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NFC central

Super bowl prediction: Chicago bears 20, buffalo bills 17. last year, the bears won the division, and—with 20 draft picks this year, including two No. 1's—they are still on the way up.

Jim McMahon is gone, and those who say his feuding with coach Mike Ditka did him in don't understand this team very well. Ditka would have put up with the feud forever. McMahon, however, had lost his team. The tough guys, the ones who used to bang helmets with him, had switched allegiance to Mike Tomczak, who came back from a separated shoulder after three weeks last year and played in pain while McMahon was out with a bad knee. The players may have treated McMahon unfairly—he certainly has played hurt—but it's a hard-eyed world. In trading McMahon to San Diego, Ditka was reading the mood of his veterans.

Tomczak, who will be backed up by young Jim Harbaugh, will have all sorts of weapons to work with. Running back Neal Anderson is coming off a Pro Bowl year. Amazingly, the offensive line remains intact from the Super Bowl season of '85. It's a throwback unit—quick-footed and adept at trapping and pulling out for sweeps—which means less pressure on Tomczak to throw all the time.

Chicago lost All-Pro linebackers Wilber Marshall (to the Redskins as a free agent) and Otis Wilson (because of a knee injury) before last season, and right end Richard Dent broke a leg late in the year. Still, the defense finished second in the NFL. Now the Bears might even have a linebacker who can go into a down-end position for the pass rush. He's John Roper, a second-round rookie who showed exceptional quickness in camp. Both first-round draft choices, defensive end Trace Armstrong and cornerback Donnell Woolford, were late signees, but if they come through, the defense should be something to see.

They are sound, tough and deep. The Bears have the look of a Super Bowl champion.

General manager Mike Lynn appears to have almost exclusive control of the MINNESOTA VIKINGS He makes all final player-personnel decisions. He also keeps salaries low, which further solidifies his control—and causes holdouts. Nine veterans, including five Pro Bowlers from last season and three other starters, held out for at least part of training camp. Five of them missed most or all of it.

Holdouts can either crumble and return to the fold unhappy, as wideout Anthony Carter did, or they can stay out for an entire season, as the newest Viking, linebacker Mike Merriweather, did at Pittsburgh last year. When postmortems for the team are held, people point to "disruptions." What makes people edgy in Minnesota is that the Vikes paid big bucks—reportedly $3.4 million over four years—to get Merriweather. The guys who have been around awhile want some of that money too.

One player Minnesota finally took care of is quarterback Wade Wilson, who had a contract that called for him to earn $250,000 this season and would have made him the league's 57th-highest-paid quarterback. But after he made the Pro Bowl, the Vikes quadrupled that number. So the club does shell out on occasion.

In the end, the Vikes have too much talent, on both sides of the ball, to miss making the playoffs—unless some of those key holdouts stay mad.

Interesting statistic: Last season the DETROIT LIONS, who finished 4-12, held opponents to four first-quarter touchdowns all year. Only one outfit did better than that: the Other Guys. The enemy held Detroit to three first-quarter touchdowns.

Here's a typical Lions game from last year. Defense starts tough. Fans get excited. Linebackers and defensive backs trade high fives on the sideline. Then the Detroit offense goes three downs and out: two runs, an incomplete pass and a punt or, for variety, an incompletion, a run, a sack and a punt. The defense's high fives get lower. Chests heave. Tongues hang out. At last the D collapses, betrayed by an offense that ran fewer plays than anyone else in the NFL last season.

Now the Lions have brought in Mouse Davis (page 66) and his run-and-shoot offense. It'll be called the Silver Stretch: four wideouts, no tight end and an S-back—or single back—on every down. The quarterback will roll out and zip the ball to a bunch of darty little guys running breakoff patterns.

The concept is great; the personnel, well, we'll see. Barry Sanders, the best runner in college last year, was penciled in as the S-back, but he wants more money than the Lions are willing to pay. The receivers? The top one, wideout Pete Mandley, finished 49th in the league in catches last year. Detroit needed new ones. How about second-round pick John Ford? Or Richard Johnson, a free-agent signee who caught 115 passes for Davis's Houston Gamblers of the USFL?

How about the quarterback, who must be nimble of foot? Rodney Peete, Detroit's sixth-round choice, looks destined for the spot, with Bob Gagliano behind him. Given some time to breathe, the defense—with stalwarts like nosetackle Jerry Ball, linebackers Mike Cofer and Chris Spielman, and strong safety Bennie Blades—could be formidable. Look for lots of excitement in the Silverdome this season, but the Lions, Stretch or no Stretch, are a year away.

Good secondary, good linebackers and one of football's most underrated defensive players, rightside linebacker Tim Harris. That combination gave the GREEN BAY PACKERS the fifth-best pass defense and seventh-best overall D in the NFL last year—unusual achievements for a 4-12 team. Now we've covered almost everything good there is to say about the Pack.

Except for one thing: They've signed all their veterans. Which leads to something else: Their No. 1 draft pick, Tony Mandarich, who can get down in a three-point stance and drive-block an 18-wheeler off the highway. But Mandarich expressed deep regret about the seven digits the Pack was offering and spent the summer preparing to challenge Hercules to two out of three falls.

Last year Green Bay finished with its lowest-ever rushing average per game, and we're talking about the dawn of history here, back some 60 years to when NFL statistics were first kept. Yeah, I know, Brent Fullwood is running better, but the Packers need Mandarich to make the attack come together. Let's say that Mandarich eventually starts at a tackle. The other tackle would be Ken Ruettgers, and he's good. Keith Uecker, who will miss the first three games because he tested positive for steroids, would move from tackle to run-blocking guard, for which he's better suited. Left guard Rich Moran is good. These are the makings of a real offensive line, one that could keep Don Majkowski or Randy Wright or Anthony Dilweg from having to face so many third-and-eights.

From 1979 through '82 the TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS went to the playoffs three times. In the six subsequent years they have been the worst team in the NFL, with 21 wins and 74 defeats. The Bucs' closest competitor, Atlanta, has gone 30-64-1 since 1983. In August, Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse said the '79 team—the best of the three playoff teams—was tainted by drugs, which undermined the franchise for years thereafter.

That, folks, is what's known as a cop-out. No team has been more poorly managed in the '80s than the Bucs have been. Employees were fired at all levels, and the best quarterback Tampa Bay ever had, Doug Williams, was allowed to slip away because he wanted a decent wage. Culverhouse is a beauty, all right. In June he announced he might move three home games to Orlando to broaden the fan base. Attendance had gone down, and Culverhouse said he wasn't sure that winning would reverse the trend. Fans were incensed. A billboard on one Tampa highway reads HUGH CULVERHOUSE, and it has a giant screw through it. Culverhouse backed down from his plan to play in Orlando.

Amid this madness, two dedicated people are trying to survive. Ray Perkins, the coach, hopes to get Vinny Testaverde, the quarterback, to cut his league-high 35 interceptions in half. That's a start. The Bucs play sound football. A few of the players, like wideout Bruce Hill and tackle Paul Gruber, are among the league's best at their positions. But you can't expect to move out of the division cellar when eight of your first 11 games are against teams that had 10 or more wins last year.