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Point, counterpoint: Is the NFC North already a two-team race?


! Staff Writer Mike Spofford says yes.

Last week I made the argument the Packers-Bears showdown at Soldier Field was a big game, even though it was only Week 3.

By extension, the results of last week's NFC North games have defined this as a two-team race between Green Bay and Detroit.

It just doesn't bode well for the Vikings and Bears to have already lost division games at home, which both did on Sunday. The NFC North champion has compiled a 16-2 record in division home games over the last six years, and one of those losses was a "meaningless" game on Dec. 31, 2006, when the Packers beat the Bears at Soldier Field after Chicago had already clinched the No. 1 seed for the NFC playoffs.

If you want to win the NFC North, you can't lose division games at home. The other loss in that 16-2, six-year stretch was actually turned in by the Packers, who lost to the Bears at Lambeau Field in 2007. But Green Bay was 4-0 heading into that game and fell to only 4-1, while the Bears and Vikings in 2011 are already below .500.

While it may seem easy to write off the 0-3 Vikings, who have blown double-digit second-half leads in all three games, it's admittedly dicey to write off the defending division-champion Bears at just 1-2. But take a look at their upcoming schedule.

They have to deal with rookie phenom Cam Newton this week, then travel to Detroit on a Monday night, play Tampa Bay over in London, and then, after a bye week, play at Philadelphia. Even if they manage to split that brutal four-game stretch, they'll be 3-4 at a time the Packers should be no worse than 6-1, and a three-game deficit near the midway point is as good as fatal. Green Bay's next four opponents are a combined 2-10, with the prime-time road game at Atlanta the toughest test.

OK, OK, I'm getting ahead of myself on the Packers, and you're all thinking these assumptions are going to jinx them. Trust me, these players under Mike McCarthy don't project and speculate like this, which is exactly why I think my projections and speculation will be on the mark. This team won't lose to teams it shouldn't.

Chicago could get back into the race by beating Newton and then knocking off the Lions in Detroit, but I don't see it. The Lions haven't had a Monday night home game (originally scheduled, not a re-scheduled one like last year) since 2001, and they haven't had one in downtown Detroit – where Ford Field is located, as opposed to the Pontiac Silverdome – since 1974. You think the fans might be just a little jazzed up for that one? That will be an incredibly hostile road environment for a Bears team that wilted at New Orleans in their first road game of the season. That Detroit crowd will just be warming up for its other biggie this season, Thanksgiving Day against Green Bay, but I'm getting ahead of myself again.

The last reason this is already a two-team race is simply this – offense. Teams are passing the ball like mad and scoring points in bunches this season. Green Bay is averaging 33 points per game through three contests. Detroit is averaging 33.6.

Chicago and Minnesota don't have the firepower to keep up in these pass-happy times, primarily because their quarterbacks don't have any game-breaking receivers. Chicago has Johnny Knox, Devin Hester, Roy Williams and Dane Sanzenbacher. Minnesota has Michael Jenkins, Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian.

Harvin may still become a superior threat to match his ability in the return game, but none of the rest of those receivers compares to Green Bay's Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, or to Detroit's Calvin Johnson. Tight ends Jermichael Finley for the Packers and Brandon Pettigrew for the Lions are also the class of the division.

Debate all you want whether Chicago's Jay Cutler is a true leader or whether Minnesota's Donovan McNabb should yield to rookie Christian Ponder, but the playmakers in the passing game in the NFC North reside in Detroit and Green Bay.

In one of those two cities the 2011 division title will reside, too.

! Editor Vic Ketchman says no.

You've gotta be kidding, Mike. We've only completed three weeks of the season. These guys aren't even in shape, yet, and you wanna reduce the NFC North to a two-team race?

You've been covering this team for how long? How about that 4-4 record the Packers had at midseason in 2009? Did you write them out of the playoffs race then?

Of course you didn't. You're too smart for that and you're too smart to think the Vikings and Bears are also-rans after just three weeks of the season.

Here are some things you need to consider, Mike:

The Bears have opened the season against the Falcons, Saints and Packers. Against that trio of NFC favorites, the Bears have done well not to be 0-3. If the Bears were to win their next two games, at home against Carolina and in Detroit on a Monday night, and should the Lions lose this Sunday in Dallas, the Bears would be tied with the Lions for no worse than second place in the division. Your two-team race theory, Mike, would be quickly dashed. That's how quickly the picture can change early in the season.

Minnesota opened with three toughies, too, and the challenge for the Vikings will be to emotionally overcome last Sunday's collapse at the hands of the Lions. They should be able to do that this Sunday in Kansas City, and then they have one at home against Arizona, which means they could be 2-3 and right back in this thing as they enter a two-game stretch against Chicago and Green Bay that will likely decide the Vikings' direction in 2011.

See what I mean, Mike? It can all change so quickly. Remember the Lions in 2007? They started the season 6-2 and finished 7-9.

You know what a key injury here or there can mean to a division title race. Matt Stafford hasn't exactly been an iron man, and Packers fans know well how quickly the dominoes can fall when the injury bug bites.

If you're saying the Packers are the class of the NFC North, then I agree with you. Yeah, the Packers have a chance to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the division before they travel to Detroit for a Thanksgiving Day game that is starting to take on the look of the one the two teams played back in 1962, but only one division title in the NFL last season was decided before Christmas. Lopsided division races just aren't the norm in the NFL.

Don't count the Bears and Vikings out, yet, Mike. It's too early for that.

What do you think?

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