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The Vikings are coming

Offseason moves make Minnesota my early NFC pick

Posted: Monday May 30, 2005 10:29AM; Updated: Sunday June 5, 2005 3:47PM
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Daunte Culpepper
Daunte Culpepper will try to keep up his gaudy statistics in his first full season without Randy Moss.
Al Tielemans/SI
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Last year, right around this time, I picked Seattle and Jacksonville to make it to the Super Bowl. I later waffled on the Jags, worried about their defense, but it stuck with me the rest of the year, everywhere I went. "The Seadogs!'' one guy said to me on an airplane last summer. "They never won anything! And Jacksonville! Give me a break!''

Well, I'm about to do it again.

I'm going to pick my NFC champion this week, then my AFC team next week, to extend the excitement. (And because I'm not sure who I like in the AFC right now.) Hey, I've got my doubts about the NFC too, but here goes.

NFC Championship Game, Jan. 22, 2006, at the Metrodome: Minnesota 24, Carolina 16.

Four reasons:

1. I understand Philadelphia has the best team with the best talent and the best organization, but the odds are so stacked against continued greatness in the NFL. I don't make this pick to denigrate Philadelphia. It's hard to respect a team west of Foxboro more than I respect the Eagles. They've won 11, 11, 12, 12 and 13 regular-season games in this decade against the tremendous pull of gravity the NFL puts in their way. The Eagles will probably have Terrell Owens on the field opening night in Atlanta, but you can't tell what sort of chemistry experiment that knucklehead's going to cause. Philly will likely get production at running back from Brian Westbrook or college phenom Ryan Moats, but the lack of rushing consistency late in recent years (Super Bowl: 17 carries, 45 yards) has been a problem. I don't trust the corners. Will defensive tackle Corey Simon play? Probably, but he's another salary malcontent. I'm nitpicking, and I still think the Eagles will win the NFC East, but the law of the NFL jungle says teams fall to earth.

2. I like what the Vikings did in the offseason -- a lot. This team's been in the bottom 10 of NFL defenses for six years in a row, including 28th last year. But give this usually cheapish team credit for what it did in the offseason while changing owners. The Vikings needed a 320-pound plugger for the middle to take some of the double-teaming heat off stud defensive tackle Kevin Williams, and they went out and got a very good run-stuffer -- Pat Williams, from Buffalo. They needed a good cover corner to pair with 2004 free-agent find Antoine Winfield, and they signed pesky and mouthy (but good) corner Fred Smoot away from Washington. (Two years ago, this was a bottom-five cornerback team. Now it's a top-five cover team -- and a strong backup, Ken Irvin, returns from sick bay to provide depth.) Darren Sharper brings leadership and division knowledge to the deep middle, coming across I-94 from Green Bay. Maybe first-rounder Erasmus James finally provides the outside pass rush this team has sorely lacked, or maybe James and 2004 first-rounder Kenecki Udezi combine to do it. I don't know. I do know with Williams and Williams in the middle, someone's going to get free. "It's a brave new world around here,'' cornerback Fred Smoot crowed at a recent minicamp. And we haven't even mentioned Randy Moss. In my mind, trading Moss is addition by subtraction. Let me tell you what's on the way in New England personnel czar's Scott Pioli's office. There a small poster proclaiming: Our goal is not to collect Pro Bowl players. Our goal is to win Super Bowls. You say Troy Williamson and Napoleon Harris isn't enough for Moss? Well, Minnesota had to get rid of him, and the Vikes got what they could get, plus they rid themselves of $42 million in future cap costs, allowing them to spend on some of those defensive free agents. I still think Daunte Culpepper will be a 4,000-yard passer, and someone in the backfield, probably Michael Bennett, will be productive enough to replace the Whizzinator. "This is the best I've felt about a team at this time of year since I've been in Minnesota,'' coach Mike Tice told me. He should feel good.

3. The Vikings will have an easier path to homefield advantage than the other two very good NFC teams, Philadelphia and Carolina. In the NFC East, Washington will again have a top-five defense, and the offense could be intriguing enough for the Redskins to avoid a sweep by Philadelphia. The Giants are better. Dallas will be a wild-card team. Philly's gone 21-3 (5-1, 5-1, 5-1 and 6-0) in the last four years in the division, and I think this is the year it gets more competitive for them. The Panthers will be lucky to go 4-2 in the NFC South, where I could see them winning or losing any division game. The Vikings should go 5-1 in the NFC North against a division where every other team has some major questions. Green Bay hasn't gotten appreciably better and still has a leaky run defense (4.6 yards per rush last year). Detroit added a great receiver in Mike Williams, but Joey Harrington is the NFC's biggest enigma. Chicago has quarterback Rex Grossman back, but still must show it has a competent offense, unlike last year's dismal 231-point output.

4. The odds say upstarts rise to the top of the NFC pretty consistently. Check out the records of the NFC champions the year before they became NFC champions over the past seven years:

NFC Winner's Previous Year's Record
Year Team Record
1998 Atlanta 7-9
1999 St. Louis 4-12
2000 N.Y. Giants 7-9
2001 St. Louis 10-6
2002 Tampa Bay 9-7
2003 Carolina 7-9
2004 Philadelphia 12-4
Seven-year total: 56-56

Including the postseason, Carolina and Minnesota were a combined 17-17 last year. Apropos of nothing, I know, but in keeping with the general theme of .500ness.

My other NFC picks:

Division winners: Philadelphia, Minnesota, Carolina, Arizona.

Wild Cards: Dallas, Green Bay.

And, as always, I reserve the right to change my mind by Labor Day.