Brett Favre's return saves a season

The Minnesota Vikings needed to try a Hail Mary pass, a recruiting trip by three senior members of their team, to get Brett Favre on a plane to Minneapolis to end retirement speculation Tuesday.

Even though it's only the preseason, the clock was ticking on the Vikings' season. With Favre, the Vikings can stay ahead of the rapidly improving Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears offenses. Without him, their best hope was to be a possible third-place team in the division and maybe make the playoffs as a wild card.

In a passing league, the Vikings needed their best arm -- even if that arm turns 41 years old in October and had to be twisted by a Monday night visit by teammates Jared Allen, Ryan Longwell and Steve Hutchinson.

With Tarvaris Jackson directing the offense, the Vikings would be nothing more than a good running team. These days, good running teams are destined for eight- or nine-win seasons. Plus, the Vikings' run blocking was suspect in 2009. If that trend continued in 2010, the Vikings could struggle to get to even nine wins.

In many ways, the Vikings' offense is in more disarray than a year ago, and the team needed Favre as quickly as possible. Wide receiver Percy Harvin was away from July 31 until Monday because of the deaths of two people who were close to him and because of his migraine headaches. Running back Adrian Peterson has missed most of camp with a hamstring injury. Wide receiver Sidney Rice is sidelined with a hip problem.

With the season starting with a Sept. 9 game against the New Orleans Saints -- three days ahead of the bulk of the Week 1 schedule -- the team needed its leader to start putting the offense back together. It's pretty clear Favre might not be 100 percent after ankle surgery. Although the surgery was a simple scope to remove bone spurs, Favre expressed enough concern about the slow recovery to put doubt in the team's mind about his return.

It was also important for coach Brad Childress to get Favre to Minnesota in time for him to get some time with the offense in the preseason. Childress can target inserting Favre into the team's third preseason game Aug. 28 at home against the Seattle Seahawks, but getting Favre into town Tuesday opens the door for a possible cameo appearance against the host San Francisco 49ers this Sunday.

With Favre back, the NFC will have seven elite quarterbacks, the others being Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Donovan McNabb, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. Favre is the key to the Vikings' season.

Power struggle

In the wake of Brett Favre's latest return, here is my list of the top five NFC teams.

1. Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys have moved ahead of the Vikings as the most talented team in the league with the addition of Dez Bryant and the development of an explosive defense.

2. Minnesota Vikings: Now that Favre is back, the Vikings still are better on paper than a Saints team that beat them in the 2009 NFC Championship Game and a Packers team that is rapidly narrowing the margin of difference.

3. Atlanta Falcons: Although the Saints are better on paper, the Falcons have the best chance to win the NFC South because of an easier nondivisional road schedule that pits them against teams that went 31-49 last season. Compare that with the Saints' tough nondivisional road schedule against opponents that went 49-31.

4. New Orleans Saints: With Brees behind center, the Saints are a lock for the playoffs. Still, the Super Bowl hangover and an improving Falcons team could make it tough to win the NFC South.

5. Green Bay Packers: Rodgers was almost perfect in his preseason debut. He keeps getting better. Rodgers is backed by a solid, physical 3-4 defense.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.