Deep, Packers-led NFC North plenty entertaining
The NFC North was once the core of an old-fashioned, grind-it-out group dubbed the Black and Blue Division.
Now, this four-team puzzle features a lot more flair.
Green Bay continues to boast one of the NFL's most potent offenses behind Aaron Rodgers. Matthew Stafford guided Detroit to the second-most yards passing in the league last year, and Calvin Johnson's fingerprints on the all-time single-season yards receiving record are still fresh. Chicago's Jay Cutler has one of the strongest arms around, new coach Marc Trestman has a reputation as an offensive innovator, and only Johnson caught more balls last year than Cutler's companion, Brandon Marshall.
Even Minnesota, the run-oriented outlier, has one of the flashiest players of all in MVP Adrian Peterson, who galloped his way to the second-highest rushing total in NFL history.
So as the Packers prepare to defend their division title, the Vikings try to ride Peterson to another playoff appearance, the Bears get going under Trestman and the Lions strive to prove last year's finish an aberration, here are five things to know about the NFC North:
SIMPLY THE BEST, AT LEAST LATELY: Over the first 10 years of the league's eight-division format, the NFC North posted a cumulative record worse than every other quartet except one. Only the NFC West was weaker from 2002 through 2011.
During the last two seasons, though, no division has been more victorious. The four teams went 71-57 (a .555 winning percentage), despite a 3-13 finish by the Vikings in 2011 and a 4-12 mark by the Lions in 2012. Only the Bears missed the playoffs both years.
LEADERS OF THE PACK: These aren't the same Packers who were Super Bowl champions less than three years ago and 15-1 the following regular season. Stalwarts Charles Woodson and Greg Jennings are gone, and holes in the defense were exposed last year by Peterson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick.
The division is still theirs to lose, though, despite a now-familiar rash of significant injuries to valuable players. To win their third straight NFC North title, the Packers must again find the depth to withstand the losses. Left tackle Bryan Bulaga is done for 2013, and rookie David Bakhtiari now has the role of blind side protector. But Rodgers hasn't seemed concerned.
''I'm having a blast. I really am. I love this group of guys,'' he said.
PONDERING THE FUTURE: Peterson proved his mastery of superhuman tricks by coming back from ACL reconstruction and rushing for 2,097 yards last year. But there are still questions for the Vikings about their status as a contender after their surprising 10-6 finish. The biggest one revolves around Christian Ponder.
The Vikings don't need a Pro Bowl selection or even a 4,000-yard season from their third-year quarterback. They're set up differently than that. But he has to reduce his turnover rate, take fewer sacks and come up with more clutch fourth-quarter completions to convince the Vikings he should be part of their future.
RESTORING THE ROAR?: The Lions followed their first playoff appearance in 12 years with a big flop, finishing with eight straight losses, including three in a row when they led by at least 10 points. There's plenty of talent, and motivation, for a rebound.
With Reggie Bush in the backfield and Ryan Broyles and Nate Burleson back from injuries to complement Johnson, Stafford - who got a hefty contract extension this summer - has more support. But he'll have three new starters on the offensive line.
The defensive line, with rookie Ziggy Ansah on the end and one of the league's best tackle tandems in the middle, is still a major asset. The pressure is on general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz, so improvement on this side of the ball will be necessary, too, for them to keep their jobs.
''There's an expectation that we have success here, and that's across the board everywhere in the National Football League. I'm certainty going to work as hard as I can to keep my seat cool,'' Mayhew said.
ON THE MARC: The Bears have had trouble sustaining offensive production for several years despite a workhorse running back in Matt Forte and the talent Cutler can trump his flaws with. The inconsistency of the blockers has been part of the problem, but the play calling, inability to establish a consistent identity, and instability of the coaching staff have also been to blame.
So the time was right to make a bold move, and that's why Trestman was hired from the Canadian Football League. An unorthodox thinker with past success as an NFL assistant, Trestman has begun to change the culture with faster-paced practices and terms like ''self-actualization'' and ''interconnectivity'' to achieve harmony and chemistry.
''We've got a chance to have a real strong backbone. It won't be the same team as it was last year, but we think it can be better,'' he said.
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org
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