There was a time if someone said football, you thought of the ‘Monsters of the Midway,’ Vince Lombardi or the ‘Purple People Eaters.’
The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field, Metropolitan Stadium and Soldier Field were places opposing teams feared to enter.
Players called ‘Night' Train,’ Butkis, Nitschke, Eller, ‘Blood’ McNally and ‘Danimal’ prowled the fields like starving predators hungry for the kill.
Close your eyes when thinking of these names and places, the film playing though your head is sepia toned. The only color; blood red.
But since changing from the NFC Central to the NFC North in 2002, the Lions and Vikings and Bears (oh my!) and the Packers have been more like one of the heard than top of the food chain. The toughness, swagger and attitude of the old days are almost gone. The physical and bloody battles that led to the moniker ‘Black and Blue’ division seems like a thing of the past.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting the NFC ‘Norris’ has lost its spine all together. Those four teams still play tough against one another. Even the Lions usually play up when going against fellow division rivals.
Nevertheless, the dominance of the NFC North over teams invading our boarders, and the success in the playoffs, has become an endangered species.
The NFC North has a combined overall home record of 123-101 (.549 winning percentage) since ‘02. Interestingly, the Bears, Packers and Vikings each own identical 34-22 (.607) home records over this period. The Lions contributed a 21-35 record (.375).
A .549 winning percentage doesn’t seem that bad until you look at the NFC East’s impressive 130-94 (.580) record. The Eagles are tops with a 37-19 record (.660), Dallas owns a 35-21 (.625) record while the Giants and Washington each bring up the rear of the division, with 29-27 records (.517).
When teams outside the NFC North come to visit, the division is 72-68 (.514). Hardly a home field advantage. Overall, the NFC North is an anemic 121-159 (.432) when playing opponents from outside the division.
But wait, it gets worse for the ‘Black and Blue’ come playoff time.
In the last seven years since the realignment, the NFC North is the only division in the NFL to send just one wild card team to the playoffs, the 8-8 Vikings in 2004. Even the “weak” NFC West and Patriot-dominated AFC East have each sent two wild card teams into the playoffs.
The South is the standard-bearer in the AFC with six wild card teams since ’02. The big boys in the NFC are, of course, the East with a whopping eight wild card teams. That means they have sent 15 teams into the playoffs in seven years to the NFC North’s eight. That is dominance.
The North has an overall playoff record of 5-8, with a 4-5 home record. Only the Bears have a winning home playoff record during this time (2-1), but are only .500 overall in the playoffs (2-2). They also boast the only trip to the Super Bowl during this time. The Vikings are 1-2 in their two playoff seasons, losing their only home playoff game to the Eagles in ’07. Detroit has yet to make the playoffs as a North division team.
The biggest dent in the ‘Black and Blue’ armor came as the first NFC North champions, the Packers, lost for the first time at home in the playoffs since 1933. The Packers had previously been 13-0 in home playoff games, and 11-0 at Lambeau (2-0 in Milwaukee). With that loss, the Packers are 2-4 in the playoffs, and 2-3 at Lambeau since.
It seems to have all gone down hill for the North after that.
Recently the NFC North boasted the NFL’s first 0-16 team in history. It has been embarrassed by events like the “Love Boat,” something called a “Whizzinator” and a legendary quarterback who created a drama by retiring, changing his mind, being traded, retiring again and hinting to come back to play for his old team’s rival. It was truly worthy of soap opera status.
So what does the NFC North need to do to reclaim its swagger?
The Vikings currently boast one of the best running games in the NFL, and a stingy run defense to match. Many consider them the favorites to win the division again. But how will they fare against non-division teams?
The Bears defense, historically solid, has been a little shaky of late, but should be better this year. Plus they brought in what could be their best quarterback since Sid Luckman.
The Packers fell from 13-3 to 6-10 last year. The reasons for that could be debated until America’s Dairyland cows come home. A conversion to the 3-4 defense could cure what ailed them in ’08.
As for the Lions? Well, every family needs its red headed stepchild. But a strong off-season of free agent accusations and a solid draft should help. There is nowhere to go but up after an 0-16 season.
No matter which NFC North team you root for, you should want the division to get better. Even if a hated rival improves, that should only make your team better. As each team gets better, our results in home games and the playoffs will improve. And isn’t that what playing the games is all about?
The ‘Black and Blue’ division is the stuff of legends. But lately those legends seem to be a distant memory. Lets all hope that changes soon and a pack of predators is unleashed in the North, and teams from other lands will once again fear to tread into our lairs.