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Reviewing the League - NFC North and NFC South

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NFC North

Minnesota Vikings

1. PREDICTED FINISH

2004 record: 8-8, second place, lost divisional playoff game.

Coach: Mike Tice (fifth season with Vikings, 24-27).

Key stat: QB Daunte Culpepper has TD passes in 21 straight games.

Schedule: Three of the last four at home, including one against Steelers.

2005 opponents

9-11 Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

9-18 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

9-25 New Orleans, 1 p.m.

10-2 at Atlanta, 4:15 p.m.

10-9 Open date

10-16 at Chicago, 1 p.m.

10-23 Green Bay, 1 p.m.

10-30 at Carolina, 1 p.m.

11-6 Detroit, 1 p.m.

11-13 at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.

11-21 at Green Bay, 9 p.m.

11-27 Cleveland, 1 p.m.

12-4 at Detroit, 1 p.m.

12-11 St. Louis, 1 p.m.

12-18 Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

12-25 at Ravens, 8:30 p.m.

1-1 Chicago, 1 p.m.

If you ask the players, they'll tell you they can win without WR Randy Moss. His role is passed on to Troy Williamson and Nate Burleson (above), who seemed close to big things last season. The greatest improvement has been on defense, where coordinator Ted Cottrell has been handed DT Pat Williams, CB Fred Smoot and FS Darren Sharper.

Detroit Lions

2. PREDICTED FINISH

2004 record: 6-10, third place.

Coach: Steve Mariucci (third season with Lions, 11-21; ninth season overall, 71-64).

Key stat: Eddie Drummond had four return TDs, two off punts and two off kickoffs.

Schedule: They could start 3-0 with games vs. Packers, Bears and Bucs.

2005 opponents

9-11 Green Bay, 4:15 p.m.

9-18 at Chicago, 1 p.m.

9-25 Open date

10-2 at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

10-9 Ravens, 1 p.m.

10-16 Carolina, 1 p.m.

10-23 at Cleveland, 1 p.m.

10-30 Chicago, 1 p.m.

11-6 at Minnesota, 1 p.m.

11-13 Arizona, 1 p.m.

11-20 at Dallas, 1 p.m.

11-24 Atlanta, 12:30 p.m.

12-4 Minnesota, 1 p.m.

12-11 at Green Bay, 8:30 p.m.

12-18 Cincinnati, 4:05 p.m.

12-24 at New Orleans, 1 p.m.

1-1 at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

It would be easy to get excited about this club if you felt more confident about QB Joey Harrington (above). They have good coaching, a young and quickly improving defense and four excellent receivers. They're ready to move forward, and their defense could be a surprise.

Green Bay Packers

3. PREDICTED FINISH

2004 record: 10-6, first place, lost wild-card playoff game.

Coach: Mike Sherman (sixth season with Packers, 55-31).

Key stat: WRs Javon Walker and Donald Driver combined for 21 TD catches.

Schedule: Four of their six division games are in the second half of the season.

2005 opponents

9-11 at Detroit, 4:15 p.m.

9-18 Cleveland, 4:15 p.m.

9-25 Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

10-3 at Carolina, 9 p.m.

10-9 New Orleans, 1 p.m.

10-16 Open date

10-23 at Minnesota, 1 p.m.

10-30 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

11-6 Pittsburgh, 4:15 p.m.

11-13 at Atlanta, 4:15 p.m.

11-21 Minnesota, 9 p.m.

11-27 at Philadelphia, 4:15 p.m.

12-4 at Chicago, 1 p.m.

12-11 Detroit, 8:30 p.m.

12-19 at Ravens, 9 p.m.

12-25 Chicago, 5 p.m.

1-1 Seattle, 4:15 p.m.

QB Brett Favre (above) returns, perhaps for a final year, and who knows how much he has left. He has lost two superb offensive linemen and the defense doesn't look measurably better than the crew that got run over much of last season and gave up 33 TD passes.

Chicago Bears

4. PREDICTED FINISH

2004 record: 5-11, fourth place.

Coach: Lovie Smith (second season with Bears, 5-11).

Key stat: Lost a league-high 21 fumbles.

Schedule: Three of the last five are division games, but so what? They won't be competing for a playoff spot.

2005 opponents

9-11 at Washington, 1 p.m.

9-18 Detroit, 1 p.m.

9-25 Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

10-2 Open date

10-9 at Cleveland, 1 p.m.

10-16 Minnesota, 1 p.m.

10-23 Ravens, 4:15 p.m.

10-30 at Detroit, 1 p.m.

11-6 at New Orleans, 1 p.m.

11-13 San Francisco, 1 p.m.

11-20 Carolina, 1 p.m.

11-27 at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

12-4 Green Bay, 1 p.m.

12-11 at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

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

12-25 at Green Bay, 5 p.m.

1-1 at Minnesota, 1 p.m.

Smith (above) did what was expected last year, elevating the defense. However, QB Rex Grossman broke his left ankle in the preseason and will miss three to four months, further hampering this talent-deficient offense. They hit 20 points only once in their last 13 games.

NFC South

Carolina Panthers

1 PREDICTED FINISH

2004 record: 7-9, third place.

