Each of the Vikings' NFC North rivals believes – or at least hopes – it has become better. See what the issues are surrounding the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers as we examine the keys to each of their seasons.
The Bears believe they're a better team than last year's 13-3 edition because of increased firepower on offense, more depth on defense and a veteran team that hasn't grown old yet, with the exception of the offensive line.
The rest of the NFC North is rebuilding, retooling or trying to improve with the same personnel. Where the Bears have been forced to make changes, they believe they've improved, like at running back, where Cedric Benson
takes over the featured role. QB Rex Grossman
has more options and more experience than last year, when he struggled mightily with inconsistency in his first full year as a starter.
Three keys for the season:
1. Quarterback Rex Grossman cannot afford to make mistakes in bunches as he did last season, almost single-handedly losing some games. In his five worst games, Grossman threw a total of 16 interceptions and just one touchdown pass. In his seven best games, Grossman was intercepted just once, while tossing 18 touchdowns. A full 16 games of experience should help him take the next step, as should offensive additions Greg Olsen
at tight end and Devin Hester
at wide receiver.
2. The offensive line must stay intact for one more season. Four of the five are 30 or older and the backups are unimpressive. This group isn't particularly talented, except for center Olin Kreutz
and left guard Ruben Brown
, but they will have played a combined 23 seasons by the end of the year, and Brown is already 35. The group is better than the sum of its parts and is starting together for a third straight season, so it is a cohesive unit. Omit one part and the whole line suffers.
3. A healthy Tommie Harris
. The defensive line has loads of talent, including three legitimate starting-caliber defensive ends who will play in a rotation, which should keep everyone fresh and productive for a full season. The Bears can use a four-man rotation inside, but Harris is the key because he has the quickness to create chaos in the backfield and is stout enough to stuff the run. He did not play in the first three preseason games and might not be 100 percent for the opener, but the Bears insist he'll be his old self sooner rather than later.
DT Tommie Harris, returning from a torn hamstring, missed most of the preseason and significant practice time, leading to speculation that he may not be 100 percent at the start of the season.
DT Darwin Walker was originally slated to start alongside Tommie Harris but may instead spell him at the 3 technique until Harris is fully recovered from last season's torn hamstring.
DT Dusty Dvoracek was expected to be pushed to a backup role, but he has been the team's most effective player on the nose in the preseason.
WR Bernard Berrian is threatening to claim the title of go-to receiver from 12-year veteran Muhsin Muhammad because of his exceptional speed and big-play ability.
TE Greg Olsen may be the biggest improvement in a more exciting Bears offense because of his exceptional receiving skills and outstanding speed for his position.
The Lions have been a laughingstock ever since Matt Millen became team president in 2001. They have gone 24-72, worst in the NFL. Their losses have been in the double digits each year.
But now players are talking about double-digit wins, because coach Rod Marinelli has cleared most of the problems from the locker room and offensive coordinator Mike Martz has a full complement of weapons.
The Lions expect to be an explosive passing team, and they are probably going to have to be. They have struggled to run the ball, and their defense is questionable.
Look for a lot of shootouts, and a few more Detroit victories.
Three keys for the season:
1. Quarterback Jon Kitna has to put up the kind of yardage he did last season (4,208), but he has to cut down on the turnovers (22 interceptions, nine fumbles). And he has to stay healthy. The Lions do not have a backup with any real experience.
2. The defensive line has to get to the quarterback. Nose tackle Shaun Rogers can be dominant, but he has to have the health, conditioning and motivation to go four quarters for 16 games. Right end Kalimba Edwards has to finally live up to the pass-rushing potential he is supposed to have. If the defensive line doesn't get it done, the Lions' thin secondary will be exposed.
3. The Lions cannot cave in at the first sign of trouble. This franchise seems to be cursed. One playoff win in half a century? Coach Rod Marinelli has tried to teach his players to be mentally tough. They showed something last season, when after seven straight losses, they went to Dallas and fought to the last play to win their season finale.
WR Calvin Johnson was widely considered the best player in the draft, and now, before he has even played in a regular-season game, he has been dubbed a future Hall of Famer, at least by ESPN.com. But he's still a rookie learning perhaps the most demanding offense, mentally and physically, in the NFL. If all goes well, Johnson not only make big catches, he will open up things for his teammates just because of the threat he presents.
DT Shaun Rogers can be one of the most dominant players at his position in the NFL, but he doesn't always get the most out of his immense talent. He's coming off the most disappointing season of his career. In October, the NFL suspended him four games for taking a banned dietary supplement, and he never came back. He had knee and shoulder surgeries. The Lions have babied him during the preseason, hoping he will be healthy and in shape for the regular season.
