No, I'm not going to get into a long analysis of which of the three teams sitting atop the NFC Central has the most favorable remaining schedule, because this is meaningless. They've all proved they can beat anybody and lose to anybody. Inconsistency is the watchword for this division, but as Lou Holtz said, "The only people who are consistent are dead people."
If you're figuring, What the heck, anybody can have an off day, let me throw a statistic at you that is still one of my favorites: In the Steelers' eight-year playoff run under Chuck Noll, from 1972 through '79, their record against teams with losing records—not at the time Pittsburgh played them, but the way they ended up—was an astonishing 50-1. The Steelers simply refused to get beaten by the Indianapolises of this world.
I'm fascinated by the NFC Central, though, because it's so weird to handicap. The Packers, the Vikings and the Bucs are all 8-3. Green Bay and Minnesota got stunned on Sunday, Tampa Bay came up big. Detroit, which slaughtered the Vikings, should logically be out of the running at 5-6, but with all the firepower the Lions can unload, don't be too sure.
The Packers finally get the Cowboys at home after seven straight losses to them on the road, counting the postseason. This leads me to believe that revenge might figure in the equation. Nothing figured in it last weekend, when the Pack was stunned by the winless Colts. The only way I can deal with this is to fall back on a clich�—they took the day off—which I hate to do because it doesn't give the opponent enough credit.
The defense was supposedly the Packers' rock, especially after Mike Holmgren gave them their mid-October bye week off to rest their legs. The offense made people nervous, so much so that Holmgren canceled Brett Favre's weekly press conferences because he felt folks were too hard on Favre, choosing to dwell on the three interceptions he'd thrown in the previous two weeks rather than the fact that the Pack had won both games.
So what happened? Paul Justin and the Indianapolis offense smacked the Packers for 467 yards, the most Green Bay has given up in 10 years. Packers cornerback Doug Evans, who'd had such sterling games against the Lions' Herman Moore and the Rams' Isaac Bruce, had all sorts of miseries against Marvin Harrison. Reggie White, in and out of the game with an ailing back, had only two tackles and no quarterback pressures against Tony Mandarich. The offense everyone was worried about lit it up with 441 yards, averaging better than 10 yards a play. Go figure.
I can't see Green Bay losing to Dallas. The Cowboys pulled themselves together for a late 97-yard drive against the Redskins just as things were looking grim, then closed the game out with a short drive for a field goal. You can get 97-yard drives at home, but not at Lambeau Field, with the noise factor and cheese factor and everything. The Cowboys are 1-5 on the road. Their offensive line is banged up, but I'll switch my pick if Nate Newton promises to do the Lambeau Leap.
The Vikings, riding a six-game winning streak, got overrun by the Lions, who were down on their quarterback, Scott Mitchell. Mitchell was said to be coming back from a hamstring pull, except that nobody really knew if he was coming back at all or if the hamstring was just a convenient excuse for benching him the previous week against the Redskins. This is a troubled team, you see, but the Lions toyed with the Minnesota defense in their 38-15 rout, and when the Vikings brought strong safety Robert Griffith up into the box to stop the run, Detroit burned them with passes to Herman Moore and Johnny Morton. When Griffith dropped back, Barry Sanders got his yards.
Now Minnesota faces the Jets in the Meadowlands, where it gets real nasty this, time of year—a dome team braving the great outdoors. Still, I like the Vikes to beat the Jets. Why? Because their rush will create all sorts of problems for Neil O'Donnell, who's replacing the injured Glenn Foley; because New York doesn't have a running game to take the heat off; and because it was the Jets' five takeaways against a hapless offense that gave them the win over Chicago, while their own offense was basically invisible.
The Bucs, ah, now we're on happier ground. In their 27-7 win over New England, they looked as if they were moving at a different speed than the Patriots. I believe they're over their midseason blahs. The division has come back to them, and—dare I risk this prediction? O.K., I'll risk it—the Bucs will beat the Bears.