THE NFC CENTRAL

October 23, 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.

Minnesota Vikings

An NFC Central Division championship looks to be in the cards for Minnesota (4-2), and much of the credit goes to 37-year-old quarterback Warren Moon, who has made the difficult transition from the run-and-shoot to a ball-control offense. He got off to a slow start, but the Vikings scored 80 points in back-to-back wins against Miami and Chicago and, after stumbling 17-7 at Arizona, pasted the Giants 27-10 on the Monday night before the bye. And don't forget: Coach Dennis Green has a 15-4 lifetime record against Central Division teams, the opponents in half of the Vikes' remaining 10 games.

The most pleasant surprise so far has been the play of running back Terry Allen, who has come back from ACL surgery on both knees. Allen is fourth in the NFC in rushing, with 439 yards. "He gives us the physical toughness we've lacked since he hurt his knee in camp last year," says Green. Adds offensive coordinator Brian Billick, "He's not easing into holes. He's hitting them full blow."

The Vikings have also benefited from what is arguably the best draft in the NFL. Left tackle Todd Steussie and cornerback Dewayne Washington, both first-rounders, have started every game and have been more than solid. Playing the most critical position on the offensive line, Steussie has helped keep Moon alive and well, and Washington returned an interception 81 yards for a TD against Chicago. Tight end Andrew Jordan, a sixth-round pick from Western Carolina, has done a good job helping to replace Steve Jordan (no relation), who was released by the Vikes for salary-cap purposes. And Green sees big things ahead for running back David Palmer, a second-round pick. "He could be the one guy who shows the most improvement from the first half of the season to the second," says Green.

The area of greatest concern for Minnesota may be the defense. The Viking D was top-ranked in the NFL in 1993, but it had slipped to No. 7 after the first six weeks of this season. Arizona coach Buddy Ryan predicted that the Cardinals would run over the Vikings' smallish interior linemen, Henry Thomas and John Randle, and Ryan was right. Thomas and Randle have combined for 10½ sacks, but there is still concern about their ability to stack up against bigger offensive linemen.

Chicago Bears

Don't get carried away by the Bears' 4-2 record. Chicago had a favorable early-season schedule—four of the first six games were at Soldier Field. Talentwise, Chicago is probably in the bottom 10 in the NFL, and the road gets tougher from here. Of the next eight games, six are on the road and six are against NFC Central opponents.

The most obvious good news for coach Dave Wannstedt is that the Bears have won three straight without starting quarterback Erik Kramer, who has been out with a separated right shoulder. Backup Steve Walsh has committed only one turnover, and as a unit, the nine new starters on offense have gotten in sync faster than anyone expected. Less obvious, but perhaps just as important to the team's success, has been the solid play of another backup, Joe Cain, filling in for Dante Jones, who has a pulled groin. That the Bears could win without Jones, one of the keys to their defense, is a testament to Wannstedt's coaching.

Even so, the question remains: How could Wannstedt have so underestimated the loss of defensive end Richard Dent and defensive tackle Steve McMichael? Plain and simple, the Bear defense has lacked fire. The defensive line has been easily pushed around, and the pass rush has been terrible (only nine sacks). A year ago the Bears had the fourth-rated defense in the NFL; through Week 6 it was ranked 18th.

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 4½. 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 1½ 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.

Tampa Bay Bucs

There's a very familiar story being played out in Tampa this season. The Bucs (2-4) probably need to throw rookie quarterback Trent Differ out there to let him get some much-needed NFL experience. But Buc coach Sam Wyche, like many of his predecessors, isn't willing to trade losses this year for wins in the future because his job is on the line. So the offense continues to sputter, ranking 27th in the NFL in scoring, even with the more experienced Craig Erickson at the helm.

Differ, who walked out of a June camp because of a contract dispute and missed 12 days of training camp before signing a $16.5 million deal, believes he's almost up to speed with the Buc offense. Wyche, however, isn't so sure Dilfer's ready to direct the team. The Bucs' best hope is that they're not hopelessly out of the playoff race before December. Three of their last four games are at home, and they play Washington twice. Hey, maybe Differ can rally the Bucs and save Wyche's job. Then again, it's more likely that the Bucs will have a game snowed out in Tampa than that they'll make the playoffs.

PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHDespite two ACL surgeries, Allen is having a bust-out season so far for the Vikes. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERThe Lions haven't gotten a big kick out off the '94 season, in part because of a slumping Hanson (4). PHOTOJONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORTThe able play of Cain, a backup middle linebacker, has been a godsend for the surprising Bears.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)