NFC North Tour: Kickoff Edition

We turn to our insiders around the division to learn the keys to success for each team and discover the impact players who need to lift those teams to new heights.

Packers: Championship contenders?

The Super Bowl-bound Packers?

Veteran cornerback Charles Woodson thinks so, mentioning more than once as a spectacular preseason wound down that he likes Green Bay's chances of winding up in Miami for the season-ending title game Feb. 7.

"I don't think I've ever been more excited, more ready to get the season under way than this year," Woodson said.

In the preseason games that mattered most — the starters were limited to cameo roles in the Sept. 3 finale at the Tennessee Titans — the Packers were hitting on all cylinders offensively and defensively. Points from a crisp attack led by near-flawless Aaron Rodgers were as plentiful as takeaways produced in a seamless transition to a new 3-4 scheme.

Three keys for the season

1. Are the Packers already showing their true green and gold colors on defense? First-year coordinator Dom Capers is being hailed as a savior for a defense that was miserable last season in stopping the run and making key stops. Capers' innovative, attacking system has energized mostly the same starting group from a year ago. They've shown themselves to be ball hawks in the preseason, but they'll need to bottle those up for when the games count for real. The adjustment has gone better than expected.


QB Aaron Rodgers
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
2. Keep Rodgers clean. The second-year starting quarterback's high rate of efficiency in the preseason was due in large part to a reshaped offensive line that kept Rodgers from rarely being touched, let alone sacked. When Rodgers is given time to throw, he becomes the most lethal passer in the league with the deep cast of talented players he has at his disposal. Rodgers' continued blistering pace will hinge on the continuity of a line that has two new starters with Allen Barbre at right tackle and Josh Sitton at right guard, along with former guard Jason Spitz at center.

3. Feast on opponents early and often. The Packers' schedule isn't daunting from start to finish, but the early slate is conducive to a fast start for establishing themselves as a title contender in the NFC North and the conference. The major obstacles could be the dates of Oct. 5 and Nov. 1, when former Green Bay QB Brett Favre will be on the other side with the rival Minnesota Vikings.

Three keys for the season

CB Charles Woodson — The 12th-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowl honoree could be getting better with age — he turns 33 on Oct. 7. Woodson is rejuvenated in the Packers' new 3-4 system. He has become the centerpiece of coordinator Dom Capers' exotic scheme, a dual threat in zone coverage and wreaking havoc off the line as a blitzer.

RB Ryan Grant — A year after being riddled by a hamstring injury for the start of the season, Grant is healthy. He still wound up rushing for more than 1,200 yards in 2008, but he lacked the burst that was on frequent display during his breakout second half of the '07 season. Grant's focus this year is on explosiveness, and the Packers plan to feed him the ball a lot.

TE Jermichael Finley — All is good between Finley and Aaron Rodgers, who was a target of the immature rookie's critical remarks last season. So good that Finley has become a favorite target of Rodgers in the passing game. The 6-foot-5 Finley is blessed with size, athleticism and quickness that create down-the-field mismatches the Packers will look to exploit.

Bears: Schedule, QB in place


QB Rex Grossman
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
On paper the Bears have the easiest schedule in the NFL this season.

On the field, they have their best quarterback in maybe 60 years.

With Jay Cutler at the controls, the Bears will be able to do things offensively that they haven't done in generations. They finally, at long last, appear to have a quarterback who can win games for them. Cutler is not just a quarterback who can manage games, or a quarterback the Bears can win with or in spite of — he's a quarterback who can hoist an offense and a team on his shoulders and carry it. It's a novel concept in Chicago and one that has the city buzzing.

The Bears will be better on offense than they've been in years, even though the stable of wide receivers is one of the NFL's worst. That weakness is offset by two talented pass-catching tight ends, Desmond Clark, and especially Greg Olsen, who is due for a monster season.

The defense is too talented to play as poorly as it did a year ago. Of some concern are the knees of Tommie Harris, who is one of the league's top three-technique defensive tackles when he's healthy.

Three keys for the season

1. Quarterback Jay Cutler has to stay healthy. Behind him are Caleb Hanie and Brett Basanez, who have thrown a total of 11 NFL passes between them. Cutler threw for 4,526 yards last season. While he probably won't approach that number with the Bears, he has the ability to get the offense airborne when necessary. The backups are unproven and inexperienced.

2. The pass rush must improve. In the Bears' cover-2 defense, pressure from the linemen is imperative. It was absent most of the 2008 season, when the Bears had just 28 sacks as a team, and their leading sacker was DRE Alex Brown who had just six. That lack of pressure was a major factor in a pass defense that was 30th in yards allowed in 2008. Almost all of the players on the defensive line have returned, but the belief is that the coaching and teaching of Rod Marinelli will make them better as individuals and as a team.

3. TE Greg Olsen needs to have a breakout season. It won't matter that the Bears' wide receivers leave much to be desired, as long as Olsen and Cutler continue to display the chemistry that was evident from the early days of training camp. Olsen has the pass-catching ability, the speed, the hands and the body control to be an 80-catch guy, challenge the 1,000-yard barrier and possibly hit double digits in TD catches.

Three keys for the season

—WR Devin Hester. He may not be a legitimate go-to guy as a wide receiver yet, but he remains a threat to score every time he catches a pass or a punt. Hester slumped as a return man last year, but he's on a mission to prove that he can still be an elite return man and a No. 1 receiver.

—DT Tommie Harris. When he's healthy Harris is the key to the Bears' defense because of his ability to disrupt behind the line of scrimmage and provide rare pass-rush pressure from an interior lineman. He has battled knee problems off and on the past three seasons, but he was used sparingly in training camp and the preseason with the idea of having him full speed for 16 games.

