Northern Issues

Green Bay begins their defense of the NFC North title, but it won't be easy for the Packers to repeat as they've taken a step back while the rest of the teams took a step forward.

CHICAGO BEARS * Top draft picks: DE Michael Haynes, Penn State; Rex Grossman, QB, Florida.
* Who's new: TE Desmond Clark, QB Kordell Stewart.
* Who's gone: LB Rosevelt Colvin, RB Leon Johnson, QB Jim Miller, S Damon Moore, WR Marcus Robinson, OT James Williams.
* Key player: LB Brian Urlacher. Besides receiver Marty Booker, no other player has been as consistent the past two seasons. Urlacher has come into his own, and is regarded -- and respected -- as one of the game's best. Will need a breakout year if the Bears are going to make the playoffs.
* Key game: Green Bay on Sept. 29. It's the first game at new Soldier Field, and gives the Bears a chance to show what they've got in a Monday night game in front of millions of TV viewers. Brett Favre is on the other side, but the Bears are finally home after playing in Champaign all of last season. Also, first home game of the season after two road games and a bye.
* The Bears have the best: Long-snapper and kicker in the NFC North. Pat Mannelly's quick release and accurate delivery has helped the Bears to their NFL record of 180 straight games without a punt being blocked -- dating back to 1991. Paul Edinger is the most accurate kicker in Bears history, connecting on over 80 percent of his field-goal attempts.
* Don't be surprised if: The Bears go 6-10. With Green Bay twice, Oakland, San Diego, St. Louis, Denver, Kansas City and San Francisco on the schedule, Chicago doesn't have the easiest road out of the division.

* Top draft pick:
Charles Rogers, WR, Michigan State.
* Who's new: CB Dre Bly, RB Shawn Bryson, LB Earl Holmes, LB Walt Rainer, CB Chris Watson.
* Who's gone: LB Chris Claiborne, WR Germane Crowell, WR Larry Foster, WR Jacquez Green, KR Desmond Howard, DT Travis Kirschke, LB Clint Kriewaldt, S Todd Lyght.
* Key player: QB Joey Harrington. His second year in the offense and a slew of new offensive weapons should give Harrington plenty of room for improvement.
* Key game: Sept. 14 at Green Bay. The Lions never play well on the road, and this gives Harrington a chance to show what he's got against the best – Brett Favre.
* The Lions have the best: Young quarterback in the division. Harrington can be a star in the league if he doesn't force the issue, much like he did after a solid start last season. Harrington is smart and extremely accurate. He just needs to develop, and now has the weapons around him to make a difference.
* Don't be surprised if: President and CEO Matt Millen is fired after the season. This is year three of the Millen reign, and if the Lions don't make huge strides in the win column, Millen might be back on TV as a color analyst.

* Top draft pick:
Nick Barnett, LB, Oregon State.
* Who's new: OG David Brandt, CB Al Harris, FB Nick Luchey, LB Hannibal Navies, DE Chukie Nwokorie, OG/C Grey Ruegamer.
* Who's gone: S Matt Bowen, WR Terry Glenn, DE Vonnie Holliday, DL Billy Lyon, CB Tod McBride, LB Nate Wayne, CB Tyrone Williams.
* Key player: QB Brett Favre. Nobody's done it better for this long. The Packers go as Favre goes, and even mention of his retirement hasn't slowed this difference maker down.
* Key game: Nov. 10 against the Eagles. Some think this might be a preview of a possible playoff matchup. Maybe even for the NFC Championship? Favre vs. Donovan McNabb. Could it be a possible passing of the torch and Favre's final game in the NFL?
* The Packers have the best: Running back in the division. Ahmad Green continues to get better and he makes it so much easier on Favre and the passing game. He wasn't even close to 100 percent last season, but showed his toughness by sticking it out. Another pick is coach Mike Sherman, one of the most underrated coaches in the league.
* Don't be surprised if: The Packers defense keeps them from getting double-digits in wins. We know the offense can hold its own, but the defense took a lot of hits in the offseason. The Pack has arguably the best set of corners in the NFC North in Mike McKenzie and newcomer Al Harris (Eagles), but the linebacking corps and defensive front have holes to fill.

* Top draft pick:
Kevin Williams, DT, Oklahoma State.
* Who's new: LB Chris Claiborne, QB Gus Frerotte, CB Ken Irvin, DL Billy Lyon, OT Mike Rosenthal, CB Denard Walker.
* Who's gone: QB Todd Bouman, LB Patrick Chukwurah, FB Harold Morrow, P Kyle Richardson, LB Antonio Wilson.
* Key player: Wide receiver Randy Moss. He isn't the most well-liked guy, but Moss remains in the NFL's elite class of receivers. A difficult matchup for any DB, Moss had 20 catches of more than 20 yards last season.
* Key game: Sept. 14 against the Bears. Both teams have major question marks. This will be a game that tells us a little about the Vikings, especially against a decent Bears defense.
* The Vikings have the best: Concession prices in the NFC North. Beer ($4), pop ($2.50) and hot dogs ($3) are cheaper than anywhere else, and a lot lower than the NFL average. Prices at new Soldier Field include: beer for $5, pop for $3.50 and hot dogs for $3.50. On the down side, the Vikings have the most expensive tickets ($56.37) in the division.
* Don't be surprised: If a revamped defense and upgraded offensive line leads the Vikings back to the playoffs. RB Michael Bennett needs to get healthy, but Minnesota has a realistic shot of being respectable this season.

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