NFC North: Keys to season for each team

With the regular season of the 2005 National Football League about to begin, lists three keys for each team in the NFC North Division:

Detroit Lions
1. The Lions -- as a team -- must drag themselves out of a four-year spin in the NFL doldrums. They are coming off consecutive seasons of 2-14, 3-13, 5-11 and 6-10, and must muster the confidence to get themselves through difficult situations without falling back into their losing ways. That means a presence of strong and tough internal leadership which, so far, has not presented itself.

2. New offensive coordinator Ted Tollner has to expand the West Coast offense to get the most out of a talented group of young players, and quarterback Joey Harrington has to execute better than he has in his first three NFL seasons. Harrington now has playmaker receivers in Roy Williams, Charles Rogers, Kevin Johnson and Mike Williams, and he has a strong running game in Kevin Jones, Shawn Bryson and Artose Pinner.

3. The defense must be tougher and coordinator Dick Jauron must find a way to get to opposing quarterbacks despite the lack of a dominating speed rusher. The linebackers, in particular, must make plays at the line of scrimmage rather than five or six yards downfield. Defensive end James Hall is coming off an 11 1/2-sack season but the Lions have to give him some help pressuring the quarterback, whether it's with blitzes or other schemes.

Green Bay Packers
1. Besides putting Brett Favre in harm's way, the reshaped line contributed mightily to unbecoming results on the ground for a potentially explosive offense that's predicated on the rushing dimension. All-Pro halfback Ahman Green averaged a lowly 2.3 yards in 26 preseason carries, while top backup Najeh Davenport was only slightly better with an average of 3 yards with the same amount of touches. A ball-control offense figures to be paramount as a way to minimize the damage that could be done by a shaky defense, but sustaining those necessary long drives will be difficult if the run game isn't up to snuff.

2. New defensive coordinator Jim Bates doesn't believe in gambling in pass coverage, preferring to eschew a healthy diet of blitzing by keeping both safeties back to provide backside help for the bump-and-run cornerbacks.

Still, if the Packers are going to be able to stay in every game, the low-risk approach has to yield some big rewards. The defense mustered just eight interceptions and a league-low-tying 15 takeaways, while conversely giving up a team-record 33 touchdown passes last season. A repeat performance in 2005 surely will keep the Packers out of the postseason.

3. The Packers have been slow starters the last two seasons under Sherman, opening 1-2 in 2003 and 1-4 in '04. Though they were able to recover each year and repeat as NFC North champions, the Packers can ill afford to continue the early-season trend. Their most winnable stretch comes right at the beginning with a road game against Detroit and back-to-back home contests against Cleveland and Tampa Bay. The schedule then becomes appreciably difficult, starting with a Monday night game at Carolina on Oct. 3. If they don't start 3-0, it's going to take a lot more than another late-season swan dive by Minnesota to keep the Packers atop the division.

Chicago Bears
1. WR Muhsin Muhammad must come close to the numbers he put up last season.

Muhammad earned a Pro Bowl trip after catching 93 passes for 1,405 yards and 16 TDs for the Panthers, who had no one else to go to after Steve Smith suffered a season-ending injury in September. Muhammad might find himself in a similar situation this year, considering no other wideout on the team is a proven NFL player.

2. The defense must play better than it did in the early going last season, when it ranked in the top 10 in several categories before injuries decimated the unit.

3. Rookie QB Kyle Orton must show that he can avoid the costly mistakes and sacks that have plagued every Bears quarterback except Rex Grossman in the past two years. Because of WR Muhsin Muhammad and rookie RB Cedric Benson, plus an upgraded offensive line, Orton is better equipped to succeed than his recent predecessors.

Minnesota Vikings
1. In the post-Randy Moss era, the Vikings say they will be committed to running the ball, as well as throwing it. It will be essential for them to have success in this area. Michael Bennett enters the season as the No. 1 running back but his injury history, which includes two preseason games missed this summer because of a strained neck, makes it difficult to believe he can get through a 16-game schedule. If Bennett goes down, Mewelde Moore will be expected to carry the load.

2. Defense has been the Vikings' Achilles' in recent seasons, but after spending some money in the off-season this group should be much improved. Pro Bowl tackle Kevin Williams and big Pat Williams should help stop the run and a secondary with Smoot and Antoine Winfield at the corners is expected to make life difficult on receivers.

3. Kicker Paul Edinger, a free-agent acquisition from the Chicago Bears, must prove his sub-par 2004 (a career-low 62.5 field-goal percentage) was an aberration. Kicking in the controlled environment of the Metrodome and not in the swirling winds of Soldier Field should help.

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