Schedules play role in NFC North race

Can any of the North teams challenge the first-place Packers? After looking at the remaining schedules, PackerReport.com's Steve Lawrence has the answers.

Maybe it was Aristotle who said, "It's not who you play, but when you play them." Whoever it was, he was right on the mark, especially when it comes to the NFL.

The Packers' early-season schedule looked daunting, but they got through their first six games with five victories. The Packers, however, had the good fortune of playing the Eagles, Giants and Chargers when they were struggling. Philadelphia still hasn't found its stride, but the Giants certainly have, and San Diego is coming off a lopsided win and has just upgraded its offense by trading for Chris Chambers.

What it means is the Packers have a 1.5-game lead on the Detroit Lions in the NFC North, a 2.5-game edge over the Minnesota Vikings and a three-game advantage on the beat-up Chicago Bears.

Clearly, the Packers are in control of the North heading into this weekend's bye. Based on what we know about the four teams and, just as importantly, their remaining schedules, will they remain in control?

Team: GREEN BAY.

Record: 5-1.

Schedule:

Oct. 21 — BYE

Oct. 29 — at Denver

Nov. 4 — at Kansas City

Nov. 11 — Minnesota

Nov. 18 — Carolina

Nov. 22 — at Detroit

Nov. 29 — at Dallas

Dec. 9 — Oakland

Dec. 16 — at St. Louis

Dec. 23 — at Chicago

Dec. 30 — Detroit

Closer look: The Packers have to be one of the few 5-1 teams in NFL history to have so many questions. Can they run the ball even a little? With an offense so reliant on the pass, can they win when the weather turns bad? Regardless of the weather, can Brett Favre and Donald Driver get the offense back on track? If not, can the defense carry the load?

The schedule isn't so bad. Back-to-back games at Denver and Kansas City after the bye don't look so bad, but a three-game stretch with a home game against Carolina (4-2), followed by games at Detroit (3-2) and Dallas (5-1) will be the key. As long as they don't implode during that trifecta, they should be able to fatten their record with consecutive games against Oakland and St. Louis.

Prediction: 11-5.

Team: DETROIT.

Record: 3-2.

Schedule:

Oct. 21 — Tampa Bay

Oct. 28 — at Chicago

Nov. 4 — Denver

Nov. 11 — at Arizona

Nov. 18 — New York Giants

Nov. 22 — Green Bay

Dec. 2 — at Minnesota

Dec. 9 — Dallas

Dec. 16 — at San Diego

Dec. 23 — Kansas City

Dec. 30 — at Green Bay

Closer look: Through five games, it's impossible to know if the Lions are pretty good (as their record indicates) or pretty mediocre (as blowout losses to Philadelphia and Washington and their minus-38 point differential — the only NFL team with a winning record to have been outscored — indicate).

If the Lions want to challenge the Packers — not to mention win the 10 games Jon Kitna guaranteed — they'll have to survive a treacherous five-game stretch with home games against the Giants and Packers, a trip to Minnesota, a home game against Dallas and capped with a trip to San Diego. The Packers were able to kick the Giants and Chargers when they were down. The Lions, with a defense incapable of stopping anyone with above-average talent, won't be so lucky.

Prediction: 7-9.

Team: MINNESOTA

Record: 2-3

Schedule:

Oct. 21 — at Dallas

Oct. 28 — Philadelphia

Nov. 4 — San Diego

Nov. 11 — at Green Bay

Nov. 18 — Oakland

Nov. 25 — at New York Giants

Dec. 2 — Detroit

Dec. 9 — at San Francisco

Dec. 17 — Chicago

Dec. 23 — Washington

Dec. 30 — at Denver

Closer look: If the Vikings have designs on making a playoff run, it will be up to Tarvaris Jackson. If the second-year quarterback can't make enough plays, defenses will gang up on explosive rookie running back Adrian Peterson.

The Vikings face their crucible starting Sunday at Dallas. That's followed by home games against Philadelphia and San Diego and capped by a trip to Green Bay. Maybe the Cowboys are licking their wounds from last week's shellacking by New England. Maybe the home crowd and their strong defense will be enough to beat the Eagles and Chargers. Maybe it will be rainy and windy at Lambeau and the Vikings can stop the Packers.

That's a lot of maybes.

Prediction: 7-9.

Team: CHICAGO

Record: 2-4

Schedule:

Oct. 21 — at Philadelphia

Oct. 28 — Detroit

Nov. 4 — BYE

Nov. 11 — at Oakland

Nov. 18 — at Seattle

Nov. 25 — Denver

Dec. 2 — New York Giants

Dec. 6 — at Washington

Dec. 17 — at Minnesota

Dec. 23 — Green Bay

Dec. 30 — New Orleans

Closer look: If the defending NFC champions, with momentum after a big win at Green Bay, can't beat a one-dimensional, one-man Vikings team last week, it's hard to imagine them getting off the mat and putting any pressure on the Packers in the North, right?

If the Packers stumble a bit, though, the schedule allows the Bears to quickly get back into the race. Sunday's game at Philadelphia is big, because the Bears host Detroit after that, then get a get-healthy bye. Then, the Bears go to Oakland and struggling Seattle before hosting Denver. Going 5-0 or 4-1 isn't unrealistic, and that would give them momentum for a key four-game stretch of games against the Giants, at Washington and Minnesota and home to Green Bay.

Call me stupid, but I don't think the Bears are hibernating just yet.

Prediction: 9-7.

Steve Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. E-mail him at steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com


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