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NFC North
Predicted order of finish
1. Packers
2. Bears
3. Vikings
4. Lions
Associated Press
Aaron Rodgers’ Packers won the NFC North last season despite an 8-7-1 record. It was Green Bay’s third straight division title.
NFL preview

NFC North: Stars belie mediocrity

Keeping top players healthy, better defense vital in division

Green Bay’s grab of the NFC North for the third straight season, giving the Packers seven of the 12 titles since the division formed, was predictable.

That unremarkable 8-7-1 record they won it with was the real surprise.

Chicago took a step back, too, and Minnesota plummeted badly. Detroit was the only team with more victories than the previous year but still had a losing mark and fired its coach. Such mediocrity, though, should not mask the abundance of elite talent that still exists in this foursome.

Proven stars such as Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson and up-and-comers such as Cordarrelle Patterson, Alshon Jeffrey and Eddie Lacy, as well as standouts such as Reggie Bush, Brandon Marshall and Randall Cobb, the NFC North could probably field a Pro Bowl offense all by itself.

The Packers, Lions and Bears all ranked in the top eight in the league in total yards, and even the Vikings with their persistent quarterback problems finished 13th, higher than five playoff teams.

For this division to again produce a championship-caliber team, keeping those key players healthy all year is the first prerequisite. Then the defenses must get better. If not, and this season looks a lot like the last, well, the games are bound to be entertaining with all those big-play guys throwing, running and catching the ball.

Some things to know about the NFC North this year:

In case of injury, call ...

When the previously infallible Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone, the dynamic of the division changed. The Packers were just barely good enough to survive his absence and beat the Bears in the final week, which served as a play-in game for the NFC playoffs. That was quite the feat considering they lost Cobb, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, left tackle Bryan Bulaga and several other starters for multiple games.

Josh McCown helped the Bears withstand quarterback Jay Cutler’s torn groin, but the defense lost Henry Melton, D.J. Williams, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman for a total of 38 games. Johnson wasn’t the same Megatron for the Lions, missing two games and fighting knee and finger trouble that prompted offseason procedures. Peterson had a similar letdown with the Vikings, spraining his foot in December and needing surgery on his groin in January.

Peppers picks Pack

The Packers made a rare splash in free agency by signing eight-time Pro Bowl pick Julius Peppers, who played the last four years with the Bears.

Peppers, whose 119 career sacks are the third most among active players, is making the transition from the traditional 4-3 defensive end to the 3-4 scheme at age 34.

Defense spending

One spot ahead of Peppers on the active player sacks list is Jared Allen, who also switched NFC North rivals by leaving the Vikings for the Bears.

Like Peppers, Allen, 32, is past his prime at a speed-based position. But the five-time Pro Bowl pick will be eager to prove he’s not done as a dominant pass rusher.

Bridgewater bridge

The Vikings have a new coach in Mike Zimmer and a new quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, though the first-round draft pick from Louisville has been behind veteran Matt Cassel on the depth chart since he arrived.

Cassel played well enough last season after Christian Ponder lost the job to give the Vikings confidence in him until Bridgewater is ready to take over – whether that’s this September, next September or somewhere in between.

Roar restoration

Jim Schwartz was replaced by Jim Caldwell as coach of the Lions.

Detroit went 10-6 and made the playoffs in 2011, then slumped to 4-12 in 2012 and squandered a 6-3 start with control of the division, only to finish 7-9 in 2013.

Addressing any particular weaknesses on the roster was not as important over the winter and spring as rebuilding confidence and optimism within a group that still boasts plenty of star-caliber players.