Sun, Sep 25, 2005 - Page 23 News List

Black-and-blue division may be singing the blues

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

In the NFC North, mediocrity has spread like a virus.

With the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers both 0-2, the NFC North has been the NFL's worst division. The other two teams in the division, the Detroit Lions (1-1) and the Chicago Bears (1-1), also have major flaws, and the NFC North teams are a combined 0-4 so far against opponents outside the division.

It is still early, and the Packers overcame a 1-4 start last season to make the playoffs. But both the Packers and the Vikings are teams in transition, and the changes have not gone smoothly.

Start with Minnesota, which will play host to New Orleans on Sunday. The Vikings may not miss Randy Moss' personality, but they miss his talent. While Moss leads the league in receiving yards with the Oakland Raiders, Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper leads the league in turnovers with eight interceptions.

When Moss was traded, many wondered who would emerge as Culpepper's favorite target. So far, his favorite target has been the opposition. Without Moss around to draw double-team attention, Culpepper has forced throws into heavy traffic, and Cincinnati intercepted him five times during a 37-8 rout last weekend.

Whether the Vikings can turn things around quickly enough to save coach Mike Tice's job remains to be seen. In the off-season, Tice was fined US$100,000 by the league for scalping Super Bowl tickets. He is now in the option year of his contract, working for a new owner, Zygi Wilf, who took over last spring.

Wilf said this week that Tice will "absolutely" remain as coach for the rest of the season. Wilf, in a telephone interview from his business office in Short Hills, New Jersey, said he met with Tice on Monday and never discussed his status.

"That wasn't even brought up," Wilf said. "What we discussed was, pretty much, the season and the long-term philosophy of the organization." Wilf said he remained confident in Tice and his coaches, adding, "There's no question we're going to turn it around."

Support for Tice came from the Vikings' locker room, too. "We've got plenty of good people in this locker room, guys who have proven they can make plays," tight end Jermaine Wiggins said. "We're not playing a four-game season. Everybody's got to relax. That's what Coach Tice has done a good job of doing, telling us to relax."

With Tice needing to jumpstart Minnesota's offense, look for him to become more involved in the offensive game plan and play-calling, now under the direction of Steve Loney. The Vikings' former offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan, joined Nick Saban's staff in Miami.

Green Bay hoped that quarterback Brett Favre's presence would be enough to stabilize its offense, but with each passing year, Favre seems to carry more of a load. The Packers sustained a sharp blow in Week 1, when an Achilles tendon injury ended wide receiver Javon Walker's season. Meanwhile, the Packers lost two reliable offensive guards to free agency during the off-season, so Green Bay's usually reliable running attack is likely to suffer.

The Packers play host to Tampa Bay on Sunday, and the Buccaneers (2-0) are one of seven NFL teams still unbeaten. While the Packers recovered from last year's 1-4 start, they may not be good enough to do that again.

"We're not going to make it look pretty and say, `Well, we've been here before,"' said Packers coach Mike Sherman. "We have 14 games to play and we can't panic. But I don't think you can tell them the glass is half full when it's not."

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