Nfl Preview 2004

The League

September 09, 2004|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN STAFF

DIVISION PREVIEW

NFC NORTH

GREEN BAY PACKERS

1 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Mike Sherman (45-24), fifth season with Packers.

Last season: 10-6, first place. Lost divisional playoff to Philadelphia in overtime, 20-17.

Burning question

Can new coordinator Bob Slowik make the defense playoff-ready after last year's slide?

Must-do project

The pass rush has been negligible the past few seasons, and the secondary has paid a heavy price for that.

Team MVP

RB Ahman Green is a wonderful weapon, but QB Brett Favre (right) is still the man in Green Bay.

On the hot seat

Slowik was promoted after the bungled fourth-and-26 play against the Eagles in the playoffs that cost Ed Donatell his job.

Upside

As long as Favre stays healthy, this team is in every game.

Downside

The Packers botched their draft pick of a punter and haven't upgraded defensive personnel.

Projection

The Packers are loaded on offense; if the defense comes along, they could make the jump to the Super Bowl.

DETROIT LIONS

2 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Steve Mariucci (65-54), second season with Lions, eighth in NFL.

Last season: 5-11, fourth place.

Burning question

Surrounded by improved skill position players, can Joey Harrington entrench himself as the franchise QB?

Must-do project

Create a running game. The Lions averaged just 83.6 yards rushing per game, worst in the league.

Team MVP

WR Roy Williams makes this a tough team to defend, because he makes everyone else better.

On the hot seat

Not everyone is convinced Harrington is the QB to lead the Lions. He's got to prove it.

Upside

With an excellent draft that brought in Williams and RB Kevin Jones, Mariucci has significantly improved his offense.

Downside

The Lions haven't won on the road since December 2000, a streak of 24 losses.

Projection

This might be the most improved team in the league and should challenge for a wild-card spot.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

3 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Mike Tice (15-18), third full season with Vikings.

Last season: 9-7, second place.

Burning question

After two years of turmoil and bad defense, is Tice's team positioned for a takeover in the division or a collapse?

Must-do project

Avoid the malaise that resulted in ghastly losses to San Diego, Oakland and Arizona -- all 4-12 teams -- last season.

Team MVP

WR Randy Moss re-established himself with 17 touchdown catches last season. He's still the league's most dangerous receiver.

On the hot seat

After blowing a 6-0 start last season, Tice cannot afford any more playoff misses. It's now or never.

Upside

Like Moss, QB Daunte Culpepper had a bounce-back year in 2003 and should get better.

Downside

The addition of CB Antoine Winfield upgrades the secondary, but until the run defense improves, the Vikings will still struggle.

Projection

Awesome at times on offense, the Vikings could go either way.

CHICAGO BEARS

4 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Lovie Smith (0-0), first season with Bears.

Last season: 7-9, third place, under Dick Jauron.

Burning question

Can QB Rex Grossman hold his own in a division with Brett Favre and Daunte Culpepper?

Must-do project

Protect Grossman. The Bears don't have an experienced QB on the roster, and the No. 2 man is journeyman Jonathan Quinn.

Team MVP

RB Thomas Jones showed flashes last year in Tampa and could seize his opportunity in Chicago.

On the hot seat

Smith has eight assistants on his staff who have never coached in the NFL, which could create issues later on if things don't go well.

Upside

Grossman has more going for him than Cade McNown, the Bears' failed first-round pick of 1999.

Downside

It figures to take awhile for Smith to get the right personnel in the right position for his new aggressive schemes on defense.

Projection

Progress won't come easily in a much-improved division.

SCHEDULE

GREEN BAY

9-13 at Carolina, 9 p.m.

9-19 Chicago, 1 p.m.

9-26 at Indianapolis, 4:15 p.m.

10-3 N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.

10-11 Tennessee, 9 p.m.

10-17 at Detroit, 1 p.m.

10-24 Dallas, 4:15 p.m.

10-31 at Washington, 1 p.m.

11-7 Open

11-14 Minnesota, 4:15 p.m.

11-21 at Houston, 8:30 p.m.

11-29 St. Louis, 9 p.m.

12-5 at Philadelphia, 4:15 p.m.

12-12 Detroit, 1 p.m.

12-19 Jacksonville, 1 p.m.

12-24 at Minnesota, 3 p.m.

1-2 at Chicago, 1 p.m.

DETROIT

9-12 at Chicago, 1 p.m.

9-19 Houston, 1 p.m.

9-26 Philadelphia, 1 p.m.

10-3 Open

10-10 at Atlanta, 1 p.m.

10-17 Green Bay, 1 p.m.

10-24 at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.

10-31 at Dallas, 1 p.m.

11-7 Washington, 1 p.m.

11-14 at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.

11-21 at Minnesota, 1 p.m.

11-25 Indianapolis, 12:30 p.m.

12-5 Arizona, 1 p.m.

12-12 at Green Bay, 1 p.m.

12-19 Minnesota, 1 p.m.

12-26 Chicago, 1 p.m.

1-2 at Tennessee, 1 p.m.

MINNESOTA

9-12 Dallas, 4:15 p.m.

9-20 at Philadelphia, 9 p.m.

9-26 Chicago, 1 p.m.

10-3 Open

10-10 at Houston, 1 p.m.

10-17 at New Orleans, 8:30 p.m.

10-24 Tennessee, 1 p.m.

10-31 N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.

11-8 at Indianapolis, 9 p.m.

11-14 at Green Bay, 4:15 p.m.

11-21 Detroit, 1 p.m.

11-28 Jacksonville, 1 p.m.

12-5 at Chicago, 1 p.m.

12-12 Seattle, 1 p.m.

12-19 at Detroit, 1 p.m.

12-24 Green Bay, 3 p.m.

1-2 at Washington, 1 p.m.

CHICAGO

9-12 Detroit, 1 p.m.

9-19 at Green Bay, 1 p.m.

9-26 at Minnesota, 1 p.m.

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