—RB Matt Forte. He did it all last season, rushing for 1,238 yards and catching a team-high 63 passes. If he can build off that excellent rookie season, it will make Jay Cutler even more effective.

Lions: Nowhere to go but up

Three keys for the season


Matthew Stafford
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Not much is expected of the Detroit Lions. They suffered the NFL's first 0-16 season last year, and that was just rock bottom of a 31-97 eight-year stretch. They have lost 17 straight games, 23 of their past 24.

So the first item of business is simply winning a game, not trying to mimic the astounding turnarounds Miami and Atlanta made last year.

If the Lions lose the season opener Sept. 13 at New Orleans, they will tie for the third-worst losing streak of all-time. If they lose the home opener Sept. 20 against Minnesota, too, they will tie for the second-worst losing streak of all-time.

The Lions already have surpassed the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went 0-14. They don't want to even approach the 1976-77 Bucs, who lost 26 straight.

1. Quarterback Matthew Stafford must develop. The Lions used the No. 1 pick in the draft on Stafford and invested millions of dollars in him. He is the face and future of the franchise. Whether he starts Day 1 or sits behind veteran Daunte Culpepper for a while, Stafford must learn, improve and prepare for next season and the seasons beyond.

2. The defense must stop somebody — or at least find a way to limit the damage. The Lions have been horrible on defense the past two years, ranked last in both yards and points allowed. They now have a solid linebacker corps with Julian Peterson, Larry Foote and Ernie Sims, but their defensive line and secondary are suspect. Coach Jim Schwartz is known for his brains, and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is known for his aggressiveness. Both will be tested with this unit.

3. The Lions must run the ball better. They have ranked in the bottom three of the NFL in rushing each of the past three seasons — the bottom three, not just the bottom third. They ran a zone scheme almost exclusively last season, but now they are running a mix of power and zone. The offensive line has looked better, and running back Kevin Smith has looked good. If the Lions can run the ball, they can support their young quarterback, control the clock and keep that defense off the field.

Three keys for the season

WR Calvin Johnson: Even though the Lions went winless last year, Johnson was outstanding — 78 catches, 1,331 yards, 12 touchdowns. New offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is going to put the ball in his hands as much as possible, and an improved quarterback situation should help. Matthew Stafford especially has the big arm to put the ball in places where Johnson can get it downfield.

LB Julian Peterson: Trading for Peterson was a huge move for the Lions. He gives Schwartz the kind of multidimensional player he wants and needs for his defense, not to mention a great veteran presence in the locker room. Peterson gives the Lions' a pass-rushing weapon they desperately needed, and along with Larry Foote and Ernie Sims, he gives them a strong starting unit at linebacker.

S Louis Delmas: Known as "The Missile" at Western Michigan, Delmas likes to fly around the field and hit people. He lit up a couple of teammates in practices before the season, and Cunningham praised his attitude. Now Delmas has to show that ability in games and make plays for a secondary that made precious few last season. Lions defensive backs intercepted only one pass last year.

Vikings: Higher expectations


QB Brett Favre
Tom Dahlin/Getty Images
The Vikings won the NFC North last season for the first time, but simply repeating as division champions isn't likely going to be enough for this franchise.

Granted the North is expected to be extremely competitive with the Packers and Bears looking improved, but the Vikings feel they added the final piece to their puzzle when they were able to lure Brett Favre out of retirement two weeks into training camp.

Favre, who had retired for a second time last February after one year with the New York Jets, ran the Vikings' version of the West Coast offense for 16 seasons with the Packers and gives coach Brad Childress a top-line starting quarterback for the first time since he took over in 2006.

Given that that the Vikings already have offensive weapons like Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor, Bernard Berrian, Visanthe Shiancoe and now multi-talented first-round pick Percy Harvin, this unit is expected to be one of the league's most dangerous.

Three keys for the season

1. One of the biggest challenges is making sure that Brett Favre stays healthy. He will turn 40 years old on Oct. 10 and had surgery to repair his biceps tendon in May. Favre also has admitted he has a tear in the rotator cuff of his throwing arm and took a hard hit to the ribs in his first preseason appearance as a Viking. Favre has been an ironman throughout his career and the Vikings are going to need to have that continue.

2. Favre might be the biggest name on this team but no one should forget that it's Adrian Peterson who really makes the offense go. Favre's greatest ability will be to open up things for Peterson by making the occasional big throw. More often than not, however, the ball should be tucked into Peterson's midsection so he can continue to make life miserable for defensive coordinators.

3. Players on the Vikings' defense have said throughout the preseason that they want to have the NFL's top-rated unit. That shouldn't be the most pressing thing on their minds. What they do need to focus on is playing sound football and continuing to improve against the pass. The Vikings already have established themselves as a premier defense against the run.

Three keys for the season

WR Percy Harvin: He fell to the 22nd pick in the draft because of concerns about his character and his ability to stay healthy. What isn't in question is Harvin's talent level. He will line up as a slot receiver on most occasions but Harvin also can be used out of the backfield or take snaps from the Vikings' version of the Wildcat offense. Harvin also will open the season returning kickoffs.

SS Tyrell Johnson: Started seven games at the beginning of last season while Madieu Williams was out because of a neck injury. Johnson will be in the starting lineup again to begin this season but it won't be because someone else can't play. Johnson is taking over for veteran Darren Shaper, whom the Vikings let walk as a free agent. Johnson and the Vikings are counting on his experience from 2008 will prove valuable.

TE Visanthe Shiancoe: Shiancoe tied for the team lead with seven touchdown catches last season and appears ready to become one of the NFL's top tight ends. That's a major accomplishment for a guy who was a major disappointment in 2007 in his first season with the Vikings. No one has worked harder to improve than Shiancoe.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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