Coach: John Fox (fourth season with Panthers, 28-24).

Key stat: Forced 29 turnovers in final eight games.

Schedule: Average schedule could set up Panthers for a nice playoff run.

2005 opponents

9-11 New Orleans, 1 p.m.

9-18 New England, 1 p.m.

9-25 at Miami, 1 p.m.

10-3 Green Bay, 9 p.m.

10-9 at Arizona, 4:15 p.m.

10-16 at Detroit, 1 p.m.

10-23 Open date

10-30 Minnesota, 1 p.m.

11-6 at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

11-13 N.Y. Jets, 4:05 p.m.

11-20 at Chicago, 1 p.m.

11-27 at Buffalo, 1 p.m.

12-4 Atlanta, 1 p.m.

12-11 Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

12-18 at New Orleans, 1 p.m.

12-24 Dallas, 1 p.m.

1-1 at Atlanta, 1 p.m.

Can they possibly go a season without a half-dozen serious injuries? RBs DeShaun Foster and Stephen Davis are back, but there's more optimism about WR Steve Smith (above), who's also back from serious injury. Fox is very comfortable with his defense, which added big-hitting SS Thomas Davis in the draft.

Atlanta Falcons

2 PREDICTED FINISH

2004 record: 11-5, first place, lost NFC championship game.

Coach: Jim Mora (second season with Falcons, 12-6).

Key stat: League-high 21 percent of red-zone trips ended with a turnover.

Schedule: Eagles, Seahawks and Bills in first three weeks won't be fun.

2005 opponents

9-12 Philadelphia, 9 p.m.

9-18 at Seattle, 4:05 p.m.

9-25 at Buffalo, 1 p.m.

10-2 Minnesota, 4:15 p.m.

10-9 New England, 1 p.m.

10-16 at New Orleans, 1 p.m.

10-24 N.Y. Jets, 9 p.m.

10-30 Open date

11-6 at Miami, 1 p.m.

11-13 Green Bay, 4:15 p.m.

11-20 Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

11-24 at Detroit, 12:30 p.m.

12-4 at Carolina, 1 p.m.

12-12 New Orleans, 9 p.m.

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

12-24 at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

1-1 Carolina, 1 p.m.

They'll go as far as QB Michael Vick (above) can take them, and thus far that hasn't been far enough. Vick continues to be a very special player but also is somewhat overrated as a passer. If the running game doesn't do well again, Vick will find himself throwing 35 times a game, and no one wants that.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

3 PREDICTED FINISH

2004 record: 5-11, fourth place.

Coach: Jon Gruden (fourth season with Bucs, 27-24; eighth season overall, 67-52).

Key stat: Twenty-one players caught at least one pass.

Schedule: Three straight road games in December, but they finish up with two at home.

2005 opponents

9-11 at Minnesota, 1 p.m.

9-18 Buffalo, 1 p.m.

9-25 at Green Bay, 1 p.m.

10-2 Detroit, 1 p.m.

10-9 at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.

10-16 Miami, 1 p.m.

10-23 Open date

10-30 at San Francisco, 4:15 p.m.

11-6 Carolina, 1 p.m.

11-13 Washington, 1 p.m.

11-20 at Atlanta, 1 p.m.

11-27 Chicago, 1 p.m.

12-4 at New Orleans, 1 p.m.

12-11 at Carolina, 1 p.m.

12-17 at New England, 1:30 p.m.

12-24 Atlanta, 1 p.m.

1-1 New Orleans, 1 p.m.

Gruden (above) hasn't made many spectacular personnel moves since winning the Super Bowl. He'll stay with QB Brian Griese, who is accurate and decisive but doesn't throw a lot of home runs. They've been hamstrung by the salary cap and jettisoned a number of quality players this offseason. They're still a team reliant on defense, but rookie RB Carnell Williams' running could mean substantial changes.

New Orleans Saints

4 PREDICTED FINISH

2004 record: 8-8, second place.

Coach: Jim Haslett (sixth season with Saints, 43-39).

Key stat: Mitch Berger land-ed 28 punts inside 20-yard line.

Schedule: Uncertainty reigns, with the team to play its home games away from hurricane-damaged Superdome.

2005 opponents

9-11 at Carolina, 1 p.m.

9-19 at N.Y. Giants, 7:30 p.m.

9-25 at Minnesota, 1 p.m.

10-2 Buffalo, 1 p.m.

10-9 at Green Bay, 1 p.m.

10-16 Atlanta, 1 p.m.

10-23 at St. Louis, 1 p.m.

10-30 Miami, 1 p.m.

11-6 Chicago, 1 p.m.

11-13 Open date

11-20 at New England, 1 p.m.

11-27 at N.Y. Jets, 8:30 p.m.

12-4 Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

12-12 at Atlanta, 9 p.m.

12-18 Carolina, 1 p.m.

12-24 Detroit, 1 p.m.

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

Haslett survived another non-playoff season by winning four straight to end the year. He got a big upgrade at safety with Dwight Smith and Josh Bullocks, but QB Aaron Brooks is also an area that needs addressing. He's underperforming and, despite having RB Deuce McAllister (above), the Saints didn't rush the ball well in 2004.

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