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THE NFC CENTRAL
Jill Lieber
October 24, 1994
What's the Score?The bye week in the NFL means different things to different teams. It's a chance for a battered team like Tampa Bay to get healthy; it's a momentum-breaker for the Bears, winners of three in a row before last week's break. But it's also a natural time to take stock of the NFC Central's five teams. With six games under each club's belt, the '94 season is beginning to take shape.
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October 24, 1994

The Nfc Central

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Wannstedt remains ever the optimist. Even after the Bears were crushed 42-14 by Minnesota in Week 3, he told his players, "We're going to make the playoffs this season." It says here that that's wishful thinking.

Green Bay Packers

To describe Green Bay fans as disappointed by the Packers' 3-3 start would be an understatement. They're mad as hell. When the Pack spotted the Rams a 17-3 halftime lead on Oct. 9, the Lambeau Field faithful got so ugly that coach Mike Holmgren's wife, Kathy, had to flee the stands to a private box, and quarterback Bret Favre's father, Irvin, left his seat to watch the rest of the game on TV. Green Bay struggled back to beat the Rams 24-17, but its fans aren't fooled. The meat of the team's schedule is still ahead, especially with away games at Minnesota, Buffalo and Dallas coming up in the next six weeks. The Pack has the look of a 9-7 or 8-8 team, which may or may not be good enough for a wild-card berth in the playoffs.

The good news is that the defense, ranked No. 2 in the NFL last season, has been as good under new defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur as it was under Ray Rhodes, who rejoined the 49ers after two years in Green Bay. The Packers' defense is ranked third overall, in large part due to the play of defensive end Reggie White, who is having a better season than his stats might indicate. White is double-teamed on most pass plays, and the attention he draws is the key to the Packer D.

The bad news is that Favre has not raised his game to the level that Holmgren thinks he can. His 81.1 quarterback rating is very middle of the pack. He has suffered from the loss of tight end Jackie Harris, who signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay. And there is concern about wideout Sterling Sharpe. After two straight years in which he set NFL records for receptions, he started this season with that wildcat walkout the day before the opener against Minnesota and, through Sunday, had slipped to No. 8 in pass receptions. He hasn't been the same since having turf-toe surgery in the off-season, and at 29, his skills appear to have diminished. If that's so, even a wild-card spot maybe in jeopardy.

Detroit Lions

The Lions were the talk of the NFL when they beat the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys 20-17 in overtime in Week 3. But since then they've lost three straight to drop to 2-4, and coach Wayne Fontes is on the firing line. At the start of the season the future looked bright: Fontes said that after six seasons, he finally had the team, the coaching staff and the offensive and defensive systems he had always wanted. Now Fontes seems to lose a little more of his drive with each loss. A day after Detroit dropped its prebreak game with San Francisco 27-21, he said halfheartedly, "I saw the report cards, and we all flunked. If we had to take these cards home to show our parents, a lot of us would try to forge the signatures."

The Lions are very pleased with the development of linebacker Broderick Thomas, who leads the team in sacks, with 4�. Unmotivated and unproductive in his five seasons with Tampa Bay, he refused to take a pay cut from his $1.2 million salary with the Bucs and signed a one-year, $450,000 contract with the Lions. Detroit has to be worried, though, about linebacker Pat Swilling. In '93 he was bothered by a sprained ankle he suffered in the fifth game of the season, but some sources attributed his off year to grief over the death of his father. However, Swilling has been disappointing this year too. He has only 1� sacks so far, and in the Lions" loss to the 49ers, he didn't even make the stat sheet.

Special teams have also been a mess. Jason Hanson, one of the league's best kickers last season, is in a horrible slump and ranks last in the NFL in field goal percentage after making only five of his 12 attempts. He hasn't been the same since he hurt his right leg on a tackle in the opener against Atlanta.

The Lions have a lot riding on their first game after the bye. They play Chicago at the Silverdome. If they win, they're back in the division race; if they lose, they can start making vacation plans for January.

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