NFC North News

The Bears have Lions have been the two busiest teams in the division this off-season and plan on contending for a postseason birth this year.

The Lions have won only 10 games total in the past three seasons, but coach Steve Mariucci believes they can contend in the NFC North as soon as this fall.

But his theory is based at least partly on wishful thinking that the other teams in the division - Green Bay, Minnesota and Chicago - don't suddenly catch fire.

Mariucci was asked during the NFL owners meetings last week if he felt the Lions had made enough progress in free agency - with the draft coming up later this month - to compete in the division.

"Yes, I think so," he said. "When you go through these cycles within a division, you hope that there's a certain ebb and flow where those teams like us get better. The good teams lose some players.

"Obviously, we're making a push to move up. You hope that Green Bay's not quite as good."

The Lions have made four major free agent signings that - on paper, at least - look good. They have landed guard Damien Woody, cornerback Fernando Bryant, wide receiver Tai Streets and safety Brock Marion.

They still have major holes to fill, however. They need a starting linebacker to replace Barrett Green (lost to the NY Giants) and a starting guard to replace Ray Brown, who retired. In addition they need playmakers - a running back, a wide receiver and another tight end.

And there is a strong likelihood they will have to depend heavily on players taken in the draft.

"I've been in that boat before where you just draft them and start them, and then you hang on," Mariucci said. "We're going to be in that boat."

If things had turned out the way the Packers planned last season, they would have played the Carolina Panthers at Ericsson Stadium in the NFC Championship Game. Instead, they were eliminated in overtime at the divisional level by the Philadelphia Eagles.

In September, eight months later, the Packers will get a chance to play Carolina in the opening Monday night game of the regular season.

"It's a pleasant surprise," Packers President Bob Harlan said. "I think it shows the popularity of the franchise and what the Packers mean to television. We're playing the NFC champions. I think it's a salute to the Packers. From that standpoint, it's great."

From a competitive standpoint, the game will be no easier than the '03 opener when the Packers took on a fired-up Minnesota team at Lambeau Field and were pounded, 30-25. That loss was only their third in their last 11 openers.

The last time the Packers opened the regular season on the road was 1996 when they defeated Tampa Bay, 34-3, en route to the Super Bowl. The last time they opened on Monday night was in 1997, when they beat Chicago, 38-24, at Lambeau Field.

"It's been awhile since we've opened on the road," Harlan said. "But we didn't make any requests. We did last year because of the stadium dedication. It was the first time I ever remember asking the league to give us a home game. This is very unusual for us to open on the road. It's been a long time."

One of the down sides for the Packers is that their final two exhibition games will be played on the road in Jacksonville and Tennessee. That means the Packers will travel for at least three straight games.

However, their final exhibition game is Sept. 3, giving them 10 days to rest and prepare for the Panthers.

"Those games (exhibition) are different," Harlan said. "It's not like traveling three weeks in a row during the regular season. I'm hoping we're home Week 2, coming back late at night from Carolina like that. Even though we don't know, I'm sure hoping we're home."

Vikings owner Red McCombs continues to whine about instant replay and the final play of the Vikings' meltdown of 2003.

At the league meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. this week, McCombs jokingly rose from his chair to object when a highlight video of Arizona receiver Nate Poole's touchdown reception that ended the Vikings' season was shown to the owners by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

McCombs has complained since the end of the season that the officials blew the call on Poole's touchdown. He -- and many others who bleed Purple -- insists official ruled incorrectly that Poole would have come down in bounds had he not been pushed by safety Brian Russell. That ruling on the field prevented replay officials from reviewing anything except whether Poole caught the ball.

McCombs has used the play to argue that owners need to correct the flaws of replay or get rid of it altogether.

"We have a lot of things to improve upon in instant replay," he said. "We're a long way from it being as good as it can be."

According to Tagliabue, a plea by McCombs to his fellow owners helped convince enough of them to scrap the idea of making instant replay a permanent rule. By a 29-3 vote, the owners agreed to extend replay for another five years.

"I felt like there would have been more pressure toward improving it if we had a five-year period and then address it again," McCombs said.

Now, all the Vikings need to do is correct the fact they blew an 11-point lead -- and a seemingly playoff lock after a 6-0 start to the season -- with six minutes left against an Arizona team that was 3-12 at the time.

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