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Packers vs. Bears: How Thursday Night's Game Impacts NFC North

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Packers vs. Bears: How Thursday Night's Game Impacts NFC North
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By the time the Green Bay Packers were finished walloping the Chicago Bears in Lambeau Field on Thursday, the entire complexion of the NFC North division had drastically changed.

It's only Week 2, but one of the toughest, most exciting divisions in football has already taken a turn for the bizarre. Thursday night's contest was merely the beginning of what will be a year-long slugfest between all teams in this exciting division.

The performances between the first two weeks for the Packers and Bears couldn't have been more night and day for both teams. Now both sit at 1-1, just when it looked as though Jay Cutler and the high-flying Bears would take that big step up.

No one is the favorite. The Detroit Lions avoided disaster in their home opener by inching out a victory over the lately-lowly St. Louis Rams. Now, Jim Schwartz and his club travel across the country to take on the San Francisco 49ers, who soundly beat the Pack in Week 1. Hopefully there won't be a postgame handshake mishap this time around.

In all seriousness—and trust me, it's going to sound crazy—the team that's in prime position to grab the early edge in the NFC North is the Minnesota Vikings.

Yes, that same franchise that was in shambles last year, whose running back blew out his knee in a meaningless late-season battle and whose talent level then looked to be laughably short when they were compared to their division rivals.

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Is Christian Ponder ready to push the Vikings into the 2012 playoff picture?

A dramatic comeback victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars for the Vikings is going to be followed by a trip to Indianapolis to take on Andrew Luck and the Colts. Considering how poor Indy's defense looked against Cutler and Co., who's to say Christian Ponder won't build off of a mighty impressive first game? The Jags were one of the league's best pass defenses last season, and Ponder averaged 10 yards per attempt on 27 passes.

The Viking defense did yield quite a few yards through the air to Blaine Gabbert, but he could very well be in the midst of a huge bounce-back year from his rookie campaign.

For Ponder, it looks to be a similar case. If he can continue to prove himself as a stellar compliment to rapidly-recovered running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings offense could suddenly become prolific.

It seemed like yesterday that Minnesota was the laughingstock of the division, and the quarterbacks listed on its depth chart were putrid compared to the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Cutler. Ponder himself is a first-round draft pick, like his fellow NFC North starting QBs, but the 2011 No. 12 overall selection is out to prove he belongs in similar company for years to come.

As reported by Joe Oberle of CBSSports.com, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier was pumped about Ponder's ability to bounce back from a shaky first half and lead the team to the deciding final two scoring drives. Frazier noted that the Vikings hadn't seen something like that in quite some time.

It looked as though the Bears were the most complete team in the division until Thursday night. Suddenly, Cutler has started calling everyone out (via B/R NFC North lead blogger Andrew Garda), and the team may be scattering into disarray.

Can the Packers and Lions be consistently more balanced, both in running the ball and playing good defense? Will the Bears bounce back? Can the Vikings maintain their seemingly promising start?

With so many storylines and so much season left, none of the NFC North teams have an easy remaining slate. That should mean the race for the divisional crown is bound to be between all four teams.

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