The NFC North's Aerial Assault

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The NFC North's Aerial Assault
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Ah, the NFC North division.  

Cold-weather games at historic Soldier and Lambeau Fields always have necessitated a strong running game of the four teams in the division.  

With names like Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Paul Hornung, and now Adrian Peterson, strewn about the history of the division, it's no surprise that it has come to be known as the black and blue division.

This season, though, the division will shed its reputation as a boring, ground-pounding group and become one of the most exciting offensive divisions in the entire NFL.

The transformation started long ago in Green Bay when Brett Favre took the helm in 1992. Before that time, the NFC Central, as the division was known then, hadn't exactly been a breeding ground for talented quarterbacks. Bart Starr and Fran Tarkenton were really the only greats to come from the division in the Super Bowl era.

Minnesota kept the new trend going, winning 15 games in 1999 with Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Daunte Culpepper, and Randall Cunningham running wild on the artificial turf of the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome.

Eventually, the Packers and Vikings couldn't sustain the potency of their passing attacks as the NFC Central became the NFC North. Favre was aging in Green Bay and Moss was misbehaving his way out of Minnesota.

Chicago tried a variety of quarterbacks including Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton, and Brian Griese during this time, but with no competent receivers to throw to, all failed.

Detroit spent high draft picks on wide receivers. None lived up to expectations, and the quarterbacks in the Motor City weren't much better.

But now it's 2009, and the entire division has something exciting to look forward to in terms of passing offense for next season.

The Green Bay Packers signed Aaron Rodgers, the successful (up to this point) heir to Favre's quarterbacking legacy in Wisconsin, to a six-year contract last season and also locked up his primary target, Greg Jennings, to a long-term deal.

The Chicago Bears made a move for a strong-armed quarterback from the south, Jay Cutler. It's hard to deny that Cutler has great physical tools to play quarterback, but questions remain about the head on his shoulders, not to mention the lack of a true number one wide receiver.

With the top pick in last year's draft, the Detroit Lions (hopefully) secured their quarterbacking future with Matthew Stafford. If he doesn't work out, the Lions can be glad that at least one of their wide receiver picks worked out.  Calvin Johnson just may be the best receiver in the division.

And the Minnesota Vikings, with their already dominant running attack, signed a 40-year-old quarterback who just had shoulder surgery. In addition, this quarterback missed all of training camp and still has a small tear in his rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.

The thing is, though, is that this quarterback is one of the greatest to ever play the game. And did I mention that he established his greatness with a division rival?  

Sure, Brett Favre's move to Minnesota might be a short-sighted ploy by Viking management to sell tickets, but Favre's competitive drive and still-adequate physical ability should be better than the alternatives in Minnesota this season.

The question remains: who's passing game is going to be the best in the NFC North this season? The early favorites are the Packers, who have one of the best young quarterbacks in the league and a receiving corps that runs five deep.

The Vikings are much-improved, however. As I said, Old Favre is an upgrade for the Vikings, and Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian are both burners on the outside, but will it be enough to surpass Green Bay's depth and experience?

Chicago's got the arm they've been looking for since Sid Luckman, but have the hands of Devin Hester matured to the point of a number one receiver in the NFL?

Detroit will depend on either a rookie (Stafford) or another divisional retread (former Viking Daunte Culpepper) to deliver the ball to one of the most threatening receivers in the league, and it will be difficult for either quarterback option to succeed behind the porous offensive line the Lions will trot out on Sundays.

No matter who prevails in the aerial arms race this season, one thing is certain: it will be a fun change to follow for those who have followed the division year after year.

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