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SCHEDULE WILL HELP THE PACK GET BACK IN THE NFC NORTH

This is the sixth of eight stories examining NFL teams by division as they prepare for training camp. Today's installment focuses on the NFC North.

Folks in Green Bay get nervous when Brett Favre and retirement are used in the same sentence.

Though Favre has hinted about ending his Hall of Fame career, he will be around for the coming season. Armed with a better supporting cast and an easy schedule (only four playoff opponents), Favre should be able to lead the Packers to another division title and a serious run for a Super Bowl berth.

The Chicago Bears were ravaged by injuries last season, causing a fall from a 13-win campaign in 2001. They hope a healthier roster and a return to rebuilt Soldier Field (they played in Champaign, Ill., last season) will change their fortunes for the better.

The Minnesota Vikings' explosive offense has been offset by a poor defense. Coach Mike Tice vows improvement and took some necessary steps in the draft and free agency.

New Detroit Lions coach Steve Mariucci looks to prune some dead wood and create a new atmosphere.

Here's a review of the offseason moves by each club:

Green Bay Packers (12-4)

What's new: Defensive end Vonnie Holliday (Chiefs) and linebacker Nate Wayne (Eagles) were among the key losses, but the Packers smartly re-signed top pass-rushing defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, linebacker Na'il Diggs and defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt. Defensive end Chukie Nwokorie (Indianapolis) is a solid addition. Run-stuffing nose tackle Gilbert Brown is expected back. First-rounder Nick Barnett (Oregon State) and free agent Hannibal Navies (Panthers) are part of a revamped linebacking corps. Third-round defensive tackle/end Kenny Peterson (Ohio State) brings versatility. Quality cornerback Al Harris (Eagles) arrives via trade. Former Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch (Rams), who quit football last summer, is competing for the No. 3 quarterback job. Tying up $10.5 million in fullbacks Nick Luchey (Cincinnati) and William Henderson shows how much the Packers value the position.

Key issues: Starting offensive tackles Chad Clifton (hip, knee, elbow) and Mark Tauscher (knee) and defensive end Joe Johnson (torn biceps) must return to full strength. The Packers are praying law of averages won't catch up with Favre (NFL-record 190 straight starts).

Minnesota Vikings (6-10)

What's new: The team failed to execute a trade on draft day, but still got the impact player it wanted with defensive tackle Kevin Williams (Oklahoma State), who teams with rising star defensive tackle Chris Hovan. Linebacker Chris Claiborne (Lions), cornerbacks Denard Walker (Broncos) and Ken Irvin (Saints) and rookie linebacker E.J. Henderson (Maryland) strengthen a weak defense. Right tackle Mike Rosenthal (Giants) is a major addition to a talented young offensive line. Speedy running back Onterrio Smith (Oregon) and underrated wide receiver Nate Burleson (Nevada-Reno) bring depth to the offense. Veteran quarterback Gus Frerotte (Broncos) backs up Daunte Culpepper, whose job is secure after getting a 10-year, $102 million contract extension.

Key issues: The Vikings need Culpepper to play like a $102 million quarterback. Volatile All-Pro WR Randy Moss might not be able to handle another losing season. Vikings patched some holes in a leaky defense, but more needs to be done.

Chicago Bears (4-12)

What's new: The offense in is the hands of erratic quarterback Kordell Stewart (Steelers) -- at least until first-rounder Rex Grossman (Florida) is deemed ready. Bears traded fourth overall pick to get two first-round selections and drafted Grossman and defensive end Michael Haynes (Penn State), who should help the pass rush. Bears think third-round safety Charles Tillman (Louisiana-Lafayette) will play immediately. Free agent Desmond Clark (Dolphins) is the Bears' first legitimate pass-receiving tight end in years. Guard Aaron Gibson (Cowboys), a former 400-pounder, has trimmed down to 370 and could land a backup role.

Key issues: Grossman will have to play earlier than the Bears want if Stewart's evil twin shows up. Getting nose tackle Ted Washington (foot), linebacker Warrick Holdman (knee), wide receiver David Terrell (foot) and right tackle Marc Columbo (knee) back from injuries is a must. The pass rush is a concern with linebacker Rosevelt Colvin (Patriots) gone. Running back Anthony Thomas has to regain Rookie of the Year form of 2001.

Detroit Lions (3-13)

What's new: Highly touted wide receiver Charles Rogers (Michigan State) gives second-year quarterback Joey Harrington a big-time target he lacked last season. Super-athletic linebacker Boss Bailey (Georgia) was a second-round steal. Defensive end Cory Redding (Texas) helps the pass rush. Cornerback Dre' Bly (Rams) is an immediate starter. Earl Holmes (Browns) and Wali Rainer (Jaguars) will compete for the middle linebacker job. Cornerback Chris Watson (Bills) tries to redeem himself after a poor 2002 season. Free agent Shawn Bryson (Bills) and rookie Atrose Pinner (Kentucky) will challenge incumbent running back James Stewart.

Key issues: Mariucci's rebuilding job will take time. Rogers' arrival should help speed Harrington's development. Lions should win more games if the defense makes enough plays.

Next: NFC South
e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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