AP Pro Football Writer
Eds: Edits headline and third paragraph to correct Packers consecutive titles to four, not five. With AP Photos.
The competitive balance that has come to define the modern NFL has not exactly been evenly distributed across the different divisions.
The Green Bay Packers sure haven’t been generous in sharing their hold on the NFC North.
Befitting their publicly owned status in by far the smallest market in American professional sports, the Packers have been as steady a franchise as there is, with eight of the 13 division titles since the NFC North was formed in the league’s latest realignment in 2002. That includes each of the last four.
The Packers are 57-22-1 since 2010, plus 6-4 in the playoffs. Their three rivals have reached the playoffs four times total in that span, with Chicago (41-39) owning the lone postseason victory, and Detroit (38-42) the only team to qualify more than once. Minnesota (31-48-1) finished a combined 26 games behind Green Bay over the last five years. The Bears, Lions and Vikings are each on their third head coach since Mike McCarthy got the job with the Packers in 2006.
“It doesn’t feel like there needs to be a lot of change. We’ve got the team that we want,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “But it’s all about putting yourself in position.”
STAYING ON THE FIELD: Part of that “putting yourself in position” edict from Rodgers is avoiding injuries, which have been this team’s biggest problem and another testament to that sustained success. Green Bay’s worst season of the last five was easily 2013, an 8-7-1 finish eked out when Rodgers broke his collarbone and the Bears and Lions imploded in December. Last year, Rodgers played through a painful pulled calf muscle that limited his mobility in the playoffs.
Well, the injury issue has already roared right back for the Packers, who lost top receiver Jordy Nelson (torn right ACL) for the season in a recent exhibition game. Green Bay’s ability to adjust to Nelson’s absence will be tested all fall.
STINGING FROM SEATTLE: The ability of Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery, Myles White and Jeff Janis to fill in for Nelson will be heavily scrutinized in Green Bay, but Rodgers has found myriad ways to make the offense work before.
Really, the biggest hurdle for the Packers still resides in Seattle, the site of their fourth quarter collapse in the NFC championship game and the home of the mighty Seahawks. They’ll have an early opportunity for revenge with a Sunday night matchup at home Sept. 20, but the only way the 2015 season will be remembered fondly in Wisconsin is if the Packers, not the Seahawks, represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
PAVING THE WAY FOR PETERSON: Adrian Peterson’s return from the child abuse saga that sidelined him for all but one game last year has made Minnesota one of the oft-mentioned candidates to make a significant step forward.
Peterson’s ability to pick up at age 30 where he left off will be one of the NFL’s biggest story lines, but most critical for the Vikings are the five guys in front, in the trenches. After a shaky 2014 season, the offensive line is already missing right tackle Phil Loadholt to a torn left Achilles tendon. He’s been replaced by rookie T.J. Clemmings.
SUH LONG: Ndamukong Suh caused his share of trouble and distraction, but there’s hardly been a more disruptive force on the interior of a defensive line than him. The Lions let Suh go as a free agent, and their ability to make up for his absence will go a long way toward maintaining a defense that ranked second in the NFL in fewest yards allowed, and third in fewest points allowed last year.
Five-time Pro Bowl pick Haloti Ngata was acquired to fill in for Suh, and returners defensive end Ziggy Ansah, linebacker DeAndre Levy and safety Glover Quin give the Lions the semblance of another quality group.
BEARS WATCHING: The Bears are now coached by John Fox, who was hired by rookie general manager Ryan Pace, but there’s another new piece to this team that went a combined 13-19 over the last two seasons. That’s the 3-4 defense, installed to help a once-proud unit try to fix some of the many flaws exposed in recent years.
Outside linebacker Jared Allen, signed to play end in the old 4-3 scheme and coming off a career-low 5 1/2 sacks, has been handed one of the biggest challenges with the position switch at age 33.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Packers, Vikings, Lions, Bears.
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