In an early forecast to next season, Pro Football Weekly magazine projected the Vikings as the eighth best team in the NFL and, according to its projections, are going to be the top team in the NFC North next season.
In light of the Giants ascent quickly up the charts, the pick, while optimistic even by Vikings' fans standards, takes into account several important factors. A precursor to future success can often be traced to how a team finishes the previous season. In 2006, for example, the Packers were awful for most of the season, but made a late surge to win their final four games. Whether that led to an increase in activity in their offseason program, it shows that momentum often carries on from the end of one season to the next. The Vikings' strong showing before their year-end collapse, including wins over two of the four teams in the conference championship games (the Giants and Chargers), proves that the team has the ability to knock off the big boys and dominate games against quality opponents.
But just how close are the Vikings? A look around the NFC would say that the Vikings have about as good a chance as anyone.
The NFC East is probably the best division in football. Three of its four teams made the playoffs last year and the other team – the Eagles – has been the class of the division for the last several years. The best news for Vikings fans is they beat each other up six times a year and that usually results in either one or two teams finishing up 2-4 or 1-5 in the division or everyone finishing 3-3 and leaving the door open for other teams from weaker divisions to post better overall records.
The NFC North is up for grabs as always and the division, once mocked league-wide, is now getting a modicum of respect. The last two NFC Championship Games have been hosted by NFC North teams, which can’t be discounted. The Packers are going to have to be wary of falling victim to their own success from 2007. Many analysts projected the Bears and Saints to meet in the conference championship game again last year (that is the habit of people who put their reputations on the line in the preseason) and neither one made the playoffs. Injuries played a key role in their demise, but the Colts had a slew of injuries all year and got a first-round bye in this year’s playoffs.
Injuries are a part of the game and, while media types can make excuses, they are what they are. The Packers have a very young team that came together last season and will likely be the favorite to repeat next year, but how many times have we seen a team come out of nowhere to have one great season and then fall hard the next season? Too often. The Bears have a lot of problems on offense and, barring a trade for Donovan McNabb, eight or nine wins might be the high-water mark. The Lions finally broke their streak of double-digit loss seasons, but with their second-half collapse, they look like the same toothless Motor City Kitties that have been a running joke around the league.
The NFC South is likely the biggest group of underachievers in the league. The Buccaneers won the division, but more by default than domination, which they showed by losing at home to the Giants in the first round of the playoffs. On paper, the Panthers look like a good team, but on the field, they were both erratic and, at times, pathetic. The Saints clearly have one of the most potent offenses in the league and at times can be a juggernaut. But their defense is so inept that the team almost feels required to score 35 points in order to win games. The Falcons have hit rock bottom and, with their franchise player in jail, it’s going to be difficult to lure anyone except a player that is motivated solely by money to come play there. This division once again should produce just one playoff team in 2008, unless something changes drastically.
The NFC West is the most unpredictable of the divisions. While the Seahawks remain on top of the hill, their days of dominating the division appear to be over. The only question is which of the underachievers below them can overtake them. The Cardinals and Rams have solid offenses that have shown the ability to score a lot of points, but the defenses for both teams have been dismal and the Rams' fall from grace has come with blinding speed. The 49ers are going to be the chic pick to make a big move this season, but there was a pretty strong contingent that believes that was supposed to happen in 2007 and the team took a step back.
Maybe the PFW boys are right. With a defense that tightened up in the second half of the season and the most electrifying rookie gamebreaker since LaDanian Tomlinson in the backfield, the Vikings are one of the few teams that can beat you from both sides of the ball. While the Cowboys, Giants, Packers and Seahawks have to be viewed as the top teams in the conference, the Vikings are a lot closer to the brass ring this year than they were a year ago at this time and a year from now, we may be talking about them much in the same way Giants and Packers fans are talking about their teams’ meteoric rises from mediocrity to top-dog status.