DE Kalimba Edwards: The Lions kept Edwards from leaving for Cleveland as a free agent last year. They gave him big money because they saw potential in him; he stayed because he thought coach Rod Marinelli could turn him into one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Well, Edwards had only one sack through the first 13 games, before picking up two in the last three. He's getting a chance to start at right end, and he needs to finally come through.
S Daniel Bullocks suffered a torn ACL in the third exhibition and was put on injured reserve.
S Gerald Alexander has the inside track to replace Bullocks as a starter, even though he's a rookie, but veteran S Idrees Bashir is in the mix.
RB T.J. Duckett still wants to prove he is an every-down back, but unless the Lions have injury problems, he still likely will be a short-yardage, red-zone specialist.
CB Keith Smith was impressive during training camp, but he struggled in the third exhibition at Indianapolis, missing two big tackles on one touchdown drive.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Question marks abound on offense, which ended the preseason as an out-of-sorts unit. Top receiver Donald Driver suffered a foot injury that leaves his status for the Sept. 9 opener against the Eagles up in the air.
It's anyone's guess how the team will function o the ground because it's counting on unheralded rookie Brandon Jackson to be the starter after Vernand Morency was sidelined the entire preseason with a knee injury.
That leaves the defense to pick up the slack. The unit, which was ripe for giving up big plays the first half of last season, came on like gangbusters down the stretch and will start this season with nine, possibly 10, starters still in place.
Three keys for the season:
1. Establish a productive running game. After letting franchise back Ahman Green bolt for Houston in free agency, the Packers are counting on a nondescript group to revive a ground attack that ranked 23rd in the league last year. Coach Mike McCarthy doesn't want Brett Favre throwing the football 60 percent of the time again, but that might be the case if Jackson and Morency, once he returns, can't run for daylight.
2. The defense takes the outcome of games into its own hands. Given the possible shortcomings on offense, a loaded defensive unit will have to be more opportunistic after it made strides toward the end of last season. The team won its last four games thanks in big part to 13 takeaways.
3. Restore home-field advantage. Playing at Lambeau Field has been a recipe for disaster for Green Bay of late. It has won only six of its last 18 games at once-venerable Lambeau Field. What's more, it has lost four straight home openers.
WR James Jones: The big hit of the preseason has been likened by Brett Favre to former Packers great Sterling Sharpe because of his strong hands and ease in shaking defenders after the catch. To the chagrin of Favre, however, Jones is far from a polished route runner. With Donald Driver (sprained foot) shaky for the start of the season, Jones will be counted on early in the season to keep producing.
DE Aaron Kampman: The veteran flew under the radar during the preseason after he was out the entire offseason because of arthroscopic knee surgery. Cullen Jenkins, starting on the other side, garnered a good deal of attention in the preseason for his playmaking. If Jenkins can occupy some attention from blockers, that could free Kampman up for an encore performance of his NFC-leading 15.5 sacks in 2006.
Return specialist Will Blackmon seemingly is healthy, although he suffered a broken left thumb late in the preseason. Having him on the field gives the Packers a breakaway, tenacious returner who can reverse their fortunes after having the worst special-teams units in the league the last two years.
WR Donald Driver was held out of the Aug. 30 preseason finale at Tennessee because of sprained right foot. The team's No. 1 receiver suffered the injury in the Aug. 23 loss to Jacksonville. Preliminary indications are that Driver will be ready for the Sept. 9 season opener against Philadelphia.
RB Brandon Jackson, who started the first three games at halfback, also didn't play in the final exhibition game because of a mild concussion. The rookie collided with linebacker Brady Poppinga on a red-zone run in practice Aug. 26 and dropped out a short time later. Jackson is optimistic he'll be ready for the start of the season.
RB Vernand Morency remained out with the strained patellar tendon in his right knee, an injury he suffered on the first day of training camp July 28. Morency is questionable for the season opener.
RG Jason Spitz aggravated a strained calf in the Aug. 23 game and didn't play against the Titans. Junius Coston was to start in Spitz's absence. The team is hopeful to have Spitz back in the lineup on opening day.
DE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila was kept out of the final two preseason games because of a knee bruise. Whether the pass-rush specialist will be ready for the season opener hasn't been clarified.
T Tony Moll has yet to fully recover from a neck stinger sustained early in training camp and didn't play in any preseason games. The future of Moll, who started 10 games as a rookie last season, remaining with the club is cloudy.