Tuesday August 18th, 2009

If there was one over-arching refrain I heard again and again Tuesday, it was that Brett Favre's signing makes Minnesota the hands-down favorite in the NFC and thus a slam-dunk Super Bowl contender.

Twenty seasons of covering the NFL has taught me this much: Whenever I hear that much conventional wisdom coalescing that quickly around one supposedly sure-fire outcome, it's got a great shot of being wrong.

Here then are a few reasons Favre and the Vikings shouldn't be booking their flights for Miami (site of Super Bowl XLIV) just yet:

1. Favre's old team could win the division. It's a scenario that has to be the absolute worst-case scenario for both Favre and anyone who loves the Vikings, but I think the Packers are headed for a big bounce-back season and could very well win the NFC North. With some legitimate depth on the defensive line, Green Bay's transition to a 3-4 front is off to a promising start under new defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks confident and poised for a monster season, and the Packers have some young offensive talent that looks ready to take the next step (tight end Jermichael Findley, running back Brandon Jackson and receiver Jordy Nelson, to name three).

Green Bay and Rodgers denying Favre another shot at playoff glory would be rich, eh? But then, we've already seen Favre and his Jets denied a playoff trip last year by Miami and Chad Pennington, the guy he replaced in New York.

2. The Williams' suspensions. Don't underestimate how much the Vikings season could be affected if Minnesota loses the services of its two starting defensive tackles -- Pat Williams and Kevin Williams -- for the first four games of the year due to their NFL suspensions for the use of an over-the-counter supplement called StarCaps. Though the case remains unresolved and before a state circuit court of appeals in St. Paul, the loss of the Williams Wall for the season's first month could transform a superb defense into just a good one.

True, Minnesota's first four games don't appear to be its most challenging stretch by any measurement. The Vikings play at Cleveland, at Detroit, home against San Francisco and home against Green Bay. But maybe Minnesota starts 2-2 without their two dominating run-stuffers, rather than 3-1 or even 4-0. And maybe the difference winds up mattering greatly in the race for NFC playoff positioning.

3. History not on NFC North's side. No division in the NFC has sent fewer teams to the Super Bowl in the past decade or so than the North, or its precursor, the NFC Central. In the 11 seasons since Green Bay made back-to-back Super Bowl trips in 1996-97, the only NFC North team to make the Big Game was Chicago in 2006, and the defensive-led Bears were a one-dimensional team playing in a fairly weak conference that season.

The NFC East has sent the Giants twice and the Eagles once to the Super Bowl in that span. The NFC West has sent the Rams twice, the Seahawks once, the Cardinals once, and the Falcons once (when they were a member of that division in 1998). The NFC South has sent both Tampa Bay and Carolina to the Super Bowl this decade.

In fact, with just one Super Bowl qualifier in the past 11 seasons, the NFC North ranks last among the NFL's eight divisions in that department. The AFC South and AFC West are tied for next to last with two Super Bowl teams each in that span.

4. Favre turns 40 in October. Does that preclude him from leading the Vikings to the Super Bowl, or winning it? No. But history is history, and it teaches us stuff so we have some guidelines of what usually works and what doesn't. And 40-year-old quarterbacks don't usually win the biggest of games.

Denver's John Elway was the oldest quarterback to both start and win a Super Bowl, at 38 in January 1999. Baltimore's John Unitas was 37 when the Colts won Super Bowl V, although the 36-year-old Earl Morrall replaced him in the second quarter of that game. The Raiders' Jim Plunkett won his second ring at 36, and both Kurt Warner and Rich Gannon took their teams to the Super Bowl at 37. But Favre would be both the oldest starter to get there and/or win it, by a healthy margin.

Making that kind of history is what the Vikings are now banking on, and I'm not convinced it's a good bet.

5. The NFC East is still a beast, and all NFC title contenders know it. The Vikings, after all, aren't the only NFC team that thinks its defensive front and its running game are special. The Giants can compete with anybody in that argument, and they're even better now than they were two years ago, when they beat Favre and Co. in overtime in the NFC title game at Green Bay. (You remember, Brett. It was cold. You threw a game-deciding pick.)

And I seem to remember the Eagles are loading up for another run at a Super Bowl ring, too. They even took a chance on some free-agent quarterback named Michael Vick, who they think might just be their secret weapon. Lastly, we can't discount those dangerously quiet Cowboys, now that they've turned their attention fully to football instead of trying to be the NFL's home for glamour.

Oh, and somebody tell the Cardinals, Panthers and Falcons -- 2008 playoff teams all -- that the Vikings have been installed as conference favorites. All three teams have reason to believe they'll be heard from again this season.

6. The emotional toll on Favre. There's a stretch of the Vikings' schedule that should scare you if you bleed purple: In a five-game stretch that starts in Week 4 and concludes in Week 8, Minnesota plays four very tough, and emotional games for Favre. He'll face Green Bay for the first time, in Week 4 at home, draw the tenacious Ravens defense at home in Week 6, go to the defending champion Steelers in Week 7, and then the biggie, his trip to what promises to be a hostile Lambeau Field in Week 8.

That run could take a very big toll out of Favre as the Vikings head into their Week 9 bye and prepare for the season's second half. That's why the Vikings getting off to a good start in September is so crucial for their hopes of securing one of the NFC's top seeds and setting themselves up for the playoffs.

All told, Favre and the Vikings will play at both of last year's Super Bowl teams (Steelers and Cardinals), at Carolina in December when the Panthers are often at their best, at cold and windy Chicago three days after Christmas (at night, no less), and at Green Bay in the aforementioned return to Lambeau. Tough home games against the Packers, Ravens, Bears and Giants also loom. If the Vikings do win the NFC, it'll be no easy road.

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