Scouting the North

The Packers and Vikings are the favorites heading in, but the Bears and Lions have taken major steps to improve themselves in the off-season.

* Top draft pick:
DT Tommie Harris, Oklahoma.

* Who's new: Coach Lovie Smith, OL John Tait, RB Thomas Jones, DE Adewale Ogunleye, OL Ruben Brown, DT Tank Johnson, WR Bernard Berrian.

* Who's gone: Coach Dick Jauron and company, DT Keith Traylor, WR Marty Booker, OL Chris Villarrial, QB Kordell Stewart, QB Chris Chandler.

* Key player: Rex Grossman. The young QB is 2-1 as a starter, but this is now his team to lead. Grossman has a group of young receivers, but the future of the franchise is in his hands, although a case can be made for Jones, who has looked good in the preseason and needs to be consistent for Grossman to open up the passing game. Same goes for Ogunleye, who had 15 sacks last season in Miami (the Bears had 18 as a team), and who immediately upgrades the pass rush.

* Key games: Sept. 19 at Green Bay. It will be the team's first road game and a chance to see Grossman perform against legendary counterpart Brett Favre. The Bears have never been successful in Green Bay, but this will be an early measuring stick for this team. Smith has instilled a new attitude in this bunch and there's no tougher place to play than at Lambeau Field. Also, the Bears welcome Mt. Carmel's Donovan McNabb and the Eagles on Oct. 3, the Colts on Nov. 21 and the rival Packers again on Dec. 2. Could be some interesting matchups.

* The Bears have the best: Up-and-coming defensive line. With rookie defensive tackles Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson, young defensive ends in Michael Haynes and Alex Brown, and now the addition of All-Pro DE Adewale Ogunleye, this group really solidifies the defense.

* Don't be surprised if: The Bears make the playoffs. The team finished 7-9 last season with lesser talent and added plenty of firepower this off-season to increase their wild-card hopes.

* Top draft picks:
WR Roy Williams, Texas; RB Kevin Jones, Virginia Tech.

* Who's new: OL Damien Woody, WR Tai Streets (Thornton), CB Fernando Bryant, S Brock Marion, LB Teddy Lehman. * Who's gone: WR Bill Schroeder, RB James Stewart, LB Barrett Green, LB Jeff Gooch, S Corey Harris, DT Luther Elliss.

* Key player: Joey Harrington. The development of the third-year QB is crucial for the Lions. At times Harrington has shown flashes he can be a star – like three touchdowns in a season-ending win over the Rams last season -- but he hasn't played with consistency during his brief NFL career. He has to be the guy in 2004, and the Lions have put the offensive weapons around him to make it happen.

* Key game: Sept. 12 at the Bears. Call it ironic scheduling by the NFL office, but having the Lions open up the 2004 campaign at Soldier Field -- with Dick Jauron now serving as Detroit's defensive coordinator -- makes for great motivation on both sidelines. This will be a chance for Jauron to put the pie back in Jerry Angelo's face or an opportunity for Lovie Smith to come out and prove he was the right man for the job. It's also a big opening for both QBs.

The Bears' Grossman and Detroit's Harrington need to emerge.

* The Lions have the best: Duo of receivers in the division. Minnesota's Randy Moss is the best, but the twosome of Charles Rogers and Roy Williams will make any defensive coordinator sweat. The youngsters still have a lot to prove, but the possibilities are endless with this dynamic pair.

* Don't be surprised if: The Lions break their 24-game road losing streak. The team hasn't won since Week 16 against the Jets of the 2000 season. Then again, don't be surprised if the Lions flop again. Arguably the worst team in the division, Detroit has some great young stars on offense, but the defense is a whole different story.

* Top draft pick:
CB Ahmad Carroll, Arkansas.

* Who's new: S Mark Roman, CB Joey Thomas, P B.J. Sander and P Bryan Barker.

* Who's gone: QB Tim Couch, DT Gilbert Brown, DT Rod Walker, P Josh Bidwell, DE Jamal Reynolds, WR Antonio Freeman, DE Joe Johnson.

* Key player: Brett Favre. Who else? Favre is still a great QB at 34. The ageless wonder has started 189 consecutive games in the regular season (208 including the playoffs) and has started every Packers game since Sept. 27, 1992.

* Key games: Sept. 13 at Carolina. The Packers open up on the road at the defending NFC champion Panthers on Monday Night Football. The defense will be tested against QB Jake Delhomme and RB Stephen Davis. If the Packers have a weakness this season, it's going to be their pass defense. Also, Green Bay heads to Indy to play the Colts on Sept. 26 and is at Philadelphia on Dec. 5.

* The Packers have the best: Quarterback and running back in the division. Favre's numbers and career speaks volumes. But Ahman Green has turned into one of the NFL's best running backs. Green ran for 1,883 yards and 15 touchdowns and added 50 catches for 367 yards and five scores last season.

* Don't be surprised if: The Packers own the division again. Green Bay, which has won five of the last nine NFC Central/North titles, has registered double-digit wins in seven of the last nine years and made the playoffs the same number of times. Until the champion gets knocked down, the Packers will be considered the favorite.

* Top draft pick:
DE Kenechi Udeze, USC.

* Who's new: CB Antoine Winfield, DT Steve Martin, WR Marcus Robinson, DE Darrion Scott, LB Dontarrious Thomas.

* Who's gone: DT Fred Robbins, WR D'Wayne Bates, S Jack Brewer, and CB Denard Walker.

* Key player: Daunte Culpepper. The talented QB had a 25-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season. With Michael Bennett, who averaged 5 yards a carry last season, and Randy Moss at receiver, the Vikings have a dangerous trio.

* Key games: Sept. 20 at Philadelphia. It's Week 2 of the season, but it's on Monday Night Football. The Vikes will have the chance to show the country what they have and if they can stack up with the powerful Eagles. Also, the Vikes have a four-week stretch in Weeks 7-10 when they play Tennessee, the Giants, and then travel to Indianapolis and Green Bay.

* The Vikings have the best: Receiver in the division -- and maybe the league. Randy Moss isn't the classiest player, but he's one of the most talented. He came into the summer down to 210 pounds and seems 100 percent after recovering from plantar fascitis, a heel injury, which hobbled him most of 2003.

* Don't be surprised if: The Vikings and Packers use their Week 16 meeting to decide the NFC North title. The Vikings missed the playoffs because of a last-second loss to Arizona but went into the off-season working. The team was busy in free agency, added some great defensive help through the draft, and brought on defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell.

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