The NFC East is the league's most powerful division; the NFC Central its most evenly balanced. But even though no Central team is likely to make the Super Bowl, the division is almost certain to produce a wonderful championship race.
Despite a defensive shakeup that shook up their loyal followers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have maintained enough stability to remain the division's classiest team. This much is certain: quarterback Doug Williams will continue to be criticized until he can show that last year's horrid playoff game against Dallas was a fluke.
The Buccaneers have tried to help him by improving the offensive line as much as they did the receiving in 1981. Still, it's that defense that should provide excitement, especially if linebacker Hugh Green is allowed to become a southern version of Lawrence Taylor.
Why shouldn't the Pack be back this year? Green Bay's injuries have been so bad and so numerous that the Packers are due for a healthy season. If so, how will division opponents control an offense that has quarterback Lynn Dickey throwing to John Jefferson and James Lofton, and handing off to halfback Eddie Lee Ivery?
Bart Starr, a legend as a player and a flop as a coach, has been reconstructing his defense patiently but it still isn't in the class of the offense. That difference could cost Starr his job.
Mike Ditka's job in Chicago is safe -- he was handpicked by owner George Halas -- and that may be fortunate for the former tight end of the Bears. Ditka ran a training camp that would make Frank Kush proud. Whether that approach will make either Vince Evans or rookie Jim McMahon (BYU) a better quarterback is another matter.
Nor has Ditka found a way to relieve Walter Payton of carrying the offense, although the Bears will be more imaginative (perhaps an occasional pass to a running back) than in past seasons. The defense already is one of the league's most innovative, using such formations as a 5-1-5.
As long as Billy Sims holds out, the Detroit Lions will have problems. Nobody knows that better than quarterbacks Eric Hipple and Gary Danielson, who must be staying up nights wondering how bad it will get if defensive lines don't have to worry about the Lions' running game.
Minnesota at the bottom of the standings? It probably won't happen because Bud Grant is such a skillful coach. But the Vikings really don't have the talent to be rated much higher, even with the addition of rookie halfback Darrin Nelson (Stanford).
The one player who could recharge them is quarterback Tommy Kramer, who had off-the-field problems in 1981. Considering the number of passes Grant orders every game, a year-long hot streak by Kramer would prove a considerable nuisance to opponents' defenses.