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There are two ways to look at the Chicago Bears. In the context of this division the Bears—presto!—are an instant playoff team. We're talking about a division that includes Detroit, Tampa Bay and Green Bay, a trio that has had only two winning seasons (Lions in 1983, Packers in '89) since the nine-game strike season of '82. Minnesota, the only challenger to Chicago, has troubles of its own. So the Bears are a sure thing to make the playoffs, but how far do they go? They get through the first round, and then the music stops.

The main reason is the quarterbacking, which has been unable to bring the team from behind. The off-season talk was about second-year man Peter Tom Willis, who completed nine of 13 passes late in the season and looked ready to give Jim Harbaugh a run for the job. Boy, do they love backup quarterbacks in this town. In '82, Bears fans booed Bob Avellini and got Jim McMahon. Then they booed McMahon and got Mike Tomczak, and they booed Tomczak and got Harbaugh. They were all set to boo Harbaugh when Willis showed, in the preseason, that he couldn't get the job done.

Harbaugh is a decent enough quarterback—within the offensive scheme. Low risk, low production. The Bears had the least passing yardage of any NFL team last year. They were top-heavy in running, and when the Giants massed their defense to stop the ground attack in the divisional playoffs, it was all over. Tomczak was Chicago's quarterback that day, but he's gone now—a Plan B free agent who signed with Green Bay.

Coach Mike Ditka says he'll back off and let offensive coordinator Greg Landry do more play-calling, or maybe it's the other way around. I lose track. The offensive line is showing cracks. Only right guard Tom Thayer did not have off-season surgery, and left tackle Jimbo Covert is out for the season after surgery on his back. First-round pick Stan Thomas of Texas seemed a little shaky on the sacking side, so the Bears acquired veteran tackle Ron Mattes from the Jets in a trade.

Defense and running will keep Chicago on top of the division, though, and how can you not like second-round pick Chris Zorich, the Notre Dame defensive tackle who looked like a Chicago Bear when he was in the cradle?

I was surprised when Minnesota Vikings coach Jerry Burns fired two veteran coordinators, Bob Schnelker (offense) and Floyd Peters (defense). Burns, who spent 30 years in the trenches as an assistant, has always been protective of those under him, but I guess he's feeling the heat.

This team has too much talent, especially on defense now that lineman Keith Millard is back, to go down the tubes again, but I wonder about an offense that is supposed to be built around someone as spoiled as Herschel Walker. He doesn't like to run from split backs, he doesn't like his paycheck.... O.K., what does he like? The new one-back formation, they say. We'll see.

The quarterback situation has been deteriorating since Wade Wilson had his Pro Bowl season in '88. Wilson is 32 and coming off an injury-plagued year, but no one is seriously challenging him for his job, not even Rich Gannon, who started 12 games last year in his place. When Wilson was the starter last season, the Vikings were 1-3.

This is a team of hothouse flowers. The Vikings can't seem to win a game in the open air. Outside of domed stadiums, they have lost their last nine, 13 of their last 14. This year they've got a half dozen games outdoors. All right, New England is one of them. That doesn't count.

The NFC Central's B Division title is up for grabs. A 6-10 record will probably win it. It usually does. The Tampa Bay Bucs get the nod, because their new defensive coordinator, Floyd Peters, is that good. A year and a half ago he was one of the hot names for a head coaching spot. Then he was out of a job. Hey, you don't slip that much in one season.

The defensive line is Peters's specialty, the pass rush in particular, and last year the Bucs got only 9.5 sacks from their linemen. That will be fixed. The new face on the front four is Keith McCants, who played outside linebacker for Tampa Bay last year.

The Bucs have some big names on offense—quarterback Vinny Testaverde, wideout Mark Carrier, running back Gary Anderson, and two rookies, tackle Charles McRae from Tennessee and fullback Robert Wilson, the demon blocker from Texas A&M—but the guy I like most is Ron Hall, the best tight end nobody ever heard of. Hall can do it all: catch, block, watch films. Too bad tight ends aren't featured anymore.

In 1989, the Green Bay Packers' only winning season in the last eight, the Majik show was playing in all theaters. Since then, Don Majkowski has been in the news, but not in ways the fans enjoy: He has renegotiated his contract, sued the league over free agency and hurt his right shoulder. Give us touchdowns, the fans cry. Give us magic.

Well, the first team Majik and the Packers will be looking at when the season opens is the Eagles, and that means Tony Mandarich versus Reggie White, a matchup overwhelmingly in Philadelphia's favor and one that cost the Pack backup quarterback Anthony Dilweg last season. If Majkowski survives that game, he might be asking, How do we run the ball enough to keep those guys off me?

Last year's leading rusher was Michael Haddix, with 311 yards, which ranked him 58th in the NFL. Haddix was cut in the preseason, and third-round pick Chuck Webb hurt his right knee on the second day of practice. So 215-pound Darrell Thompson, who's entering his second season, will have to come through.

Linebacker Tim Harris, who can usually be counted on for a sack or two a game, was shifted all over the place last year. Consequently, his sacks dropped from 19½ in 1989 to seven in '90. One more piece of bad news: Inside linebacker Brian Noble, the team's sturdiest run stopper, suffered a partial tear of a ligament in his right knee in camp. His status is unknown. And so is Green Bay's.

You've got the Oilers' run-and-shoot, and then you've got the Detroit Lions' version of that four-wideout attack. Houston produced more yardage than any other team in the NFL last season. The Lions? Well, they got some yards, but their time of possession was dead last, and the defense, summoned relentlessly to strap on the helmets, finished 28th too.

The obvious conclusion is that formations don't win games, people do, and Detroit is lacking in the people department. Quarterback Rodney Peete can't stay healthy, and Andre Ware hasn't shown he can play run-and-shoot in the NFL. Ware is a long-ball thrower who has been asked to dink. Erik Kramer, a free agent last year, will mind the store until Peete gets over assorted muscle pulls.

The Lions lost wideout Richard Johnson, their leading pass catcher, to Plan B. June Jones, a coach who specializes in the run-and-shoot, escaped to Atlanta. Herman Moore, Detroit's No. 1 draft pick, out of Virginia, was given a starting wideout spot before he reported to camp. Now the Lions say they'll run some plays from conventional sets. They even have a tight end this season, Eugene Riley. Still, I have to question an offense that's not built around Barry Sanders, the game's most talented runner.

The defense might be interesting, though. Detroit has gone to a 4-3, which means that nosetackle Jerry Ball should raise plenty of hell, matched up against a guard; that Chris Spielman should feel right at home at middle linebacker; and that Mike Cofer, a linebacker in previous seasons, should be effective as a pure rusher from defensive end.




Chicago's defense went on the offensive with Mark Carrier's league-high 10 interceptions.