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Preview – North

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Our NFL preview continues with a breakdown of the NFL’s North Divisions. In the NFC the Vikings are looking for a rejuvenation of the purple-people eaters while Favre wants one more shot at the big game. In the AFC, the Ravens are ready to dethrone Pittsburgh.

NFC North
Division Rank: 5th

Last Season:
Green Bay 10-6
Minnesota 8-8
Detroit 6-10
Chicago 4-12

2005 Projection:
Minnesota 10-6
Detroit 8-8
Green Bay 7-9
Chicago 5-11

The NFC North figures to be as much about who stepped back as who will step up. Green Bay made things easy for the Vikings this offseason. Detroit is a popular pick as this year’s surprise team, but they aren’t ready for prime time. Chicago is on the right track, but it will take another year to get back in the mix.

Chicago Bears

Off-season: A-
The Bears landed a stud in Muhsin Muhammad. Fred Miller is solid and will boost the OL. The last ranked scoring offense of 2004 also should benefit from Cedric Benson’s presence once he overcomes the learning curve. Kyle Orton was a steal in the 4th round, and Mark Bradley should contribute at WR.

The season will go well if….
The team can produce on the ground. The Bears were 26th in rushing last season. Orton has ability, but he will need the ground game to reduce some of the pressure.

The season will go poorly if…
Two touchdowns per game is all the offense can muster. The Bears posted a league’s worst average of 14.4 points per game last year. They simply have to find the end zone more often and find some big plays in the ground game to help Orton.

Key Game
GREEN BAY –December 4th
The Bears got hammered at home in last season’s finale against the Pack. Orton will have enough games under his belt by December to be competitive at home against the division champs.

Bottom Line:
Grossman’s injury may have been a blessing for Chicago as Orton may prove to be the best option at QB. He will need time, and that means another sub-par year in Chicago.

Detroit Lions

Off-season: B
The Lions had a solid offseason. Kenoy Kennedy will provide a physical presence in the secondary, and former Colts Rick DeMulling and Marcus Pollard were positive acquisitions. Mike Williams is certainly a talent, but WR was not a position of need for Detroit. Bill Swancutt was a nice selection in the sixth round.

The season will go well if….
Harrington can live up to his hype. He’s been given all the weapons. If the team doesn’t improve from 24th in points per game, the Lions will be in the market for a replacement at QB.

The season will go poorly if…
If Kevin Jones doesn’t continue to climb to the upper echelon of feature backs. There is more than enough pressure on Harrington. Jones needs to continue to rise, and the OL must open the way for him.

Key Game
GREEN BAY –September 11th
The Lions open up with a test at home from last year’s division champs. The Lions dropped both games against Green Bay last year, and got shellacked at home 38-10. If they are truly the contender people feel they are, this is a must win.

Bottom Line:
The Lions are a trendy pick this year, but Harrington is not up to the challenge. This will become clear this season as there is enough talent around him to eliminate all excuses. Detroit will see only slight improvement and be home for the playoffs again.

Green Bay Packers

Off-season: D
Adrian Klemm and Matt O’Dwyer are not equal to the talent that departed on the OL. The Packers did nothing to address their horrific secondary. Aaron Rodgers is talented and will step in nicely once Favre retires.

The season will go well if….
Several rookie defensive players contribute immediately. The 25th ranked passing defense needs help in coverage and in the pass rush.

The season will go poorly if…
Favre doesn’t get the time he needs in the pocket. He will need another 4,000-yard season to keep up with the defensive weaknesses.

Key Game
at Minnesota – October 23rd
The Vikings figure as the divisional favorite. The Pack can go a long way toward defending the title with a win in Minnesota.

Bottom Line:
The Pack will take a giant step back this season. There are just too many holes on defense to contend. It’s a shame that Favre will close a brilliant career without a realistic shot at another title run.


Minnesota Vikings

Off-season: A
The Vikings went for it this offseason. Randy Moss’s departure is addition by subtraction. The team sealed the secondary with key additions in Fred Smoot and Darren Sharper. Pat Williams will clog the middle of the line. Travis Taylor may be the answer at WR if 1st rounder Troy Williamson is not.

The season will go well if….
The offense doesn’t miss Moss. The Vikings put up 25 points per game last season. Moss was a distraction, but his production and the threat he provided were a key. Culpepper needs to create chemistry with new wideouts.

The season will go poorly if…
The secondary doesn’t improve from 29th against the pass. The free-agent additions figure to help. The pass rush must create pressure as well.

Key Game
ST. LOUIS – December 11th
The Vikings close with three of four at home. The Rams aerial show will test the Viking’s rebuilt secondary in the first game of the closing stretch. December figures to be significant for the Vikings.

Bottom Line:
The Vikings are the clear choice in the North. Green Bay’s decline will open the door for the improved Vikings to walk to the division title. The Vikings need the new faces to produce if they want more than just the division.

