Who's Helped Themselves?

The Vikings have made wholesale changes in the offseason, but so have many other teams as the race for the six playoff spots seems tighter than ever heading into the 2006 season. Who will win and who will lose?

The predictions have already started rolling in from the preseason sports magazines. Are the Vikings a 10-6 team or a 6-10 team? At this point, nobody seems to know for sure.

The Bears have been installed as the early favorite to repeat as division champions, but there's no lock on them being a double-digit win team this year. With the problems they had on offense last year, the Bears are a stretch to repeat their 11-5 performance last year. In fact, almost all of the playoff teams from a year ago face some big decisions this time around.

In the NFC East, the Giants and Redskins both made the playoffs and did their best to hold serve in the offseason -- keeping pace instead of losing players to free agency. The Eagles hit bottom last year, but if healthy, could make another playoff run. And the Cowboys, who added Terrell Owens in the offseason, didn't make the 2005 playoffs but are the favorite in many opinions to be the next NFC East champions.

In the NFC North, the Vikings' late surge left them just a little bit short of the playoffs. The Lions look to be improved, especially if linebackers Ernie Sims and Boss Bailey are able to stay healthy and be difference-makers. Only the Packers seem to be out of contention for the division title in the North.

The same would seem to be true in the NFC South, where the Bucs are the defending champs, but the Panthers went to the NFC title game. Both teams are primed to make a playoff return. But the Falcons remain a menace with one of the conference's best defenses and the always-dangerous Michael Vick at QB. While the Saints can't get worse than they were the final couple of months of 2005, they're a long way from being a legitimate contender.

In the West, the Seahawks took a huge hit when they lost Steve Hutchinson and will face a stiff test from the improved Cards under Denny Green and the new-look Rams under Scott Linehan. The 49ers will give their best effort, but expect to see them as a draft lottery pick again this year.

As we get closer to the start of the 2006 season, it could be argued that of the 16 teams in the NFC, only the 49ers, Saints and Packers can't stake a justified claim to being a playoff team this season. For everyone else, the door is wide open. It all comes down to who gets the breaks and who make their own breaks. There is no dominant team in the conference, so 13 teams will compete for six chances to go to the Super Bowl. And somewhere in that mix, the Vikings look to stake their claim to one of those spots.

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