Preseason predictions are a lot like flying lessons. You can practice and study and anticipate as much as you want while sitting in a simulator. The reality, however, is no one knows if you can fly a plane until you get up in the (real) air.
That's a pretentious, Minnesota cake-eating way of acknowledging the limited value of predicting in May who will sit atop the NFC North on the night of Jan. 2, 2011. But to the extent that it matters, and following up on our "faulty assumptions" discussion from last week, I think we are erring in assuming that Minnesota should be the preseason favorite to repeat as division champions.
In fact, if I had to pick a winner right now -- and I don't, and it doesn't matter, but I'm doing it anyway -- I would go with Green Bay. (Audience: Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.)
I'll state my case in a bit. But first, let's consider the most quantitative way I'm aware of to make these predictions. We first introduced you to AccuScore last summer as Brett Favre was moving closer to joining the Vikings. The AccuScore people develop variables to create digital profiles for NFL coaches and players. Those profiles are used to create "teams" that are then run through a computer simulation to play out a "season" based on each team's actual NFL schedule.
Using 10,000 such simulated seasons last year, AccuScore correctly predicted the NFC North's final standings. This year, as you can see in the charts below, AccuScore is picking Minnesota to win the division if Favre returns and the Packers if he doesn't.
ESPN.com's Spring Power Rankings also pick Minnesota to finish ahead of Green Bay, presumably based on similar expectations for Favre. But I think we should at least question whether Favre's presence automatically will give the Vikings a division title. These are two teams, after all, that finished within a game of each other last season, primarily as a result of Minnesota's season sweep.
(Sorry, Chicago and Detroit. My head isn't big enough to consider more than two division contenders right now.)
Here's where I'm coming from:
Favre made an undeniable impact on the Vikings last season, but let's not forget it came as a result of arguably the best season of his career. He threw seven interceptions in 2009 after throwing at least twice that many in 14 of his previous 17 full seasons. To be fair, we can't rule out a repeat performance. But what do you think is more likely: A 2010 season closer to his career averages or another precedent-setter? If a modest slip accounts for even one additional loss, it could be enough for the Packers to leapfrog them in the standings.
If Favre is less effective in 2010, it stands to reason he'll be less dangerous to the Packers' biggest weakness of last season: Pass defense against elite quarterbacks. When you look at Green Bay's schedule, you see eight games in which they will face a quarterback who has played in a Pro Bowl. But I would only consider three of those games -- two against Favre and one against New England's Tom Brady -- to feature the kind of elite passers who ravaged the Packers last season. And this doesn't take into account the possibility that the Packers' pass defense will improve independently of Favre's potential slide. I have my doubts about the Packers' potential for improvement, but it's conceivable the Vikings will be less equipped to exploit it.
There are some areas in which Green Bay unquestionably has improved and Minnesota appears to have weakened since the start of last season. The Packers, for one, have a more balanced passing attack following the emergence of tight end Jermichael Finley. As long as 35-year-old receiver Donald Driver can provide another productive season, Green Bay has a yin-and-yang passing tree that will be much more difficult to defend than it was in the first half of 2009.
The Packers also appear to have a better plan at offensive line than they had entering the 2009 season. They have a veteran starter locked in at both tackle positions with skilled younger players set to back up both of them. First-round draft pick Bryan Bulaga will play behind left tackle Chad Clifton and T.J. Lang likely will be behind right tackle Mark Tauscher. This scenario minimizes the chance of jailbreak pass "protection" that set back the Packers early last season.
Minnesota's pass rush shouldn't miss a beat as long as defensive end Ray Edwards returns to complement Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. But the back seven is in an underdiscussed transition mode as spring practice begins. It's uncertain whether longtime middle linebacker E.J. Henderson will make a full return from a fractured leg, and the drop-off to second-year player Jasper Brinkley is notable. Starting cornerback Cedric Griffin will need several more months to rehabilitate a torn anterior cruciate ligament, leaving veterans Lito Sheppard and Benny Sapp to man his position. No NFL team seemed willing to give Sheppard or Sapp a starting job in free agency this year. And the Vikings only can hope that 33-year-old cornerback Antoine Winfield is fully recovered from a fractured foot that limited him last season.
Green Bay's schedule gives the team a better chance to jump to an early division lead than the Vikings'. With games against Buffalo, Detroit, Washington and Miami, the Packers have a decent chance to be 5-1 or 6-0 heading into an Oct. 24 showdown against the Vikings at Lambeau Field. The Vikings, meanwhile, face difficult games at New Orleans and at the New York Jets. They'll have done well to be 4-2 at that point. But the bottom line is that there is a decent chance the Packers could establish a three-game lead in the division before November starts.
This is just one early-May take. I'm sure you have your own. Remember: We're still in the simulator. Nothing more. Let's take pleasure from a consequence-free environment.