Nobody's ever heard me utter a good word for the NFC Central. As an ex-Chicagoan (ergo a Bear fan), I've watched too many 10-6 contests. For decades, this division has, on the whole, stunk. So, if I say -- and I do -- that the Central looks hot this year, it should carry some weight. The reason? Everyone's trying to keep up with Green Bay, once the quintessentially drab Central team, even the sorry ass Tampa Bay Bucs. Every year, I keep writing that Trent Dilfer isn't as bad as he seems. Every year, he keeps proving me wrong. I swear, one of these days you're going to get sick of Dilfer doing those sappy, post-Super Bowl, "No Dick, I never lost confidence in myself" interviews. Two first-round picks, dedicated to offense, will help Trent look better and improve the worst offense in the NFL. Biggest improvement? The new uniforms! This is a decent football team playing in a tough, tough division. If I lived in the Midwest, I'd be developing a nice, clean dislike for Green Bay and those stupid cheeseheads. That said, the team is loaded, looking a lot like the 1995 Cowboys. Most impressive: hardly any free-agent defections. Behind the justified Brett Favre hype is the fact that the Packers were the first team in 24 years to lead the league in both most points scored and fewest points allowed. I can't wait until Nov. 23, when the Packers finally get the Cowdogs in Lambeau Field. Detroit, the league's best offense two years ago, dropped off the cliffs of hell last year. A demoralized, disinterested, but talented batch of Lions lost nine of their last 10. This year, a new coach and a new offense -- placing less reliance on Scott Mitchell and giving Barry Sanders some blocking for the first time in his career. A solid defense, a punter from Dallas and a favorable schedule make Detroit a solid wild-card possibility. The Vikings will live and die with a basically untested but rich quarterback, Brad Johnson. Two excellent receivers, Chris Carter and Jake Reed, plus an always respectable defense, will be good for nine wins. Even the dog-ass Bears seem improved. Two decent QBs, plus two good running backs, will help last year's pitiful offense. Defensive "genius" Dave Wannstedt needs to stop somebody on third down or he's history in Chicago. Incredibly, the Bears have not won a winter game away from Soldier Field in five years! A distant longshot to make the playoffs.
Turning to the NFC East: I start every season with one fervent desire: a 0-16 season in Dallas. So much for wishful thinking. The Cowboy defense, with only one player who comes quickly to mind, gave up only 20 touchdowns in 1996. Aikman rarely gets touched, but it's not enough. Call me a goofy-eyed optimist, but with a killer schedule, this aging team will be lucky to win nine games. I think, between Rodney Peete and Ty Detmer, you have less than one average quarterback. Fact is, I don't know shit. Peete, somehow, has won 13 of his 19 starts. When he's not hurt (every other quarter) Detmer (with a better yardage per pass than Aikman) helped the Eagles lead the NFC in -- say what! -- total offense. A lunatic running back and a Cowboy kicker give hope. The Ronald Reagan of the NFL is Norv Turner. Despite having taken over a Washington team only a few years removed from the Super Bowl, Turner, sporting an ugly 18-30 record, is still happily employed. A fantastic statistic: The Giants scored four, that's four, rushing TDs all last year!! Jesus! Needless to say, this was piss-poor offense, one that a few good draft picks are not going to fix. This is a bad football team. Arizona's not had a winning season since 1984. Why should this year be any different? Sighing, deflated, reality sets in: Cowboys by default.
And in the NFC West: This year's most overrated team is the Carolina Panthers. Last year's eight season-ending wins were against teams with a combined 110-146 record. The price for NFL fame and glory? Twin killers: high expectations and a murderous schedule. Still, they've made a longtime 49er cakewalk competitive. If the offensive line can keep Young from being killed, this is an improved team. A healthy William Floyd, a happy Garrison Hurst, and a sweet second round pick in Notre Dame's Marc Edwards remove the flag football stench of the last few years. I chuckled, like you did, when the Rams hired Dick Vermeil. To Dick's credit, though, he's assembled an all-star staff. Two good receivers, a maybe QB, a maybe running back, and a bad defense would make Saint Vince himself look bad. Mike Ditka won't allow the Saints to only win three games. They'll look better and play harder and win, maybe, six. First the Giants and now the Falcons. What kind of devilish, hateful fetish lurks in the heart of Dan Reeves?
Next week: the AFC.