MIKE O'HARA

O'Hara's Friday Focus: The NFC North is once again the dominant division of the NFL

Posted Nov 9, 2012

The won-lost records speak for themselves, but there are other reasons why the North ranks as the league’s No. 1 division.

Herman Moore can look back at a recent period in the Lions’ history when the road to the postseason began in the second half of the season, and the Lions were major players in a division that dominated the NFC playoff field.

They were good days in the old NFC Central, which morphed into the North in 2002, and winning days for the Lions. They had two Central titles and five playoff appearances from 1991-97. Division titles and Wild Card berths were decided mostly by who survived a round robin between the Packers, Bears, Viking and Lions – with the Bucs late-comers to the party.

Moore was an All-Pro wide receiver for the Lions in that period, which makes him able to relate to what the Lions face in a grueling second-half schedule that will determine their playoff fate.

Fast forward a decade and a half to the 2012 season, and the playoff race in the North is almost identical to the old days of the Central. The North is the NFL’s power division this year, based on the won-lost records of the division’s teams  and the performance and reputations of its players.

With four of their last eight games against North teams – starting with Sunday’s road game against the Vikings – the Lions won’t have to watch scoreboards to know where they stand. Play-for-play, man-for-man, games will be decided by beating the player across the line of scrimmage.

It’s that simple.

And it’s that difficult.

A team might run away with the division, and another might get run over in the race to the finish. But nobody in the North will make the playoffs by backing in.

“It’s going to be hard,” said guard Rob Sims. “I think this is one of the best divisions in football. It’s a struggle to be good in this league, in this division.

“With all the other three teams, I think it’s an even playing field. Everybody can go out and play with everybody.

“You can’t look past anybody. It’s a good fight.  They’re good stories.”

The end will be written in eight chapters – the eight weeks left in the regular season.

For the Lions, the message in Chapter 1 is obvious. With a 4-4 record, they are the only North team without a winning record. Chicago (7-1), Green Bay (6-3) and Minnesota (5-4) are all ahead of them.

If the Lions are going to catch the leaders, or at least make up enough ground to get one of two Wild Cards in the NFC, they’ll have to beat the leaders.

I like the Lions to start making up ground in the North against the  Vikings. They’ll rock one dome before heading home to play three straight under their own roof.

My prediction for Sunday: Lions 27, Vikings 9.

This week’s Friday Focus looks back at the old NFC Central that Moore played in and at why the NFC North is the dominant division of the NFL.

There’s also a key role player for the Lions and a star on the Vikings who has to be contained.

North power:  It is the only one of the league’s eight divisions that doesn’t have a team under .500. The Bears (7-1), Packers (6-3), Vikings (5-4) and Lions (4-4) have a combined won-lost record of 22-12.

The closing schedule favors no one because of intra-division play the rest of the way. The Lions, Vikings and Bears all have four division games left. The Packers have five.

“It’s back-loaded with a lot of NFC North games and everybody’s close enough that you get on a good hot streak, you not only put games in your victory column, but you can put losses in your division opponents’ column,” Coach Jim Schwartz said. “That’s what division games are all about.”

The won-lost records speak for themselves, but there are other reasons why the North ranks as the league’s No. 1 division.  All four teams contribute to making its standing.

Lions: Calvin Johnson is the NFL’s most dominant receiver, and Ndamukong Suh has re-emerged as a force at defensive tackle. The Lions rank first in passing offense, second in total offense and seventh in total defense.

Bears: They are led by the defense. It ranks second in points allowed (15 per game), third in sacks (28), first in total takeaways (28) and first in turnover ratio ( 16). Tim Jennings leads the league with six interceptions.

The offense is challenged, but wide receiver Brandon Marshall is fourth in the league with 59 catches.

Packers: They’re on a roll after a shaky start, with a four-game winning streak to get to 6-3 and within striking range of the first-place Bears.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the reigning league MVP and leads the league with 25 TD passes against only five interceptions.

On defense, the Packers rank second with 29 sacks, led by one of the league’s top pass-rushers in Clay Matthews. He’s second in the league with nine sacks.

Vikings: After a 4-1 start, they’re trying to stop a skid that has seen them go 1-3 and turn a promising season into a white-knuckle flight to the finish.

