Too early to crown an NFC North champ

Spencer Chase

This past weekend was a doozy in the NFC North. The two teams that were supposedly down and out (after five games, mind you) posted victories, and one team that was on the rise lost. The other team stayed home, napped and ended up leading the division at the end of the day.

The fact is that everyone is being way too reactionary at this point in the season. As far as this division goes, I think the Bears and the Lions are thinking along the right pathway. The Bears know they have the potential to be really good and the Lions know they’re in trouble. That’s pretty factual.

But then there’s Minnesota and Green Bay. For Minnesota, their improbable 4-1 start was the sign of a turnaround. They were in serious playoff consideration, Christian Ponder was on the verge of becoming a young elite quarterback and Percy Harvin was the early MVP favorite. Yes, these are all things I was told by actual Vikings fans.

I’ll agree with about half of those points. Are the Vikings on a turnaround? Yes. Hard to argue with that after they already have more wins this season than they did in 2011. Are they in playoff consideration? There’s a chance, but have you checked the last six games on their schedule? A double-dip of both Chicago and Green Bay, and twin road games to St. Louis and Houston.

And then there’s Ponder. Yes, Ponder is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and throwing for just shy of 240 yards per game, but he’s also 2 for 8 on passes over 20 yards and is protected by an outstanding running back that defenses have to respect. An elite quarterback is someone you can build an offense, a team, or a franchise around. Ponder is striking me as more of a very good game manager right now, maybe headed for an Alex Smith type of career.

But what about Harvin? He can do so much! He’s all over the field! Teams can’t stop him! He’s the obvious MVP! But here’s the cold hard truth: Harvin is just having a really good personal year, not exactly one that puts him on the level of the most valuable player in football. He’s sixth in receiving in the league. Impressive? Yes, but he’s got the return game too — a category in which he’s fifth in the league, and he’s yet to touch a punt return. And the always talked-about rushing attempts? He actually has 15 attempts for 63 yards … on the year. Am I saying he isn’t a good all-around player? Of course not. But how can someone make a legitimate argument for MVP when Matt Ryan and J.J. Watt are having the seasons that they are having?

As for Green Bay, it’s no secret that their 3-3 start was a little rougher than anticipated. But for some reason, the loss to Indianapolis signified the beginning of the end for the core group that won a Super Bowl one year and then went 15-1 the next. How does that make sense?

Hopefully, not too much will be made of the Packers’ win over the Texans. That was a rare firing-on-all cylinders performance that is hard to duplicate. But at the same time, we all should have known better. This offense is missing basically one key component, Greg Jennings, who continues to battle through injury from the 2011 lightning rod campaign. The defense has an improved pass rush that forces teams to focus on someone other than Clay Matthews every once in a while. It’s pretty hard to write this team off because of their strong, top-to-bottom veteran presence and the fact that they do have one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Also, remember the rough end of the schedule the Vikings will face? The Packers record actually gets softer as the season progresses.

So with all things considered, the verdict is: Wait until the end of Week 17 to issue a verdict. There is no reason why either shouldn’t be in the playoff discussion, but to call either team a contender right now would be ridiculous. They will both win and lose games as the season progresses, but as of right now, they’re both playing catch-up to a Bears team with the highest point differential in the league.

Both teams have an uphill battle, so just keep calm and fan on.