Thursday September 9th, 2010

This season-opening Vikings-Saints game should be one of the great games of the NFL season, a playoff preview ... you know, unless it isn't.

This is one of the paradoxes of the NFL's popularity: it has become so big that we obsess about it in the offseason, and when we do, we forget why it has become so big. We think back to last season and use it to project this season, and you just can't do that. The NFL is great for precisely the same reason that these teams probably won't be: most franchises need everything to fall into place to compete for a title.

We forget that the chance of the Vikings and Saints being the two best teams in the NFC again is tiny. The last time an NFC team made two straight conference title games was 2005, when the Eagles made their fourth straight.

Just last year, the big opening-game showdown was between the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers and the Titans, who had gone 13-3. The Steelers won an epic, 13-10. And then the Titans started 0-6 and neither team made the playoffs.

There has not been a conference title-game rematch since 1995, when the Cowboys and 49ers">49ers met in the NFC title game for the third straight year. Even the Colts and Patriots, the two dominant teams of the last decade, have never met in back-to-back title games.

The Saints did not make the playoffs in the two seasons before last. They have one of the league's best quarterbacks, Drew Brees, but between bad injury luck, championship hangover, and the fact that they were actually outplayed by the Vikings in the title game ... well, it's going to be hard for New Orleans to avoid regression to the mean.

If the Saints disappoint, though, it will be a mild disappointment. They just won the Super Bowl -- and are one of the most beloved Super Bowl champs in their own city in memory. I don't think there will be serious outrage if they finish 9-7.

The Vikings are a different story. Minnesota has been waiting for a Vikings championship for, by my count, at least XLV years. And if the season does not go well, what will the media focus on? Hmm. Let me think about it for a minute.

Brett Favre?

Hey, focusing on Favre is what we do, sometimes absurdly. And yet, he really is one of the most fascinating players in the league this season. Last year, Favre had the best passer rating of his career by far. I don't think it was truly his best year -- the mid-90s Packers asked him to do so much more, and last year defenses were more worried about stopping the Minnesota running game than stopping Favre. Still, by any measure, it was a heck of a year.

And it's easy to forget that two years ago, with the Jets, Favre threw 22 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions. In 2005 he had a 70.9 passer rating and in 2006 he had a 72.7 rating and 56.0 completion percentage.

In fact, in his last five seasons, Favre averaged 24 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.

Does he have a better team around him now than he did in 2005 and 2006? Sure he does. He also will turn 41 in October and has a gimpy ankle.

By the way: has any NFL player in memory talked about his injuries as openly and frequently as Favre? In this league, players hop into the locker room after getting a leg amputated and say they expect to be 100 percent on Sunday, and why no, they haven't had a leg amputated, it just appears that way to you writers because you guys don't understand the game. Yet Favre has given almost constant updates on his various ailments. His ankle injury, as painful as it must be, can't be the absolute worst injury of the offseason in this sport, but Favre has provided regular updates on his condition to the desperate media. Two years ago, remember, he went into such detail on his shoulder problem with the Jets that he got the team in trouble for failing to properly list him on injury reports.

Favre gets away with it, I guess, because he hasn't missed a game in 20 years, so we're a good 10 years past the point when anybody could reasonably question his toughness. He is, in NFL tough-guy circles, a made man. He can do whatever he wants. And what he wants, apparently, is to share every single thought he has about his football career -- either because he loves the attention that follows, or he just likes to talk.

Oops. I just slipped back into offseason Brett Favre discussion. It's time for regular-season Brett Favre discussion. That, like most of the discussion about the NFL, figures to be a lot different this time around.

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