Favre-less NFC North is hard to figure out

After scoring 11 TDs on kickoff and punt returns from 2006-07, Devin Hester has been shut out so far on special teams as he's been asked to play a larger role at receiver.

As the middling division moves into the second half of the season, those of us who think we were figuring this group out are merely further confused.

Continuing to evolve from those decades-past days of the black-and-blue division, the NFC North can at least point to two constants amid chaos: The rivalries remain strong, and those laughably bad Lions are buried at the bottom.

Green Bay and Minnesota will remind each other of their mutual dislike this weekend at the Metrodome, with the winner poised to move into a first-place tie if Chicago loses to unbeaten Tennessee with Rex Grossman filling in for surprise Kyle Orton at quarterback.

The Packers and Vikings couldn't even wait for the season to start their sniping: Tampering charges filed from Green Bay in July that Minnesota illegally tempted Brett Favre were dismissed by the NFL, but the border feud endures. The Bears are still a real rival for both clubs, too.

As cool-and-calm Aaron Rodgers settles in for the long term at quarterback for the Pack, the Vikes are trying to get by for now with good ol' Gus Frerotte after the plug was pulled on the Tarvaris Jackson project after two games.

As for Culpepper?

He pulled a Favre and unretired himself, the competitive desire so strong he didn't mind coming back to play for the lowliest of the low. Four years removed from his last of three Pro Bowl appearances while with Minnesota, Culpepper has signed with Detroit. Here's the midterm report card for this confounding division:

The Bears aren't applying nearly as much pressure from their once-feared front seven, with tackle Tommie Harris and linebacker Brian Urlacher leading the list of underperformers.

Several injuries in the secondary have been a concern, including the latest casualty to safety Mike Brown. So has Devin Hester's inability to create much excitement -- let alone reach the end zone on a return. After scoring 11 touchdowns bringing back kickoff and punts over the last two seasons, Hester has been shut out so far on special teams as he's been asked to play a larger role at receiver.

For the first time in years, the Bears have a winning record because of their offense and not their defense. They survived a 48-41 shootout against the Vikings at home three weeks ago, and they're fourth in the league in scoring. Orton was having a breakout season until he hurt his ankle, and new running back Matt Forte has been outstanding.

Without Hester's hair-raising returns and that relentless defense they aren't the same, but Orton's pre-injury play and Forte's rookie flair have helped the Bears arrive at the halfway point as the only NFC North team to truly exceed early expectations. Grade: B-minus.

It might take a season or two before the shadow of that Favre fellow fully escapes the Packers, but it's not as though they haven't tried. Sticking with their commitment to Rodgers has paid off for him and for the team. The 2005 first-round draft pick parlayed a strong first half into a hefty contract extension through 2014, and the burning question about this year's team has been answered.

However, Ryan Grant hasn't been that good: a 3.5-yard average per rushing attempt and only one trip across the goal line. And defensively, there have been injuries galore. They've struggled to stop the run, a trend that must be reversed in order to succeed down the stretch.

Starting fast in the face of Favre-fueled drama and distraction behind Rodgers and his right arm could've brought the Packers a higher mark, but the lack of defensive depth and lagging running attack land the defending division champs slightly above average. Grade: C-plus.

Frerotte is finding a rhythm with his receivers, giving the Vikings some hope of opening up the offense and keeping other teams from stacking the line to stop Adrian Peterson. They've won three of their last four to make up for a rough September.

But for all the bonuses given out to get these guys deep in the playoffs for once, a striking amount of flaws are still apparent. Jared Allen has upgraded the pass rush, but the defense is still vulnerable through the air. Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson's season-ending foot injury was a big blow.

Bernard Berrian has been a valuable addition to the receiving corps, but Frerotte's immobility in the pocket has put more pressure on the line to protect.

An two-month grace period remains for the Vikings to build some steam and improve their grade, but for all the spring spending and summer hype their fall has so far been unsatisfactory. Grade: D-plus.

The Lions are as bad as they've been in some time, and that's sure saying a lot for a franchise with an NFL-worst 31-89 record since 2001. The worst part is the future doesn't look so bright, either.

Matt Millen was ousted in September after eight miserable years as team president, and his mistakes with top-10 draft picks won't just vanish with his dismissal. After a 6-2 start in 2007, the Lions lost seven of their last eight and have continued the slide this season despite insistence from coach Rod Marinelli and his players that this year would be different because of improved chemistry in the locker room and work ethic on the field.

Finally firing Millen was nearly enough to lift the Lions a full letter grade, but as long as they're still winless into November a failing mark is only fair.

Grade: F.

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