Adrian Peterson has regained his status as the NFL’s best running back. He leads the NFL with 957 yards and a 5.7-yard average per carry. He is complemented by Percy Harvin, the ultra-versatile wide receiver, who has a league-high 62 receptions.

Harvin isn’t likely to play Sunday because of a severe ankle sprain sustained in last week’s loss at Seattle. He was held in check on offense in a win over the Lions in Game 4, but he returned the opening kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown.

Add up all the highlights – team offense and defense, top quarterback, receivers and running back, defensive stars – and no division has done more than the North.

Central casting: The division’s strength was demonstrated by the number of teams that made the playoffs.

Twice in a four-year span, the Central put four teams in the playoffs – the division winner and three Wild Cards.  It was the Packers in first place both times, with the Lions, Vikings and Bears as wild cards in ’94, and the Lions, Vikings and Bucs in ’97.

“You knew what to expect,” Moore said. “It was like college in a sense. You followed those teams a lot more than anyone else, maybe more than your upcoming opponents.

“You’d know the teams that would always be vying in my era – Minnesota, Chicago and Green Bay.”

The Lions had consistent playoff teams, and Moore was a dominant wide receiver. He made the Pro Bowl four straight years from 1994-97 and set the one-season record with 123 catches in 1995.

Competition in the division brought out the best in everyone. The Lions had Barry Sanders and Moore. Brett Favre won three MVP Awards for the Packers. Cris Carter and Robert Smith were offensive stars on the Vikings. The Bears’ glory had faded, but their name was still legendary.

The challenge this year’s Lions face is similar to that of the Lions of the 1990s.

“It always comes down to those last four or five games that become critical,” Moore said. “You have to win against somebody within the division.

“What I like about what’s happening  is, right now teams play with a little more focus when they know that every game becomes a must.  I see that playing in their favor. They know can’t have false starts. They know can’t give up big plays. Special teams can’t give up points that shouldn’t be allowed.

“I think you’ll find that Coach Schwarz is going to have a much more focused team. It’s win or stay home.”

 

Vikings focus – Adrian Peterson: One word describes Peterson and what he has accomplished this year: amazing.

A torn knee ligament ended his 2011 season in the 15th game, and it was almost a given that it would be several games into the 2012 regular season before he came close to the form that made him the NFL’s best runner.

Peterson made an amazing recovery and has played in every game. He leads the NFL in rushing and has had to carry the Vikings’ offense because of second-year quarterback Christian Ponder’s recent slump.

Peterson rushed for 182 yards and two TDs in last week’s 30-20 loss at Seattle. It wasn’t enough to overcome a rancid performance by Ponder. He passed for 63 yards and took 19 yards in sacks, leaving the Vikings with a net of 44 yards passing.

Peterson almost doubled that on his long run of the game – a 74-yard jaunt in the first half.

In the win over the Lions in Game 4, Peterson rushed for 102 yards and caught four passes for 20 yards. It was a typical good game against the Lions for Peterson. The defense kept him in check reasonably well, but he could break out with a big game at any time.

Peterson has been at his best in the last three games, with 458 yards rushing and four touchdowns.

The pressure is on the Lions’ front four to dominant the Vikings’ offensive line and give the linebackers room to get to Peterson.

Lions focus – Riley Reiff: The Lions’ first-round draft pick has been used more frequently as an extra blocker, and it has paid dividends in the running back and in pass protection.

Reiff played 33-of-71 offense snaps in  last week’s win at Jacksonville. The Lions had 149 yards and four rushing touchdowns, and Matthew Stafford was sacked only once – for no gain on a scramble.

Reiff has made an impact.

“We were counting on him being able to add some beef in there and some help in blocking the edges in the run game and all that stuff,” said offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. “Once he digested that and was able to perform well then, we can kind of add a little bit here, a little bit there each week.”

Minnesota has a tougher run defense than Jacksonville. In the first game, the Lions were held to 55 yards rushing, and the tailbacks contributed only 28 yards on 14 carries.

That’s an even two yards per attempt.

Adrian Peterson is 6-foot-1. Lying down, he’s an inch longer than the Lions’ average gain rushing in their first game against the Vikings.

Special matchup: The difference in the first game was in one matchup. The Vikings won on special teams. They didn’t score an offensive touchdown but returned a kickoff and punt for a touchdown.

The Lions have tightened up coverage since then. They have to keep it that way.