AFC North
Division Rank: 3rd
Last Season:
Pittsburgh 15-1
Baltimore 9-7
Cincinnati 8-8
Cleveland 2-14

2005 Projection:

Baltimore 12-4
Pittsburgh 11-5
Cincinnati 9-7
Cleveland 4-12

The AFC North would be the leagues best division if not for Cleveland. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are AFC contenders, and Cincinnati is on the rise. The Ravens used free agency and the draft to catch up to the Steel Men.

Baltimore Ravens

Off-season: A
The Ravens delivered the top two players in free agency. Derrick Mason is a key addition at WR, and Samari Rolle make a good defense even better. The Ravens also made solid picks with Mark Clayton and Dan Cody in rounds one and two of the draft.

The season will go well if….
The Ravens find a passing game. Mason has to be the go-to receiver he was in Tennessee. Boller will have to find Mason and prove he is the guy to lead this team. The Ravens were 31st in passing yards last year.

The season will go poorly if…
Jamal Lewis isn’t all the way back physically and mentally. After spending time behind bars, Lewis has to be focused for the Ravens to contend. He is still option one and two for the Ravens.

Key Game
PITTSBURGH– November 20th
The Ravens need to hold serve at home against the Steelers. They travel to Pittsburgh for a difficult Monday-night meeting in October. They can’t afford to drop the November home game and still contend for the division.

Bottom Line:
The Ravens have all the pieces in place for a run at the Steelers. Boller is the key. The addition of Mason and the running game is all the Ravens need provided Boller can raise his game. If he does, the Ravens are a contender for the AFC crown.

Cincinnati Bengals

Off-season: C-
It was a quiet off-season for the Cincinnati. There were no moves of note in free agency. They Bengals drafted well, but had the usual issues with getting players into camp. If Chris Henry is behaved, he is more talented than the average 3rd round pick. The Bengals did not do enough off a promising 2004 season.

The season will go well if….
The team can improve against the run. 26th in the league will not cut it in a division with Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

The season will go poorly if…
Carson Palmer does not continue to develop. He showed signs of brilliance, but ended with 18 TDs and 18 INTs. That ratio needs to move to 20 and 10 for the Bengals to make noise.

Key Game
PITTSBURGH – October 23rd
The Bengals lost a tough game in Cincinnati last year. The schedule gives them a chance to get off to a good start, and a win against the Steelers will give this young team a boost toward contention.

Bottom Line:
The Bengals are talented and on the rise. Life is tough though when you have two legitimate Super Bowl contenders in your division. The defense needs a few new faces for the Bengals to make the playoffs.

Cleveland Browns

Off-season: C-
The Browns made wholesale changes this offseason. Most of their starting defensive line will play for the Broncos this year. The defense took too much of the blame for the Browns miserable year. The offense produced next to nothing, and little was done to improve. Braylon Edwards is stud, but who’s is going to get him the ball?

The season will go well if….
Someone can find the end zone. The Browns posted a 27th-best average of 17 points per game. Reuben Droughns has to produce like he did in Denver.

The season will go poorly if…
The Browns were wrong about their DL. The frustration with Courtney Brown is understandable, but Gerrard Warren is talented and will be missed in the middle.

Key Game
CHICAGO –October 9th
This is a game the Browns must win to show there is something more going on than last year. The Browns can’t let the few winnable games on the schedule get by them.

Bottom Line:
The Browns are in for another long season. They have multiple holes in the roster, and they play in one of the best divisions in football. A playoff run is a few years away.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Off-season: C-
The Steelers lost their lone deep threat in Plaxico Burress. Cedrick Wilson is a good receiver, but he’s not the player Burress is when healthy. Oliver Ross was an underrated contributor on the OL. Heath Miller will provide a nice target for Big Ben.

The season will go well if….
The passing game can produce. The Steelers were 28th in passing last year. They need balance to hold off the Ravens and take the next step.

The season will go poorly if…
The team can’t find a feature back. Bettis is breaking down, and Staley never stays healthy. The Steelers win by running and stopping the run. That formula will fail if Bettis has to carry the load again.

Key Game
BALTIMORE – October 31st
The Ravens made definitive strides this offseason while the Steelers did not. We will see exactly how close the teams have come on Halloween night. If the Steelers don’t continue their dominant tradition on Monday nights, the Ravens will run away in the North.

Bottom Line:
Although last season is mostly remembered for the Patriot debacle in the AFC title game, the team did post 15 wins in the regular season. This team seems to be forgotten when people talk about 2005 contenders. They are not as bad as they looked against the Pats. Though they don’t figure to come near the record they notched last year, they are still a legitimate force in the AFC. They’ll find the playoffs again, though the lack of playmakers on offense will make them a wild-card.

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