While Chicago, with its 22 returning starters and a defense full of Pro Bowl players, is the chalk pick to win the division, don't discount a Vikings team that managed to go 9-7 last season despite a boatload (wink, wink) of problems. New Vikings head coach Brad Childress has a talented roster to work with, and his disciplined nature should set just the right tone in Minnesota, where the inmates have been running the asylum for some time.
The most hopeful move the Vikings made in their busy offseason was hiring first-time defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, who will install the tried-and-true Cover 2 scheme that has worked so well in Tampa Bay, Chicago and other NFL venues. If Childress' run-oriented version of the West Coast offense clicks, with lead running back Chester Taylor carrying the mail and quarterback Brad Johnson smoothly delivering the ball all over the field, the Vikings could be a dangerous entity in the NFC playoff race.
Team in transition
The Packers were painful to watch in 2005, burying themselves beneath an avalanche of mistakes, injuries and narrow defeats (eight by seven points or fewer). With head coach Mike Sherman banished, the untested Mike McCarthy has been given a shot to guide Green Bay through what will continue to be a difficult transition from playoff perennial.
McCarthy has the division's thinnest roster to work with, and the Brett Favre retirement saga continues to loom over everything in Packer-land. Green Bay gets to watch Favre play for at least one more year, but that won't be much of a treat if he repeats his humbling performance of last season, when his game disintegrated into a weekly display of trying to do too much (he had a career-worst 29 picks). The defense has been upgraded somewhat with cornerback Charles Woodson, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett and rookie linebacker A.J. Hawk, but there still won't be enough playmakers or points to go around.
Coach in the spotlight
ROD MARINELLI, DETROIT
With three new head coaches in the four-team division, we had options in this category. The most intriguing situation to follow will be in Motown, where Marinelli has vowed to take a tough-love approach that will stand in stark contrast to the laid-back atmosphere that cost ex-Lions head coach Steve Mariucci his job. When you throw in the Mike Martz factor -- the always-entertaining ex-Rams head coach is Detroit's new offensive coordinator -- the Lions, more than any other NFC North team, are counting on coaching being a difference-maker. It may take Marinelli a while to find the right combination of players who will sell out for his program, but just getting the Lions to play harder will register as improvement.