The Vikings won the NFC North last season for the first time, but simply repeating as division champions isn't likely going to be enough for this franchise.
Granted the North is expected to be extremely competitive with the Packers and Bears looking improved, but the Vikings feel they added the final piece to their puzzle when they were able to lure Brett Favre out of retirement two weeks into training camp.
Favre, who had retired for a second time last February after one year with the New York Jets, ran the Vikings' version of the West Coast offense for 16 seasons with the Packers and gives coach Brad Childress a top-line starting quarterback for the first time since he took over in 2006.
Given that that the Vikings already have offensive weapons like Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor, Bernard Berrian, Visanthe Shiancoe and now multi-talented first-round pick Percy Harvin, this unit is expected to be one of the league's most dangerous.
THREE KEYS FOR THE SEASON
1. One of the biggest challenges is making sure that Brett Favre stays healthy. He will turn 40 years old on Oct. 10 and had surgery to repair his biceps tendon in May. Favre also has admitted he has a tear in the rotator cuff of his throwing arm and took a hard hit to the ribs in his first preseason appearance as a Viking. Favre has been an ironman throughout his career and the Vikings are going to need to have that continue.
2. Favre might be the biggest name on this team but no one should forget that it's Adrian Peterson who really makes the offense go. Favre's greatest ability will be to open up things for Peterson by making the occasional big throw. More often than not, however, the ball should be tucked into Peterson's midsection so he can continue to make life miserable for defensive coordinators.
3. Players on the Vikings' defense have said throughout the preseason that they want to have the NFL's top-rated unit. That shouldn't be the most pressing thing on their minds. What they do need to focus on is playing sound football and continuing to improve against the pass. The Vikings already have established themselves as a premier defense against the run.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Percy Harvin: He fell to the 22nd pick in the draft because of concerns about his character and his ability to stay healthy. What isn't in question is Harvin's talent level. He will line up as a slot receiver on most occasions but Harvin also can be used out of the backfield or take snaps from the Vikings' version of the Wildcat offense. Harvin also will open the season returning kickoffs.
SS Tyrell Johnson: Started seven games at the beginning of last season while Madieu Williams was out because of a neck injury. Johnson will be in the starting lineup again to begin this season but it won't be because someone else can't play. Johnson is taking over for veteran Darren Shaper, whom the Vikings let walk as a free agent. Johnson and the Vikings are counting on his experience from 2008 will prove valuable.
TE Visanthe Shiancoe: Shiancoe tied for the team lead with seven touchdown catches last season and appears ready to become one of the NFL's top tight ends. That's a major accomplishment for a guy who was a major disappointment in 2007 in his first season with the Vikings. No one has worked harder to improve than Shiancoe.
More than anything, the Browns have to shake free of the way the 2008 season ended with Derek Anderson (knee) and Brady Quinn (finger) on injured reserve and, consequently, no offensive touchdowns in the last six games. No coaching change, no remodeled team complex and no fancy slogans hanging in the building will change anything until the Browns prove they can score.
Quinn, in his third year, finally got the chance to compete for the starting job. He did not run away with it, but he played the last two preseason games without any major mistakes. He will not wilt under pressure, but he still has to prove former general manager Phil Savage was justified in trading the Cowboys his second round pick in 2007 and first-round pick in 2008 to draft Quinn with the 22nd pick in 2007.
Likewise, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan promises an attacking defense saying, "We're going to fight like hell, just like the people of Cleveland would want us to," but the players have to prove it to convince a skeptical fan base. Last year the Browns' defense ranked 26th and they were tied for 30th in sacks.
THREE KEYS TO THE SEASON
1. Jamal Lewis has to prove he is still capable of busting long runs and being a 1,000-yard back. Lewis, 30 and in his 10th NFL season, has carried the ball 2,399 times in his career. That is a lot of wear and tear on any running back. Lewis keeps himself in excellent shape, but he is not Superman, although he looked like Superman earlier in his career. If Lewis is not a legitimate threat, Quinn or whoever is the quarterback will be throwing into a crowded secondary.
2. The run defense has to get better. The pass rush is a problem, too, as 17 sacks a year ago attest, but if the Browns do not prove they can be better than 28th against the run opponents will continue to pound the ball as they did last year when the Browns gave up 16 rushing touchdowns. The key to making that happen is nose tackle Shaun Rogers. He played 16 games last year when the run defense was poor, but without him the Browns will be worn down. Rogers missed the first three preseason games with an injury.
3. Keeping pre-snap penalties to a minimum is essential. Coach Eric Mangini made cutting down on penalties a focus of training camp. Officials worked every practice. If a player committed a penalty he had to run a lap. The frequency of laps being run decreased as training camp progressed. Last year Mangini drove the same message home to Jets players. The Jets committed 77 penalties. The Browns committed 100, ninth most in the league. They were near the top in pre-snap violations, i.e. false starts, offsides, illegal formation and delay of game. The offense isn't good enough to continually escape from first-and-15.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Braylon Edwards: Edwards is sick of talking about last season. That's because he led the league with 16 dropped passes. He dropped one in the preseason opener against the Packers but has since played well. With former teammate Kellen Winslow now in Tampa Bay, the bulls-eye is going to be on Edwards every play.
LB Kamerion Wimbley: Wimbley has had to explain a drop in sacks for two years - 11 as a rookie, five in 2007 and four last year. He has been flipped to the left side from the right side. If the preseason and training camp is a true indication what to expect Wimbley will be very active this year.
QB Brady Quinn: This is Quinn's third season and no one really knows what to expect because he has three career starts. That means he'll be learning on the job with an aging running back, a suspect group of receivers (including Edwards after last year) and a tight end in Robert Royal who is no Kellen Winslow. It won't be easy.