Things ain’t goin’ so hot for the members of the NFC North.
Back in the days when it was called the Central, the NFL’s most storied division was perennially also one of the toughest. You couldn’t escape the ranks of the physical “Black’n’Blue” division into the playoffs unless you were a pretty darn good team.
This year, instead of dealing out bruises, the place looks like one. The Bears (black), Lions (blue) and Vikings (purple) are each a different shade of awful, on their way to off-season turmoil and high draft picks in April. With Tampa Bay having warmed up to the NFC South, the only team even showing signs of a pulse amidst the hypothermic futility is the Green Bay Packers.
But if there’s one team that likes cold weather, it’s the Pack. They showed it on Sunday night, as Brett Favre and company came storming back from a nine-point, fourth-quarter deficit in single digit temperatures to clip the Vikings. Favre extended his sub-34 degree win streak to 34 in a row, and Green Bay moved to 7-0 at home on the season.
But none of that really matters. What made the win really important for Green Bay is the fact that it keeps them in contention for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. If they can get it, Green Bay fans might as well buy their plane tickets to San Diego right now. Otherwise, the road will be much tougher for the Pack. That fact was very much on the minds of everyone at Lambeau, and gave the game against Minnesota, which would normally have been of no importance, a playoff-like atmosphere.
And, aside from a post-game verbal tussle with uber-Viking Chris Hovan, Favre shone under the heightened spotlight. With each passing game, I can’t help but think that I could be watching the very best ever. Even in this season of rising stars like Michael Vick, Tommy Maddox, Deuce McAllister and glowing veterans like Rich Gannon, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith, Favre outshines them all. Despite playing in the Black’n’Blue division in those ghastly green uniforms, he’s solid gold. But I digress.
The Packers now stand at 10-3, as do the Eagles and Buccaneers. Tampa Bay holds the tie-breaker over the Pack, by virtue of their head-to-head win, but the Eagles hold the edge over the Bucs by the same token. The Packers have the 49ers and the surging Jets still on tap, however, which could be bad news considering the relatively weak remaining schedules for TB and Philly.
More than likely, it will take some Favrean heroics to earn exclusive home rights for Green Bay. Count on him to make things interesting, at the very least. And be thankful he feels at home in the frigid NFC North. Without Favre, there wouldn’t be a team worth watching up there.
Quick Playoff Picks:
American Football Conference:
East: New England. This one will go to the wire, but the Pats, like the Raiders, seem to have reasserted themselves after a mid-season slump.
North: Pittsburgh. The Steelers’ schedule is easier down the stretch than the charging Browns. Plus, their fans got over that whole “booing our own quarterback” thing, unlike the Cleveland faithful.
South: Tennessee. Sunday’s win was a huge one for the Titans. In earning the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Colts, they made it awfully hard for Indianapolis to win the division.
West: Oakland. With the Raiders actually able to play defense all of a sudden, the members of the Black Hole should get a chance to howl throughout the playoffs.
Wild Cards: Miami and Indianapolis. Though the AFC West has been the strongest division in the conference all season, its strength may backfire down the stretch. Look for Kansas City to ruin San Diego’s playoff hopes.
National Football Conference:
East: Philadelphia. McNabb’s injury may have helped team unity, but they’d better hope he’s healthy for the postseason, or it’ll be quick curtains.
North: Green Bay. Anybody else notice that the Packer faithful like to wear hunting gear to games? Nothing like orange and brown camouflage to make you scary looking?
South: New Orleans. The Saints might have the easiest schedule of anyone down the stretch, and could steal the South unless Tampa wins out.
West: San Francisco. While the 49ers’ offense is certainly a force to be reckoned with, they’d better shore up their defense. This team should not have to eke out wins against the likes of the Seahawks and Cowboys.
Wild Cards: Tampa Bay and Atlanta. The only other team with a shot to land here is the Giants. Here’s betting Jim Fassel’s guarantee trick has run out of gas.