The NFL completed the merger with the AFL and went to three divisions per conference in 1970. The Vikings were bracketed in the NFC Central with Chicago, Green Bay and Detroit, as they are today in the NFC North.

There was a 25-year period from 1977 through 2001 when the Central was a five-team division and included Tampa Bay. The Bucs moved to the NFC South when the NFL went to four four-team divisions per conference in 2002.

You can make a case the current NFC North provides the toughest division competition the Vikings have faced in the 42 years since the merger.

The Vikings haven't won a game in the division since beating Detroit in the Metrodome on Sept. 26, 2010. They are on a nine-game losing streak in the North, with four losses to the Packers, three to the Bears and two to the Lions.

What offers the impression that these teams aren't going away is the quarterback situation.

The Packers have the NFL's best for the foreseeable future in Aaron Rodgers. He turns 28 next week, and there isn't all that much wear and tear, considering his three-year apprenticeship behind Brett Favre.

The Bears have lost Jay Cutler, another 28-year-old, for several weeks with a fractured thumb. It comes with Chicago on a five-game winning streak in which it averaged 32 points per game behind Cutler and running back Matt Forte.

Chicago could hit the skids with backup Caleb Hanie as the quarterback, but this will remain the season when Cutler started using that magnificent right arm to make more great throws and fewer that are ill-advised.

Detroit also could be up against it, now that the focus has shifted from the Lions establishing themselves as contenders to defensive star Ndamukong Suh establishing himself as an idiot.

Whatever happens with this alleged season of revival in Detroit, the Lions are going to be factor in 2012 and beyond.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford doesn't turn 24 until next Feb. 7 (18 days before the Vikings' Christian Ponder) and there's plenty of talent for him to become a big-time player.

The ages and pedigree of the quarterbacks are what makes this NFC North more challenging now than when the Vikings were previously in deep divisions.

In 2001, the last year of a five-team Central, three teams made the playoffs: Bears (13-3), Packers (12-4) and Buccaneers (9-7).

Favre was running the show in Green Bay, obviously. Chicago? The quarterbacks were Jim Miller and Shane Matthews. Tampa Bay? The quarterback was Brad Johnson, then 33.

In 1999, the Central also had three teams in the playoffs: Bucs (11-5), Vikings (10-6) and Detroit (8-8).

All three teams split quarterback duty that season. The Vikings switched from Randall Cunningham to Jeff George. The Bucs started Trent Dilfer and Shaun King. The Lions started Gus Frerotte and Charlie Batch.

In 1997, the Central wound up with all three wild cards in the NFC. The Packers won the division at 13-3, followed by Bucs at 10-6, and the Lions and the Vikings at 9-7.

Exciting, right?

It was in Green Bay, where Favre took the Packers to a second Super Bowl in a row.

In Minnesota, Brad Johnson suffered a neck injury and was replaced by Cunningham. The Bucs were stuck with Dilfer, now proven to be much more adroit as an ESPN analyst than as a non-playmaking quarterback. The Lions had portly lefthander Scott Mitchell (think Jose Mijares, only taller).

The Central also had all of the wild cards in 1994. The Vikings won the division at 10-6, with the Bears, the Lions and the Packers getting in at 9-7.

The quarterbacks were Favre, Warren Moon in Minnesota, Mitchell and Dave Krieg in Detroit, and Steve Walsh and Erik Kramer in Chicago.

Walsh, a Twin Cities lad, led a 35-18 upset of the Vikings in the Dome that sent the first words of criticism printed in the local dailies toward Dennis Green. It was the start of a beautiful feud.

You look back at the total package of quarterbacks in those years the Central showed depth -- and you look at what the North has now (Ponder included) -- and there will be some continued reckoning to be done with this division for several years to come.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon to 4 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on 1500ESPN. •