part of their schedule before a bye week on Oct. 16, will also have to play at Atlanta (Nov. 13), at Philadelphia (Nov. 27), and at home against Seattle (Jan. 1).
The Vikings, already dropping games to the Lions and Bengals, travel to Atlanta (Oct. 2), Carolina (Oct. 30), and the New York Giants (Nov. 13).
The Lions, after a bye this week, will play at Tampa Bay (Sept. 25), at home against Carolina (Oct. 16), at Dallas (Nov. 20), and at home on Thanksgiving against the Falcons (Nov. 24).
The Bears will play the Panthers (Nov. 20), at Tampa Bay (Nov. 27), and the Falcons (Dec. 20) among their tougher games.
Certainly, teams and favorites change with each passing week in the NFL, but an objective observer can clearly see a pessimistic view for each of the NFC North teams. Therefore, it could come down to a matter of taking advantage of their chief rivals' misfortunes to punch a ticket to the playoffs this season.
The Packers share Sherman's sentiment that they cannot even think about what the rest of the division is doing with so many problems of their own to fix. They have overcome poor starts in the past under Sherman and have still won division titles or come back to post winning records. In 2004, the team started 1-4 before winning the division and in 2003, it started 1-2 before winning the division.
"We do have a history, and history doesn't always repeat itself, of being able to handle the adversity of the situation and hopefully rise above it," said Sherman. "I said to the players, ‘You can't rely on history, but you can learn from it.' Your own history tells you what you are capable of doing, but it's up to you to do it… This team has to do that in order to make its own history."
The Browns hold the distinction of having the worst record to win a division, posting an 8-8 mark in 1985 to take the AFC Central crown. This season, with the NFC North, that distinction is in jeopardy. That makes the Packers, even with their lowly start, still a chance to be the best of the worst.