NFC North Season Preview

The Vikings may be the favorite heading into the regular season, but there are several wildcards. Among them, Brian Urlacher, who is the best defensive player in the division.

CHICAGO BEARS
Top draft pick:
RB Cedric Benson, Texas.

Who's new: Offensive coordinator Ron Turner, WR Muhsin Muhammad, OT Fred Miller, K Doug Brien, G Roberto Garza.

Who's gone: WR David Terrell, RB Anthony Thomas, QB Jonathan Quinn, QB Craig Krenzel.

Key player: Brian Urlacher. As Kyle Orton remains a question mark, Urlacher has to stay healthy to anchor a defense that could be one of the league's best. Urlacher missed seven games last season with leg and hamstring injuries and the team went 0-7 without him. When he played the Bears were 5-4. As bad as the offense has looked, the defense will have to carry the load and force turnovers. Urlacher needs to be on the field.

Key games: Sept. 11 at Washington. It's the opener and a perfect time to see if the Bears are going to be worth watching this season. The Redskins were one of the league's worst teams in '04 and didn't do much in the off-season to improve. The Bears return home for back-to-back home games against Detroit (Sept. 18) and Cincinnati (Sept. 25) – both winnable games before the bye week.

The Bears have the best: Defensive line in the NFC North. Adewale Ogunleye is healthy and had a full training camp in Chicago under his belt. Look for Tommie Harris to have a breakout year, and the tandem of Ogunleye and Alex Brown to pile up sacks this season.

Don't be surprised if: The Bears finish second in the division. Minnesota is the team to beat, but if the Bears can get average play from the quarterback position and the defense stays healthy, it could be a successful season.

DETROIT LIONS
Top draft picks:
WR Mike Williams, Southern Cal.

Who's new: TE Marcus Pollard, G Rick DeMulling, QB Jeff Garcia, DB R.W. McQuarters, WR Kevin Johnson, S Kenoy Kennedy.

Who's gone: QB Mike McMahon, QB Rick Mirer, WR Tai Streets, WR Az-Zahir Hakim, WR Reggie Swinton, TE Stephen Alexander, OT Stockar McDougle, DT Kelvin Pritchett, S Brock Marion.

Key player: Joey Harrington. This is a make or break year for Harrington, especially with Jeff Garcia breathing down his neck. The Lions have three first-round wide receivers on the team in Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams. Throw in running back Kevin Jones and Harrington has to perform or he'll be history in the Motor City.

Key game: Sept. 11 vs. Green Bay. What better opponent to open up the season with to see just how good Harrington will be against one of the game's greatest in Packers QB Brett Favre. The Lions have a chance to show their fans if this team is for real or if it's going to be another long year. The Packers have always owned the Lions; it's time to step up and change things.

The Lions have the best: Group of young receivers in the division. With three former first-round picks (Roy Williams, Mike Williams and Rogers) Detroit has pure speed, skill and firepower on the outside. Throw in free agent Kevin Johnson (Ravens) and tight end Pollard (Colts) and you're looking at one talented bunch.

Don't be surprised if: The Lions fall apart like they always do. This team seems destined for losing. Harrington still hasn't proven himself and the defense is still iffy at best.

GREEN BAY PACKERS
Top draft pick:
QB Aaron Rodgers, California.

Who's new: S Earl Little, G Adrian Klemm.

Who's gone: S Darren Sharper, G Marco Rivera, G Mike Wahle, S Bhawoh Jue.

Key player: Brett Favre. The Packers' hopes have ridden on Favre's shoulders for what seems like forever. The three-time NFL MVP has played in 205 consecutive regular season games since 1993. This might be Favre's swan song -- he's hinted at retiring at the end of the season -- so look for a typical Favre year in Cheese Land.

Key game: Dec. 25 vs. the Bears. The Packers will either be in the holiday cheer by this time in the playoff hunt or stuck with nothing in their postseason stockings.

The Packers have the best: Running back depth in the division. Ahman Green has gone over 1,000 yards for five straight seasons and is backed up by the likes of Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher. Throw in fullback William Henderson, one of the best blockers in the league, and you're looking at four guys who will be a load for anybody.

Don't be surprised if: The Packers win the division. With three winnable games out of the stretch (Detroit, Cleveland and Tampa Bay), this could be Green Bay's year once again. Minnesota, on paper, is the team to beat, but you can never count out Favre.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Top draft pick:
WR Troy Williamson, South Carolina; Erasmus James, DE, Wisconsin.

Who's new: S Darren Sharper, LB Napoleon Harris (Thornton), LB Sam Cowart, CB Fred Smoot, K Paul Edinger, DT Pat Williams, WR Travis Taylor.

Who's gone: WR Randy Moss, QB Gus Frerotte, K Morton Andersen, DE Kenny Mixon, DT Chris Hovan, LB Chris Claiborne, S Brian Russell.

Key player: Daunte Culpepper. The veteran QB doesn't have Randy Moss, but don't look for him to miss a beat. The agile Culpepper scrambles well and passes even better. With speedy rookie receiver Troy Williamson supposed to take over Moss' role, and a group of veteran receivers in the mix, watch for the Vikings to have a big season.

Key games: Oct. 2 at Atlanta. The meeting between two of the league's best QBs -- Michael Vick and Culpepper -- should provide plenty of electricity on the field and the scoreboard. Some experts think this could be a preview of the NFC championship game. Maybe not, but it's worth watching.

The Vikings have the best: QB in the division. Brett Favre is good, but Culpepper is younger and moves a whole lot better.

Don't be surprised if: The Vikings go to the Super Bowl. With a revamped defense in place, Minnesota is the team to beat in the division. Culpepper has the weapons in place on offense to put a lot of points on the board and take pressure off the defense. This team is no doubt a playoff contender.


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