Predictions: Handicapping the NFC

If the Vikings are going to make the NFC playoffs again, they will have to navigate a conference that features numerous teams with legitimate preseason boasts. However, preseason predictions can turn into regular-season regret.

With training camps opening around the league in less than two weeks, every team comes into the 2013 season believing that this will be the year to shine and eventually end up playing in the Super Bowl. For most of those teams, the playoffs won't be attainable, much less the Super Bowl, but in July hopes springs eternal in the middle of summer for the boys of autumn.

Ranking teams is always a difficult process because the changes that can happen from one year to the next are amazing. In 2011, Detroit went 10-6 and made the playoffs. Last year, they finished 4-12. New Orleans went from 13-3 in 2011 to 7-9 in 2012. In 2011, the Giants went 9-7 and made the playoffs as the NFC team with the worst record, but got hot at the right time and won the Super Bowl. In 2012, they finished 9-7 again, but this time that record wasn't good enough to make the playoffs.

On the flip side of that, the Vikings, Colts and Redskins combined to lose 38 of the 48 games they played in 2011. In 2012, they combined to win 31 of 48 games and all three made the playoffs.

Suffice it to say, change comes quickly in the NFL. Like mock drafts in March and April, predictions often go horribly wrong. Remember last year when a prediction of 8-8 for the Vikings was typically received with a derisive snort? Only if you're honest you do. Where do the Vikings rank among the other teams in the NFC? That's the question fans will asking all season long.

Viking Update readers are all too familiar with the purple and gold. These are the other 15 teams that they will have to compete with for one of the six available playoff spots.

For what it's worth, these are our preseason rankings:

Atlanta FalconsThe Falcons were the best team in the NFC last year and they added Osi Umenyiora and Steven Jackson to fix what few deficiencies they had. A repeat of last year's 13-3 record is definitely a possibility.

San Francisco 49ersIt's hard to find a weakness in this team. Colin Kaepernick will have to prove he wasn't a fluke last year with teams geared up to pressure him, but the Niners are one of the few teams in the league capable of winning games with either their offense or their defense, which could make them the popular pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl again this year.

Green Bay PackersThe Packers have won the NFC North the last two years and are the heavy favorite to make it three in a row. They have all the component pieces and look to be much stronger in the running game than they've been the last few years. If the Packers do their business as many expect they will, the Vikings will have to bring their best every week or they will once again be competing for a wild card spot.

Seattle SeahawksIf not for being in the same division as the 49ers, the Seahawks would be picked by nearly everyone to win their division. Percy Harvin is going to add a dimension to the Seattle offense that will be hard to stop and they have a young, aggressive defense that makes them as dangerous as any team in the NFC. If they can win their division, they could be a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

New Orleans SaintsThe Saints learned how important Sean Payton was to the organization last year when they fell from being one of the league's elite teams to a sub-.500 also-ran. With Payton back and Drew Brees operating his version of the Greatest Show on Turf, they may need to score 35 points to win games, but they can do that more often than not. The defense will be their undoing in the end, but they have enough horses to win 10 games and get to the playoffs.

New York GiantsThe Giants are always a difficult team to gauge. When you think they're going to be dominant, they're not. When you think they're going to stink, they win a championship. They continue to lose key veterans from glory years past – most recently Osi Umenyiora and Ahmad Bradshaw – but they always seem to have the depth to win enough games to be a factor every year. And they're always dangerous in January.

Philadelphia EaglesThe Eagles hit bottom last year and a coaching change came in. The high-octane offense Chip Kelly brings from Oregon meets one of the most potent offenses for that style in the NFL. Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson are all big-play threats. When the Eagles are clicking, they will be dominant. When they look bad, they will look very bad. They have a legitimate shot at the playoffs, but it may be a year away.

Dallas CowboysThe most overrated team in the NFL, Tony Romo has still won just one playoff game in his tenure as the Cowboys starting quarterback, despite having as impressive a skill-position supporting cast as any QB in the league. They have the talent to be a playoff team, but given their consistent underachievement, it's hard to pick them higher than 8-8.

Washington RedskinsThe Redskins were one of the feel-good stories of the NFL last season, winning all seven games they played after their bye week and negating a 3-6 start to the season. This time around, they're going to face a much more formidable schedule and will have a hard time backing up what they did in 2012. Finishing .500 may be the high-water mark they're shooting for.

Chicago BearsThe Bears are an aging team in a young man's game. They are over 30 at many critical positions and can't keep depending on their defense creating turnover touchdowns to win tight games. Jay Cutler is a moody one who has never played up to the level of his talent. A new coaching staff will bring change, but with that will come growing pains. They will struggle to win as many as they lose.

Carolina PanthersThe Panthers have glaring weaknesses at two critical areas – wide receiver and secondary. Cam Newton is never going to develop into an elite quarterback with an aging star (Steve Smith) and a collection of No. 3 and 4 receivers. He needs weapons and doesn't have them. In a division with Matt Ryan and Drew Brees lighting up the sky, that's a devastating weakness to have.

St. Louis Rams – Jeff Fisher has a good thing going with the young rebuilding project he has taken on. The Rams went from being one of the worst teams in the league to being a team that didn't lose to San Francisco in two games last year. They have a long way to go to be a Super Bowl contender, but they're headed in the right direction.

Detroit LionsFew teams have the capability to pack it in and implode like the Lions. They have some of the elite talent in the league – from Calvin Johnson to Ndamukong Suh to Matthew Stafford – but their deficiencies on defense and inconsistency on offense will remain their undoing. Ten losses isn't out of the realm of possibility.

Tampa Bay BuccaneersThe Bucs have decent personnel at several spots, but aren't dominant at any of them. You can win in the NFL with a dominant offense (Denver, New Orleans) or a dominant defense (Baltimore, San Francisco), but when you have neither, you struggle in the NFL.

Arizona CardinalsThe Cardinals have a solid front seven on defense, but they're in a tough division with too many holes in front of them. Carson Palmer may be the best QB Arizona has had since Kurt Warner retired, but it won't be enough. Anything better than 4-12 may be viewed as a positive for this team.

So where do the Vikings fit in this mix? That's the question that will be answered over the next five months. They have the ability to compete with Green Bay for the division title and with teams like Seattle and New Orleans for one of the two wild card spots. It's won't be easy, but if the Vikings can continue building the momentum they started last December it's not out of the realm of possibility.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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