The Secret Weapon

The NFL likes to market its best teams to the country and the rest of the world. The league's current love affair with the Chicago Bears could be just what the Vikings, Packers and Lions need to try to knock the two-time defending division champion off its perch.

Heading into any NFL season, the coaching staff looks for scheduling "red flags" that will alter the standard routine the team goes through. A Monday night game throws off the routine. A long road trip throws off the routine. Just about anything different alters the routine that a team goes through.

The Vikings and the other teams of the NFC North may have the secret weapon they need to defeat the Bears this year – Chicago's own success and how the NFL had decided to address it.

The Bears were successful in 2005, but the NFL didn't "buy in" to them being a marketable group that America would clamor to watch. Of their 16 games in 2006, the Bears not only had the 32nd-ranked strength of schedule, but they had 12 of their 16 games scheduled for noon starts local time on Sundays. You knew if the early games were on, the Bears were likely to be matched against a weaker opponent – rarely getting national face time and able to stick with their weekly routine.

That isn't unusual for teams the NFL believes aren't going to be a huge drawing card. That is why the Colts and Patriots have consistently been prime-time staples. That's also why teams like the Vikings have just one prime-time game this year and only one late game on Sundays that isn't played on the West Coast. The NFL doesn't believe the country would be interested in watching the Vikings play on the big stage.

For the most part, that's probably just fine with Brad Childress and his staff. It allows the Vikings to stick to their regular pre-game practice routine – a regimen that most teams adhere to with strict compliance. The Bears, on the other hand, are a much different story.

After toiling in relative obscurity last year, the Bears are the new sweethearts of the NFL powers that be – and it could come back to haunt them. If the Bears were looking for the routine of 2006 – 12 regular-season games starting at noon local time, they're out of luck. Of their first 14 games, only four of them will start at noon Central Time. The league so wants fans to get a chance to see the Bears, and for the league to draw on those prospective ratings, that Chicago will play four early games on Sunday, five of the 3:15 p.m. CT late game starts and five games in prime time.

To complicate matters, with the Bears being the "name" franchise is the matchups under the lights, four of their five prime-time games are on the road – playing the Packers, Seahawks, Redskins and Vikings. Not only will these guys be played later than the typical routine calls for, it will also disrupt the next week's preparation by bringing the team home very late and eliminating the following day for any meaningful practice/preparation time.

While teams are able to adjust to the prime-time routine killer that shortens the next week of prep time, with the new network TV deals, teams like the Bears will spend as much time playing at 7:30 p.m. as they will at noon.

The secret weapon for the Vikings, Lions and Packers? Letting the Bears wear themselves out by honoring their commitments to be playing football after dark while the other teams continue with their regular weekly routines.

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