NFC NorthCertainly this is open for debate, but several people have mentioned the NFC North as the potential powerhouse division in football this season.

That would be a big jump for a division that produced the first 0-16 team in NFL history, a 6-10 Green Bay Packers team with a sieve-like defense, a mediocre version of the Chicago Bears, and a playoff entry that would lose in the first round of the playoffs, but something’s brewing the NFL’s northern most division this offseason.

As we all know, the Packers look greatly improved behind their newly installed 3-4 defense. Meanwhile, the offense has been hitting on all cylinders, with the No. 1 unit punting only once during the preseason.

There is much joy in Chicago, where the Bears have a legitimate NFL quarterback for the first time since Sid Luckman (with no offense to one Funky QB). Although there are some injury and age questions, I think we would all be surprised if the Bears defense was anything south of solid.

And then there’s the team with the worst fans in all of pro sports, the Vikings. We all know what the Vikings added to the mix that won them the division last season – Adrian Peterson and a killer run defense – and that’s a competent NFL signal caller.

Hell, even the Lions, with a new coach and an improved defense, will win some games this year.

The point is, the NFC North will have three legitimate playoff contenders entering week one of the NFL season. And although it’s a long season where a lot of things can happen, it’s conceivable that the NFC North may have three Super Bowl contenders.

Certainly, there are other divisions who would be quick to claim the mantle, such as the NFC East where Philadelphia and possibly the New York Giants are Super Bowl contenders and the Dallas Cowboys will make considerable noise. There’s also the NFC South, where the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints have great potential and the Carolina Panthers can never be overlooked.

Still, the excitement in the NFC North is palpable and people are starting to take notice.

As SI.com’s Peter King noted last week, the Vikings could be the third best team in the division, which says something for the strength of the division.

As far as division kingpins go, most everyone agrees the NFC East is king heading into the 2009 season. From one through four, the East is better than any division playing. But I think as the season dawns, Chicago-Minnesota-Green Bay is better than New York-Philadelphia-Dallas.

ESPN’s Kevin Seifert predicts the Vikings will win the North, but gave the Bears and Packers his NFC Wild Card spots. He also spoke to Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell, who compared this year’s NFC North to the 1997 NFC Central when Detroit, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and the Packers all made the playoffs.

“We had a deep division that year,” Longwell said, “and I think you can see that potential this year as well. With the Packers changing their defense, and Cutler going to Chicago, and then the offseason we had, it’s definitely amped up the competition. We’ve typically just had one team at the top and everyone else fighting it out. We’ve been respected as a competitive division, but I think we’re a lot closer to [big-time] than we’ve been in a while.”

While Seifert and most experts expect the Vikings to win the division, one surprise pick came from former Bears player and coach Mike Ditka, who says the Packers will win the North this season.

Before we all get too excited, let me just remind everyone that the Packers are 0-0 right now, which is the same record that the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders have.

I think we’re all about ready for some real football, though.

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One Packers note from the weekend that I didn’t mention (I was out of town, OK?) was the practice squad.

The Packers signed eight players to their practice squad on Sunday – all of whom the team released on Saturday.

Those players were quarterback Brian Brohm, running back Kregg Lumpkin, linebacker Cyril Obiozor, offensive tackle Jamon Meredith, receiver Jake Allen, cornerback Trevor Ford, defensive end Ronald Talley and nose tackle Anthony Toribio.

The Packers attempted to bring back running back Terell Sutton, who tore it up during the preseason, but he was claimed on waivers by the Carolina Panthers. The team also tried to bring back linebacker Danny Lansanah, but he chose instead to sign with the Miami Dolphins practice squad. Due to the glut of talented linebackers the Packers currently have, Lansanah wasn’t likely to get much of an opportunity in Green Bay.