#NFLRank: An offensive NFC North

The history of the NFC North takes you back to the old NFC Central, when hardscrabble teams brutalized one another with violent trench play in cold weather. The Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings ran the ball hard, hit their opponents harder, scored only when necessary and produced a well-deserved nickname as the "Black and Blue" division.

I think we can all agree that times have changed.

The finale of our #NFLRank project brings another reminder of what this division has become. The NFL's top three offensive players all come from the NFC North, according to 63 ESPN football analysts. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers ranked No. 1, followed by Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson.

Reasonable people could quibble with the placement of Johnson and Peterson, but there shouldn't be much debate about the trio's status in the league. Rodgers is arguably the NFL's best player, on offense or defense, and Peterson was the 2012 MVP. Pass-catchers aren't always valued in the same breath as quarterbacks and running backs, but Johnson set the NFL record for receiving yards in a season last year, and his unique skills and production were rightfully recognized in this project.

How have these three players affected the NFC North? Last season, the Black and Blue division hosted the NFL's second-most-prolific passing offense (Lions) and its highest-rated passing game (Packers). Peterson, meanwhile, elevated the Vikings to the NFL's second-most-productive rushing team in 2012.

All four NFC North teams, in fact, finished among the top half of the NFL in scoring offense last season, led by the Packers (27.1 points per game) at No. 5 overall. Over the past five seasons -- a time when Rodgers, Johnson and Peterson have all been regular NFC North players -- the division has had six instances of a team's finishing in the top five in NFL scoring. This division's teams have finished among the top half in NFL scoring 14 times (of a possible 20 opportunities).

I'm sure many of you are wondering whether Johnson finished ahead of Peterson based on the strong belief that he is a better player -- or if it reflects the modern-day obsession most of us have with skill-position players in the passing game.

First, it's important to know how close the voting was. Our 63-person voting group rated players on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest a player could get. They had the same number of 10s, but Johnson got one more 9 than Peterson.

So is there any way to differentiate between the two?

As a running back, Peterson touches the ball far more times -- 388 times in 2012 -- than Johnson, who had 122 receptions last season on 204 targets. But as a receiver, Johnson produced nearly as many yards (1,964) as Peterson (2,097) in far fewer opportunities.

Both players attracted extraordinary defensive attention last season and succeeded despite a near-total lack of offensive balance. The Vikings were the NFL's weakest downfield passing team in 2012 -- their average pass traveled a league-low 6.3 yards past the line of scrimmage -- while the Lions faced more six-man rushing boxes than any other NFL team.

I don't think I could pick between the two. I gave both players 10s on my ballots -- once I remembered they play in the NFC North. Historically, it's something to behold.