Despite struggles, NFC North to decide its champ

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Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, December 29, 2013

CHICAGO—Coaches and scouts from the four NFC North Division teams began the season almost four months ago busting with pride about their quarterbacks and their overall strength.

When the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears meet late this afternoon for the championship, two quarterbacks and two teams will seek glory from inglorious seasons in a disappointing year all around the division.

“It’s like, ‘Who wants the division this year?’” said a personnel man for one of the NFC North clubs. “This year, it’s kind of been a letdown for all of us, you know?”

A year ago, NFC North folks could beam with pride about having three teams with at least 10 victories and the best record (35-29) among the eight divisions in the National Football League.

Today at Soldier Field, the division will be won by a team without double-digit victories for the first time in 30 years just as the division slides in sixth among its NFL brethren at 28-34-2.

Having sent two teams to the playoffs in the last four seasons, the NFC North can consider itself fortunate even to have one in 2013.

“It was a down year,” another North personnel man said. “But it started off exciting.”

The Bears were 3-0. Green Bay was 5-2.

Jay Cutler ran into groin and ankle injuries that caused him to miss five starts. Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone three minutes into Game 8 and sat out seven starts, and soon thereafter the Detroit Lions became the favorite to claim their first division title since 1993.

“Of all the years they had a chance, this would have been the year because Chicago was down and Green Bay was down and Minnesota was down,” a division executive said. “It’s hard to figure, really.”

Sitting at 6-3, the Lions won merely one of their next six games—a 40-10 dismantling of the Packers on Thanksgiving—and threw it all away.

So in the end here stand the Bears (8-7) and the Packers (7-7-1), imperfect teams but at least now led by healthy quarterbacks. In Minneapolis, the coaching staff of the Lions (7-8) probably will face a fate not unlike the soon-to-be-razed Metrodome, where coach Jim Schwartz’s team finishes it out Sunday against the Vikings (4-10-1).

“The Bears and Packers got to this point only because the Detroit Lions folded up shop,” said another executive in personnel. “I thought for sure they wouldn’t blow it this year, but they did. And that will be taken care of at the end of the year.”

Due mainly to the undisciplined environment fostered by Schwartz and the slipshod play of Matthew Stafford, Detroit turned the ball over 21 times in the last six games.

“Only thing I can attribute that to is lack of focus and attention to detail from the players and the coaches,” one North personnel man said. “You saw them lose some games on questionable (coaching) calls. The arrogance at times was mind-boggling.

“What else can he (Schwartz) offer? What’s going to be different if there is another year? I don’t see what hope he brings to that team anymore.”

Amazingly enough, the Lions have a chance to finish 5-1 in the division one year after going 0-6.

The Packers entered as the favorite before being waylaid by another avalanche of injuries. Their injured-reserve list includes 15 names compared with seven for Minnesota, six for Detroit and five for Chicago.

Chicago’s defense, aging to begin with, has been neutered by injury. The Vikings were hit hard in the secondary whereas Detroit remained almost injury-free.

“If the Packers had had Rodgers, they would have won this thing hands-down,” one North executive said.

Given up for doomed by many when coach Mike McCarthy couldn’t buy a victory with Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien, Green Bay rallied behind latecomer Matt Flynn.

Given that the division crown once was deemed wholly out of reach by fans, the Packers gladly would accept it. It would enable McCarthy’s Packers to join Mike Holmgren’s Packers and Mike Sherman’s Packers as the only teams since the Vikings of Bud Grant and the Bears of Mike Ditka to win three divisions in a row.

The Packers would really have a divisional dynasty going if they had overcome their one-game deficits to Chicago in 2010 and Minnesota in 2009.

“Green Bay is still the team until someone knocks them off,” one scout said. “Good coach, good quarterback.”

Chicago can be that very team today.

“The Packers probably win it,” one of the North personnel men said. “They got Rodgers…only you don’t know about Rodgers. It’s hard to miss that much time. But if anyone can do it, he can.”

Another executive doesn’t buy it.

“This is going to be a Soldier Field celebration and rout,” the scout said early in the week. “Thirty-four to 14 with Flynn, 34-20 with Rodgers.

“I just don’t think the Packers can overcome their injuries. They don’t have the playmakers or pass rushers on defense. Nothing they can do about it now. I think they’re going to get embarrassed on Sunday.”

Last week, for the 20th consecutive year, an executive in personnel for each of the four teams selected the all-division team for the Journal Sentinel.

The scouts were asked to rank the top three players at each position but weren’t permitted to vote for their own players. A first-place vote was worth three points, a second was worth two and a third was worth one.

Votes were cast for 17 positional categories on offense, 17 on defense and five on special teams.

In preparing the ballot, in most cases I considered only players who played half the games.

Remarkably, the total points for the four teams fell in inverse order of the current standings.

Minnesota led with 244 points, followed by Detroit (239), Green Bay (231) and Chicago (222). The Vikings also were first last season.

However, when points for just the 22 starters were totaled, the Vikings (127) were last behind the Lions (135), the Packers (135) and the Bears (131).

During Ted Thompson’s nine seasons as general manager in Green Bay, the Packers led in total points just one time (259, 2011).

Since Brett Favre tied Rodgers for first-team quarterback in 2009, the Vikings haven’t had their starting quarterback (Favre in 2010, Christian Ponder from 2011-’13) garner anything except last-place votes.

“The quarterback instability obviously has hurt the division,” one scout said in his state-of-the-North assessment. “The injury to Rodgers. Chicago was 3-4 without Cutler even though the guy (Josh McCown) played really well.

“Then Minnesota not having a franchise quarterback. And in Detroit, their guy didn’t play like a franchise guy.”

The $64,000 question in the off-season is whether Bears management approves a long-term contract or franchise-player designation for the 31-year-old Cutler, who otherwise would depart in spring as an unrestricted free agent.

Few expect the North representative to go far in the postseason mainly because there was so little defense played in the division. It’s the main reason why the North went 0-4 with a minus-52 point differential against the defense-rich NFC West, which leads all divisions with a 40-20 mark.

“Their four teams are better than our four teams right now,” a North executive said. “The defenses have gone down. They were a lot better a couple years ago.”

The same could be said for the NFC North as a whole in 2013.

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