Packers firmly believe Super Bowl is within reach

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- With a mere two blocks separating their offseason homes in Orlando, Fla., Packers safety Nick Collins and cornerback Charles Woodson see a lot of each other when they aren't here for minicamp or OTAs.

Their conversations over lunch or dinner invariably deal with the Packers' fortunes. After the 2009 season -- which started slow and ended strong before a bitterly disappointing 51-45 shootout playoff loss to Arizona -- the talk centered on being within striking distance of the Super Bowl and having enough of the right ingredients to get there.

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In a nutshell, Collins and Woodson concluded the following: "We've got the team; we've got the ability to be that team this year."

And that's the level of confidence the Packers carried into the start of training camp Friday. They aren't afraid to embrace the notion that they can be a strong contender, worrying that they might sound too brash and provide unnecessary bulletin-board material. You don't get much "take it one game at a time" dribble from this bunch.

In fact, their veteran leaders see it as their responsibility to make certain that everyone in the locker room is on board with the same optimism that Collins and Woodson routinely expressed to each other during their offseason chats.

"You've got to talk it to believe it, so we've been talking about it," Collins said. "And you've got to get other guys to believe in it."

It shouldn't be too much of a struggle.

The Packers have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Aaron Rodgers. They have one of the league's most talented groups of receivers, led by Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, and a rising star at tight end in Jermichael Finley.

Despite making the difficult transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, their defense soared from 20th in the NFL in 2008 to second last year. Woodson's spectacular play earned him NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. Linebacker Clay Matthews made the Pro Bowl and was in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

In free agency, the Packers concentrated on keeping their own. Collins received a three-year extension that will reportedly pay him $14 million in the first year. Defensive lineman Ryan Pickett received a new deal worth a reported $25 million over four years, while offensive tackle Chad Clifton got a reported $7.5 million guaranteed to stick around for another season. In the draft, the Packers addressed a huge need in the first-round with former Iowa offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, who signed in time for the start of camp.

Overall, a very encouraging picture... but not quite perfect.

"There are just some areas that we just need to work on and tighten up," Collins said.

One of the biggest is a defense that allowed far too many big plays. As impressive as the Packers' conversion to a new defensive scheme might have been, a clear shortcoming was the ease with which opponents moved the ball through the air. That was a particular source of frustration in the playoff loss to the Cardinals, with Kurt Warner passing for 379 yards and five touchdowns without an interception.

Many of the struggles resulted from not knowing all there was to know about playing the scheme that Dom Capers brought to Green Bay when he was hired as defensive coordinator last year.

"You know, it's a point of a game where you aren't sure, you really didn't understand what was going on, so that's how some of the big plays occurred," Collins said. "We're going to put that behind us and move forward."

Two key moves to help upgrade the Packers' defensive front were shifting 2009 first-rounder B.J. Raji from end to nose tackle -- his more natural position -- and Pickett from nose tackle to end.

"Much maligned" is how general manager Ted Thompson describes the offensive line, which was heavily criticized last season for giving up a league-high 51 sacks. But there is reason to believe that will change with the addition of Bulaga, Clifton still in the mix, and the continued development of younger players upfront. Thompson is satisfied that the Packers' line can build upon the better continuity it had through the latter part of 2009.

"It's a good group, and I think they'll be much improved over last season," Thompson said.

The same is being said about the rest of the NFC North. The Vikings, who swept their season series against Green Bay last season, look every bit as much of a Super Bowl contender as the Packers. Some would argue they look even better, especially if Brett Favre returns.

The Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions were two of the league's most aggressive teams in the free-agent market.

"I think this is probably going to be the best division in the NFC, because it's so competitive; everybody upgraded in some areas," Collins said. "Minnesota, they're waiting to see what's going to go on with No. 4. But at the end of the day, we feel like we're a great team as well.

"For people to look at us as a Super Bowl contender, it's exciting. I hope everybody comes in here with the attitude of trying to get better, trying to find ways to help this team win, and we can make this run."

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