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September 02, 1995

CENTRAL

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Division prediction

If Scott Mitchell picks up where he left off in the exhibition season, the Lions should win the division. The other four teams -- Green Bay, Chicago, Minnesota and Tampa Bay, yes Tampa Bay -- should be in a wide-open battle for the other four spots. Tampa Bay could get out of the cellar for the first time since 1988.

1. Detroit Lions

1994 record: Earned a wild-card spot with a 9-7 record, lost a first-round game to Green Bay.

Coach: Wayne Fontes (52-53).

Key additions: DT Henry Thomas, CB Corey Raymond, OT Zefross Moss, P Mark Royals and DE Luther Elliss.

Key losses: QB Dave Krieg, KR Mel Gray, DE Marc Spindler, LB Broderick Thomas, LB Pat Swilling and G Shawn Bouwens.

Strengths: Barry Sanders, Barry Sanders, Barry Sanders. The problem is the Lions have never had a quarterback to complement him. If Scott Mitchell becomes that quarterback, the Lions could have a balanced offense.

Weaknesses: The defense, which ranked 24th in the league last year, made a major upgrade when it signed Thomas from the Vikings. The Lions also think rookie Elliss will make an immediate impact, but the defense is still vulnerable.

Extra point: This is the year Mitchell has to prove the Lions didn't overpay him a year ago.

2. Green Bay Packers

1994 record: Earned a wild-card spot with a 9-7 record, lost a second-round playoff game in Dallas.

Coach: Mike Holmgren (29-23)

Key additions: WR Mark Ingram, CB Craig Newsome and TE Keith Jackson (if he ever shows up).

Key losses: WR Sterling Sharpe, LB Bryce Paup, TE Ed West,

QB Mark Brunell and RB Reggie Cobb.

Strengths: Brett Favre is emerging as one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and Reggie White and Sean Jones anchor a defense that ranked sixth in the league last year. They're also counting on Edgar Bennett to pep up a running game that was 19th last year.

Weaknesses: The loss of Sharpe will hurt their passing game, and it didn't help that they traded for Jackson but can't persuade him to report.

Extra point: The Packers are on a frustrating plateau. Good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to challenge Dallas or San Francisco.

3. Chicago Bears

1994 record: Earned wild-card spot with a 9-7 record, lost a second-round playoff game at San Francisco.

Coach: Dave Wannstedt (17-17).

Key additions: WR Michael Timpson, S Marty Carter, RB Rashaan Salaam and P Todd Sauerbrun.

Key losses: DE Trace Armstrong, S Maurice Douglass, S Shaun Gayle and LB Dante Jones.

Strengths: Wannstedt is rapidly building a reputation as a superb coach. Nobody can figure out how he got a playoff berth out of a team that ranked 23rd on offense and 24th against the run. He's counting on rookie Salaam.

Weaknesses: Wannstedt's weakness seems to be evaluating quarterbacks. In 1993, he bet on Jim Harbaugh and lost. Last season, he paid big money for Erik Kramer, who promptly lost the job to Steve Walsh. Kramer is back this year, but he's still not the answer.

Extra point: This is the 10th anniversary of the Bears' Super Bowl Shuffle, and Chicago fans will remember the way they were.

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