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NFC North Preview: Favre, Cutler stand in the way of Pack's road back / Division rating 13.5

1. Green Bay Packers


Offense: QB Aaron Rodgers vindicated Packers for dumping Brett Favre with a fabulous first year as starter (4,038 yards). WRs Greg Jennings and Donald Driver are explosive, and second-year TE Jermichael Finley could have breakout season. Sturdy offensive line protects Rodgers and blocks for RB Ryan Grant, who is key to underrated run game. Rating: 4.0.

Defense: There's talent in front seven -- DE/OLB Aaron Kampman, DE Cullen Jenkins, rookie NT B.J. Raji and ILBs A.J. Hawk, Nick Barnett and rookie OLB Clay Matthews Jr. -- for successful switch to 3-4 scheme. Aging CBs Charles Woodson and Al Harris can still cover. S Nick Collins coming off Pro Bowl year. Rating: 3.5.

Special teams: K Mason Crosby and P Jeremy Kapinos are young and talented. Improvement needed in coverage, which was awful last season. Will Blackmon is a weapon on returns. Rating: 3.5.

Coaching: Mike McCarthy maximized Rodgers' talents. Dom Capers was brilliant hire to run defense. Rating: 4.0.

On the spot: Raji. Ninth overall draft pick must be run-stuffer Packers' defense desperately needs.

Prediction: Pack is back. Record: 10-6.


2. Minnesota Vikings


Offense: Even with QB Brett Favre, everything revolves around All-Pro RB Adrian Peterson running behind stellar O-line. Bernard Berrian, first-round draft pick Percy Harvin and TE Visanthe Shiancoe give Favre explosive receiving weapons. Rating: 4.0.

Defense: Led by impenetrable Pro Bowl DTs Pat and Kevin Williams, Vikings have allowed fewest rush yards in NFL history over last three years (70.8 per game). All-Pro DE Jared Allen has 30 sacks in two seasons. LB Chad Greenway is a rising star. Pro Bowl CB Antoine Winfield leads a hard-hitting secondary. Rating: 4.5.

Special teams: K Ryan Longwell and P Chris Kluwe were only good things about this unit. Vikings put heavy emphasis on improving disastrous coverage, which allowed NFL-record seven return touchdowns. Harvin brings needed explosiveness to return game. Rating: 2.5.

Coaching: Brad Childress game plans to players' strengths. Leslie Frazier skillfully runs dominant defense. Rating: 3.5.

On the spot: Favre. Vikings hoping he can hold up for an entire season.

Prediction: If Favre turns back clock, they could win division again. Record: 9-7.


3. Chicago Bears


Offense: QB Jay Cutler and second-year RB Matt Forte give Bears plenty of hope. Cutler has developed connection with TE Greg Olsen, but rest of receiving corps is a question mark. Losing backup RB Kevin Jones (season-ending ankle injury) hurts. LT Orlando Pace is biggest addition to a retooled offensive line. Rating: 3.0.

Defense: Bears need front four, anchored by talented but injury-plagued DT Tommie Harris, to play better so MLB Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs can regain their playmaking form. Bears need more pass rush from DEs Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson. Secondary could be liability if key players aren't healthy. Rating: 3.5.

Special teams: Bears have outstanding coverage units, K Robbie Gould and P Brad Maynard are very good and Devin Hester and Danieal Manning are big-time weapons on returns. Rating: 4.0.

Coaching: Mild-mannered Lovie Smith is solid leader who commands respect. Rating: 4.0.

On the spot: Hester. Must come through as Cutler's primary target.

Prediction: Things are looking up in Windy City. Record>: 9-7.


4. Detroit Lions


Offense: QB Matthew Stafford, who was top pick in draft, has one important job -- get ball to stud WR Calvin Johnson (78 receptions for 1,331 yards in '08) as often as possible. Another receiver needs to emerge as complement to Johnson. RB Kevin Smith gives Lions potentially good running game. Rating: 2.5.

Defense: Newcomers like run-stuffing DT Grady Jackson, LBs Julian Peterson and Larry Foote and rookie S Louis Delmas bring much-needed upgrade to otherwise porous unit. Rating: 2.0.

Special teams: Longtime K Jason Hanson still going strong. P Nick Harris is good at pinning opponents inside 20-yard line. Phillip Buchanon is decent returning kicks.Rating: 3.0.

Coaching: Jim Schwartz is disciple of Jeff Fisher and Bill Belichick. But that won't translate into instant success. Rating: 2.5.

On the spot: Stafford. Lions say he's ready. Only time will tell if they're right.

Prediction: After winless season, they have nowhere to go but up. Record: 3-13.

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