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Senior NFL Columnist

NFC North

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By Pete Prisco | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

The most amazing stat of the 2011 NFL season was the Green Bay Packers finishing 15-1 with a defense that ranked last in the league.

That's almost unimaginable, but true.

That speaks volumes about the team's offense and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who won league MVP honors last season. The Packers led the NFL in scoring last season, which they had to do to offset a defense that smelled worse than rotten cheese curds.

The defense won't be as bad in 2012. Count on that. Coordinator Dom Capers will have that unit much improved. Even if they move into the teens in the rankings, it should be good enough to win the NFC North again.

We know the offense isn't slowing down. Not with Rodgers throwing lasers to his fleet of receivers. As long as he's on the field, the Packers are the team to beat in the division.

But it won't be easy. This is a good division. The Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions are talented teams with good quarterbacks. The Bears have offensive line issues and the Lions have secondary issues. Whichever team fixes their problems best will push the Packers.

The Vikings are the fourth team in the division and they would appear to be a ways away from the other three.

  
 

Post-camp outlook: The Packers come out of the summer as one of the favorites to win it all. The offense should once again be explosive with Rodgers and his receivers rolling up big numbers. The running game is an extension of the passing game in this offense, not much more. The defense must get better play from Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and Tramon Williams than it did a year ago. All three were big in the Super Bowl run in 2010, but tailed off some last season. The loss of linebacker Desmond Bishop for the season because of injury will hurt.

Best that could happen: They win their second Super Bowl in three years. What's to think they can't? Rodgers is in his prime and they can't be worse than they were on defense in 2011.

Worst that could happen: They miss the playoffs. Not likely. But if the defense is as bad as last season and Rodgers tails off a bit, you never know what can happen.

Last word: Coach Mike McCarthy does a great job calling the offense and Capers is a respected defensive coach. The offense is easy to run with Rodgers running it. The only concern is the running game, but is it really? On defense, I see a bounce-back from that unit. If this team isn't deep into the playoffs, I will be shocked.

  
 

Post-camp outlook: The addition of Brandon Marshall to join old buddy Jay Cutler will really help the passing game. The problem is new coordinator Mike Tice is a big run-first guy. That might cause some meshing problems. Cutler was leading the Bears to the playoffs before he went down last year. He should be even better with Marshall. Matt Forte will key the running game. The best defensive player is end Julius Peppers. There is concern with middle linebacker Brian Urlacher having knee issues this summer.

Best that could happen: They win the division. Cutler and the passing game would need to go to the next level and the defense remains stout.

Worst that could happen: They don't get to .500. That would mean the offensive line is a disaster and Cutler takes another beating.

Last word: This is a team that has made strides in the offseason and would have been a playoff team last season if Cutler doesn't go down. They have talent on both sides of the ball. But it's up to the offensive line to make strides. If it does, they could be in for a playoff season. If not, Cutler's health is at risk again.

  
 

Post-camp outlook: The Lions made the playoffs last season thanks to an explosive offense, featuring Matt Stafford throwing to Calvin Johnson. Look for a wide-open passing game again, especially without the premier runner. The defense had problems last season, but there is talent up front. The key to how well this team does is control. They've had off-the-field problems and they also have been wild at times on the field. That means coach Jim Schwartz needs to get control.

Best that could happen: They win the division. It won't be easy, but they have the offense to do it. It's all on the defense. That means improvement in the back end. The secondary was a trouble spot last season.

Worst that could happen: They miss the playoffs. With that passing game, it shouldn't happen. But it can if they don't control things and the defense struggles.

Last word: They are set for the long haul with Stafford at quarterback. He showed that last season. But this division is a tough one to win with a bad pass defense and Rodgers in it. They will play a lot of fun games to watch, but it's all about where the defense goes in terms of improvement.

  
 

Post-camp outlook: The Vikings are clearly the bottom team in this division. Their best offensive player is running back Adrian Peterson, but he is coming off an ACL injury and didn't carry in the preseason. That put more on quarterback Christian Ponder, who did some good things as a rookie but needs to make strides in his second season. I think he can. Defensive end Jared Allen leads the defense but they have issues in the back end. Rookie safety Harrison Smith will start and should offer some help.

Best that could happen: They get to 8-8. That would mean Ponder and the passing game make big strides and the defense shows improvement. The offensive line has to play better to help Ponder. First-round pick Matt Kalil will help at left tackle.

Worst that could happen: They win three games. If that happens, there will be major concerns about Ponder. It also might mean Peterson won't ever be the same.

Last word: Coach Leslie Frazier has a big job in front of him trying to compete in this division. It's just so loaded. Vikings fans have to be patient. If they can get to eight victories, even without a playoff berth, it would be a major victory for the Vikings.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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