Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.


Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


Craig: Five thoughts from the Packers-Saints game

Posted by: Mark Craig under Quarterbacks, Vikings, AFC, Bears, Lions, NFC, Packers, Super Bowl, Leslie Frazier, Cedric Griffin, Leslie Frazier Updated: September 9, 2011 - 8:44 AM

My top five thoughts by the end of the Packers' 42-34 victory over the Saints last night:

1, The Vikings have to play these two quarterbacks THREE times this year. At least two of the games are at the Metrodome, which will help the Vikings' pass rush. But now you know why coach Leslie Frazier is pleading with the football gods that Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook stay healthy.

2, That big advantage we all thought the Packers might have because of the 4 1/2-month lockout is actually hopelessly enormous for teams in transition that had to set idle all offseason. Rodgers goes 14-for15 with three touchdowns in the first quarter. Without an offseason, he looks like the Super Bowl was played the day before. The only difference: The Packers' offense was better with speedy second-round draft pick Randall Cobb at receiver. Packers GM Ted Thompson adding another receiver in the second round? That's why he's the best at what he does right now.

3, The cliche "You can never have enough corners" has never sounded more true. Hats off to the Eagles, who brought together Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Asante Samuel.

4, On a positive note, at least the Vikings' defense and special teams coverage units don't have to play Darren Sproles on Sunday. The former Charger and current Saint has to be the best player at his size in NFL history. San Diego will miss him, which is good for the Vikings on Sunday.

5, Packers NT B.J. Raji looks like he's reached a new level. It began late last season and continued last night. If the Vikings can't move him off the ball better than the Saints did -- and the Saints have the best guard combo in the league -- running the ball and controlling the clock will be difficult against the Packers.

Prediction time

Sunday's game: Chargers 28, Vikings 17.

I think the Vikings could surprise some people this year. But there has to be some more visual evidence before I'm picking them to win a West coast game against a quarterback the caliber of Philip Rivers. Sorry.

2011 NFC North:

Champion: Packers.

How the other three finish doesn't really matter because I don't think any of them will make the playoffs. I think the Bears take a step back, the Lions take a step forward and the Vikings will stay competitive enough to win 6-8 games, which isn't bad, all things considered. While the Lions could have what it takes to finish second, I'm not going to predict playoffs for the Lions. Not until Matthew Stafford proves he can physically survive a season.

Super Bowl XLVI: Eagles over Ravens.

It's tempting to pick the Pack to repeat, but I'll go with the Eagles and those corners over the Packers in the NFC title game. In the AFC, I think the Ravens will be too physical for the Patriots and Steelers. And with Peyton Manning probably missing the entire season, the Colts won't finish above .500, so they're out of the mix in the AFC for the first time in a long time.

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