Measuring Minnesota's potential

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

A few minutes before Brett Favre declared Minnesota the best team he’s ever played for, I posed a similar question to someone with a little more Vikings perspective.

Antoine Winfield’s career has spanned two owners, two head coaches, three defensive coordinators and a roster turnover that makes him the fourth most-tenured Vikings player. Only two years ago, Winfield seemed doubtful of the team’s direction and skipped offseason workouts. Sunday, he didn’t hesitate.

“This is the No. 1 team that I’ve been around,” Winfield said. “We have so many good players on offense and defense, and a lot of experience. These are guys that have had a lot of success. And you can see it. Guys are going out and making big plays. This is what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Before we gain too much speed, we should tap the brakes right here. The Vikings’ 5-0 record includes victories over Cleveland (1-4), Detroit (1-4) and St. Louis (0-5). They needed Favre’s last-second heroics to beat San Francisco at home. They’re about to hit the meat of their AFC North schedule, with successive games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

But anyone who has played for, coached or watched this team in recent years would conclude that this is the most talented and well-balanced Vikings roster in years. I would suggest it has a chance to be the franchise’s most successful team since it appeared in Super Bowl XI, a mere 33 years ago. That title is currently held by the Vikings’ 1998 team, which finished the regular season 15-1. We’ll get to that debate in a moment.

“This team has the potential to win every game it plays,” Favre said. “But we’re not the only ones in this league that can say that. You can lose on any given Sunday to anyone. Everyone is aware of that, but if we’re able to handle adversity and have some luck along the way, this team can be pretty good.”

Many of us have been saying for some time the only thing standing between the Vikings and elite status was competent quarterback play, a posit I think proved accurate last season when they went 8-3 last in games Gus Frerotte started. Favre’s play has been more than competent, but I don’t think he’s the only reason the Vikings’ prospects have never seemed rosier. A few others:

Offensive balance. Minnesota has one of the league’s best power running games, but it also has acquired enough skill players to make it one of the NFL’s most explosive offensive teams. Tailback Adrian Peterson, receiver Bernard Berrian and receiver/runner Percy Harvin are all threats to score every time they touch the ball. The Vikings have five touchdowns of 20 or more yards this season, the fifth-best mark in the league, according to STATS Inc. The twin abilities to grind out yardage amid big plays makes it difficult to scheme against the Vikings.

An elite defensive lineup. Conservatively speaking, I think more than half of the Vikings’ defensive starters are legitimate Pro Bowl candidates: Defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, defensive end Jared Allen, linebackers E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway, and cornerback Antoine Winfield. (Linebacker Ben Leber might also pull himself into that mix.) Three of those players -- Kevin Williams, Allen and Winfield -- could be All-Pros. All success starts with the quality of personnel, and this Vikings are covered in this area. Scheme is important, but you credit individual play when a team creates 12 turnovers in five games.

Special-teams improvement. As we noted earlier Tuesday, the Vikings are giving themselves excellent field position and limiting the opportunities of their opponents under new special teams coordinator Brian Murphy. Better blocking schemes are allowing the Vikings to start their average drive at their 31.8-yard line. That’s almost 8 yards better than where their opponents are starting. Harvin, meanwhile, already has three returns of 30 or more yards and is the Vikings’ best return man since David Palmer.

That Palmer comparison brings us to the question of whether the Vikings have built a better team than the 1998 version that rolled through the regular season and advanced to the NFC Championship Game.

Below you’ll see each team’s regular starting lineups. (I used three receivers on offense because that was the base set for the 1998 team. The 2009 team uses three receivers a fair amount as well.)

Next you’ll see a select statistical comparison that I hope gives a fair snapshot of each team. I avoided total yards because I’m starting to agree with those who consider points per game a far better gauge of an offense and defense.

These numbers paint the same picture you probably already have in your mind: The 1998 offense was more explosive, but the 2009 defense (to this point) is probably a bit stingier.

Neither one of those conclusions should be a surprise if you remember how the 1998 team surprised everyone with its unstoppable downfield passes to then-rookie Randy Moss. Then-defensive coordinator Foge Fazio could let loose with his pass rush as teams opponents fell behind early and became one-dimensional.

From a more subjective standpoint, I think you can make the argument that this year’s team has a chance to have more balanced success. That makes you less vulnerable if an opponent figures out a way to slow down one strength, as Atlanta did in the 1998 NFC Championship Game.

I’m sure you’ll let me know what you think below.