NFC North preview: Uphill climb for the Vikings

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2012 - 9:10 PM

Jared Allen still struggles to accept the magnitude of his team's two-year free fall against the Packers, Bears and Lions.

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Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen

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It has been 711 days since the Vikings beat an NFC North opponent, but All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen still struggles to accept the magnitude of his team's two-year, 11-game free fall against the Packers, Bears and Lions.

Asked if he feels the Vikings did enough this offseason to "close the gap" on the rest of the division, Allen bristled, sounding like a man suggesting an oil change was in order when his car had just plunged off a cliff.

"We used to be at the top of the NFC North," Allen said. "I was on those teams. To me, I feel like we fell off and we're just trying to get back to where we were. Not that we're trying to close any gaps. There's enough of us who were on those teams."

Yes, there are nine starters, five on defense, left from the team that won the NFC North by going 5-1, including a sweep of the Packers, in the division in 2009. But, overall, 37 members of the current 53-man roster weren't with the team in 2009.

That's 69.8 percent of the active roster that knows nothing of Brett Favre's magical 2009 regular season. Many of them know more about last season -- the first winless division record in franchise history -- and the fact that coach Leslie Frazier carries an 0-8 division record into his second full season as Vikings head coach.

When the streak ends is tough to predict since the Vikings' youth movement under new General Manager Rick Spielman comes at a time when the rest of the NFC North teams are hitting their strides with established veteran franchise quarterbacks, elite receiving corps and offenses that have the ability to score circles around the Vikings.

In Green Bay, the Packers return reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers and the league's highest-scoring offense (35.0 points per game). Hoping to balance that out with a stronger defense, GM Ted Thompson spent his first six draft picks on that side of the ball. That includes outside linebacker Nick Perry, a first-rounder who should improve Green Bay's weak pass rush, a must if the Packers are to realize their full potential as a Super Bowl favorite.

In Chicago, the Bears made the division's most significant offseason move when they traded two third-round picks to Miami for dynamic receiver Brandon Marshall. If he and quarterback Jay Cutler recapture the productivity they had in Denver, the Bears could unseat the Packers as division champs.

Questions remain, however, about an aging defense and a shaky offensive line. Keeping Cutler healthy is a must considering what happened a year ago. The Bears started 7-3, but lost five consecutive and missed the playoffs after Cutler broke his right thumb.

In Detroit, the Lions are one dimensional on offense, but most of the time it doesn't matter. Their passing attack is so good with quarterback Matthew Stafford coming off a 5,000-yard season and throwing to a talented and deep receiving corps that's led by one of the league's biggest matchup nightmares, Calvin Johnson.

Like the Packers, the Lions might have to win a number of shootouts to make the playoffs. Detroit is strong up front defensively, but the secondary is an even bigger question mark than it was a year ago when it struggled, particularly against the Saints in the playoffs.

The Vikings' average margin of defeat within the division last year was 14.3 points. But that's a bit deceptive. Four of the losses were by an average of 4.8 points. But two of them were by 29 points at Chicago and 38 points at Green Bay. The latter came three weeks after the Vikings lost by six to the Packers at home.

"I feel like we set the standard in the division years ago," Allen said. "So I think that's all we're trying to get back to."

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