Ravens get break facing NFC North

1-2 team aiming to feast on what NFL's weakest division serves up

October 06, 2005|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

The Ravens are about to get what appears to be a generous gift from the scheduling gods.

The NFC North.

Beginning with Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, the Ravens will play nearly a third of their remaining games against what has been chronically the NFL's weakest division. So far this season, its four teams have just three wins.

Making up the heart of what was once the NFL's feared Black and Blue Division, the Lions, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings collectively have been in a dismal slide since the league realigned in 2002 into eight four-team divisions.

Since then, the NFC North has had an 88-118 record, the worst divisional performance in the league. This year, the division is 3-11, with two of the wins coming in intra-divisional games.

The timing couldn't be better for the offensively sluggish Ravens (1-2).

"When the season started, a lot of us had high hopes for the Ravens," said former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann, an ESPN analyst. "And to be honest, the Ravens might be playing a division that they're on the same level with at the moment. You have to ask how long that [Baltimore] defense can protect the offense."

The most downtrodden team in the struggling NFC North has been the Lions. With just one winning season in the past seven, Detroit - off to a 1-2 start - has failed to find and develop a playoff-caliber quarterback.

Joey Harrington, in his fourth year as the Lions' starter, had a decent 2004 with 19 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and a 77.5 passer rating. But although the Lions continued to surround him with receiving help, he has slipped this season with just three touchdown tosses, five interceptions and a 57.3 rating.

Similarly, Chicago - the Ravens' opponent Oct. 23 - has had quarterback problems with rookie Kyle Orton filling in for injured Rex Grossman. Orton has just one touchdown pass and six interceptions for the 1-2 Bears.

And while the Packers' Brett Favre and the Vikings' Daunte Culpepper have Hall of Fame and Pro Bowl credentials, respectively, neither is having a stellar year. Culpepper has thrown 10 interceptions as the Vikings have slumped to 1-3, and Favre is having, for him, a mediocre start with Green Bay foundering at 0-4.

"My belief in the 38 years that I was in the league is that it starts with the quarterback," said Ron Wolf, the former Packers general manager who was in the Green Bay front office when the club traded for Favre in 1992. "If you don't have a quarterback, it's no fun going to work on Sunday."

After the Ravens play the Bears at Soldier Field in a few weeks, they'll face seven conference foes until mid-December, when they take on the Packers (Dec. 19) and Vikings (Dec. 25) in back-to-back games at M&T Bank Stadium. By then, any NFC North team with eight victories probably will be the favorite to win the division.

"The Bears are playing a little better defense than offense. The Packers' offense is probably better than the defense. Right now, nothing is working for the Viking. And with Detroit, who knows?" Theismann said.

Former Pro Bowl defensive lineman Bill Maas, a Fox analyst, said that the Black and Blue Division stopped being that when West Coast-offense coaches took over, such as Mike Holmgren in Green Bay and Dennis Green in Minnesota.

While it spelled success for the franchises where the system was effectively employed, it changed the complexion of the division. Also contributing to a different style of play is that two NFC North teams, Minnesota and Detroit, have been playing in domed stadiums.

"In the old days, it was Green Bay with a great running game, and Chuck Foreman in Minnesota, and Walter Payton in Chicago," Maas said. "They lined up toe to toe, played great defense and knocked the heck out of each other. Today, they have all these tricky names for these offensive schemes but this is really a simple game. If you can knock somebody off the line of scrimmage and run the ball for 3 yards, you pull that safety up into the box and now you can do a lot more."

Although Holmgren and Green have moved on to other teams, finesse offenses are still the rule in the NFC North. The Lions are coached by Steve Mariucci, an heir through Holmgren of the Bill Walsh offensive legacy.

The exception, Maas said, is Chicago, where coach Lovie Smith is trying to return hard-nose football to the Bears.

"When you sit in a meeting with one of these pass-oriented offensive coaches like [the St. Louis Rams'] Mike Martz, it really is genius what they're trying to do," Maas said. "But it still comes down to the fundamentals, and if you don't do those things, it'll come back to bite you."

In the meantime, the Ravens need to capitalize on the schedule advantage they appear to have. After the Lions, the Ravens play Cleveland and Chicago. Then, it's a seven-game run that includes two games each against divisional foes Pittsburgh (2-1) and Cincinnati (4-0).

"In the NFL, you can hide for only so long," Theismann said, "because in the end, the big boys are always waiting."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

Ravens@Lions Sunday, 1 p.m., Ch. 13, 1300 AM, 102.7 FM Line: Lions by 1 1/2

The North goes south

Since realignment, the NFC North has had the worst cumulative record among the NFL's eight divisions.

Regular season

2002 25-39

2003 31-33

2004 29-35

2005 3-11

Total 88-118

Against AFC

2002 5-11

2003 9-7

2004 6-10

2005 0-3

Total 20-31

Playoffs 2-4

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