NFL PREVIEW 2004

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

10-3 Philadelphia, 1 p.m.

10-10 Open

10-17 Washington, 1 p.m.

10-24 at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

10-31 San Francisco, 8:30 p.m.

11-7 at N.Y. Giants, 4:05 p.m.

11-14 at Tennessee, 1 p.m.

11-21 Indianapolis, 1 p.m.

11-25 at Dallas, 4:35 p.m.

12-5 Minnesota, 1 p.m.

12-12 at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.

12-19 Houston, 1 p.m.

12-26 at Detroit, 1 p.m.

1-2 Green Bay, 1 p.m.

NFC SOUTH

CAROLINE PANTHERS

1 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: John Fox (21-15), third season with Panthers.

Last season: 11-5, first place. Lost Super Bowl to New England, 32-29.

Burning question

Will QB Jake Delhomme use his performance in the Super Bowl as a springboard to stardom?

Must-do project

Stabilize an offensive line that was hit with retirement, free agency and position switches. It's still a run-first offense.

Team MVP

Delhomme. Fox has a running philosophy, but Delhomme's evolution will make it easier for RBs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster.

On the hot seat

Second-year CB Ricky Manning had a strong finish last year, and he can't afford a letdown.

Upside

The Panthers are built around aggressive defense and a solid running game. That shouldn't change.

Downside

The revamped secondary could be a little thin if rookie CB Chris Gamble doesn't play early.

Projection

The Panthers can't afford a letup in a very competitive division.

ATLANTA FALCONS

2 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Jim Mora (0-0), first season with Falcons.

Last season: 5-11, fourth place, under Dan Reeves and Wade Phillips.

Burning question

Will GM Rich McKay and a rookie head coach be able to transform a perennial loser into one of the NFL's elite teams?

Must-do project

Revive a defense that allowed 422 points and ranked last in pass defense last season.

Team MVP

QB Michael Vick meant the difference between the playoffs in 2002 and five wins a year ago.

On the hot seat

WR Peerless Price was a big-ticket signing last year, but never elevated the passing game.

Upside

Vick is young (24) and still learning the game.

Downside

He has to learn to protect himself better against big hits and not take so many risks running the ball.

Projection

McKay achieved a nice overhaul in the offseason, but has more to do. If Vick stays healthy, the Falcons should challenge in the division.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

3 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Jon Gruden (62-41), third season with Bucs, seventh in NFL.

Last season: 7-9, third place.

Burning question

How close did the Bucs come to dumping QB Brad Johnson in the offseason, as was speculated?

Must-do project

The running game has declined steadily and Mike Alstott's injury last season didn't help. Charlie Garner gets first crack at the job.

Team MVP

LB Derrick Brooks doesn't have buddies Warren Sapp or John Lynch in town any longer, but he's still the guiding light.

On the hot seat

Johnson can't be real secure with Chris Simms breathing down his neck and lingering rumors about Rich Gannon.

Upside

Two years removed from the Super Bowl, the Bucs still have a top-10 defense.

Downside

Gruden brought in a boatful of ex-Raiders in the offseason.

Projection

The Bucs appear to be in transition, but could contend if things fall right.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

4 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Jim Haslett (35-31), fifth season with Saints.

Last season: 8-8, second place.

Burning question

Does Haslett have the Saints headed in the right direction or running on a treadmill?

Must-do project

QB Aaron Brooks threw only eight interceptions last season, but lost an NFL-high 11 fumbles.

Team MVP

RB Deuce McAllister, one of the league's most complete backs, rumbled for 1,641 yards and caught 69 passes last season.

On the hot seat

Defensive line coach John Pease was brought in to crank up a unit that can't stop the run or pressure the quarterback.

Upside

McAllister, who played at 238 pounds, was asked to lose 10 pounds to reduce wear on his legs.

Downside

The Saints always seem to have attitude issues.

Projection

They have enough talent to win the division, but carry enough baggage to fall into the basement.

SCHEDULE

CAROLINA

9-13 Green Bay, 9 p.m.

9-19 at Kansas City, 1 p.m.

9-26 Open

10-3 Atlanta, 4:05 p.m.

10-10 at Denver, 4:15 p.m.

10-17 at Philadelphia, 1 p.m.

10-24 San Diego, 1 p.m.

10-31 at Seattle, 4:05 p.m.

11-7 Oakland, 1 p.m.

11-14 at San Francisco, 4:15 p.m.

11-21 Arizona, 1 p.m.

11-28 Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

12-5 at New Orleans, 1 p.m.

12-12 St. Louis, 4:15 p.m.

12-18 at Atlanta, 8:30 p.m.

12-26 at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

1-2 New Orleans, 1 p.m.

ATLANTA

9-12 at San Francisco, 4:15 p.m.

9-19 St. Louis, 1 p.m.

9-26 Arizona, 1 p.m.

10-3 at Carolina, 4:05 p.m.

10-10 Detroit, 1 p.m.

10-17 San Diego, 1 p.m.

10-24 at Kansas City, 1 p.m.

10-31 at Denver, 4:05 p.m.

11-7 Open

11-14 Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

11-21 at N.Y. Giants, 4:15 p.m.

11-28 New Orleans, 4:05 p.m.

12-5 at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

12-12 Oakland, 1 p.m.

12-18 Carolina, 8:30 p.m.

12-26 at New Orleans, 1 p.m.

1-2 at Seattle, 4:05 p.m.

TAMPA BAY

9-12 at Washington, 1 p.m.

9-19 Seattle, 4:05 p.m.

9-26 at Oakland, 8:30 p.m.

10-3 Denver, 4:15 p.m.

10-10 at New Orleans, 1 p.m.

10-18 at St. Louis, 9 p.m.

10-24 Chicago, 1 p.m.

10-31 Open

11-7 Kansas City, 1 p.m.

11-14 at Atlanta, 1 p.m.

11-21 San Francisco, 1 p.m.

11-28 at Carolina, 1 p.m.

12-5 Atlanta, 1 p.m.

12-12 at San Diego, 4:15 p.m.

12-19 New Orleans, 4:05 p.m.

12-26 Carolina, 1 p.m.

1-2 at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS

9-12 Seattle, 1 p.m.

9-19 San Francisco, 1 p.m.

9-26 at St. Louis, 1 p.m.

10-3 at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.

10-10 Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

10-17 Minnesota, 8:30 p.m.

10-24 at Oakland, 4:15 p.m.

10-31 Open

11-7 at San Diego, 4:05 p.m.

11-14 Kansas City, 1 p.m.

11-21 Denver, 1 p.m.

11-28 at Atlanta, 4:05 p.m.

12-5 Carolina, 1 p.m.

12-12 at Dallas, 1 p.m.

12-19 at Tampa Bay, 4:05 p.m.

12-26 Atlanta, 1 p.m.

1-2 at Carolina, 1 p.m.

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